Detroit Tigers first-half grades: One ‘F’ and one ‘A’ among the mess

Detroit Free Press

For the Detroit Tigers, the 2022 season has been a nightmare.

The Tigers entered the All-Star break with eight losses in nine games and a 37-55 record.

Due to injuries and an anemic offense, the Tigers are 18 games under .500, 12 games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins in the American League Central and 12½ games out of an AL wild-card spot with 70 games remaining this season.

Manager A.J. Hinch aimed to build off a 77-85 record in 2021 — which included a 67-61 finish after a disastrous 9-24 start — but his team has plummeted in a year the organization bellowed its postseason aspirations during spring training. The Tigers — entering Thursday’s doubleheader with the Oakland Athletics — have a 0.0% chance to make the playoffs, according to FanGraphs.

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Here’s the Tigers’ first-half report card, including their statistical rankings (in parentheses) among all 30 MLB teams:

Offense: F

Stats: .229 AVG (27), .286 OBP (29), .333 SLG (29), .619 OPS (29), 6.7 BB% (29), 23.5 K% (22), 53 HR (30), 288 R (30), 25 SB (29), 77 wRC+ (29), -0.9 WAR (30).

Top three players: CF Riley Greene, DH Miguel Cabrera, UTIL Harold Castro.

The buzz: The Tigers and Athletics are neck and neck for the worst offense in baseball this season, but since the Tigers average an MLB-worst 3.13 runs per game, we’ll put them in the cellar despite their slim (.019) margin in OPS.

The problem begins with shortstop Javier Báez, who signed a six-year, $140 million contract in December. He has produced 0.6 WAR, second-best among Tigers position players, but he isn’t carrying the offense as expected. The 29-year-old is batting .213 with a team-high nine home runs and a career-high 45.5% chase rate. Don’t forget, the Tigers signed Báez — instead of Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien or Trevor Story — to be an All-Star-caliber player in all facets.

Among 157 qualified batters, four Tigers have miserable wRC+ results (in which 100 is merely league-average): outfielder Robbie Grossman (75 wRC+, ranking 146th), Báez (74 wRC+, 147th), rookie first baseman Spencer Torkelson (68 wRC+, 152nd) and second baseman Jonathan Schoop (56 wRC+, 157th).

Cabrera, a singles hitter without power, has a 90 wRC+ and ranks 128th. The likely future Hall of Famer is making a team-high $32 million in 2022.

On Sunday, the Tigers demoted Torkelson, the 2020 No. 1 overall pick, to Triple-A Toledo. He had a .147 batting average against pitches over the heart of the plate and four home runs in 83 games. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario could be next to go, whenever infield prospect Ryan Kreidler gets healthy from his groin strain. The Tigers benched Candelario, who has a 63 wRC+ but doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting race, for the final series leading into the All-Star break.

That’s not to mention the struggles of catcher Tucker Barnhart. The Tigers traded for him in November because of his defense, but his offense — .207 without a home run — has negated whatever positives he brings with his glove. Even at last year’s All-Star break, Barnhart had a .272 average with four homers for the Cincinnati Reds. Barnhart has lost playing time recently, as backup catcher Eric Haase is catching fire at the plate.

The list of underachievers goes on and on.

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There’s also outfielder Austin Meadows, who has played in just 14 of the team’s 68 games since May 6, and none since June 15, due to a combination of issues: a sinus infection, an inner-ear infection, vertigo, COVID-19, Achilles tendon strains in both legs and general soreness. The Tigers, after watching Meadows slug 27 home runs last season (and 33 in his 2019 All-Star campaign), traded for him in April, sending away the No. 71 overall draft pick (used to select Illinois State outfielder Ryan Cermak) and infielder Isaac Paredes to the Tampa Bay Rays. Meadows is still without a homer for the Tigers through 36 games this season. Don’t expect to see the 27-year-old return until August.

Greene, the team’s leadoff hitter, is the only bright spot. The 21-year-old made his MLB debut June 18, once he recovered from a broken foot suffered in spring training, and is batting .252 with two homers, 15 walks and 31 strikeouts in 27 games. The Tigers drafted him No. 5 overall out of high school in 2019.

Rotation: C

Stats: 18 wins (27), 4.09 ERA (27), 4.58 FIP (27), 18.0 K% (27), 7.4 BB% (13), .260 AVG (25), 69 HR allowed (25), 3.6 WAR (26).

Top three players: LHP Tarik Skubal, RHP Beau Brieske, LHP Eduardo Rodriguez.

The buzz: Skubal has produced a rotation-leading 2.5 WAR this season, followed by Rodriguez at 0.5 WAR. One problem: Rodriguez, who signed a five-year, $77 million contract in November, isn’t answering his phone. He has been unpaid and on the restricted list since June 13, due to a marital issue, and won’t communicate with the organization. There’s no timetable for his return. Rodriguez last pitched for the organization June 9 in a rehab start for Toledo; he hasn’t pitched in the majors since May 18. This has turned into an ugly situation. Maybe we won’t see Rodriguez again until 2023.

That’s one of many issues.

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The Tigers have used 14 starters — already tied for eighth-most in franchise history — due to several injuries, including ailments for 2018 No. 1 overall pick Casey Mize (two starts) and 2016 No. 9 overall pick Matt Manning (two starts). Mize is out after Tommy John surgery for the remainder of the season (and possibly all of 2023), but Manning is expected to return from his shoulder injury at some point in August.

After Skubal’s 18 starts, the Tigers have been anchored by the 15 starts from Brieske, a 27th-round pick in 2019, 12 from Alex Faedo and nine from Michael Pineda. Faedo, though, is set to see a specialist for lingering soreness in his hip, and Brieske will have second-half restrictions on his innings.

To fully understand the extent of the injury problem: Journeyman Drew Hutchison, who entered this season with a career 4.97 ERA, has started five games, including three in July leading up to the All-Star break. Picking up the pieces and surviving the first half was admirable, but the Tigers’ rotation is in serious trouble.

Skubal is the team’s only starter with enough innings to qualify for the ERA title and the only member of the Opening Day rotation without an injury. He has a 4.11 ERA with 102 strikeouts and 25 walks across 100⅔ innings. After posting a 2.33 ERA through his first 11 starts, the 25-year-old has a 7.46 ERA in his past seven.

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Bullpen: A-minus

Stats: 23 saves (13), 3.08 ERA (3), 22.9 K% (17), 9.3 BB% (19), .217 AVG (6), 21 HR allowed (3), 4.2 WAR (4).

Top three players: RHP Alex Lange, RHP Michael Fulmer, LHP Gregory Soto.

The buzz: The Tigers had five relievers worthy of the AL All-Star roster: Lange (0.7 WAR), Fulmer (0.6), Soto (0.5), left-hander Andrew Chafin (0.7) and right-hander Joe Jiménez (0.7).

Soto received the invitation for the second straight year, but the fact that the Tigers had several candidates is a testament to their late-inning success. Chafin paces the five relievers with a 2.22 ERA, followed by Lange at 2.29, Fulmer at 2.38, Soto at 2.59 and Jiménez at 3.38.

The Tigers have a 22-4 record this season when leading in the sixth inning. They’re 24-3 when ahead in the seventh. Also, Detroit is 10-3 when the game is tied in the fifth inning, and with the starters averaging 4.86 innings per game (MLB average: 5.17), that’s typically when the relievers take the mound.

Soon, though, the core of the Tigers’ bullpen could look different, as the Aug. 2 trade deadline approaches.

The Tigers’ reality is, they can’t trade their offensive players with short-term or expiring contracts (Grossman, Barnhart, Candelario, Schoop) because of poor performance. That means any trades involving the Tigers will come from the bullpen, which happens to be the department teams en route to the postseason tend to covet the most at the deadline.

Fulmer is nearly guaranteed to be traded by Aug. 2, since his contract expires after this season. He is a two-month rental, so the Tigers won’t get franchise-changing offensive players in return. For a bigger haul, the Tigers would need to part ways with Chafin (who has a player option for 2023), Jiménez (a free agent after 2023) and Soto (a free agent after 2025).

The Tigers want established MLB position players in return for their controllable relievers, but competitive teams trying to win the World Series won’t part with big-league assets at the trade deadline. If anything, the Tigers could net some prospects on the brink of their debuts. The trades the Tigers need to pull off — MLB players for MLB players — typically happen in the offseason.

Defense: B-minus

Stats: Plus-8 Defensive Runs Saved (16), plus-8 Outs Above Average (7), 46 errors (10), .986 fielding percentage (11), 183 double plays (11).

Top three players: 2B Schoop, 1B Torkelson, SS Báez.

The buzz: Before harping on Báez’s defense, remember that Tigers shortstops were worth a combined minus-15 DRS last season. This season, Báez is worth minus-3 DRS at shortstop and has committed a team-high 11 errors. That’s not Gold Glove-caliber, but he is still a massive upgrade from years past despite too many lazy throws in the dirt.

Schoop is the best defender on the team, worth plus-5 DRS and plus-20 OAA. His OAA ranks at the top of the big leagues, giving him a shot at the first Gold Glove of his 10-year career.

The combination of Báez and Schoop — and Torkelson’s stellar picks on balls in the dirt at first base — has created a strong infield defense, though Candelario isn’t sharp at third base. Double plays are being executed at a higher rate than last year, which was one of the goals entering 2022.

Coaching: C

Everyone is responsible, right? We’ve heard that statement from Hinch and general manager Al Avila. The coaching staff — including Hinch — needs to be held accountable for the losses.

(A quick reminder, though: Reporters aren’t allowed to talk to any coaches, per Hinch’s policy.)

Pointing the finger at hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh and assistant hitting coach Mike Hessman is easy to do, simply because the offense is historically bad. The Tigers could shake up the coaching staff in the offseason, but Hinch has been adamant he won’t make a change during the season, at least not yet. Hinch said he doesn’t think the “24-hour news cycle” of firing a coach will deliver a solution.

Pitching coach Chris Fetter has been brilliant amid the rotation’s health setbacks. It’s time to tip the cap to assistant pitching coach Juan Nieves for his work with the bullpen, as well. He doesn’t get enough credit and is often overshadowed by Fetter’s success, but Nieves’ group is the best part about the 2022 Tigers.

Overall, though, this is a bad baseball product.

Contact Evan Petzold at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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