As we pointed out on Sunday, the Detroit Tigers were bad enough in 2019 that they finished close to dead last among all major league teams in many statistical categories. This is especially true for their anemic offense, which ranked 30th in on-base percentage, wRC+, and runs scored. They hit the second-fewest number of home runs, and paired the highest strikeout rate in baseball with one of the worst walk rates in the league.
Thankfully, things should be much better in 2020. The Tigers addressed multiple needs when they added C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop, a pair of power hitters that combined for 48 home runs with the Minnesota Twins last year. The Tigers ranked 29th in baseball with -1.3 fWAR from their first basemen last year, and their second basemen were dead last at -0.8 WAR. They have also given Niko Goodrum a more permanent home at shortstop, which appears to be his best position statistically. There is still a lot of room for improvement at third base, but the Tigers are hoping that Jeimer Candelario and Dawel Lugo can combine to be a productive tandem.
Let’s take a glance at the Tigers’ new-look infield.
Starters: C.J. Cron, Jonathan Schoop, Niko Goodrum, Miguel Cabrera
If you include the designated hitter spot, four of the five everyday spots in the infield are already filled. Cron and Schoop signed matching $6.1 million contracts, and will be given as much playing time as they can handle. Both are proven power hitters who should add some necessary thump to the Tigers lineup. Neither player walks a ton, and both would fit better into the No. 6 spot or so in a better lineup, but they represent huge upgrades for these Tigers.
Goodrum is an interesting case. We have campaigned for him to get a full-time infield job for over a year now, and it appears he will finally get that chance. His defensive metrics are better at shortstop than second base, surprisingly, though in just a small sample of innings. He was the Tigers’ best position player last year, at 1.9 fWAR, and could push for 3 WAR or more if his bat improves. Statistical projections are not optimistic, however; Steamer projects him for just 1.1 fWAR in full-time duty.
Then there’s Miguel Cabrera. The two-time MVP has been a shell of his former self over the past three years, producing just 0.2 fWAR in his last 304 games. While he has still hit for a decent average, his power has dropped off a cliff; after producing an isolated power (ISO) of .200 or better in 13 of his first 14 seasons, he has failed to eclipse a .150 ISO in each of the past three seasons. Steamer projects a slight improvement from Cabrera in 2020, with 20 home runs and a 108 wRC+.
Position battle: Third base
This may not be a true battle for the starting job, because both Jeimer Candelario and Dawel Lugo are likely to make the Opening Day roster. Their fight for playing time could go well past spring training if neither player is able to separate himself from the other, and there is always the chance that Isaac Paredes passes both of them by the All-Star break and takes the job for himself. Most of us are hoping that Candelario wins the job because his ceiling seems much higher than that of Lugo; the 26-year-old Candelario looked like a solid contributor when he produced 13 home runs and a .753 OPS in the first half of 2018. Unfortunately, he has struggled mightily since, and spent a large part of 2019 in the minors.
Lugo only barely outperformed Candelario at the plate last year, with a .652 OPS in 77 games. He graded poorly at third base, however, with -6 Defensive Runs Saved in just 631 innings. Though defensive metrics are not stable in that small of a sample, the eye test told a similar story. As a result, Lugo was worth -0.6 fWAR. Steamer projects that he will be better in 2020, but only thanks to his defense; his poor walk rate still leaves him with a projected on-base percentage of .299.
In the mix: Harold Castro, Willi Castro, Jordy Mercer, Isaac Paredes
If we are projecting odds to make the Opening Day roster, Harold Castro has a huge leg up on the rest of this group. He hit for an excellent .291 batting average last year, but it was an empty average; he got on base at a paltry .305 clip, hit for almost no power, and was well below average at second base (-4 Defensive Runs Saved). Steamer projects him for a slight improvement in walk rate, but one more than offset by a huge drop in his batting average. Still, he will likely be the Tigers’ first choice as a utility player who can cover several different positions.
There’s a slight chance Willi Castro could make the Opening Day roster, but unless he absolutely tears up the Grapefruit League, expect the 22-year-old to start the season at Triple-A Toledo. The same goes for Isaac Paredes, who should see some major league action this year. He is already on the 40-man roster, so it’s possible that he gets a fair shake at winning the job at third base. However, even a decent performance from either Candelario or Lugo should push Paredes to the minors for a while.
Mercer is another interesting case. He wasn’t very productive last year, with a 94 wRC+ and 0.6 fWAR in 74 games, but his Statcast metrics suggest he was better than the numbers say. His 36.2 percent hard hit rate was a career-high, and his expected wOBA based on contact (xwOBAcon) was an incredible .384, well above his actual .313 wOBA. Of course, this isn’t the first time Mercer has done this — he produced a similar split in 2017 — and his line drive rate regressing from 2018 to 2019 was not what one would hope to see. Still, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the majors this year, if not make the team out of spring training.
Also in camp: Sergio Alcantara, Brandon Dixon, Daniel Pinero, Frank Schwindel
It’s a bit surprising to see a team’s home run leader from the previous season on the outside looking in heading into the following spring, but here we are. Brandon Dixon led the way with 15 home runs last year, but was a below average hitter according to wRC+, and finished a hair below replacement level (-0.1 fWAR) thanks to some shoddy defense in the outfield. Dixon and Schwindel are insurance for injuries to Cron or Cabrera, as the Tigers don’t have any other true first basemen on their 40-man roster.
Alcantara and Pinero will both head to the minors again, with the former potentially counting his days on the 40-man roster if his bat does not take a big step forward. Pinero could eventually find a home as a 26th man on an MLB roster, but is fighting an uphill battle this spring.