Welcome back baseball fans, Opening Day 2021 is finally upon us. After one of most tumultuous years in memory, a more familiar looking season lies ahead, and we can’t wait. There are still going to be strict limitations and guidelines for attendance, and the city of Detroit is warning fans off from tail-gating, so things are not back to normal yet. But the Tigers will have fans in the stands and the promise of more as the season progresses and the population is inoculated with the COVID vaccines.
Unfortunately, we can’t promise substantially better results for the Detroit Tigers themselves just yet, but after three brutal seasons since the 2017 teardown, the Tigers seem ready to start building something. The record may not improve too much—you can check out our predictions and add yours here—but this should be a much more interesting club to watch than their recent efforts. The young starting pitchers and position players now in place give some hope that the organization can return the club to prominence in the years ahead.
This primer is aimed mainly at all those who weren’t following the Tigers too closely over the offseason. We’ll run through the many changes that have occurred since the last time the team took the field, and link offseason articles throughout to get you up to speed. By the time you’re through the overview of the new roster and new coaching staff, hopefully you’ll feel caught up and ready for a new season of Tigers baseball.
Starting 26-man roster
Our own Patrick O’Kennedy has the full dope on the 2021 roster, payroll, player service time, and contract information for you here.
Starting Rotation: LHP Matthew Boyd, RHP Julio Teheran, RHP Jose Ureña, LHP Tarik Skubal, RHP Casey Mize, RHP Spencer Turnbull (IL)
Bullpen: LHP Daniel Norris, RHP Buck Farmer, LHP Derek Holland, RHP Jose Cisnero, RHP Michael Fulmer, LHP Tyler Alexander, LHP Gregory Soto, RHP Bryan Garcia
Outfield: LF Robbie Grossman, CF JaCoby Jones, RF Nomar Mazara, CF Victor Reyes, CF Akil Baddoo
Infield: 1B/DH Miguel Cabrera, 2B Jonathan Schoop, 3B Jeimer Candelario, SS Willi Castro, UT Niko Goodrum, UT Harold Castro
Catcher: Wilson Ramos, Grayson Greiner
New coaching staff
Sadly, former manager Ron Gardenhire didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye last year. Health concerns forced him to step down suddenly late in the 2020 season, with Lloyd McClendon managing the team across the finish line. After the fairly thankless task of shepherding the team for three years without any hope of success, it’s just unfortunate that Gardenhire wasn’t able to get a proper sendoff from fans after a fine career.
In his place is former Houston Astros manager A.J. Hinch, and more than any player, Hinch was the biggest move of the offseason. However you feel about the Astros sign-stealing scandal, this was a break for the Tigers. All the money was on Hinch taking over the Chicago White Sox, a club that looks more and more like a juggernaut every year. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf blessedly intervened, hiring Tony La Russa despite the fact that La Russa hadn’t managed in over a decade. The Tigers quickly swooped in to offer Hinch the job, and the Tigers now have an experienced and very well regarded baseball mind and manager running the show.
Hinch quickly set about assembling a talented staff of young coaches. Former major league outfielder George Lombard is the Tigers new bench coach. Lombard actually interviewed for managerial positions this offseason and is widely regarded as future manager material. He won a ring with the Los Angeles Dodgers last year as their first base coach.
The Tigers new pitching coach is former University of Michigan pitching coach, Chris Fetter. Over the past few seasons, Fetter turned the Wolverines into a college pitching powerhouse, and in the process became one of the more sought after young coaching talents in the game. When the opportunity to work for Hinch and the Tigers came around, the fit was right for him to take on his first major league coaching gig. Fetter is a progressive coach with strong ability to mix data with traditional coaching to improve his pitchers’ stuff, but he also draws high marks for his game planning and his ability to teach the psychological aspects of the game. We’re pretty excited to have him.
Fetter’s new assistant pitching coach is Juan Nieves, formerly the head pitching coach for the Miami Marlins. Nieves was also the coach for the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Toledo Mud Hens in 2019-2020, and had success tuning up some of the young Tigers pitchers now in the show. His major league experience should be a great help as Fetter transitions from the college game to the major leagues. With Fetter currently out for a positive COVID test, Nieves will also assume Fetter’s on field duties for the next week or two, and the Tigers should be in good hands.
The Tigers’ new hitting coach is Scott Coolbaugh. Coolbaugh has had a lengthy career as the hitting coach for both the Texas Rangers, and most notably for the Baltimore Orioles from 2015-2018. In 2020, he was the assistant hitting coach for the White Sox, where he worked with new Tigers’ right fielder Nomar Mazara. Coolbaugh also coached second baseman Jonathan Schoop during their time in Baltimore.
Rounding out the coaching staff are Ramon Santiago as the first base and infield coach, Chip Hale as the third base coach, Jose Cruz Jr., who will have some wide ranging duties but presumably will be the club’s assistant hitting coach, and Josh Paul as the quality control coach and also working with the catchers.
While the Tigers still aren’t making big moves to acquire talent on the field, the new coaching staff was pretty comfortably the most exciting addition of the offseason.
The Tigers didn’t spend much money this offseason. Considering that their top prospect pitchers are now graduating to the majors, it’s frustrating that they didn’t do a whole lot otherwise to improve the team, but they did pick up several interesting players who should help the club this season.
First and foremost is the addition of Robbie Grossman. The Tigers hadn’t signed any free agent of a multi-year deal since Justin Upton when they inked Grossman to a two-year, $10 million deal. Grossman made some swing adjustments in his time with the Oakland A’s, and put up the best numbers of his career in 2020. He’ll handle left field most days, and provides a quality professional bat to the Tigers lineup.
Probably the most recognizable name for casual fans is that of long-time Atlanta Braves starter, and former All-Star, Julio Teheran. The Tigers were able to pick him up on a minor league deal after his rocky, injury plagued 2020 season, but Teheran left them no choice but to take him north in the rotation after a fine spring campaign. He worked with a physical therapist to rehabilitate a balky throwing shoulder in the offseason, and has seen a substantial velocity bump this spring. If that holds up, the command and control artist will be a nice, low cost addition for the Tigers.
They also signed former Miami Marlins’ starter Jose Ureña to a one-year deal, and he will start the season in the rotation too. Ureña throws a pretty nasty power sinker-slider combination, but will have the occasional control meltdown and lives more on weak contact than strikeouts. Still, he’s got the arm to be better and his best years in Miami were under the tutelage of Tigers assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves, so perhaps that reunion will bear fruit.
Rule 5 selection Akil Baddoo has been the big story in spring camp. The 22-year-old outfielder combines power and speed with solid plate discipline. A left-handed hitter who had only just reached the Advanced-A level in 2019 when he blew out his throwing elbow, Baddoo hasn’t played a regular season game since. The Minnesota Twins left him exposed to the Rule 5 draft and the Tigers snatched him up. He’s done nothing but rake in Grapefruit League play, posting a 1.210 OPS, with five home runs, four stolen bases, and 10 walks to 14 strikeouts.
Baddoo has really been exciting to watch, but remember to temper expectations. While he’s clearly improved over the past two years, he’s leaping from A-ball to the major leagues, after missing most of a year to the arm injury, and then missing a year of regular action to the cancellation of the 2020 minor league season. Now he’ll be thrown in the fire, playing part-time in a five-man outfield rotation. The hope for Baddoo is that he could be a nice major league outfielder in 2022 and beyond. If he happens to get there this season that would be a huge coup for the Tigers, but he deserves plenty of time to discover how good a player he’ll ultimately become.
The Tigers other notable position player additions were right fielder Nomar Mazara, and infielder Renato Nuñéz. Both were inexpensive hitters with power who haven’t managed to put it together at the plate consistently in their major league careers. Both players are still in their mid-twenties with some hope for a breakout despite a lack of defensive value. Nuñéz has been optioned to Toledo to start the year in order to work on his defense at first base, and was hampered by a late arrival due to COVID intake protocol delays. Mazara will get a good long look in right field and will probably be the team’s designated hitter when Miguel Cabrera plays first base.
Finally, the Tigers new starting catcher is veteran Wilson Ramos. An 11-year veteran most recently with the New York Mets, he spent six years with the Washington Nationals from 2011-2016. The Tigers picked him up on a one year deal for $2 million, and he’ll presumably get the lion’s share of starts behind the plate. Ramos remains a solid hitter even if his defense is perhaps a bit beyond its prime and should be an upgrade over anyone they’ve had in recent seasons.
Prospects to watch for
Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize are in the starting rotation, but there are a few more key names to watch for in 2021. Matt Manning, the third of the Tigers blue-chip pitching prospects starts the year in Toledo but will make his debut sometime this season as need arises. The big, hard-throwing right-hander is working on a new breaking ball this spring, and if he can dial that pitch in and tune his fastball command a bit more he should be a force in the very near future. Relief prospects Alex Lange and Jason Foley could also be a factor at some point this year.
As far as position players, the key name is Isaac Paredes. A precocious hitter who reached Double-A as teenager, the stocky infielder has a long track record of good plate discipline and contact ability. His 2020 major league debut didn’t go well, but he’s still just 22 years old. The Tigers have played him at second base as well as his usual position at third this spring, and the results have been promising. He still needs to translate more contact into power, but should be the first man up if the Tigers need an infielder.
Behind Paredes, you have a pair of decent outfield prospects with strong defensive abilities in Daz Cameron and Derek Hill, either of whom could get a look if the opportunity arises. Versatile infielder Zack Short is another who should be on the short list for a callup from Toledo. Finally, catching prospect Jake Rogers retains enough defensive value that he should get another look this year, though the hopes for his bat developing are fading.
You can find BYB’s top 30 prospect list right here.
The AL Central division
As you might expect, the Tigers are thought to be marginally better this year, but projection systems still expect to see them finish last in the division once again. Cleveland continues to generate outstanding pitchers and while their offense is nothing to write home about, they have Shane Bieber and Jose Ramiréz and will still be tough for the Tigers to match. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Royals rebuilding efforts are proceeding more quickly, and they have more depth in impact position players as well. The Tigers could feasibly catch one or both, but it would be a bit a surprise.
And of course, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins now rule the division. The Twins continue to put together good teams and have a strong development pipeline that should sustain success for years to come. They’re going nowhere. The Chicago White Sox may well be the most talented team in the American League. The Tony La Russa hire was strange, and they’ve lost outfielder Eloy Jimenez for a least a few months, but they are stacked, dangerous, and should be the clear favorites to win the division.
Broadcasts and ballpark
If you’re watching on television, one of the first things you’ll notice when the Tigers’ Opening Day pre-game show starts on Thursday afternoon, is that FOX Sports Detroit is now called Bally Sports Detroit. All the FOX Sports regional networks have rebranded as such, and Opening Day for the Tigers will be the big rollout for the Detroit iteration. The broadcast team led by Matt Shepherd remains unchanged, and so we’ll have to see if the local broadcasts are notably different, or whether little has changed but the logo.
The Tigers have also made a little change to Comerica Park. The bullpen is now Little Caesar’s orange, and the roof between the two pens seems set to replace the Belle Tire blast zone, with home runs landing their resulting in some sort of giveaway. If it looks a bit too Baltimore Orioles for you, perhaps free Crazy Bread will assuage these concerns.
It's hard to see in this photo, but left field is now very orange and has been branded the Little Caesars Bullpen.— Evan Woodbery (@evanwoodbery) March 31, 2021
Caesar is wearing a glove with a target in the middle.
If a home run hits that target "every fan in attendance will receive prizes," per the Tigers. pic.twitter.com/K0vJv9JLxC