Tigers closer to contention than you think

Detroit Tigers

Miguel Cabrera hit his 500th career homer on Aug. 22, and he’s closing in on his 3,000th career hit. From a national perspective, so much of this Tigers’ season has focused on Miggy’s chase of history.

But the Tigers’ future is also worthy of your attention.

No, Detroit is not vying for postseason contention as we enter September. But the Tigers have been among the best of the rebuilding ballclubs in 2021. And they just might be one of the most interesting teams of the upcoming offseason, too.

Here are five reasons why the Tigers are closer to contention than you think.

1) They’re learning how to win.
The beginning of the Tigers’ season went exactly as anticipated. It snowed in Motown on Opening Day, and that is precisely what should happen when you play baseball 2,925 miles north of the equator on April 1. Detroit went 8-19 in that first month. The Tigers were the only team in baseball to have both a staff ERA north of five and an average output of fewer than three runs per game in April.

Look what has quietly happened since, however. The Tigers went 14-13 in May, 14-13 in June, 14-12 in July, and they are 11-10 in August after winning on a walk-off homer on Friday.

That puts the Tigers in position to be one of only a few teams to post a winning record in all four of those months. As of this writing, the others in such a position were all teams still in contention for a playoff spot — the Dodgers, Giants, White Sox and Blue Jays.

2) They are built around quality young pitching.
This could hinder, or it could help. Development at the big league level takes time, after all.

But right-hander Casey Mize (119 ERA+, or 19% better than league average) and left-hander Tarik Skubal (105) have been in the big leagues for a year and begun to hold their own with more consistency. Given what we have seen so far and the adjustments they’ve made along the way, it is not difficult to imagine either of those two important pieces of the Tigers’ rotation having a 2022 breakout.

Right-hander Matt Manning is the third member of the Tigers’ highly touted triumvirate of young starters, and much like Mize and Skubal in the shortened 2020 season, he’s taken his lumps this year, with a 5.91 ERA in 11 starts. But Manning has been working on delivery adjustments that unleash the full potency of his velocity, and you don’t have to squint too hard to see him taking a step toward respectability — again, a la Mize and Skubal this year — in 2022.

A backbone of young, controllable pitching would give the Tigers the flexibility to use their free-agent dollars on other roster concerns.

Both players were expected to play out the remainder of the season at Double-A Erie, but they went on such a midseason tear at the plate that the Tigers adjusted their plans and brought them to Toledo, a tantalizing 58 miles from Comerica Park. You likely won’t see them in the big leagues this year, but you can basically bank on it next year.

That’s two huge potential sources of upside to a lineup that has uncovered a couple hidden gems this season in Rule 5 outfielder Akil Baddoo (118 OPS+) and catcher Eric Haase (120) while getting continued positive production from underrated third baseman Jeimer Candelario (119) and extending (rather than trading) solid veteran second baseman Jonathan Schoop (116).

In other words, it’s starting to look like something.

4) They could be ready to spend.
The Tigers spent under the beloved Mike Ilitch in his later years, chasing that elusive World Series ring with big extensions for cornerstones Cabrera and Justin Verlander and big free-agent deals for Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez and others. They exceeded the luxury tax threshold as recently as the 2017 season, but in the wake of Ilitch’s passing that year, they have scaled back significantly over the past four years.

Per Cot’s Contracts, the Tigers had an $80.8 million payroll on Opening Day this year, roughly a 25% drop from the projected payroll had the 2020 season been played in full. Depending on how the Tigers handle their arbitration cases, the projected payroll for ’22 currently figures to be similar to or slightly above the ’21 number.

While the $32 million owed to Cabrera in both 2022 and ’23 remains a complicating factor, the Tigers’ improved competitive state and stark slash in spending in recent years point to this being a time to consider upping the payroll. There are conflicting reports on when the club’s local TV contract with Bally Sports Detroit expires (some say this year, others say in another year or two, and the two sides have been tight-lipped) but a new deal could be a revenue boost. The Tigers might be in good position to pounce on a deep free-agent class at shortstop; Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Báez are all slated to be available.

5) They’ve got a good manager.
Yes, we all know what happened in Houston. And in A.J. Hinch’s case, we know what didn’t happen — i.e., he didn’t do nearly enough to prevent his players from illegally stealing signs.

But none of what happened (or didn’t happen) changed the bottom line that Hinch has the evaluative, tactical and communicative skill sets desired in the modern manager. As evidenced by the winning ways going back to the beginning of May and the steps forward taken by the pitching staff and offense, the coaching staff Hinch has assembled — including hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh, pitching coach Chris Fetter and bench coach George Lombard — is making an impact. And Hinch is respected enough in the industry that if or when the Tigers are ready to pursue significant upgrades on the free-agent market, he can be an important piece of the pitch. (Hey, how about a Correa-Hinch reunion in Detroit?)

Hinch served his time for the Astros’ scandal, and now he’s gotten right back to doing what he did upon arrival in Houston — helping an unproven club take the next step. He has told his players, “We’re trying to earn our fans’ respect back.”

In 2021, the Tigers have begun to do just that. And that makes them an intriguing team for ’22.

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