Year two of the Ron Gardenhire era in Detroit should very much be a repeat of the first as the rebuilding club has a lot of questions and few definitive answers as spring training comes to a close.
The hopes for a surprise season in Motown are linked to a return to great health from two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera. Continued growth from free-agent-to-be Nick Castellanos is also a significant factor in how the year shapes out, although it is tough to envision a scenario in which the converted outfielder isn’t instead converted into some extra pieces for the years ahead by the July 31 trade deadline.
The Tigers finished third in the American League Central Division last season with a 64-98 record, finishing two games ahead of the Chicago White Sox with the exact same record as they had in Brad Ausmus’ final year at the helm in 2017. While the Tigers may have the leg up on Chicago in terms of star power (if Cabrera can stay healthy), the rest of the pieces currently around the soon-to-be 36-year-old Venezuelan do not seem to have the potential that the prospects in the Windy City have. But, the future is not all bleak, as the Tigers do have a farm system ranked highly by some, giving the organization some hope for the years ahead based on some highly touted pitching prospects.
After taking a long look, both on the farm and at the Major League level, at some infield candidates, the Tigers opted to buy up a pair of middle infielders who spent years together with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Harrison and Mercer. The reunited duo now stand in the way of two former Indians prospects (Willi Castro and Ronny Rodriguez), who are expected to start the year at Triple-A Toledo. The veteran Beckham, 32, will also provide additional depth in the infield, with Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum, and Cabrera spending time on the infield corners.
Moore and Ross will look to eat up innings for the club while some of the top prospects in the organization (pitchers Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Franklin Perez) continue to work their ways towards becoming Major League players. Both players could fill roles similar to that of Mike Fiers and Liriano last season – low risk, low cost pieces to plug rotation holes until they can be flipped for prospects to pitching-starved teams by the end of July (it did not work with Liriano, but Fiers netted two minor league pitchers last August from Oakland).
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: OF Jim Adduci, IF Jose Iglesias, P Artie Lewicki, P Francisco Liriano, IF Dixon Machado, DH Victor Martinez (retired), C James McCann, C Jarrod Saltalamacchia, RP Warwick Saupold, C Josh Thole, P Jacob Turner, RP Alex Wilson
The Tigers got younger by default this offseason, as several established guys on the roster hit the open market and moved on to new homes.
Martinez retired, ending his 16-year career after stops with Cleveland (2002-09), Boston (2009-10), and Detroit (2011-2018). His leadership and clubhouse presence will be hard to replace, leaving Miggy as the man holding everything together.
The majority of the other departures were minor, with many being the slew of arms sent out to the mound last season by the Tigers, who needed 13 different starting pitchers in 2018. The staff lost the veteran Liriano, who moved back to Pittsburgh on a minor league deal with a spring training invite, but the bigger loss not included on the above list was former AL Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Fulmer, who was shut down during the spring with a right elbow injury that will result in the dreaded Tommy John surgery, less than six months after undergoing right knee surgery in September that ended his 2018 prematurely.
WHO TO WATCH: Nick Castellanos, 27, is staring free agency in the face. The 2019 campaign marks the final year of his contract with Detroit, which could bring an end to a Tigers career that dates back to his first round selection in the 2010 draft. After struggling to consistently look the part of a big league third baseman, the Tigers moved him to the outfield in 2017 and he has found success, at least at the plate (his -19 defensive runs saved was the worst among all Major League right fielders and fifth-worst among all outfielders combined a year ago).
A team able to look past his defensive deficiencies may see the enticing numbers that he presents at the plate. He led the Tigers in nearly every positive offensive statistic, including games played (157), plate appearances (678), runs (88), hits (185), doubles (46), homers (23), RBI (89), batting average (.298), on-base percentage (.354), slugging (.500), and OPS (.854). Nearly all marked big jumps over his numbers from the previous season. If he can have himself a first half in line with those numbers, the Tigers may have their most valuable trade piece to move at the deadline.
2019 SEASON OUTLOOK:
After Cabrera and Castellanos, there are a lot of unknowns for the Tigers. Cabrera is several years away from being the dominant and feared slugger that he once was, but he is going to be paid like it (making $30 million per year from 2019-2021 before a pair of $32 million seasons in 2022 and 2023 before two more $30 million vesting option seasons). The eleven-time All-Star and back-to-back MVP in 2012 and 2013 last led baseball in hitting in 2015 with a .338 average. His power appeared tapped early last season before injury knocked him out for good, leaving him 35 bombs away from the 500 mark. If Cabrera can stay healthy and find his former power stroke, his pursuit of the milestone will be a big story line late in the season when the Tigers likely have little left on the line other than getting extra looks at some of the kids in tow.
The Tigers have skipped some of their youth movement by plugging the middle infield with veterans Harrison and Mercer, and the club will still hope for continued development from Candelario at the hot corner. Candelario, 25, was second on the club with 19 homers last season, but he struck out a team-leading 160 times while hitting .224. Goodrum, 27, was third on the team with 16 homers while hitting .245, but he averaged just over a strikeout per game played as well.
The outfield is a bit questionable around Castellanos, with 2015 first rounder Christin Stewart in left and Mikie Mahtook in center. Goodrum can provide the club depth there in addition to at first base, especially until JaCoby Jones returns from the injured list.
While the results for the 26-year-old Fulmer have been trending in the wrong direction, the Tigers still took a substantial hit in losing their young right-hander to UCL reconstruction. He was 3-12 with a 4.69 ERA and a 1.31 WHIP in 24 starts for a bad team a year ago, but Detroit was still counting on him to bounce back from a year lost to injury and inconsistency. Now, the team will look to the veterans to lead the way, including Opening Day starter Jordan Zimmermann, improving lefty Matthew Boyd, and the free agent additions Moore and Ross. Zimmermann will make his second straight Opening Day start and will look to build upon his best year with the Tigers a season ago, when he went 7-8 with a 4.52 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP in 25 starts. The club would likely like to move him and get out from the chunk of money that they still owe him through the end of the 2020 season, but with three injury-plagued campaigns while not getting any younger, that may be really tough to do. The bullpen will count on former starter Shane Greene as its closer again, with 2018 All-Star Joe Jimenez aiming to setup the late innings for the Tigers.
The Tigers are still several years away and banking that their farm system is as sound as some believe. They will spend this season biding time until their young pitching arms are MLB ready and, in the meantime, they will be assessing young players’ values in the lineup and auditioning prospective trade pieces throughout the first four months of the season, just in case they can add in additional prospects to increase their odds in the future.
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