From 2010 to 2016, the Detroit Tigers were second in the majors in production from their first basemen, averaging 5.4 fWAR per season. Having Miguel Cabrera in his prime and a couple seasons of Prince Fielder will obviously set the bar pretty high, but it was a huge benefit to have one position completely accounted for from day one.
The three seasons since then have been... rough. Tigers first basemen have fallen from 0.8 fWAR in 2017, to 0.4 in 2018, to -0.2 last year with very few highlights. Once Cabrera went down for the year, it was up to Brandon Dixon and John Hicks to hold down the fort. Clearly this did not work out, so Detroit was determined to find an external solution over the offseason.
Enter C.J. Cron. The 30-year-old slugger signed a one-year deal with the Tigers for just over $6 million, hoping to stabilize what has become a black hole of a position in Detroit. Though he has spent time at designated hitter in the past, Cron is in line to take the majority of the innings at first base, a position where he spent 117 games last season with the Minnesota Twins. The options behind him on the depth chart are makeshift at best, so the hope is that he can put together a decent season in Detroit.
What to expect
Cron likely will not overwhelm anyone with his numbers, but he should be a league average at worst. His career 109 wRC+ paints a fair picture of what to expect, although his 123 wRC+ in 2018 with the Tampa Bay Rays would be a welcome result. Along with the rest of baseball, Cron has seen his power numbers rise over the past couple years. He has hit at least 25 home runs in both of the last two seasons and that is most of his value; he is a career .258/.311/.462 hitter.
Cron’s projections for 2020 are similar to these career numbers. Steamer pegs him for 28 homers with a .261 average and 111 wRC+, good for 1.5 fWAR. This would have led the Tigers in wRC+ last year and represents 13 more home runs over the 2019 team leader (Dixon). So while these numbers are simply average for a normal first baseman, they would be a huge improvement over what Detroit has been getting at the position in recent years.
Over the past two seasons, Cron has increased his ground-ball-to-fly-ball (GB/FB) rate to 1.04 in 2018 and 1.16 in 2019 (i.e. he is hitting more ground balls than before). At the same time, his home-run-to-fly-ball ratio (HR/FB%) has averaged around 20 percent. So while he is hitting fewer balls in the air, he is getting more out of them, partially thanks to his hard hit rate surpassing 40 percent.
Cron will not do much on the diamond without a bat in his hands. On average, both DRS and UZR have ranked him slightly above average defensively, but as for most first basemen, his fielding should not stick out much either positively or negatively. He has a grand total of nine stolen bases in his career and a total -15.2 baserunning runs (BsR), so do not expect anything from him on the base paths.
Put the above figures all together and out comes a fairly traditional first baseman. Cron does not excel at getting on base, he strikes out a bit, and he has no speed. However, he will crush the ball enough to make up for his weaknesses, and should not be a liability in the field. This is an old-school model at the position, but is something the Tigers have been lacking since Cabrera’s shift to the designated hitter role.
Given just how bad the first base position has been for Detroit in recent years, it will be refreshing to watch Cron this season. At a position known for power, the Tigers got just 19 homers from the spot last season and totaled 85 wRC+. Even a down year from Cron should easily clear both of these numbers and help an offense that had very few weapons last year. At the end of the day, Cron will slot right into the heart of the order and should easily return value back on his modest contract, even if he is not the most impressive member of the 2020 team.