Watching a rebuilding team isn’t as awful as it might seem. Watching a bad team? Now that sucks. The difference between a bad team and a rebuilding team is a clear vision and plan going forward. Usually it takes a couple of bad teams to lead to a rebuilding team.
The 2019 Detroit Tigers lost 114 games while fielding a truly embarrassing roster. Perfect example of a bad team. Fast forward two years and you might not think 77-85 is all that impressive, but look closer. Starting the year 8-19, the Tigers found their footing and finished the season over .500 in four of the last 5 months.
Hiring AJ Hinch, a proven winner, was a perfect move to lead this team and bring winning baseball back to Detroit in the near future. While 2020 had plenty of growing pains, it was necessary in deciding who will and who won’t be part of the core going forward. The Tigers are trending in the right direction, and this offseason is the perfect time to capitalize and begin to open the contention window.
Dreaming of ideal offseason moves and speculating on roster construction is a favorite past time of all rebuilding team’s fanbases. Typically looking ahead is always better than looking back. Prospects and payroll, the story of baseball’s winter. Before discussing which players and positions are targets for 2022, we must evaluate which current pieces have a future with the team.
The corner infield seems set for the time being. Switch-hitting third basemen Jeimer Candelario had a sneaky great year. The 27-year-old hit .271/.351/.443, with a 3.7 WAR and 119 wRC+. After such a strong season, Candelario will enjoy a nice salary bump in his second year of arbitration, but an extension could be in the works as well.
A glance at his Baseball Savant page will show plenty of red, as his ability to hit to all fields combined with an on-base percentage over .350 will play well in the bottom-third of any order. Miguel Cabrera and Jonathan Schoop at first/DH works for now. Detroit likes Schoop enough to extend him during the season while Miggy will play out that big contract and retire.
Middle infield was a revolving door of underwhelming players for the Tigers. Both Castros, Niko Goodrum, Isaac Paredes, and Zack Short could all be upgraded. Harold Castro might stick due to his versatility. Willi Castro wasn’t able to get close to his 2020 form and is looking more and more like a fringe player.
Adding a difference-maker at shortstop could change the trajectory of this team. The dream scenario is Houston Astros shortstop, Carlos Correa.
At 27 years old, Correa would be in his prime during the contending window, while adding much-needed thump to the middle of the lineup. Correa has been spectacular with the glove this season and even in a down-year he’s drastically better than the Tigers current options. He won’t come cheap, but the time is now to make a statement and go big while other impact players will still be in their arbitration years. The shortstop’s connection with Tigers manager A.J. Hinch is impossible to ignore as well.
Spencer Torkelson, Detroit’s 22-year-old top selection and our No. 7 prospect in baseball mashed his way to Triple-A this year. Who knows if the Tigers will play the service time game, but it’s almost guaranteed he will make it to the show in 2022.
In the minors, Tork split time at first and third base. Calling him up to play first would give the Tigers the option to move Schoop to second (1 OAA in 2021 at 2B) to keep his bat in the lineup, a move that likely bumps an average player off second and to the bench.
Without making any external moves, Torkelson is going to bring another impact bat to improve the middle of the order next season. Adding Correa as well would give the Tigers a potent run-producing punch that could anchor a great lineup for years to come.
Daz Cemeron (76 wRC+), Derek Hill (92 wRC+), and Victor Reyes (76 wRC+) were all given an opportunity to showcase their talents in 2021, but none cemented a place in the starting lineup next season.
Hill showed enough with his speed and defensive to still be interesting moving forward, but an upgrade from the others wouldn’t be surprising. Robbie Grossman was brought in as a veteran who could bridge the gap to other prospects, but turned out to be much more than that. A career-high in home runs and stolen bases lead to a 20/20 season, where Grossman put up a 114 wRC+.
While it might be tough to duplicate that production, Grossman provides top-notch leadership and can hit just about anywhere in the order with his ability get on base. Oh yeah, like many other Tigers, he’s also a switch-hitter.
Rule 5 pick Akil Baddoo was a major surprise and instant fan-favorite. Homers in your first at-bat and your helmet flying off stretching singles into doubles plays well with fans; Baddoo was the most clutch hitter in the Tigers lineup as well, hitting .359 in 100 chances with runners in scoring position.
The 23-year-old’s combination of power and speed is intriguing. While Baddoo’s rookie year consisted of slumps and hot streaks, he proved he belonged. If he can improve vs. LHP, the Tigers might have found their leadoff hitter for years to come.
Another top prospect, Riely Greene, is someone to get excited about. Just Baseball’s Aram Leighton sees similarities to Michael Brantley and slots him at number five on the top 100. Like Tork, Greene starting the season in Detroit is no guarantee, but he will likely end the year there. Green could man center, allowing Baddoo to stay in left and Grossman in right, if no other moves are made.
Could the Tigers strike gold twice?
Making a similar move to the Grossman signing could pay off. Adding a veteran on a one-year deal would provide insurance if Greene isn’t ready while also adding quality depth to the outfield. Preferably a righty bat who could platoon with Baddoo if Eric Haase isn’t seen in that role. With the likes of Reyes, Cameron, and Hill, it’s not at the top of the priority list but could be a low-risk high-reward move.
When you think about it, the Tigers were able to get production out of the most random group of catchers this season. Grayson Greiner, Dustin Garneau, Jake Rogers, and Eric Haase are not household names, yet they combined to make it work in 2021.
Haase, the 28-year-old Detroit native, came out of nowhere to put together a nice rookie season. His defense is nothing to write home about, but his 22 home runs shouldn’t go unnoticed. He has some pop, but really lacks a true position and projects to more of a bench bat. I’m not sure what to make of his role in 2022. Rogers is a fine player, and hasn’t had enough at-bats to really say what he is, but his ceiling is still a question.
The Tigers brought in Wilson Ramos to begin 2021 (you forgot about that too?) and I could see a path where a similar move is made. Plenty of veteran catchers will be available and going for an experienced guy to help develop this young pitching staff would make a lot of sense and would be worth sacrificing offense. The development of the young guns is exponentially more important than getting offense from the catcher position at this stage.
Dillion Dingler, the Tigers 23-year-old No. 4 overall prospect, isn’t as far along as Green and Tork. While there is a lot to like with his athleticism and skill-set, his 2021 season showed he needs more time in the upper levels of the minors, making the decision to bring in a veteran on a shorter deal even more attractive.
Headlined by young and exciting arms such as Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning, the Tigers rotation has a bright future. Mize showed flashes of why he was a top draft pick and his pitching should continue to improve as his innings are limited less and less.
Skubal was inconsistent, but made big strides in 2021; at 24 years old, there’s still time for him to develop his secondary pitches and command. Reports on Manning were not glowing before he was called up. Thrown into the fire, Manning has been forced to learn and develop at the big league level. With pitching coach Chris Fetter, I don’t think that will be a problem.
Mathew Boyd has been a solid piece of the Tigers rotation for years. While not spectacular, he did have maybe his best season this year in an injury-shortened campaign. Not projected to break the bank, bringing him back seems likely. Two other lefties should be mentioned in Joey Wentz and Tyler Alexander.
Alexander has pitched well for Detroit but the question is will he be a starter of a bullpen arm. Personally, I like the idea of him in the pen where he can eat up some innings and add a lefty option for tough matchups. Wentz is a name to keep an eye on to see if Detroit thinks he can factor into their future. Spencer Turnbull provided a memorable moment with his no-hitter, but an injury ended his season early. Turnbull was putting together a career year, but the injury makes his role in 2022 foggy.
Veterans Wily Peralta and Jose Urena were brought in to eat some innings. Urena was mostly disappointing while Peralta saw a career resurgence. Brining back Peralta is not out of the question, his numbers look a lot better than his baseball savant page would suggest. A different veteran could be in play.
Let’s go ahead and get this out of the way. While I think the idea of bringing back Justin Verlander is fun and cool, I do not think it is smart. A Detroit legend and future Hall of Famer, I wouldn’t want to count on a 39-year-old coming off a major injury. However, if the Tigers make other “win-now” moves, a curtain call for Verlander could be more justifiable.
(Waiting for you to quit yelling at me)
The top free agent pitchers could be in play if a top shortstop is not added, but I do not see it as likely. If they add to the rotation via free agency, a less expensive veteran would make more sense, financially. Depending on what the Giants do, Alex Wood, Kevin Gausman, or Anthony DeSclafani would be an upgrade to the rotation although Gausman will likely price himself out of Detroit. Of course, a trade could always take place. Getting a bona fide ace is going to be expensive either financially or in prospect capital. We will have to wait and see if the Tigers are willing to do that at this stage in their team’s life cycle.
Michael Fullmer looked great in his first year out of the bullpen. Estimated around $5 million, I could see the Tigers going either way here, but I would like to see him back. Kyle Funkhouser showed some promise and has likely earned a role in 2022. Gregory Soto is far from a perfect pitcher, but he has nasty stuff when he can control it. I like what I saw from Alex Lange and there’s a good chance he can make improvements this offseason. Jose Cisnero put together a good season and was even great at times.
The question becomes where does Joe Jimenez and Bryan Garcia fit in 2022 and beyond. Jimenez has not been good enough to rely on. I’m not questioning his stuff, but the results speak for themselves. I think it is time to find a different option. Garcia flashed promise in 2020, but was miserable this year. You need to ask yourself how much longer you want to play the “roll them out there and see if they are good” game.
Building a good bullpen is extremely hard. Look around the league, relievers are inconsistent and the consistent ones are extremely expensive. Veteran bullpen arms will get spring training invites and maybe one will stick. Maybe this is where a trade is made with the Reyes, Willi Castro, Paredes’ of the world. It’s not crazy to think a team further away from contention would take a lottery ticket on a young player who hasn’t’ panned out.
The Tigers won’t win the World Series in 2022, but they will take big steps forward. They have a hell of a manger, a great pitching coach paired with young talented arms, and enough interesting bats to maybe surprise some people. You could call it year one in the right direction. Hell, maybe 2021 was year one.
It won’t happen overnight, but for the first time in a few years, this franchise is on the right track to bringing winning baseball back to Detroit.