That the Detroit Tigers got to 77 wins in 2021, especially considering they had NINE through the first fifth of the season, was surprising, if not shocking.
They did so despite having several glaring holes — first base, second base, shortstop, center field — for the entire season, plus a rotation with just two pitchers who lasted from Opening Day to and the season finale (and both of those were rookies).
Equally surprising: They weren’t far off what their runs scored and allowed suggest they should have been. Yes, they were outscored by 59 runs on the season, but the “Pythagorean” math puts them at a “true” 75-win squad. Compare that to the Seattle Mariners; they won 90 games to miss the playoffs by one game, but they were outscored by 51 runs, suggesting a “true” win total of 76.
To the Tigers’ credit, the surprising arrival at respectability (if not actual success) signaled a time to be active in player acquisition, with a trade and two major free agent signings in the first three weeks of the offseason, and in prospect promotion, with Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson all but assured starting jobs by May. All told, the Tigers could have new starters at six positions on Opening Day 2022.
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Of course, new faces are one thing. But will they bring wins and push the Tigers closer to their first postseason berth since 2014? To that end, we broke down each position —looking at the Wins Above Replacement the Tigers produced in 2021 versus what they’re likely to produce in 2022 — to see if the Tigers added enough wins to threaten for a playoff spot.
(You could chalk up the Tigers’ two “extra” wins to luck, though the Tigers were only 23-23 in one-run games, or to the effect of manager AJ Hinch’s “winning culture” — call it “The Hinch Effect.” But for our purposes, we’ll ignore them and start our eventual summary at 75 wins. Feeling optimistic? Feel free to add a couple wins to our eventual total, if it makes you feel better.)
All stats via baseball-reference, except where noted.
C: Tucker Barnhart/Eric Haase
In 2021: Tigers catchers, long a bane of the offense, produced 2.5 WAR, good for ninth in the majors. Eric Haase got the headlines for his early power production, but Jake Rogers, Wilson Ramos and, yes, even Dustin Garneau hit well for short periods, accounting for roughly 1.3 WAR.
In 2022: Of course, those latter three are gone. (Garneau, non-tendered Tuesday, could return on a minor-league deal.) But Barnhart, acquired from the Reds in an early November trade, should replace most of their production (albeit mostly on defense, the two-time Gold Glover had just a .685 OPS in 2021).
Plus or minus: There’s potential for improvement here, if Haase hits like he did in June and July rather than August and September, when injuries and extended playing time were clearly taking a toll. But, with Barnhart likely to get most of the playing time, we’ll say his defense will make up for his lesser offense, and the Tigers stay even at 2.5 WAR.
1B: Spencer Torkelson
In 2021: Pressed into duty at first for the first time in his career, Jonathan Schoop had a .757 OPS in about 65% of the Tigers; plate appearances, with Miguel Cabrera providing another 26% with an .844 OPS. Still, those numbers lagged well beyond most of baseball, at No. 22 for just 1.1 WAR.
In 2022: Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick in 2020, is expected to take over at first a few weeks into the season — if not by Opening Day — after a pro debut in which he had 29 doubles, 30 homers and 77 walks while rocketing from High-A to Triple-A over 121 games. (Schoop will hold his place till then.) Fangraphs is high on Torkelson already, projecting a .259/341/.506 slash line and 2.5 WAR (using its own, slightly stingier WAR formula) over 130 big-league games.
Plus or minus: It’s still a big jump from Triple-A to the majors, but that would give the Tigers nearly an extra 1.5 WAR. (And that’s without projecting a Rookie of the Year-type performance; 2021’s AL winner, Randy Arozarena, produced 4.1 WAR.)
2B: Jonathan Schoop
In 2021: The headliner here was Willi Castro, putting up a .621 OPS in 48.5% of the Tigers’ second basemen plate appearances, while Schoop (25%, .776) and Harold Castro (15.5%, .899) kept the position from total disaster. (That would be the Orioles, who produced minus-2 WAR at second, last in the majors. The Tigers were next-to-last at minus-0.2.)
In 2022: Once Torkelson is in the majors, Schoop will slide over to second, likely giving the Tigers a boost at both spots. Schoop turned 30 in mid-October, but he should still be able to put up at least a .750 OPS and a league-average 2.3 WAR in five months at second, a solid improvement for the Tigers at the position.
Plus or minus: Assuming at least a replacement-level performance from Harold Castro or Isaac Paredes if they’re covering second while Schoop covers first for Torkelson — roughly what Castro did in 2021 — the Tigers net an improvement of 2.5 WAR over 2021.
3B: Jeimer Candelario
In 2021: The Tigers produced 3.5 WAR at the hot corner — seventh in MLB — almost all of which belonged to Candelario, who had 87.5% of the plate appearances with a .796 OPS fueled by 41 doubles.
In 2022: It’s all Candelario again, minus a few days off here and here, and at 28, he should put up mostly the same numbers. He tied for the major-league lead in doubles; maybe some of those turn into homers and his production ticks up. But he seems like a safe bet for at least 3.5 WAR again.
Plus or minus: The Tigers stay steady here with no gain … but no loss either.
SS: Javy Baez
In 2021: Four Tigers spent at least 20, but none more than 65, games here last season; none of them hit. The best performance (ignoring Paredes’ four-game stint) was Niko Goodrum’s .652 OPS. and that came with eight errors. (Not coincidentally, Goodrum is no longer a Tiger.) Together, Tigers shortstops combined for minus-0.5 WAR, 29th overall (ahead of only the Los Angeles Angels, at minus-1).
In 2022: Welcome to Detroit, Mr. Baez, where it’s nearly impossible to perform worse than your positional predecessors. Most projections are pessimistic, based on his high strikeout rate (33.6%) — and his low, low, low, low … where were we? Oh, yeah, his low walk rate (5.1%) — have Baez producing 3 WAR (about league average), which as we’ve noted, would be a massive improvement for the Tigers.
Plus or minus: Worst case, we’ll go with the Tigers gaining 3.5 WAR. (Though if he replicates his post-deadline work with the Mets, that could zoom to a 5-WAR boost.)
LF: Akil Baddoo
In 2021: A surprising strength for the Tigers, with their 2.5 WAR ranking eighth in the majors. Robbie Grossman proved equally capable here and in right field (but we’ll get to him in a bit). Baddoo, meanwhile, was more proficient while playing center, with a .691 OPS while in left and an .868 OPS in center, and a total of 2.1 WAR at all positions.
In 2022: But we’re still sliding Baddoo into left, with Riley Greene (who has played three times as many games in center than right and left combined in the minors) due soon. Baddoo is still 23 with one year of ball above High-A, pitting his projections evenly between the pessimistic (a step back to 1.5 WAR) and the optimistic (closer to 3 WAR).
Plus or minus: We’ll split the difference and figure Baddoo for 2.3 WAR … and build in some playing time for Haase in left again, where he posted a 1.074 OPS in 81 plate appearances. Add it together and the Tigers get to 2.5 WAR, or even with 2021.
CF: Riley Greene
In 2021: Yet another position where the Tigers were well below average — gee, it’s like this team had trouble scoring or something — with 0.3 WAR (27th overall), 2.1 WAR below the MLB average. Baddoo was solid in center but he received only 39% of the place appearances. The rest went to Daz Cameron, Derek Hill, JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes, a foursome feared by few.
In 2022: It’s Greene’s job to lose after posting a .921 OPS (with excellent defense by most accounts) in Double- and Triple-A over 124 games last season. Fangraphs projects a .769 OPS, 52 points higher than Tigers center fielders combined for in 2021.
Plus or minus: Greene producing at least 1 WAR (0.7 more than 2021) seems like a safe bet, or at least as safe as betting on a 21-year-old’s WAR can be. Just six 21-year-old outfielders have received at least 300 plate appearances in the past decade: Mike Trout (8.9 WAR in 2013), Bryce Harper (1 in 2014), Nomar Mazara (0.3 in 2016), Cody Bellinger (3.9 in 2017), Ronald Acuna Jr. (5.1 in 2019) and Jarred Kelenic (minus-1.8 in 2021). Rare air, indeed.
RF: Robbie Grossman
In 2021: The Tigers improved here from 2020, posting 1.1 WAR last season, but that was still more than a full run below the MLB average. The Tigers’ main production came from 293 plate appearances from Grossman, who had a .790 OPS during his time in right, and 141 from Victor Reyes, with a .715 OPS as an RF. Nomar Mazara had 152 PAs; the less said about those, the better.
In 2022: Figure more of the same, but without Mazara dragging things down. Grossman had a career year, but he may not have much improvement left. Reyes turned 27; if he has a peak to hit, this may be the year.
Plus or minus: Losing Mazara is addition by subtraction, especially if Reyes continues his hot August and September (.891 OPA in 40 games). Let’s say the Tigers add 0.5 WAR here.
DH: Miguel Cabrera
In 2021: No American League team got less from the DH position than the Tigers, whose 0.1 WAR was a full two wins below the AL average (and better than only three NL teams). Cabrera accounted for just over half of that, with 341 of the Tigers’ 642 plate appearances from the spot.
In 2022: Expect more of the same — Cabrera turns 39 in April, which doesn’t bode well for his already painful numbers while DHing; He slashed .233/.279/.339 in that role, compared to .293/.379/.465 while playing first base.
Plus or minus: We’ll pencil Cabrera and his fill-ins for about the same, though maybe Haase gets some extra DH days — and improves upon his nightmarish .259 OPS in that spot last season.
Rotation: Casey Mize, Eduardo Rodriguez, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, TBD
In 2021: The rotation was a strength for the Tigers, producing 10.5 WAR despite just two pitchers — Mize and Skubal — topping 20 starts. Matthew Boyd, Wily Peralta and Jose Urena filled another 51 starts while producing 2.8 WAR, and Manning (18 starts) and Spencer Turnbull (10) essentially combined to fill a rotation spot with 28 starts and 0.9 WAR.
In 2022: Rodriguez should bring 3-4 WAR in 30 or so starts, covering for and improving upon the departing Boyd, Peralta and Urena. The key will be the improvements of Manning, Mize and Skubal, who delivered minus-0.4, 3.2 and 1.7, respectively. Progress for them as expected would add 5-6 WAR.
Plus or minus: That’s an optimistic outlook, though, and the Tigers really need to add another veteran starter. Let’s pencil in an overall boost of about 4.5 WAR (and note that extra innings from the youngsters can only boost the bullpen.)
Bullpen: LHP Tyler Alexander, RHP Jose Cisnero, RHP Jason Foley, RHP Michael Fulmer, RHP Kyle Funkhouser, RHP Joe Jimenez RHP Alex Lange amd LHP Gregory Soto (CL)
In 2021: Tigers relievers were 20th in the majors in WAR (3.4) — though that’s with a lot of sub-par outings from the likes of Bryan Garcia, Daniel Norris and Buck Farmer, who each made at least 30 appearances and combined for minus-1.8 WAR.
In 2022: Meanwhile, Cisnero, Fulmer, Foley, Funkhouse, Lange and Soto combined for 5.2 WAR. Alexander compiled 2 WAR, though that was helped by an above-average run of 15 starts. Obviously, these seven won’t handle all the relief innings, but if they can handle the bulk — especially if Foley and Lange can build upon strong rookie campaigns — the Tigers’ bullpen could at least be league average.
Plus or minus: Relief pitching is ever difficult to predict, but getting to league average would add about 1 WAR.
Add it up
Breaking the Tigers’ WAR down by positions, they were average or above-average at only four spots:starting pitching, catcher, third base, and left field. So it’s little surprise that almost every offseason move so far (including projected promotions of Greene and Torkelson) resulted in an improvement; when everything is burning, where you point the firehose isn’t as important.
And so, our estimate, which admittedly has every starter matching or bettering their 2021 numbers, has the Tigers improving by at least 1 WAR at five positions, and 0-1 WAR at two others, for a addition of 14.2 WAR. Add that to their “true” 2021 win total of 85, and we get about 89 wins.
That’s less than the Mariners had in 2021, and they were sitting at home when the postseason began Oct. 5. But it’s more than the Atlanta Braves had; they won 88 games in the regular season, then 11 more in the playoffs to take their first World Series title since 1995. (Their “true” win total, after outscoring their foes by 134 runs, was 94, but you get where we’re going with this.)
It’s not enough to print playoff tickets yet, but — if “The Hinch Effect” is real, or if the Tigers make some savvy acquisitions in February or July, or if the playoff field is expanded to 14 as owners reportedly want to do for 2022 — it’s close enough to squint and say, “Maybe?”