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Rival Preview: The Detroit Tigers are a breakout candidate following their strong finish in 2023

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Photo credit:AP
Evan Stack
20 days ago
Now that Miguel Cabrera has retired, the page has officially turned to a new era of Detroit Tigers baseball. Cabrera was one of the last remaining from the 2010s Tigers that featured the likes of Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, and several others, but now Tigers fans are wondering when the rebuild will officially be over.

2023 Recap

The Tigers finished last season with a 78-84 record. They never spent a day in first place in their division and never had a record greater than .500, but a late-season push (an 18-10 record in September/October) propelled them into second place to finish the year. Sure, the AL Central isn’t the best division to gauge a second-place finish, but given Detroit’s roster construction and the state of the franchise, this was definitely a step in the right direction.
Offence: Detroit’s offence was not their calling card last season. The team finished 27th in the MLB in batting average, 24th in home runs, and 26th in RBIs. They were shutout 15 times last year and had three batters finish with 20 or more home runs.
One of Detroit’s biggest objectives last season was getting a couple of their offensive focal points, 1B Spencer Torkelson and CF Riley Greene, to the next level, and they succeeded as both of them made strides in different capacities.
Torkelson’s slash line jumped significantly from year one to year two, hitting .233/.313/.446 with a .758 OPS, 31 home runs, 94 RBIs, and 34 doubles through 159 games last year. Torkelson had underperformed significantly during his rookie season in 2022, so much so that he was demoted to Triple-A halfway through the season. Last year was extremely encouraging, especially being able to play a full season and showing signs of improvement and growth. Obviously, the franchise views Torkelson’s ceiling as higher than where he’s at right now being that he was a #1 overall pick in 2020’s MLB draft, but he’s earned his spot at the top of Detroit’s order for the immediate future.
Greene had a solid rookie season in 2022, but still upgraded several of his statistics last year. Greene slashed .288/.349/.447 with a .796 OPS, 11 home runs, 37 RBIs, and 19 doubles through 99 games. Unfortunately, he missed a chunk of games due to a left fibula stress fracture and right elbow inflammation, but when he was in the lineup, he was impactful. The injuries probably kept his numbers from looking even better than they were; he slashed .356/.423/.558 between May and July, and while his production in August went down, he still missed the entire months of June and September.
Although not as highly touted as Torkelson and Greene coming out of the minors, RF/DH Kerry Carpenter cemented himself as one of Detroit’s top hitters last season, slashing .278/.340/.471 through 118 games. Nine of his 20 home runs came in the month of August, the same month that posted an impressive slash line of .347/.405/.654 with a 1.059 OPS.
Behind those three, the Tigers got a glimpse of one of their current top prospects in CF Parker Meadows, who hit .232/.331/.368 with a .699 OPS through 37 games. While the sample size is very small, he had one of the bigger moments of the season on August 25th when he walked off the Houston Astros with a 3-run home run, a hit that encompassed his first career home run and RBI(s).
Elsewhere, C Jake Rogers hit a career-high 21 home runs with 49 RBIs after missing the entire 2022 season with an elbow injury, and INF Andy Ibanez might have found a home in Detroit after being claimed off of waivers in November of ’22. Ibanez posted a .264./.312/.433 slash line with 11 home runs and 41 RBIs; his 114 games played were only two shy of the number of games he played as a Texas Ranger in 2021 and 2022 combined.
Finally, I hate to be that guy, but I can’t talk about the Tigers without mentioning SS Javier Baez. Baez had another discouraging season at the plate, hitting .222/.267/.325 last year with a .593 OPS, 9 home runs and 59 RBIs. He’s completed two seasons of his six-year, $140 million deal, and it’s already looking like one of the worst contracts in MLB history. Baez is only 31 years old and has had several elite MLB seasons, but it just hasn’t clicked yet in Detroit for him. To make matters worse, Detroit’s offence is really a piece or two away from being a legitimate division contender, and Baez is in the perfect position to be that piece.
Pitching: Don’t let the fact that Detroit’s pitching staff ranked 17th in the MLB in ERA fool you, they also ranked 9th in WHIP and 8th in opponents batting average. Several of the Tigers’ primary starters were all very good, but they were bitten by the injury bug several times throughout the year.
Eduardo Rodriguez had one stint on the 15-day IL, but he wound up leading the team with 26 starts and posted a 13-9 record, 3.30 ERA, and an 8.4 K/9. With the possibility of Rodriguez opting out of his contract at the end of the 2023 season, the Tigers reportedly made efforts to deal him at the trade deadline.  He did ultimately elect to opt out of the rest of his contract and become a free agent, but the Tigers did get two solid years out of him.
A starter that Detroit was able to trade was Michael Lorenzen, who ended up serving as a starter and reliever with Philadelphia down the stretch. While he was a Tiger, he manufactured a 3.58 ERA and a 1.10 WHIP across 18 starts, however, his month-by-month numbers were very “Jekyll and Hyde,” if you will. His May and July ERA’s were both south of 2.00, while his March/April and June were winless, with ERAs north of 7.00 and 5.00, respectively.
Lefty Tarik Skubal made his return from flexor tendon surgery halfway through the season, making 15 starts and posting an impressive 2.80 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, and 11.4 K/9, all career-bests in seasons of at least 15 starts for him. This was extremely encouraging for Skubal who is poised to be at the top of Detroit’s rotation in 2024, and he has looked sharp in Spring Training.
Reese Olson put together a solid rookie campaign last season, owning a 3.99 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 8.9 K/9 over 21 total outings, and Matt Manning held a sub-4.00 ERA while also kickstarting the July 8th combined no-hitter against the Blue Jays.
Unfortunately, the Tigers had to wait one more season to get former top prospect Casey Mize back from injury. Mize has not pitched since April of 2022 due to multiple elbow injuries, but he is feeling good so far and has made five appearances this spring. Detroit’s pitching depth is already looking strong, but it can get a lot stronger with Mize healthy.
Detroit’s rotation posted a really solid 2023, but their bullpen homed some extremely legitimate arms last season. Closer Alex Lange broke onto the scene with 26 saves across 67 games. He also possess a changeup and curveball with whiff percentages over 40%. While the 6.1 BB/9 is not pretty, Lange still held a double-digit K/9 at 10.9.
Behind Lange, Jason Foley posted a 2.61 ERA over 70 outings, and Tyler Holton (claimed off of waivers from Diamondbacks prior to the season) held a 2.11 ERA over 59 games. Between those three, they are all under team control until 2028 and/or 2029, so the Tigers have an opportunity to build a deep bullpen around these proven arms.

Off-season Moves

The Tigers acquired OF Mark Canha from the Brewers in early November in what became one of the first transactions of the offseason. Canha will be entering his 10th major league season after spending 2023 with the Mets and the Brewers. Through 89 games with the Mets, Canha slashed .245/.343/.381 with 6 homers and 29 RBIs, but he saw an uptick in his numbers once he was dealt to Milwaukee in their surge to win the NL Central, posting a .287/.373/.427 slash line with 5 home runs and 33 RBIs there. Detroit sent pitching prospect Blake Holub to the Brewers in exchange for Canha, who will be a free agent following the 2024 season. If Detroit’s push for contention falls short this season and Canha posts some encouraging numbers with the bat, he may be in the same position that he was in at last year’s trade deadline.
Detroit added a pair of veteran arms to their pitching rotation this offseason in Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty. Maeda just completed an eight-year contract that spanned tenures with the Dodgers and Twins, and he is also coming off his first full season in return from Tommy John surgery. Maeda pitched to a 4.23 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and a 10.1 K/9 through 21 games (20 starts) with the Twins last season. He has now posted an ERA of less than 4.70 and a K/9 of 9.0 or higher in all seven of his MLB seasons. His splitter was far and away his best pitch last year generating a 35% whiff percentage and an opponent batting average of .182. Maeda, whose contract is for two years and $24 million, has gotten off to a solid start this spring, striking out 17 batters versus only five walks thus far.
Flaherty’s deal appears to be a “prove it” deal for him, as he signed a one-year, $14 million contract in December. Flaherty has yet to find his 2019 form, a year in which a 2.75 ERA and ML-bests 0.97 WHIP and 6.2 H/9 earned him a fourth-place finish in Cy Young voting. Since that year, he has made 59 starts and has owned a 4.42 ERA and 1.40 WHIP, and he didn’t eclipse 20 starts in a season again until last year. He was dealt from St. Louis to Baltimore at last year’s trade deadline, but the change of scenery didn’t contribute to much success, and he only earned two innings out of the bullpen during last year’s playoffs. Despite this, Tigers president of baseball operations Scott Harris spoke after the signing that he was encouraged by what he saw from Flaherty in Baltimore, particularly with his fastball. While Flaherty doesn’t have supreme fastball velocity, his best seasons are correlated with a limited opponent success against the fastball (i.e. his 2019 season placed him in the 99th percentile in Fastball Run Value on Baseball Savant), so the Tigers may be onto something if they can get him squared away with that pitch.
The Tigers added an old friend back to their bullpen in lefty Andrew Chafin. Between Arizona and Milwaukee last season, Chafin posted a poor 4.73 ERA, the highest mark he’s had in that category since the 2020 season. Bringing him back on a one-year, $4.75 million deal also comes with the hope that he can pitch as effectively as he did in 2022 as a member of Detroit’s bullpen, a campaign in which he pitched to a 2.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and a 10.5 K/9 through 64 appearances. Joining Foley and Lange in the back end of Detroit’s bullpen, Chafin will give the Tigers an elite level of durability; he has pitched in over 60 games in 7 of his 9 full MLB seasons.
The Tigers also added veteran reliever Shelby Miller to the ‘pen on a one-year, $3.25 million deal. Miller’s days of being a starter appear to be long over, but his 36 outings (he made one start as an opener) last season were a career-high for him. Although he did have a stint on the 60-day IL with a neck injury, Miller posted a 1.71 ERA across those 36 outings last year with the Dodgers. Part of his success last season came from adding a splitter to his repertoire, a pitch that generated a 30.7 whiff percentage and a .136 opponent batting average. The 33-year-old has bounced around from team to team and minor leagues to major leagues over the past several seasons, so the Tigers are hoping to get a healthy and productive season from the veteran righty.
The Tigers were reportedly in the market for a third baseman this offseason, and while Matt Chapman’s market grew more and more uncertain, Detroit pivoted to another veteran in Gio Urshela. Signed to a one-year deal worth $1.5 million, Urshela is now on his third team in three years after having three solid years with the Yankees. Ursehla slashed .299/.329/.374 through 62 games a season ago, but unfortunately, a left pelvis fracture sidelined him from mid-June through the rest of the season. He’s only two seasons removed from a career season with the Twins, so I think snagging Urshela for $1.5 million is a great deal for the Tigers and he could serve a huge role in the middle of their order.
Finally, Detroit signed 1B/DH Keston Hiura to a minor league deal with an invite to Spring Training. Hiura spent the first four years of his career with the Brewers and made a very good impression with his power. With great power came great strikeout rates, however, and I don’t mean that in a good way. Hiura never possessed a strikeout rate south of 30%, and it reached a scary 41.7% in 2022 before he was put on waivers prior to the 2023 season. Between the K’s and his salary, he went unclaimed and would play 85 games in Triple-A last season before electing free agency.
That’s a lot of depth for a guy who is only on a minor league deal, but Hiura was the #1 prospect in Milwaukee’s season in 2019, and he could still present an option in case Torkelson or Carpenter went down with an injury. Thus far, he is slashing .323/.353/.613 in Spring Training with two home runs and 9 RBIs, so maybe a change of scenery will benefit the 27-year-old.

My take on Detroit’s 2024 Outlook

Detroit proved me wrong last year; I was much higher on the Royals than I was on the Tigers. However, their pitching staff featured some really strong performances, and AJ Hinch has a lot to work with entering his fourth season as Detroit’s manager.
A lot of their success will depend on the health of their starters and continued improvement from their offence. As I mentioned, Torkelson, Greene, and Carpenter all made significant strides last season, but they’ll need some help from Urshela, Meadows and others. One of those others may be their 2nd-ranked prospect in Colt Keith, who slashed .306/.380/.552 with 27 homers, 38 doubles, and 101 RBIs between Double-A and Triple-A last year. Keith is currently listed as the starting second baseman on Detroit’s depth chart, so it absolutely wouldn’t hurt to get his MLB experience going now.
Much like Kansas City, the Tigers are still playing with house money, somewhat. They’re a fun, yet legitimate pick to win the AL Central, especially if their pitching can replicate or exceed what they did last year. While AJ Hinch left the Astros with a lot of baggage, he’s done a nice job in managing this roster from the ground up, and it’s nice to see him trying to establish a winning culture (referencing the video I included above with Baez). They’ve got the foundation – we’ll see if 2024 features another positive step forward.

ARTICLE PRESENTED BY BETANO

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