Last Updated: 2019-03-04
The most depressing spot for a team in Major League Baseball is the spot that the Detroit Tigers are in. There aren’t any true standouts on the roster and the minor league system is one of the weaker ones in baseball.
To make matters worse, the team is still being dragged down by albatross contracts. Miguel Cabrera will be paid until the end of time and make $30 or more million per season through 2023. Jordan Zimmermann still has two years left on his five-year, $110 million deal. The Tigers are still paying $6 million per season to the Texas Rangers for Prince Fielder, who retired from baseball nearly two and a half years ago. They’re also paying Houston $8 million for Justin Verlander this season.
The light is at the end of the tunnel. After the $69 million to Cabrera, Zimmermann, Fielder, and Verlander, Detroit has very few financial commitments. After posting a payroll in excess of $207 million in 2017, the Tigers dropped all the way to $135 million in 2018 and will likely wind up somewhere around $125 million in 2019. The only guaranteed money after the 2020 season is to Cabrera. That contract is horrendous, but the Tigers will have a lot more flexibility.
One of the biggest problems for the Tigers heading into 2019 is that they don’t have a roster that embodies the current state of Major League Baseball. Comerica Park is a factor, but the Tigers were 28th in home runs last season, trailing only the Giants and Marlins, who are forced to have a pitcher bat at least twice a game.
Only the Orioles, Royals, Rangers recorded fewer strikeouts from the pitching staff. As far as K/9 goes, the Tigers were 26th, ahead of those teams and the A’s. The game is predicated on hitting dingers and punching tickets. The Tigers were among the worst in baseball at both of those things.
That is one of many reasons why this rebuild is moving at a snail’s pace. The Tigers are trying to use the Comerica Park factors to their advantage, by relying on some pitch-to-contact types that induce a lot of fly balls, but that only goes so far. The Tigers were 38-43 at home, but 26-55 on the road.
All of that said, there are a couple of silver linings. The Tigers were 43-45 against fellow losing teams. It was the teams that were .500 or better that wrecked Detroit last season, as the Tigers were just 21-53 against those teams.
As the division improves around the Tigers, could they be the team that picks up some extra losses? Will the return of Miguel Cabrera and the addition of some better starting pitching depth help the Tigers exceed expectations? Let’s try to answer those burning questions.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 64-98
Run Differential: -166
Pythagorean W/L: 64-98
BaseRuns Record: 65-97
BaseRuns Run Differential: -152 (3.88/4.81)
3rd Order Win% Record: 61.6-100.4
Record in One-Run Games: 22-30
Additions: Josh Harrison, Jordy Mercer, Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, Reed Garrett, Bobby Wilson, Hector Sanchez, Gordon Beckham, Brandon Dixon, Jose Fernandez, Eduardo Paredes, Jose Cisnero, Chris Smith, Nick Ramirez
Losses: James McCann, Victor Martinez, Jose Iglesias, Francisco Liriano, Mike Gerber
Give the Tigers credit for trying. The starting rotation will look a lot different with Tyson Ross and Matt Moore. Hopefully they’ll be able to complement a healthy Michael Fulmer and Matt Boyd. If Jordan Zimmermann and Daniel Norris can stay healthy, there’s some intriguing depth here now, especially with Blaine Hardy in a swingman role.
Outside of that, there isn’t much to discuss. Josh Harrison was signed late in the offseason and was immediately penciled into the starting role at second base, which is a sign of where this team is. Jordy Mercer slots into the Jose Iglesias role as a can’t-hit shortstop with defensive upside. Gordon Beckham may provide some infield depth. The last five names are all real people, I promise, and they could be bullpen reinforcements.
The losses aren’t all that notable. James McCann and Victor Martinez were negative WAR players. Francisco Liriano wasn’t very good. Jose Iglesias was solid with 2.5 fWAR, but didn’t hit much and his defense has been replaced.
All in all, this is the type of offseason you’d expect from a team that lost 98 games and is still saddled with some ugly contracts.
BA: .241 (21st)
OBP: .300 (27th)
SLG: .380 (28th)
wOBA: .295 (27th)
wRC+: 84 (28th)
BABIP: .293 (18th)
K%: 22.2% (14th)
BB%: 7.1% (26th)
The elephant in the room for the Tigers is Miguel Cabrera. Miggy Smalls posted a .360 wOBA and a 128 wRC+ in his 157 plate appearances in 2018, but injuries took away another year from the future Hall of Famer. The Tigers were 28th in home runs last season, which isn’t going to cut it in today’s landscape. At least Cabrera was swinging a healthy bat in 2018, which is more than we can say for 2017. His average exit velocity spiked back up to 94.4 mph in 2018 before he had to sit out the rest of the season. It was 91.3 in 2017. That is the reason why I have hope for a return for Cabrera. He won’t be what he once was, but anything would help this lineup.
Nick Castellanos will produce up until he gets traded. That will be sometime in July, but Castellanos, who is a horrible, awful, terrible, no good defensive outfielder was still a 3.0 fWAR player because he slashed .298/.354/.500. It’s not easy to overcome bad defense, but Castellanos hit well enough to do it. On the other hand, his .361 BABIP is going to regress in a big way this season. He batted .272 on ground balls when league average was .246. The batting average will go down, but there’s a chance that his power numbers could go up.
If the light comes on for Jeimer Candelario, that would help this Tigers offense. Candelario posted a .283/.359/.425 slash in limited 2017 action, but righties dominated him and he didn’t hit for enough power against lefties. Outside of Candelario, the Tigers have very little offensive upside from younger guys. Niko Goodrum is a league average player that can play multiple positions, but guys like Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones, and Jordy Mercer can’t really hit. Josh Harrison is actually one of the better hitters on this team, which, again, speaks to the current state of affairs.
The Tigers hit lefties fairly well, but righties hurt them and there aren’t many lefties in this division. Most of the left-handed starters in the AL are pretty good.
ERA: 4.60 (23rd)
FIP: 4.59 (25th)
xFIP: 4.55 (25th)
K%: 19.8% (27th)
BB%: 8.0% (9th)
LOB%: 70.5% (25th)
Few pitching staffs are helped by their home parks as much as the Tigers. Detroit doesn’t have many strikeout pitchers. Most of the starters tilt towards the fly ball side, which makes Castellanos playing the outfield even more hilarious. The Tigers had enormous home/road splits on fly balls and line drives. At home, the Tigers allowed a .393 wOBA on fly balls. League average was .447. The Tigers allowed a .483 wOBA on fly balls away from home. League average there was .443.
So, there is a lot of give and take with the pitching staff. The Tigers allowed 70 fewer runs at home compared to the road.
Michael Fulmer only made 24 starts and they weren’t very good, as he went from a 3.83/3.67/4.24 pitcher slash in 2017 to a 4.69/4.52/4.29 pitcher slash in 2018. He had problems stranding runners and staying healthy for a second straight season, but he does have really good stuff. Matt Boyd had some strange splits, but the ones that stood out the most were his home/road splits. Boyd allowed a .263 wOBA at home and a .338 wOBA on the road. He had a 2.63 ERA at home with a 3.64 FIP and a 5.89 ERA on the road with a 5.14 FIP.
Jordan Zimmermann had a good first half with a .295 wOBA against and a bad second half with a .376 wOBA against, including a .570 SLG against in the second half, when he allowed 20 of his 28 home runs. The Tigers are gambling on Matt Moore, a fly ball pitcher that was good in 2016, but hasn’t been good since. Last season he posted a 6.79 ERA, but that was in Texas, where fly ball pitchers go to get spit-roasted.
The bullpen isn’t particularly special and it could be downright terrible if Shane Greene doesn’t bounce back. Greene stopped inducing ground balls at an elite rate and still had a 16.4 percent HR/FB%. Hopefully that was a one-year blip. Both Greene and Joe Jimenez had miserable second halves and the bullpen doesn’t have any strikeout upside.
Positives & Negatives
That home park factor is a real big advantage for the Tigers. As their core has aged and they’ve started to cut some of their high-priced talent, they’ve looked to use that more to their advantage, including Blaine Hardy’s stint as a starter last season. A lot of teams are built on hitting the long ball these days and it is hard to do with the spacious outfield at Comerica Park.
Many believe that the Twins and White Sox are decidedly better this season and that the Royals aren’t going to lose 100 games again. The Tigers will be the team that some people single out to be the big loser in the AL Central. It may not be a bad direction to go, as this is a team that will likely go a long stretch without its best hitter again.
The Tigers won’t be in the mix and they’ll be trying to move salary and anybody that can create a good return at the Trade Deadline. With teams that are clear-cut sellers in July, you have to factor that into your handicap. The Tigers are going to be a seller and Castellanos is going to go. Whether or not anybody else of consequence gets moved, like Fulmer or another pitcher, is unknown right now, but it could very well happen.
Pick: Over 68.5
Call me crazy, but I do like this one a little bit. This team is better than last year’s team that won 64 games without Miguel Cabrera for most of the season. Michael Fulmer was limited and the other starters had the consistency of melted ice cream.
I like that the Tigers are committed to their home ballpark strategy and have even doubled down on it in some respects with a guy like Matt Moore. I know they’re going to be bad on the road, but there are reasons to believe that they can improve a little bit and a .500 record at home wouldn’t shock me. A 30-51 record on the road is hardly impossible and that would get us over the number rather quickly.
This was a pretty young team last season and it showed when the Tigers stepped up in class. The hitters struggled and the pitchers were bad. Those growing pains should help going into 2019. This is an organization investing more into sabermetrics and an organization that should have better player plans going into the new season.
I can even see a path where the Tigers finish higher than the White Sox in the division. That’s how optimistic I am on Detroit and how pessimistic I am on the White Sox. That makes this one worthy of a bet.
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