See kids? It pays to procrastinate. When we first started our roster preview series, the Detroit Tigers had not yet signed a free agent outfielder to a major league deal. We had wondered aloud for most of 2020 whether they should go after Yasiel Puig or another free agent to help shore up what was (surprise!) one of the worst outfields in baseball last year.
At the time, we were looking at an outfield where no single player was projected for 1.0 fWAR. Former Rule 5 pick Victor Reyes led the way with a Steamer-projected 0.6 fWAR, while the rest were below half a projected win.
Now, the Tigers have veteran outfielder Cameron Maybin on a one-year deal... and still no outfielders projected for 1.0 fWAR.
Oh well. Let’s take a look at who is in Lakeland this spring.
Starters: JaCoby Jones, Cameron Maybin, Victor Reyes, Christin Stewart
While there are only three outfield spots to fill on a given day, expect all four of Jones, Maybin, Reyes, and Stewart to get a relatively even share of playing time. Stewart has the highest ceiling of the bunch, and should get every chance to lock down a full-time job. He struggled both at the plate and in the field last year, but hit well throughout his ascent up the minor league ranks, and is projected to take a big step forward offensively this year; Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections have him tabbed for 27 (!) home runs, which would have nearly doubled the Tigers’ team lead in 2019.
If Stewart locks down left field and Maybin plays regularly in right, that may leave Reyes without a defensive home. Reyes was arguably the Tigers’ best outfielder last year, producing 1.6 fWAR in just 292 plate appearances. His walk rate is still low and he is likely due for some BABIP regression, but he was more selective, swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, and made harder contact than he did in 2018.
Expect Reyes to move around quite a bit, spelling both Jones and Maybin at times. Maybin had his best offensive season to date in 2019, producing an .858 OPS in 82 games with the Yankees. Given his age and injury history, it would be in the Tigers’ best interest to give him regular days off to keep him fresh. The same may go for Jones, who also had his best offensive season last year, but with more significant platoon splits than Reyes had.
In the mix: Jorge Bonifacio, Travis Demeritte, Troy Stokes Jr.
The new 26th roster spot will seemingly benefit Tigers outfielders more than other position groups. The Tigers regularly used Niko Goodrum and Harold Castro in the outfield last year, but with another position player in the mix, both should spend much more time on the dirt (or on the bench, in Castro’s case) in 2020. Already on the 40-man roster, Demeritte and Stokes should have a bit of a leg up on Bonifacio, though the one-time Royals prospect offers the most upside at the plate. He mashed in the minors in both 2017 and 2018, but fell off considerably last year despite the introduction of MLB’s juiced baseball in the Triple-A ranks.
It would be nice to see Demeritte take a big step forward after struggling in the major leagues last year. He struck out in one third of his plate appearances after the Tigers acquired him last July, while both his walk rate and power stroke took a big step back from what he produced in nearly 100 games played for Triple-A Gwinnett (20 home runs, 139 wRC+). He has starter upside if everything comes together, but we might see him get some early run in Triple-A to get him on track.
If anyone is to benefit most from the extra roster spot, it might be Stokes. The 24-year-old has produced decent numbers at the plate in the minor leagues, but struggled (80 wRC+) in 95 games with Milwaukee’s Triple-A affiliate last year. Stokes brings more speed and defensive acumen to the table than Bonifacio or Demeritte, however — he has stolen 33 bases in 38 attempts across the last two seasons — and could fill a late-inning role early on as some of the names below continue to develop.
Also in camp: Daz Cameron, Derek Hill, Jose Azocar, Jake Robson, Danny Woodrow
Developing one of Cameron or Hill into the Center Fielder of the Future would go a long way in helping the Tigers return to the postseason. The 23-year-old Cameron struggled in his first go at Triple-A last year, but hit for power (.163 ISO) and produced an impressive 11.7 percent walk rate as one of the younger players in the International League. He isn’t the defender or baserunner that Hill is, but has more power in his game, a necessity in the modern game.
Hill, meanwhile, is coming off his best season to date, with a surprising 14 home runs and not-so-surprising 21 stolen bases in his first year away from the offensive black holes that are Lakeland and West Michigan. He still has starter upside, but is likely more of a fourth outfielder unless the bat takes a major step forward. Azocar, Robson, and Woodrow also fit into the fourth outfielder mold, but have little shot of making the big league club out of camp.