The Detroit Tigers have been remarkably consistent over the past four seasons. The team has posted winning percentages of .395, .395, and .397 in three of those seasons, the only outlier being their .292 percentage in 2019. The Tigers sunk to the bottom of baseball in 2017 and have failed to improve since then.
Tigers’ fans have been asked to show patience while the club “rebuilds” to set itself up for a period of sustained success, but the team on the field has not shown any inclination toward respectability. Will 2021 be any better? Here are five reasons to believe that it should be.
1. Veteran Pitching:
So many pitchers penciled in to start for the Tigers in 2021 had sub par seasons in 2020.
Matthew Boyd followed his all star season in 2019 with a most forgettable performance in 2020. In fact, from June, 2019 to the present, Boyd has a 6.03 ERA in 173 innings, allowing a whopping 2.97 home runs per nine innings. That is below replacement level. A rebound would give the Tigers’ rotation a huge boost.
Michael Fulmer posted stellar results including a rookie pitcher of the year award before undergoing Tommy John surgery in March, 2019 which cost him the entire season. He has struggled in limited action since returning, but if the two year rule that typically applies to TJ recoveries holds true, there is another reason for optimism.
Julio Teheran is a buy low/ high reward addition who could pay big dividends. After seven consecutive seasons working at least 175 innings with a 3.64 ERA and 1.21 WHIP, he imploded in 2020 with a 10.06 ERA and 1.76 WHIP after catching the COVID virus. He could be anything from his old self to the next version of Ivan Nova.
Jose Urena is another pitcher with upside if he can stay healthy and rebound to the form that he showed in 2017 and 2018.
Spencer Turnbull was the ACE of the Tigers staff in 2020 and figures to return in the same role.
2. Young Pitchers
Casey Mize, the Tigers’ top prospect, made his debut in 2020 and he figures to see plenty of action in 2021. Mize struggled with command of his fastball in his debut, which is uncharacteristic for him. Matt Manning is on target to debut in 2021, and Tarik Skubal may have caught up to both of them as they anchor the Tigers’ future rotation.
3. Addition by Subtraction:
The Tigers’ had an MLB high 6.37 rotation ERA in 2020. That can only improve, right?
Gone are Jordan Zimmermann (7.94 ERA/ 2.29 WHIP), Ivan Nova (8.53/ 1.63), John Schreiber (6.32/ 1.47), and a number of AAAA relief pitchers who couldn’t gain traction in the major leagues. Their replacements couldn’t be any worse.
4. The bullpen
The Tigers found a few good men in Gregory Soto, Bryan Garcia and Jose Cisnero last year, to go with veterans Daniel Norris, Buck Farmer and Tyler Alexander pitching significant innings in relief.
Expect the remaining bullpen spots to be a revolving door. Joe Jimenez probably won’t be closing to start the season, so there’s that. Saving games where they have a lead is some low hanging fruit in terms of winning games. The Tigers will probably audition former starters like Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows in bullpen roles.
5. Free agent additions:
The Tigers didn’t lose any significant contributors from the 2020 roster. CJ Cron was off to a good start in the power department, but only played 13 games. Austin Romine has moved on after hitting .238 with just two home runs, a BB rate of 3 percent and a 35 percent strikeout rate. Cameron Maybin was shipped out after 14 games and Travis Demeritte was lost on waivers. Neither made a big contribution in 2020.
Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, Jorge Bonifacio, and Jordy Mercer are gone without much fanfare or lost production. Upgrades in the lineup figure to come mainly from free agents.
Robbie Grossman is the Tigers’ biggest outside addition to the lineup for 2021, and he should be a significant one. This is the Tigers’ first player to be signed to a multi year free agent contract since they signed Justin Upton before the 2016 season. Grossman posted a .351 wOBA/ 127 wRC+ with eight home runs and eight stolen bases for the Oakland A’s in 2020 and has provided above average production over his six seasons in the major leagues.
Wilson Ramos will replace Romine behind the plate, which should be a net upgrade as the Tigers try to nurse Jake Rogers toward a major league role. With a career slash line of .274/ .321/ .434 and a wOBA of .324 and wRC+ of 103, Ramos has brought above average production to his position, which is a rarity on this roster.
Renato Nunez was signed to a minor league contract, but should be in line for starting job at first base, or at DH when Miguel Cabrera takes the field. Nunez posted a .347 wOBA/ 120 wRC+ for the Baltimore Orioles in 2020, with a dozen home runs and 23 RBI. At age 26, he has under three seasons of service time and could provide a big boost to the lineup for multiple seasons.
Nomar Mazara is another outfield addition who could win a starting job by default, or at least battle with Victor Reyes for playing time.
More of the Same:
Miguel Cabrera led the Tigers in games played, plate appearances, home runs, RBI, and walks last season. He could hit a few more gappers for extra bases, but his days of dominance are in the past. Just remaining healthy and continuing at about the same pace gives the Tigers a plus hitter in the middle of the order.
Jonathan Schoop returns as the primary second baseman after a productive season at the position in 2020, much in line with his career numbers. He could see action in other positions around the infield as the Tigers look for opportunities to give playing time to Isaac Paredes and others.
Willi Castro, Jacoby Jones, and Jeimer Candelario are all coming off solid seasons, and each has some room for regression. Add Victor Reyes in with this group. If they continue at their 2020 pace, they can contribute to a decent lineup going forward. Hope for consistency, rather than much improvement.
Niko Goodrum and Christin Stewart were given starting roles a year ago, but will have to fight for playing time after struggling in 2020.
Paredes, who came up with Willi Castro last season, but struggled after taking over at third base, could start the season in Toledo, rather than seeing limited action in Detroit. He is the young infielder to watch, other than Spencer Torkelson, whose arrival is anxiously awaited.
Riley Greene leads the group of outfielders on the rise, but not just yet. The Tigers will sort through Derek Hill and Daz Cameron first. Kody Clemens is 25 and due for his shot, ready or not. Akil Baddoo and Zac Short could also get their turn. Finding just one long term starter from this group in 2021 would be a plus.
The bottom line:
Ideally, the Tigers would promote some of their top prospects, filling starting jobs for the next several years. That does happen, but it’s more the exception than the rule. These Tigers have a very promising crop of young pitchers who figure to get their shot in 2021, but they’re more likely to be up and down as they settle in.
The Tigers will give veteran starters every opportunity to solidify their places in the starting rotation while starting their brightest prospects in Toledo, stalling their service time for arbitration and free agency purposes. Barring contract extensions of the kind that the club hasn’t doled out for many years, the veterans are more likely to become trade bait than center pieces on the Tigers’ next contender. The team’s future will be built around their young arms, and the sooner they can adapt to the major leagues, the sooner the team can approach respectability.
In the lineup, the club has another couple of stop gap type players to replace last year’s crop of stop gap players, to go with some young players showing modest success. As Torkelson and Greene are a year or two away, these plug ins should provide improvement over what we’ve seen the past few seasons. But whether they’re getting any closer to fielding a contending team is problematic. At some point, they need to add pieces for the long term future from outside of the organization. Once again, we’re being told that isn’t this season.
New manager AJ Hinch brings winning experience and advanced methods along with new pitching coach Chris Fetter from the University of Michigan to the club.
Forecasters have the Tigers’ over/ under at about 95-1/2 losses in 2021, which would be good for a winning percentage of .410. That would be the best winning percentage among Detroit’s four major sports teams. Again.