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Kerry Carpenter looks like the big break the Tigers needed

Carpenter’s ongoing Cinderella story has the Tigers in much better position to break out of rebuilding mode.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Guardians Photo by Ron Schwane/Getty Images

Even far superior teams to the Detroit Tigers in player acquisition and development over the past decade needed a big break now and again. A solid prospect who turns out to be a star. A fringe prospect that breaks out into a good starting pitcher or everyday position player. Of course those teams more often make their own breaks by tuning up players and consistently producing homegrown talent for keeps or for trade despite picking late in the draft every year.

Over the long and painful process of trying to build up a team from their own system, the Detroit Tigers haven’t had too many of those big wins. Tarik Skubal, drafted in the ninth round in 2019 turned out to be one. The Tigers did a fine job finding undervalued pitching under Al Avila. They just haven’t been able to turn a fringe position prospect into a really good player. That’s been a problem for the Tigers for decades. In Kerry Carpenter, they finally appear to have their man.

As it turns out, the completely unheralded selection of Virginia Tech outfielder Kerry Carpenter in the 19th round, the same year as Skubal and Casey Mize, could be the key that finally gets the Tigers back to the postseason in the years ahead. Player development was the team’s weak link in the Avila years, but more and more the scouting department looks like they were doing a good job finding underrated talent, even on the hitting side of the equation.

Spencer Torkelson and particularly Riley Greene have had very encouraging seasons at the plate so far. Things are tracking in the right direction, and the dynamic duo are still pretty young at 22 and 23 years old, respectively. So we’d like to think they’re just getting started, but right now Carpenter is the most dangerous hitter on the team.

The 25-year-old outfield’s performance since the All-Star break has actually made him one of the most dangerous hitters in all baseball. Earlier this summer people wondered if this was just a hot stretch, but at this point we can go all the way back to the beginning of the 2022 campaign and see that Carpenter has done nothing but rake for almost two full seasons now. And in his outrageous tear of late, the makings of an actual star caliber hitter have been on full display.

After so much digital ink on Greene and Torkelson, it’s time Carpenter got his due.

After some in depth swing changes that led to a full on assault against minor league pitching in the spring and summer of 2022, Carpenter debuted with the Tigers on August 10. At no point has he struggled for more than a short stretch of games. He’s been an average or better hitter in every individual month he’s been in the major leagues. So this isn’t a flash in the pan at this point. AJ Hinch has finally given in and batted him against lefties, while teams have tried exploiting his one weakness, breaking balls down and in, with little success. So far, he’s handled every test the league has thrown his way and continued to mash.

Carpenter probably isn’t one of the five best hitters in the game just yet, but he’s now an established threat and finally getting some national recognition.

Of course at the moment, Carpenter is a lot more than a consistently good hitter. He’s the second most productive hitter in the major leagues in August. Only Mookie Betts has a higher wRC+ at 242 to Carpenter’s 228 since the beginning of the month. With 19 home runs in just 311 plate appearances and 83 games played, Carpenter is slugging them on a 40 HR pace and holds a 1.013 OPS since the All-Star game.

Sure there’s a touch of a fly in the ointment, because Carpenter remains a sub-par outfielder and doesn’t really put his above average speed to work on the basepaths either. But he isn’t a bad defender either. His -2 Outs Above Average (OAA) mark in half a season’s work isn’t a problem for a good hitting corner outfielder. It just limits Carpenter’s potential value a bit. He’ll still run some poor routes and get a bad jump here and there, but he’s not hurting the Tigers out there either. A future with some DH plate appearances seems likely for him, but we could say the same for Spencer Torkelson, or top hitting prospects like Colt Keith and Justyn-Henry Malloy, who will be looked to for offensive contributions next season.

Carpenter does have the raw tools in his speed, arm strength, and overall athleticism to be an average corner outfielder and we’ll hold out hope that he’ll refine his game a little more on the defensive side. We’re not going to quibble too much either way, because Carpenter’s emergence at the plate has really changed the complexion of the 2023 season.

Kerry Carpenter makes all the difference in the Tigers immediate outlook. Coming into the 2023 season, the organization really needed Greene and Torkelson to become at least productive players for there to be any tangible progress in the organization. Even that scenario would leave them a couple good bats short of a good offense, but it was probably the bare minimum requirement for 2023 season after a fairly quiet first offseason from Scott Harris.

Greene has exceeded that requirement, while Torkelson took longer to get going but has really caught fire since the All-Star break as well. The addition of Carpenter, and his current supremacy in that mix, puts a pretty good-looking young core together for the next half decade. There’s still some proving out to do, but suddenly hopes for a good offense and a real shot at the division crown, tarnished though it may be, sound much more realistic.

Certainly the Tigers need a lot of work yet to become a team that worries perennial league powers. But in the AL Central the emergence of Kerry Carpenter makes them a lot more of a credible threat to the Twins and Guardians next year. They’ll need solid reinforcements this offseason, but after a long, painful stretch of years, Kerry Carpenter’s emergence makes meaningful September baseball feel within reach next season.