Only a couple weeks have passed since the conclusion of the World Series, but the Tigers are already making waves ahead of the 2021 season. Not only has AJ Hinch been brought in to manage the team, but his staff, headlined by pitching coach Chris Fetter and bench coach George Lombard, is a sign that the organization is finally moving in a more progressive direction. Couple that with the young core that they are developing and the Tigers now have something that they haven’t had in years: expectations.
Even if the expanded playoffs remain, the expectation that the Tigers should be a part of it still seems like a stretch — at least for next year. However, the time has come for the tree to start bearing the fruits of a rebuild. What does that mean? Well, it means that the players you’ve seen on the top-10 prospect lists over the last couple years should start making an impact in some capacity.
In a shortened 2020 season we got glimpses of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Isaac Paredes. Willi Castro was a revelation and arguably a Rookie of the Year snub. Daz Cameron showed promise in his cup of coffee. But the cupboard is far from bare beyond that. Matt Manning and Alex Faedo were unfortunately shut down due to injuries. Jake Rogers mysteriously did not get a call up despite an impressive spring. Hell, many pundits even have Spencer Torkelson as a likely option for the big club in the latter months of the year.
Of course promising prospects don’t automatically result in successful major leaguers, but bolstering the farm and creating a sustainable player development system that pumps out talent was the whole point of the rebuild. Al Avila has been the general manager for five-and-a-half seasons and has put together an impressive group of prospects who are now on the cusp of the majors. We are now getting to the point where we’re going to learn if the last few years of — to put it nicely — poor performance were worth it.
Hitting on all of your prospects will never happen, but we need to see some of the young guys who do get a chance in Detroit show signs of delivering on their promise. The success of those young players this year will go a long way in ultimately determining how close the Tigers are to competing for the playoffs again. And while this probably isn’t a make-or-break year, failure to perform could prove the catalyst for a shakeup of the front office that made the draft selections.
Outside of the prospects, there are plenty of guys who have been mainstays on the Tigers who still have a lot to prove. Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer, and Joe Jimenez are all looking to rebound, and working with Chris Fetter could be just what the doctor ordered. Spencer Turnbull and Daniel Norris both threw the ball well but need to show they can contribute to the next winning Tigers team — or become valuable trade pieces. Ditto for JaCoby Jones and Niko Goodrum on the offensive end.
Free agency this offseason promises to be the slowest it’s been in a very long time. The Tigers have Jordan Zimmermann’s $25 million coming off the books, but given that the league’s owners are collectively crying poor, I wouldn’t bet on the Tigers going out and replacing it on the payroll. Still, they do have quite a few holes that will need filled — catcher, first base, second base, another outfielder, and a starting pitcher or two — but I’d bet on another year of filling those with stop gaps. While making a big splash for George Springer or J.T. Realmuto would undoubtedly improve the team for the next few years, I’d say the likes of Carlos Santana and Jurickson Profar are more the Tigers speed. At least Santana might be able to teach his teammates how to take a walk.
Given AJ Hinch and his coaching staff, it would be nice to see a fundamentally improved Tigers team that more closely resemble his Astros teams on defense and on the base paths. It would certainly be great if they resemble his offenses as well but, 1) they have no elite bats in the lineup, and 2) let’s not go to the trashy lengths they went to to hit. Still, Hinch and the group he’s assembled should make a positive impact on this team. For the first time in a long time, you can be confident in the people in the dugout who will be working with the players.
All of that is nice, but where does that leave the expected record at for the Tigers? I’ve discussed a lot of aspects of the team that should improve, but haven’t made any objective claims as to what constitutes success. Well, playing above .400 for the first time since 2016 would certainly be a step in the right direction. Not finishing behind the Royals again would be nice too. Being in the playoff race would be a pleasant surprise, but that would take a herculean effort from the current group of guys expected to get playing time. I’m not saying it can’t happen — the Marlins just made and won a series in the playoffs — but seeing the young players start to make waves and some of the established guys put together consistent seasons should result in an improvement in their record and greatly increase the watchability of this team.
Despite another last place finish in 2020, the Tigers were clearly improved over the historically bad 2019 team. Injuries ended up getting the best of them last year, but there were signs of life throughout the 60-game contest. Those signs of life need to continue and then some into 2021. Playing 162 games is obviously a whole different beast, but again, this team should be better, and if they aren’t, it might be time for the Avila era to come to an end.
What do you think will constitute a successful 2021 for the Tigers?