Options for improving the Tigers offense are few and far between

Bless You Boys

We’re not going to take a lot of time breaking down what’s gone wrong with the Tigers offense so far this season. They were supposed to be mediocre, not terrible, and mediocre remains the ceiling even if the lineup normalizes toward career numbers. Potential moves available are liable to be of the band-aid over open wound variety. If the current lineup can’t get it together to a substantial degree, this could be the worst season of Al Avila’s tenure as GM despite finally assembling what appears so far to be a competent starting rotation.

Still, it’s worth acknowledging that it’s almost impossible to be THIS bad. The hope this year, was that with the addition of corner outfielders Robbie Grossman and Nomar Mazara, as well as catcher Wilson Ramos and veteran second baseman Jonathan Schoop, the Tigers would shore up their biggest areas of weakness. In the process, simply by improving production at multiple positions to even near average levels, the 2021 offense would be substantially better than the last few editions.

And as it happens, Grossman and Ramos have been reasonably productive, especially considering how little help they’re getting from their teammates. Mazara looked like he could contribute semi-regularly before going down with an abdominal strain. The problem is that Schoop and several of their other regulars are hitting like they have no business left to conduct in the major leagues. The Miguel Cabrera situation just is what it is, so forget about him, and take a look at these four names in particular.

Tigers 2021 v. Career

JaCoby Jones 2021 41.5 3.6 0.200 -1 0.161 0.074
JaCoby Jones Career 32.3 6.0 0.294 72 0.275 0.162
Willi Castro 2021 29.3 5.1 0.266 43 0.232 0.085
Willi Castro Career 28.9 5.2 0.359 92 0.308 0.139
Victor Reyes 2021 32.7 1.9 0.152 -8 0.135 0.098
Victor Reyes Career 22.2 3.7 0.327 73 0.289 0.104
Jonathan Schoop 2021 30.4 4.3 0.259 41 0.228 0.081
Jonathan Schoop Career 23.1 3.9 0.296 96 0.295 0.189

For the uninitiated, wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) is a metric that takes all of a hitters production into account and controls for park factors to a degree. 100 is always league average production.

Obviously, some of this just has to resolve itself. Certainly a player with a short track record of roughly 350 plate appearances, like Willi Castro, is harder to bank on. His 2020 season was highly driven by good batted ball luck, and we expected a substantial falloff in his production, but his minor league track record and power numbers at the major league level say he’s nowhere near this bad. It’s just quite uncertain where the actual talent level will ultimately stabilize.

JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes are not everyday major league hitters, but both have long track records as poor major league hitters. They’re on the roster for their ability to play centerfield. Still, they have been atrocious to an almost unfathomable degree. There’s just no way it can continue to go this wrong for both of them.

The hitter with the longest, most successful track record who is struggling—other than Miguel Cabrera himself—is Jonathan Schoop. The veteran infielder got a late start this spring getting into camp, which might account for some of his rough start. He’s going to get it going, but as a guy who has rarely shown much plate discipline in his career, and has made up for it by hitting for solid power numbers, it’s not inconceivable that he’s slipping a bit at age 29.

All this is to say, some of these guys just cannot be this bad. Jones and Reyes don’t even have 60 plate appearances each yet, meaning that by full season standards, they’ve each struggled horribly for about 15 games. Still, the offense isn’t going to be any better than mediocre even when things start to normalize, so let’s consider what few options the Tigers have to try and avoid putting a historically bad offense on the field all season long.

Be forewarned that these options aren’t particularly appealing either.

Isaac Paredes

Paredes, the Tigers sixth ranked prospect entering the season, is probably the best hope for some offensive boost. Paredes struggled in his first look at the bigs, and continues to show an unnerving lack of home run power, but he does get on base and rarely strikes out. He deserves some time at the Triple-A level—which he skipped in 2020—to get things going, but he’s going to be back with the Tigers this season, guaranteed. The trick is figuring out how to fit him into the lineup.

First, he needs to actually get some live action in games, and that’s going to take a few weeks as the Toledo Mud Hens’ season gets underway on Tuesday. Second, calling him up probably means that Willi Castro has to be optioned to Toledo or moved to the outfield. That may be necessary, as Castro has really struggled in the early going, but he’s already succeeded at that level and probably has little left to learn from Triple-A pitching. The organizational focus has to be on developing the limited amount of young positional talent they have. Messing with Castro too much for whatever minor benefit in another lost season just wouldn’t make a lot of sense. Should they decide to give him a breather in Toledo at some point, perhaps there they could explore some outfield work without as much pressure.

The Tigers have mentioned the possibility before, and as Castro’s infield defense has already gotten him bumped out of the shortstop position, perhaps it’s time to try something else to keep his bat in the lineup. Defensively, Castro’s best attribute appears to be his speed, which is wasted in the infield, and who knows? Perhaps he’d be better off following the path of JaCoby Jones, who was a decent infielder but found his true calling running down balls in centerfield.

Daz Cameron

Should the Tigers centerfielders continue to perform poorly at the plate, it may also simply be time to move on from JaCoby Jones in general. Victor Reyes is at least young enough to contemplate improvement and perhaps would be better off playing everyday in Toledo and trying to make some major changes to unlock more power. Without it, his major league career is going to be a short one anyway. Instead, the Tigers could turn things over to their highest ranked centerfield prospect. No, we’re not referring to Riley Greene…

Cameron has had a rough go the past few seasons. After a strong showing at the Double-A level in 2018, he blew a tire at Triple-A in 2019. Still he hit 13 home runs and stole 17 bags in 120 games, while playing good defense. In 2020, Cameron was hospitalized with COVID, missed the preseason summer camp in July, and then only got a brief look at the major league level.

This winter, he played in the Dominican Republic and suffered a minor arm injury that made for a late start to spring camp. Now healthy, he’ll need time at Toledo to try and get up to speed, but he’s certainly a possibility if things don’t improve quickly for Jones and Reyes. The swing and miss probably limits Cameron to a backup role long-term, but he certainly couldn’t hit any worse, while his defense is on par with anyone in the organization not named Derek Hill.

Derek Hill

We’ll add Hill as a possibility here as well, though hopes for his bat have dwindled. The former first round pick in 2014 saw his development derailed by multiple serious injuries early in his pro career, and has never really found his footing. Still, all this time later and he’s only 25 years of age. His 2019 Triple-A campaign showed some small signs of improvement, as he posted a 109 wRC+ with 14 home runs and 21 stolen bases in 120 games. If the Tigers called him up, it would mainly be for his outstanding defensive abilities, but Hill retains the ability to be a disruptive force on the basepaths and could give A.J. Hinch another minor weapon to deploy.

Jake Rogers/Eric Haase

The Tigers coaching staff appears to like Grayson Greiner’s defense decently well enough to stick with him, but a 45 wRC+ thus far—and a career mark of just 50—says his position is by no means secure. Of course the problem is that the Tigers don’t really have a whole lot to replace him with. Jake Rogers should be Greiner’s match defensively, but has shown himself incredibly vulnerable to major league pitching in his brief look at the bigs in 2019. The Tigers didn’t even try him in 2020, but perhaps a new coaching staff will see things differently. We’re willing to guess that he’s at least as capable as Greiner offensively, slim comfort thought that is.

As for Haase, it doesn’t feel like his defensive skills are near enough to get much time as a backup. He carries 70 grade power, so despite plenty of swing and miss in his game as well, he’s at least capable of running into one more often than Greiner is. It just doesn’t seem as though he has enough trust from the coaching staff to get any time behind the dish at the major league level.

Yeah, it’s pretty bleak folks

We wish we had better news overall. We might see Riley Greene blow the doors off the upper minors and reach Detroit by year’s end, but not near early enough to help change the course of the season. Of course, that would also be more important than how the season plays out anyway.

Right now, there’s nothing to be done but to wait for Mazara’s rehab stint to end, and for the Triple-A season to play out for a few weeks. Someone like Kody Clemens or Zack Short could provide some more disciplined part-time at-bats in the infield, but neither is likely to be any kind of difference maker offensively. The Tigers have already optioned Renato Nuñez to Toledo twice, despite a reasonably successful showing in his brief look with the club. They apparently consider him unusable at first base, and there’s little room for a DH with Cabrera and Schoop sharing time there.

Our advice for now? Don’t burn yourselves out watching this team on a day-to-day basis if it brings you only pain and frustration. Some of these early season performances are bound to turn around, but one way or another, ownership and the front office have not provided fans with much to cheer for, and it would take something completely unexpected to fix that in 2021.

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