| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Tigers’ AJ Hinch thinks team can win in 2021 with ‘mindset change’
Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch breaks down the team’s offseason entering the 2021 season Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
Despite a poor record, the Detroit Tigers accomplished something big in 2020. General manager Al Avila isn’t ready to spend big on significant upgrades, but he paved the way for future success by hiring new manager AJ Hinch.
There were other positives, too. A trio of top prospects — right-hander Casey Mize, lefty Tarik Skubal and third baseman Isaac Paredes — made their Tiger debuts, and veteran Miguel Cabrera remained healthy.
The Tigers are committed to another year of the rebuild, but it’s time for them to focus on what needs to happen to become playoff contenders in 2022. And coming off a shortened season, 2021 is all about clarity.
With that said, here are 10 predictions for the year.
1. Last place in AL Central
The Tigers have a 198-345 record (.364 winning percentage) over the past four seasons. More of the same will occur in 2021, as the roster should look similar to last season. But 2021 will offer a forecast for future success or failure. Still, expect about only 70 wins if they play 162.
2. Cabrera gets milestones, but at 1B?
Two of the biggest milestones in baseball are on the horizon for Cabrera: 500 home runs and 3,000 hits. Entering his 19th season, the 37-year-old is 134 hits and 13 home runs short of those marks. If he stays healthy, reaching these milestones in 2021 shouldn’t be a problem.
But here’s the real question: Can Cabrera produce for the remainder of his contract, which ends after the 2023 season? He showed a glimpse of his greatness near last season’s end, going 8-for-19 (.421) with four home runs and 12 RBIs in a four-game span. He won’t be an MVP candidate again, but he will show there’s something left in the tank. Another important question: How many games will Hinch allow him to play at first base? A few games per week seems fitting. Last year, Cabrera explained how the designated hitter role negatively impacts him in the batter’s box. Maybe it’s wise to give the franchise player what he wants.
3. Mize, Skubal (and others) will thank Fetter
The Tigers believe they struck gold with Mize and Skubal, the team’s No. 2 and No. 5 prospects, respectively, according to MLB Pipeline. Mize had a 6.99 ERA in 28⅓ innings; Skubal registered a 5.63 ERA in 32 innings. Enter new pitching coach Chris Fetter, and these two prospects will grow in their sophomore seasons. Although, neither will throw full seasons because of inning limits.
WHAT WE LEARNED: Tigers general manager Al Avila gives free agency, roster update
Right-hander Spencer Turnbull is on track to become the squad’s ace, and lefty Matthew Boyd needs a revival. With Fetter’s guidance and focus on analytics, Turnbull should accomplish his goals; Boyd will be better but not great. Michael Fulmer, who returned from Tommy John surgery with limits, saw his velocity drop in 2020, so it’s unlikely he gets back to his 2016 Rookie of the Year status. But Fetter may have a new trick up his sleeve.
4. Tigers draft college player in first round
Considering the recent elbow injuries to Fulmer (Tommy John surgery in March 2019), Joey Wentz (Tommy John in March 2020) and Alex Faedo (Tommy John in December 2020), the Tigers could take another young starting pitcher when pick No. 3 overall in July. Also, Franklin Perez might be headed for a bullpen role after numerous injuries derailed his development.
Selecting a college player in the first round makes sense. If the Tigers want a pitcher, here are some options: Kumar Rocker (Vanderbilt), Jaden Hill (LSU), Jack Leiter (Vanderbilt), Ty Madden (Texas) and Jordan Wicks (Kansas State). If they decide to take a hitter, keep an eye on shortstop Matt McLain (UCLA), catcher Adrian Del Castillo (Miami) and outfielder Jud Fabian (Florida).
5. Rogers gets a chance
Jake Rogers didn’t perform to expectations in the 2019 season. Once dubbed as the team’s catcher of the future, he deserves a second chance, and it should come this year. Even Avila admits he brought him to the majors prematurely. The Tigers would finally learn if he is a formidable member of the rebuild, but that won’t happen by keeping him in the minors.
Unless Avila signs another catcher, their other options are Grayson Greiner and Dustin Garneau (minor-league contract). Yet it won’t be long until Dillon Dingler, the Tigers’ second-round pick in 2020 from Ohio State, is knocking on the door.
6. Future infield becomes clear
The Tigers have enough internal infield pieces for the future, headlined by Paredes, Willi Castro, Jeimer Candelario, Sergio Alcantara and Spencer Torkelson. Where these players fit remains a mystery. The biggest question is third base — Candelario, Paredes and Torkelson can’t all play there at once. And is Castro — with minus-7 defensive runs saved at shortstop last season — really the endgame at that position?
It would help if, by 2022, Paredes can play second base or shortstop, with Torkelson and Candelario filling out the corner positions. If Paredes moves to second base, Castro could stay at shortstop, but there’s a strong free-agent shortstop class next winter (Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager, to name a few), so the Tigers might find themselves in that market. (By the way, there’s no way Castro maintains a .349 batting average this season.)
7. Paredes trends up; Candelario down
Paredes, 21, put together a 10-game hitting streak during his debut season in 2020. Despite his .220 batting average in 34 games, he showed signs worthy of a long-term investment. He won the batting title in the Mexican Pacific Winter League this offseason by hitting .379 with four homers, 26 RBIs, 27 walks and 12 strikeouts. He might start the season in Triple-A Toledo, but a well-rounded second year in the majors won’t shock many.
Meanwhile, Candelario’s breakthrough 2020 season was a prolonged hot streak. The 27-year-old hit .297 with seven home runs and 29 RBIs in 52 games, but take a closer look. He was 0-for-17 in five games from July 24-30 before going 54-for-145 (.372) across 40 games from Aug. 2 through Sept. 16. And Candelario finished the season 1-for-23 (.043) in seven games from Sept. 17-24. A strong 40-game stretch looks sexy in a shortened season, but amid 162 games, it could mean nothing. Because of Candelario’s past inconsistencies, it’s still too early to count on him.
8. One small, one big trade deadline move
The only two players set to hit free agency after this season are right-hander Jose Urena, who recently signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract, and lefty reliever Daniel Norris. Following the 2022 season, others will hit the open market: Boyd, Fulmer and right-handed reliever Buck Farmer.
Shipping Norris for a couple of prospects should be the top priority. He can handle a long-relief role but is versatile enough to start and close games. Last season’s stats — a 2.77 ERA in 26 innings out of the bullpen — back that up.
The second task, however, could include a larger trade package. The Tigers know their window for boosting this rebuild is closing, and if they find a significant gap in the lineup (say, corner outfield), dumping prospects for a long-term upgrade shouldn’t be out of the picture.
9. MLB debuts: Manning? Yes. Greene? Maybe. Torkelson? No.
The next wave of prospects is coming, including right-hander Matt Manning, outfielder Riley Greene and Torkelson. Manning turns 23 this month and will make the majors at some point this year. As for Greene and Torkelson, assume both will start in the minors. Within a month or two, they should be in Double-A together.
Torkelson, 21, had what would have been his first professional season taken from him by the COVID-19 pandemic, so while Greene and Torkelson possess advanced bats, it might take the latter longer to adjust. Greene, 20, is more likely to reach the majors this season. Both should make the Opening Day roster in 2022.
10. Grossman equals consistency.
The Tigers haven’t made a multi-year signing since the 2015-16 offseason, but that changed Tuesday when Avila signed outfielder Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract. This deal means more for 2022, but this season serves as Grossman’s chance to solidify himself in the lineup. He isn’t going to provide a ton of power or have a multitude of three-hit performances, but he will be consistent. Each game, the Tigers will know they have a patient and reliable bat. The 31-year-old emphasizes getting on base, which is exactly what the ballclub needs.