Simply put: The Tigers are on the rise. They are going to be a popular pick to jump into the field of contenders in 2022 – and for good reason. Though a 77-85 record might not look like a team on the rise, they started the year with an 8-19 month of April and looked downright respectable the rest of the way. Following that disastrous first month, they went 69-66, finishing with their best record since 2016.
Arbitration-Eligible Players (projections from MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
The Tigers were one of the game’s most active teams in free agency prior to the lockout. With very little long-term money on the books, and a totally clean ledger after 2023, the Tigers had the leeway and the inclination to add premier talent this winter. Though many expected the Tigers to make a play to reunite Carlos Correa and his former manager A.J. Hinch, the Tigers chose to spread their money around instead.
Javier Baez isn’t the talent that Correa is, but he’s still a monster upgrade over Niko Goodrum, who was designated for assignment and released to free agency. Baez will stabilize the infield defense and provide a fairly significant safety blanket for Detroit’s young starting staff. He’s a mixed bag at the plate, but he’s coming off a 116 wRC+ season, and if nothing else, he’s an entertainment machine. Even his glove is a little more erratic than his supporters would like to admit, but the Bengals can content themselves with knowing they had more or less a clean slate financially and a massive hole to fill at short.
Shortstop was their biggest hole to fill coming into the offseason, but GM Al Avila made positive headway in filling out the rest of the roster as well. Tucker Barnhart was losing his starting job in Cincinnati, but that’s largely because of Tyler Stephenson’s offensive upside. Barnhart will set up camp near the bottom of the batting order, and he’s likely to stay there, but that’s not why the Tigers took on the $7.5MM he’ll be owed in 2022. Detroit’s young starting staff could use a veteran hand to guide their pitch selection and game management, and Barnhart’s reputation suggests he’s exactly the guy to do it.
Baez and Barnhart together ought to help create an ecosystem more conducive to run prevention, thereby either increasing the likelihood for success or hurrying the development for Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. That was likely Detroit’s number one goal this offseason.
Eduardo Rodriguez is another piece of that new-and-improved ecosystem. He steps in for Matthew Boyd and ought to provide consistency to their young rotation. E-Rod’s 4.74 ERA last season is a tad misleading as a .363 BABIP helped bloat the bottom-line run prevention numbers. ERA indicators were more complimentary: 3.32 FIP, 3.65 SIERA were both career-best numbers.
Beyond veteran savvy and life experience, Rodriguez gives the Tigers an innings-eater like their rotation hasn’t had in recent years. His 157 2/3 innings would have led the Tigers, who only had Mize and Skubal finish anywhere near the 150-inning mark. Boyd was solid in his 15 starts, posting 1.4 fWAR and a 3.89 ERA/4.10 FIP, but the Tigers likely figure that E-Rod gives them a better chance of hitting those marks over a full slate. Besides, winning breeds winners, and bringing in someone like Rodriguez can help transform the clubhouse culture into one that expects W’s.
Rodriguez helps, but if the Tigers are truly going to make the leap, it will likely be because Mike, Skubal, and Manning continue their development. Mize made 30 starts but racked up just 1.3 fWAR, in part because he didn’t show much of a propensity for missing bats. Skubal boasted swing-and-miss stuff, but the southpaw was prone to giving up long balls. If Mize, Manning, and Skubal grow up this season, the Tigers will feel pretty good about their run prevention potential. In a nutshell, that’s the biggest what-if of the Tigers’ 2022 season.
The Rodriguez addition was all the more important because Spencer Turnbull remains out after undergoing Tommy John surgery. Turnbull appeared to be on the verge of a breakout, but now they’re in wait-and-see mode. The same for Barnhart and Jake Rogers behind the plate.
Tyler Alexander lines up as the fifth starter for now, but the Tigers are likely to explore more starting options when the lockout ends. Rodriguez will more than likely end up as their big-ticket signing on the pitching side, but there are still plenty of veteran rotation arms that can raise the floor of Detroit’s unit.
The bullpen is another area where the Tigers will explore additions after the lockout. Michael Fulmer emerged as a weapon, saving 14 games and tossing 69 2/3 innings over 52 appearances (four starts). It’s a reinvention for Fulmer, but one that can greatly help the team. Beyond the saves, he also earned nine holds and proved himself an invaluable multi-inning firearm for manager A.J. Hinch.
Gregory Soto took on the more traditional closer’s role, but Hinch is not afraid to use the power lefty whenever he needs him most. Soto saved 18 games over 62 appearances with a 3.39 ERA/4.14 FIP. Hinch has also relied on Jose Cisnero out of the pen. The 32-year-old made 67 appearances and posted a 3.65 ERA/4.13 FIP over 61 2/3 innings.
Fulmer, Soto, and Cisnero give Avila a solid starting place when it comes to building out his bullpen, but they could use some more firepower. There are other arms in-house but expect the Tigers to put some work in here when the lockout ends. Bullpen arms might be more amenable to joining Detroit after the work that’s been put into the roster already.
Offensively, exciting times are ahead. The Detroit faithful have enjoyed the benchmark stage of Miguel Cabrera’s Hall of Fame career, even if the 38-year-old no longer slugs with the authority of his youth. He crossed the 500 home run threshold in 2021, and he’ll get to the 3,000 hit mark early in 2020.
Cabrera might be the best hitter of his generation, and in some ways, it’s been a blessing that the Tigers have been able to line up their rebuilding years with Cabrera’s decline, thereby allowing the organization the difficult decision of when to take Cabrera out of the lineup. Cabrera played in 130 games last year and 57 out of the 60 from 2020’s shortened season. I’d be surprised if he hits 130 games again in 2022, however, as the Tigers will likely start to be a little more judicious with his playing time as they make an earnest effort for contention.
It will be a handing-off-of-the-baton type of season for Cabrera and the Tigers, who together are likely to welcome the top two prospects in Detroit’s system up to the Majors in 2022. Spencer Torkelson is the most obvious side-by-side with Cabrera, as the former number one overall pick is a bat-first corner infield prospect who has a decent chance to end up as a designated hitter eventually. For now, he’ll play first base and only occasionally snipe DH at-bats from Cabrera.
Jeimer Candelario is the third piece of the corner infield puzzle, and he fits nicely between Cabrera and Torkelson as an in-his-prime switch-hitter who only recently locked in his spot on the roster. He’s long been the Tigers third baseman, but for years it seems the former Cubs farmhand was just a placeholder.
Then 2020 happend. Candelario blasted off to the tune of a 138 wRC+ in the shortened season, and while he didn’t continue at that rate last season, he remained solidly above average, posting 3.2 fWAR and a 118 wRC+. He’s still subpar as a defensive third baseman, but now he’ll have Baez flanking him at short, which should help. Candelario and Baez actually began their professional careers together in rookie ball with the Cubs, though Baez rose quickly trough the system, while Candelario was eventually shipped to Detroit with Isaac Paredes for Alex Avila and Justin Wilson.
Candelario’s long-term future is unclear, but he’s under team control for 2022 and 2023, so it seems likely he’ll stay at the hot corner for now. If Detroit falls out of the race, the Tigers could explore using Candelario as a trade piece. For now, however, his well-rounded bat is a nice cog in Detroit’s lineup. He may not excel in any one area, but he has average power (.172 ISO), a decent eye (10.4 percent walk rate), and the ability to put the ball in play (21.6 percent strikeout rate) together make up an above-average hitter.
Jonathan Schoop fits a similar mold, but with a more eager approach at the plate. Schoop doesn’t jump off the page, but he’s a legitimate plus against lefties and can hold his own otherwise. Schoop may lose some playing time as Torkelson arrives, but like Candelario, he’s a cog in a rapidly improving machine.
Robbie Grossman: same same. Grossman does everything relatively well, but an elite approach at the plate can make him even more valuable. Grossman keeps the line moving, puts up professional at-bats, and he takes his walks (14.6 percent walk rate).
All in all, the Tigers boast a working-class group of veteran bats that should prop up the baseline and give Torkelson and other young players a little bit of extra runway to find their stride.
The key player may be Riley Greene. If he can stick it in center, that will fill another huge hole in Detroit’s lineup. It’s not easy to find a centerfielder these days, making his development all the more key. Of course, Akil Baddoo may have beat him to the punch. Hinch protected the Rule 5 pick with match-ups in 2021, and it more-or-less worked (108 wRC+). Baddoo’s torching hot start did eventually cool off, but he still finished the year looking promising enough for the Tigers to give him more run in 2022.
Where they might yet add to the offense is with another corner outfielder. Baddoo can play some center along with Victor Reyes, and there are still bats out there that could fit in the middle of Detroit’s lineup. Neither Baddoo nor Reyes needs to be guaranteed a starting spot. Given the contract that they reportedly offered to Carlos Correa, the Tigers still likely have some financial flexibility, should they choose to flex it.
The Tigers have patiently waited out their rebuild, but we know from their history that when the time comes, they are willing to spend. That doesn’t mean that they’re ready to spend it all this offseason, however, so their work could mostly be done. They’ve already made significant additions to the team. They aren’t done, but it’s certainly possible that any bullpen arms, starters, or extra bats they sign will slot in below the players already added, both in a financial and potential impact sense.
Then again, the Tigers have been aggressive. When the crossbar raises and GMs are set loose to sign free agents again, don’t be shocked to see Detroit hit the ground running. Big names have and are coming through the minor league system, but it’s not the deepest farm in the league, so if Detroit wants to make sure they meet expectations and become the cinderella darling of 2022, we might see more free agents changing their address to Motor City.