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Examining the Detroit Tigers ZIPS projections for 2022

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Well, this is much better than we’re used to seeing, but we need more, Tigers.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We’re still a long way from spring training, and free agency has been rudely interrupted by the lockout, but as there’s nothing going on, this is as good a time as any to take stock of how the 2022 Detroit Tigers are shaping up. To help us, we have Dan Symborski’s new ZIPS forecast for the club as currently constructed.

The release of ZIPS projections at FanGraphs is always one of our markers to turn from examining the season past, to looking forward to the future. This offseason is obviously not shaping up to be a typical one, and the Tigers clearly aren’t done adding players this offseason. When they’ll get a chance to continue building the club is anyone’s guess at this point.

As always, it’s worth remembering that a good projection system is inherently conservative. Fans can hope for a season with minimal injuries and several breakout performances, but the computers are cold-blooded. You can read the complete article on the Tigers over at FanGraphs, but for now let’s just take a first look at the Tigers positional groups as constructed.

Position players

This is the group that, with the addition of Javier Báez, seems closest to locked in for the 2022 season. The outfield could see some flux depending on Riley Greene’s ETA, but one way or the other Robbie Grossman and Akil Baddoo should see basically full-time work. ZIPS assumes that Spencer Torkelson will play first base most of the season, with Miguel Cabrera figuring almost exclusively in the designated hitter spot.

There are three projections here that are crucial.

Spencer Torkelson: 541 PA, 28 HR, 2.8 WAR

Riley Greene: 572 PA, 23 HR, 2.9 WAR

Akil Baddoo: 495 PA, 15 HR, 2.3 WAR

By and large, the other full-time Tigers’ position players are fairly easy to project, and as no one really radically outperformed expectations in 2021, there isn’t much cause to expect any particular volatility. With Báez added in alongside Jeimer Candelario as the only position players projected for more than 3 WAR, there’s a good core group in place that should give league average production overall, but will need strong contributions from some of the Tigers young talent to really be a force this season.

Hopes for the offense pushing the Tigers toward a postseason berth are largely going to rely on Torkelson, Greene, and Baddoo being significant contributors. As the projections make clear, that isn’t unreasonable, but it also isn’t unreasonable to think that group may not quite be up to the task just yet. It would be nice to add another good bat to this lineup, but without much in the way of open positions on the diamond, and Miguel Cabrera usually in the designated hitter spot, it’s tough to find a fit for a part-time hitter who could actually make an impact from the bench. The Tigers certainly didn’t seem to be looking for more than a shortstop and pitching in free agency to date, but perhaps there will be some opportunities when free agency resumes.

Bench and potential depth pieces include Harold Castro, Isaac Paredes, Derek Hill, Ryan Kreidler, Victor Reyes, catcher Dustin Garneau, Daz Cameron and possibly a bit of Zack Short or Kody Clemens. Overall that group provides decent, if not stirring, depth from the bench and in reserve at the Triple-A level, and possibly more if someone takes the next step offensively. Meanwhile, if Hill could stay on the field and swing the bat a little more effectively, he’d earn more time in center field. Barnhart, Báez/Schoop, and Hill up the middle most days would substantially improve the club’s defense and could have an outsized impact on run prevention. For now though, this is probably a slightly above average offense with a chance for more.

Javier Báez vs. projections

One note on Báez in particular, is the substantial difference in projections between the Steamer projection system and ZIPS. Steamer projects him for just 2.3 WAR in 2022, while ZIPS has him at 3.1. The way the two systems look at Báez mirrors many of the debates we’ve had on site since Báez was signed. Steamer expects a substantially lower BABIP, average, and OBP for him than ZIPS does. ZIPS however, seems far closer to reality as it takes into better account the amount of hard contact Báez makes, as well as his speed, recognizing that his career BABIP is much higher than average, certainly higher that what Steamer projects for 2022.

If we take Báez’s full seasons from 2016-2021, leaving out 2020’s bizarre short season results, he holds a career BABIP of .345. The projection systems aren’t going to “Porcello out” 2020, which is understandable. However, for Steamer to project a BABIP of .311 seems unreasonable. When considering a player’s numbers against averages league wide, as the system does, you can understand why it dislikes such an outlier. But the fact is, Báez really is a substantial outlier in this regard, and has proven it for a half decade. ZIPS appears to do a better job recognizing the individuality of the player here, factoring in his career BABIP, speed numbers, and propensity to hit the living daylights out of the baseball when he squares it up, and is far closer to our expectations for Báez as a result. And really what else is a projection system good for?

Starting Pitching

The most obvious need for the Tigers right now is pretty clearly the starting rotation. At least, that’s the simplest way to quickly add 2-3 wins. That point is driven home pretty soundly by their ZIPS projections for the rotation.

Adding Eduardo Rodriguez to lead the rotation was obviously a huge boost, and Rodriguez is projected to be worth 4 WAR in 2022. Casey Mize is pegged for 2.3 WAR, while Tarik Skubal is projected at 2 WAR. As the front three of a rotation, that’s pretty solid, particularly as Skubal and Mize have only one full season under their belts and will hopefully improve. However, the rest of the rotation is pretty sketchy, particularly when one considers the potential for injury to pitchers, and the fact that a team typically will have at least seven or eight guys who make multiple starts in a season.

We expect Matt Manning will improve after barely pitching in 2020 and looking like it most of the 2021 season. The big right-hander, a year younger than Mize and Skubal, got a real crash course from Tigers’ pitching coach Chris Fetter, learning a quality slider in about a week after years of futile attempts to teach him the pitch by the Tigers previous development group. His velocity returned as he got some work under his belt, and was heartily encouraged to be more aggressive by both Fetter and Hinch. Late in the season there were numerous glimpses of a good starting pitcher starting to come together. With an offseason to consolidate his gains and build a little more muscle, we look for Manning to take a nice step forward beyond his projections here, but it can’t be counted on.

Beyond that, Tyler Alexander has done a very effective job as A.J. Hinch’s Swiss Army knife, but retains somewhat sketchy peripherals. Moving him to the rotation full-time is likely to expose him, and also would cost the Tigers a very good swingman, requiring a replacement in that uniquely tricky role. Prospect Joey Wentz will embark on his second season back from UCL surgery, and, along with possible help from older starting pitching prospects like Alex Faedo, returning from Tommy John, or Reese Olson, who still needs a lot of gains in his command to be effective, can’t be counted on for too much at this point. Backend starter prospects like Beau Brieske or Garrett Hill, who had modest breakout seasons in 2021, might be able to contribute a spot start or two along the way, but aren’t likely to be notable factors yet.

Adding another good starting pitcher is the quickest path to really pushing the Tigers into the ranks of potential contenders in 2022. The club is known to have checked in with just about all the top free agents, including a brief Steven Matz rumor even after Rodriguez had signed. There are still a few starters available who might fit the bill, and several more who should be at least league average.

There are also options to trade with a team like the Cincinnati Reds or Oakland Athletics for pitchers like Sonny Gray, Chris Bassitt, or Frankie Montas. So far, Al Avila has expressed reticence about trading prospects, but the Tigers do have some interesting pieces they could likely live without. Simply adding a solid starting pitcher, and then stashing a veteran at the Triple-A level would still give them a fair shot at a good rotation in 2022. Going big and adding another really good starting pitcher, on the other hand, would kick things into a higher gear and solidify their depth all in one fell swoop.

Bullpen

The Tigers 2021 bullpen was one of the best we’ve seen in Detroit in a long, long while. While the group only put up 2.1 fWAR across 638 13 innings, they handled the sixth heaviest workload out of 30 major league pens, and the top four relievers, plus Tyler Alexander usually in middle relief, did pretty nice work.

Michael Fulmer led the way with 1.6 fWAR, with Jose Cisnero contributing 0.6, Gregory Soto with 0.5 as the walks hurt him much more in terms of fWAR than rWAR, and Kyle Funkhouser with 0.3 WAR, again hurt by a scary walk rate. Alexander made 15 starts, so his 1.0 fWAR doesn’t largely count in the relief column, but presumably he’ll be above replacement level again in 2022, and will largely pitch in relief.

The problem with the bullpen group was more that, outside of the top five guys, they got negative value from most everyone else, which pulled down their total value somewhat. While the bullpen is the part of the roster where WAR values are least useful in describing and projecting production, the Tigers could use some additional strength in that department in 2022. Even another reliever or two capable of putting up replacement level production, 0.0 WAR, next season would be an upgrade and allow the stronger core at the back of the bullpen to shine through more effectively.

It’s possible that Joe Jiménez, Alex Lange, and guys like Jason Foley, Angel de Jesus, Miguel del Pozo, or Bryan Garcia could give you that much. But it’s also possible that one major injury to their four best relievers could really unravel the whole package. If the Tigers were to add one more good reliever and build in a bit more depth in the upper minors, the results could be pretty significant, without having to sign any large scale, or long-term, deals in the process.

The big picture

Overall, used simply and in a way not exactly intended by Mr. Szymborski—too bad Dan, I’m doing it, I’m doing it!—we can add up the WAR projected to peg the Tigers as a 75-77 win team at the moment. As they won 77 in 2021 without several of their best projected players for 2022, that may seem rather disappointing. However, the 2021 team was generally projected to win more like 68-69 games in 2021 and cleared that mark with ease. A team with plenty of young talent should expect some of those players to break out a bit.

We don’t really expect any more big-time additions at this point. But as pointed out in the pitching sections, there are obvious points where the Tigers could shore up the rotation and bullpen substantially without making any huge payroll commitments. And frankly, with a projected 2022 payroll of just $117 million at this point, they should easily be able to add another $15-20 million. After all, if you aren’t tanking, you ought to be doing enough to try and win, even if Chris Ilitch remains quite far from “all in” territory at this point.

If the Tigers added a 2-3 WAR starter, one more good reliever, and some pitching depth at the Triple-A level, they would bolster their weak points and give the club a good chance to outperform their overall projections in 2022. Moves like that would basically make them a .500 team on paper. A little overperformance from a player or two, and x-factors like A.J. Hinch and his coaching staff, would likely have them in good position to boost the roster at the trade deadline and be a real threat to snatch a postseason berth. Let’s hope the Tigers are looking at this the same way, and remain committed to making a few more solid additions whenever the new CBA is finally agreed on. Either way we should be in for a fun season and a team with an outside shot at the postseason for the first time in five years.