Let’s be frank with each other: the Tigers were a real disappointment last season. After an offseason filled with hyped up free agent signings and dreams of young players taking the next steps in becoming high quality major leaguers, April through September brought injuries, poor performance, and disappointment with only occasional glimpses of hope for better days to come. After years of failure, they fell on their faces right as things were supposed to be looking up.
Those better days might not come immediately this season. With very little money spent in free agency and only one trade made to reshape the current roster, the 2023 Tigers look a lot like the 2022 Tigers right now. We’re certainly not dreaming of a freak playoff run here just yet. So what would constitute a successful 2023 campaign?
Whether it be a mandate from ownership or a conscious decision made by new team president Scott Harris, it’s pretty clear that the Tigers plan is to use this next year to assess what they have before charting a course for the future. While there’s plenty of room to operate in the middle, the two ends of the spectrum for how this could go are one, the team over-performs resulting in an immediate push to acquire high end talent next offseason, or the team continues to backslide resulting in Harris pushing the full factory reset button to rebuild the organization in his image.
For the Tigers to have a successful year, they’re going to need to over perform. That really comes down to a few keys: healthy and competent starting pitching, maximizing the productivity of fringe major leaguers, two former top prospects breaking out, and some of the teams remaining top prospects showing signs that they’re ready to contribute as well. If a decent amount of those things break right for the Tigers, they’ll be sitting in a pretty good position with tons of spending power and few commitments to veteran players of any kind.
Healthy and competent starting pitching
2022 was a rough year for the original members of the rotation. The Tigers lost former first overall pick Casey Mize to Tommy John surgery early in the season, and then lost Tarik Skubal to an elbow injury in August. Matt Manning was shut down in September with a forearm strain, which thankfully did not lead to surgery. Eduardo Rodriguez missed much of the season on the restricted list. And the fifth starter to open the year? I had to look that one up because it could’ve been a few options who should not have been starting games for a team trying to compete. It was Tyler Alexander, by the way. Michael Pineda was delayed by visa issues.
While Mize will almost certainly miss the entire season and Skubal will open the season on the 60-day IL, Rodriguez, Spencer Turnbull, Manning, and the re-acquired Matthew Boyd look to fill out four of the rotation spots to open the season. Michael Lorenzen, the presumed fifth starter, recently suffered a groin strain that could sideline him for a few weeks. That opens the door for Joey Wentz to crack the starting five in the early going, with Beau Brieske remaining a secondary option.
On paper, the Tigers have a solid rotation with some upside, especially as the season progresses and Skubal — hopefully — gets added back into the mix. Reports on Skubal have been very positive, but it’s still best to aim for a return around the All-Star break. Full seasons from Rodriguez and Boyd could give the Tigers two pitchers who throw in the 175-200 inning range. Turnbull’s recovery from Tommy John is a wild card, but his arsenal is sneakily elite and he could still be a top of the rotation guy should he return to form.
Manning was knocked around early in spring training, but his last few outings have seen the adjustments he and Tigers’ coaches are making coming together pretty nicely. There’s still plenty of upside that can be tapped into with a full season of health and instruction from pitching coach Chris Fetter and his bulked up staff.
Maximize the value of role players
While not expected to be the driving forces behind the Tigers, there are a few names that come to mind whose success could really make this team fun to watch. Nick Maton, Matt Vierling, Akil Baddoo, Kerry Carpenter, and Jake Rogers are a few of the guys who will be counted on throughout the season in various roles. None of these players are going to breakout into superstars, but they only need to provide solid production. Victor Reyes, Harold Castro, and Willi Castro were all good soldiers, but none really did anything that improved the team within the margins. The role players that the Tigers have this season actually has an intriguing combination of tools that should help the team and gives them a dimension of depth they haven’t had in years.
Maton looks to have all but locked up the job at third base, though he’ll move all around the infield, and does two things that the Tigers desperately need: hit fastballs for power and get on base. He hits right handed pitching well, and with the Tigers will get a chance to prove he’s an everyday player.
Baddoo and Carpenter both bring interesting tools to the table as left handed hitting outfielders with pretty different skill sets. They’re likely fighting for one roster spot at the moment. Whoever wins that battle will be the strong side platoon in left field. If they can feast on right handed pitching, they could prove to be valuable table setters — or perhaps more — for an offense starved for run creation. Vierling was acquired in the same trade as Maton from the Phillies this offseason. He will almost certainly be the right handed side of the left field platoon with Baddoo or Carpenter, and brings an element of raw speed and power that haven’t quite been tapped into yet.
Finally, Rogers missed all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery, but has flashed a lot of power at the plate this spring and still has a cannon for an arm behind it. He clearly spent the rehab time working hard on his receiving and blocking, switching more to a one-knee down approach, and looks even better behind the plate than he did in 2021. The catching combination of Eric Haase and Rogers could end up looking strong for Detroit.
There are a handful of key names to watch here. Rumors of the farm system’s total demise have been wildly overstated in some quarters. The Tigers do still have a bunch of talented young players in the upper minors who should be ready to contribute by 2024. Most of the following had really impressive breakout campaigns under the new Tigers’ player development staff last year. This season is about seeing those guys refine their games as they make their final approach to the big leagues.
First on the list is outfielder Parker Meadows, who put a stamp on his year-long breakout by hitting the cover off the ball this spring. With plus speed and power, a consistently solid approach at the plate, and the ability to play anywhere in the outfield, Meadows is the prospect most likely to break through this season.
Other significant contributions could come from right-handers Wilmer Flores and Reese Olson, both top 100 prospect level talents who will be just a quick road trip south in Toledo to begin the year. The Tigers have already built plenty of starting pitching depth into the roster, but those two really add another level. They’re just reaching Triple-A for the first time, and will need some space to work on their game, but either could take a step and end up contributing in the rotation this summer.
The Tigers have some interesting utility infielders as well, namely Ryan Kreidler, Andre Lipcius, and Wenceel Perez. However, the final big name who could potentially arrive this year is top position prospect Colt Keith. Keith is rapidly being recognized as one of the better pure hitters in the minor leagues. After bulking up prior to the 2022 season, Keith tore the cover off the ball and vaulted himself into top 100 prospect status. The third baseman made the most of his spring opportunities, posted a 1.066 OPS with two homers and a ton of hard contact in his 27 plate appearances in major league camp. Keith is coming on fast, but will only be reaching Double-A for the first time this season. Still, he’s likely to move very quickly.
For the Tigers to reach their goals as an organization, the pipeline has keep flowing with talent. The club’s future depends on continuing to produce good young players. Meadows, Flores, Olson, and Keith are the ones most likely to make a push to the major leagues this year and eventually become big time contributors. They may not have much impact on the Tigers’ record this year, but their long-term success is crucial to sustaining a drive back to competitive relevance for the franchise.
Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson need to break out
The last and most important thing that needs to happen is that Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson need to show consistent signs of being the players that the Tigers can build an offense around. Both showed flashes of their potential in their rookie campaigns, but like many young players, struggled to adjust throughout the year to the challenge of major league pitching. Of course, unlike most young players, Greene and Torkelson were drafted with the expectation of being franchise cornerstones.
Greene came up in mid-June and made an immediate impact both at the plate and in center field. All aspects of his well rounded game were on display, and he looked every bit the part of a future All-Star. As the year went on, pitchers adjusted to him and his plate discipline started to slip. He leveled out again towards the end of the year and finished with 98 wRC+, or just below major league average, but with only a .109 ISO and an 8.6% walk rate. In 2021 between Double-A and Triple-A, Greene’s ISO was over .220 and walk rate over 11%. In 2022, we saw the hit tool occasionally, but he’s going to need to showcase his power to really announce his presence. Pitchers were able to get him on the ground a lot in his rookie year, and he’s got to do a better job selecting pitches he can drive in the air.
Torkelson made the team out of spring training and never really got going, spending some time in Toledo in August. While he may never hit for a high average, he’s known to have great plate discipline with an uncanny ability to launch baseballs into orbit. This is the guy who broke Barry Bonds’s home run record at Arizona State. While he did hit a few majestic shots, his season was largely a mess as he finished with an abysmal 76 wRC+. His exit velocity and barrel rates suggest he was making solid contact, but that’s going to need translate to consistent extra base power for him to deliver on the lofty expectations that come with being a former number-one overall pick, particularly as a first baseman.
Both drafted by Al Avila, Greene and Torkelson need to show new president Scott Harris that they are part of the solution, not the problem. At risk of sounding hyperbolic, if they both struggle and continue to be below average hitters statistically, Harris might have no choice but to hit the reset button once again and rebuild the organization from the ground up, assuring many more years of bad baseball in Detroit.
Not everything is going to go right. That’s just baseball. But the Tigers’ overall record this season matters less than their specific success in the four areas discussed. If they can get better production and health from their young starting pitchers, develop their foundation of everyday players and depth, see some of their top prospects continuing to improve, and crucially, get the production they need from Greene and Torkelson, the Tigers will be in good shape to take big steps next offseason.