The Detroit Tigers were ready to flip the page from 2022 to 2023.
Scott Harris now embarks on his first season — and first full year — as the Tigers’ president of baseball operations. He joined the organization Sept. 19 and took control of day-to-day operations Oct. 6. So far, his key moves include trading reliever Joe Jiménez to the Atlanta Braves, trading reliever Gregory Soto to the Philadelphia Phillies and signing free-agent pitchers Matthew Boyd and Michael Lorenzen.
There’s more work to do behind the scenes, and then there’s the on-field product.
Here are 10 important questions for the Tigers in 2023:
Can A.J. Hinch recapture magic touch?
The Tigers weren’t short on hitting talent entering last season: Javier Báez (former two-time All-Star), Spencer Torkelson (2020 No. 1 overall pick), Riley Greene (2019 No. 5 overall pick), Austin Meadows (former All-Star, 27 home runs in 2021), Jonathan Schoop (former All-Star, 22 homers in 2021), Robbie Grossman (23 home runs, .357 OBP in 2021), Jeimer Candelario (42 doubles, .351 OBP in 2021), Tucker Barnhart (former two-time Gold Glove winner) and Miguel Cabrera (future Hall of Famer).
Almost all of those players experienced injury or underperformance in 2022. Báez, Schoop, Grossman, Candelario and Barnhart regressed; Greene and Meadows suffered injuries; and Torkelson never looked comfortable as a rookie, while Cabrera remained a below-average designated hitter. For some reason, manager A.J. Hinch and his coaching staff failed to get the most out of them.
The Tigers, after a 77-85 record in Hinch’s first season, finished 66-96 overall with MLB’s worst offense in his second campaign. It was a significant step back despite a boost in talent. Entering 2023, Hinch has assembled a revamped hitting department, replacing the combination of Scott Coolbaugh and Mike Hessman with the trio of Michael Brdar, Keith Beauregard and James Rowson.
Hopefully, Hinch’s mantra — “win today’s game” — works this year.
How does Riley Greene perform in full, healthy season?
Don’t forget Greene hit .429 with two home runs, three walks and six strikeouts in 11 games last spring training before a foul ball broke his foot. Cabrera, one of the best hitters in baseball history, called him the best hitter in the organization. But Greene — the 2019 No. 5 overall pick — didn’t make his MLB debut until June 18 because of the injury. He played 93 games and hit .253 with five homers, 36 walks and 120 strikeouts.
So, what can we expect from Greene in a complete season? He polished his big-league routine, tweaked his approach and bounced back from his first slump last season, three signs that point to better results in Year 2. An All-Star-caliber performance for the 22-year-old everyday center fielder isn’t a far-fetched prediction.
Spencer Torkelson, a cornerstone player?
By the end of 2023, the Tigers should know if Torkelson is the real deal. Right now, it’s not looking great for the slugging first baseman. The 23-year-old hit .203 with eight home runs, 37 walks and 99 strikeouts in 110 games last season. He also played 35 games for Triple-A Toledo — demoted at the All-Star break due to poor performance — and hit .229 with five homers, 23 walks and 41 strikeouts.
Fastballs and middle-of-the-zone pitches were his weaknesses. He hit .216 against middle-middle fastballs and .212 against all middle-middle pitches. Torkelson said in early October he wouldn’t change his swing mechanics this offseason, but those tweaks might be necessary to bounce back from an underwhelming rookie season. And a bounce-back performance from Torkelson is necessary for the Tigers to find success in the future.
Will Jonathan Schoop bounce back, and at what position?
Here’s what we know about Schoop: He plays excellent defense, possesses a powerful swing, and while his walk rate has been abysmal for his entire career, he is a quality big-league player. Over the past six full seasons, Schoop has five seasons with at least 20 home runs and four seasons with at least a .250 batting average. He has averaged 143.5 games per season over that span, so his health isn’t a concern in the final year of his contract.
We also know last season was the worst of his MLB career, hitting .202 with 11 homers, 19 walks and 107 strikeouts in 131 games. And we know his defensive metrics benefited from the shift — a product of playing deep on the outfield grass — and his range is below average. His strong arm helped him in the shift, which is now banned. Two infielders must be on each side of second base, and all four infielders must keep their feet on the infield dirt. Therefore, Schoop probably won’t be as effective as an everyday second baseman, and the Tigers could find more value in employing him as a utility infielder. He can play first, second and third base.
FREE AGENCY: Looking at what’s left for Tigers as market runs dry
Can Javier Báez’s play align with his pay?
After earning $20 million last season, Báez is owed $120 million over the next five seasons. The 30-year-old two-time All-Star hit .238 with 17 home runs, 26 walks and 147 strikeouts in 144 games. Báez’s performance was worth $15.9 million last season, according to Fangraphs’ dollar valuation.
Sticking with Fangraphs, Báez — worth 2.0 fWAR in 2022 — needs to achieve at least 15.5 fWAR over the next five seasons, or 3.1 fWAR per season, to meet the dollar valuation across the length of his contract. (Something to remember: He was worth 2.3 fWAR, 13th among MLB shortstops, in 94 games from June 16 through the end of the season.)
When Báez signed his six-year, $140 million deal with the Tigers, he was worth 21.8 fWAR and valued at $175 million in his career, equaling roughly $8 million per win. For $140 million, that’s an expected 17.5 fWAR across six seasons. He was worth 2.0 fWAR in the first year of his contract, leaving him to cover 15.5 fWAR over the next five seasons.
How does Austin Meadows respond?
Imagine a world in which Meadows stayed healthy. He hit .319 with a .420 OBP in his first 19 games before everything fell apart. The 27-year-old dealt with vertigo symptoms, COVID-19 and bilateral tendinitis in his Achilles. After all that, he stepped away from on-field activities in early September for mental health reasons. He finished with a .250 batting average and zero home runs in 36 games.
That’s a far cry from his 2021 performance, when he hit .234 and blasted 27 homers in 142 games, and his 2019 performance, when he hit .291 and launched 33 homers in 138 games. He played those seasons for the Tampa Bay Rays. If Meadows can do the same in Detroit, the Tigers’ entire offense will greatly benefit from a consistent middle-of-the-lineup power bat.
When will Tigers trade Eduardo Rodriguez?
Left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez signed a five-year, $77 million deal last offseason. He has an opt-out clause in his contract after the 2023 season, making him a potential trade candidate because of the market value for starting pitchers, but his contract also features a 10-team limited no-trade clause. Still, trading Rodriguez seems likely. The Tigers, then, must decide how to optimize Rodriguez’s value. He posted a 4.05 ERA with 34 walks and 72 strikeouts over 91 innings in 17 starts last season, spending 67 days on the restricted list. The absence was mysterious and certainly didn’t help his stock.
If the Tigers decide to trade Rodriguez, would he be more valuable this offseason or at the trade deadline? That’s the big question. Trading him this offseason would give a different team at least a full season of his services, but there’s a risk factor for interested teams because he could opt into the final three years of his contract. Moving him at the trade deadline, though, could bring several contending teams into a bidding war as they look to add a reliable starter for a postseason push, and if Rodriguez is highly coveted at that point in the season, he’s probably going to opt out after the World Series in search of more money as a second-time free agent.
Who takes closer role?
The Tigers need a closer after trading Soto, a two-time All-Star, to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for position players Matt Vierling, Nick Maton and Donny Sands. Soto, in his two seasons as the closer, posted a 3.34 ERA with 48 saves in 52 opportunities for an elite 92.3% save rate, despite a putrid 13.7% walk rate during that span.
Entering spring training, the Tigers — still searching for bullpen pieces on the free-agent market — will have an open competition for the closer role. Right-hander Alex Lange is the best internal candidate, as his curveball and changeup feature elite swing-and-miss rates, but like Soto, he struggles with command and concedes too many walks. Here’s another idea: The Tigers could ditch the closer tag entirely and approach each situation based on matchups.
Which young pitchers emerge?
Young pitchers to watch include Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo, Mason Englert, Reese Olson, Brendan White, Wilmer Flores, Ty Madden and Elvis Alvarado. Five of them are members of the 40-man roster: Wentz, Faedo, Englert, Olson and White. And two of them — Wentz and Faedo — already have MLB experience. (Englert, the Tigers’ Rule 5 draft pick, must stay on the active roster for the entire season or be offered back to the Texas Rangers.)
The most likely pitcher of the group to join the starting rotation is Wentz, a 25-year-old left-hander who posted a 1.73 ERA (albeit with 11 walks compared to 22 strikeouts) in 26 innings for the Tigers last September. He continued his dominance in the Arizona Fall League with 12 scoreless innings in three starts. Englert, simply because of his Rule 5 status, is almost guaranteed to join the Opening Day bullpen. The rest of the group could start in Triple-A Toledo and will be next in line to receive opportunities at the highest level.
Which young position players emerge?
Young position players to watch — not counting Greene and Torkelson — include outfielders Vierling, Kerry Carpenter, Parker Meadows and Diego Rincones, infielders Maton, Ryan Kreidler, Tyler Nevin, Wenceel Perez, Colt Keith and Izaac Pacheco, outfielder/infielder Justyn-Henry Malloy and catchers Sands, Mario Feliciano and Dillon Dingler.
Eight of them are members of the 40-man roster: Vierling, Maton, Carpenter, Kreidler, Nevin, Perez, Lipcius and Meadows. Vierling has 151 games of MLB experience, the most among the group, followed by Maton (86 games), Nevin (64 games), Carpenter (31 games) and Kreidler (26 games). Those five players have the best chance of making the Opening Day roster.
Two of the players, Keith and Pacheco, haven’t reached Double-A Erie yet, but if they perform for the SeaWolves, they will advance quickly. Perez, Lipcius and Meadows were added to the 40-man roster in protection from the Rule 5 draft. All three of them — plus Malloy, Rincones, Sands and Feliciano — should start the season in Triple-A Toledo.
Contact Evan Petzold at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold.