Projecting the 2023 Detroit Tigers after the Gregory Soto trade

Bless You Boys

The 2022-2023 offseason isn’t over yet, but at this point it’s hard to believe the Detroit Tigers will make any more notable moves. There are still players available who could help this team, and it may be that new President Scott Harris simply doesn’t want to make any promises after a lukewarm response to his first offseason from the fanbase. No matter what they might do to tweak the position player options or the bullpen, at this point we’re not expecting anything too impactful. So let’s take a step back and look at the big picture one more time.

Based on community feedback this offseason, the fanbase isn’t thrilled about the prospect of more years of developmental major league baseball. Personally I have to agree. Nuance often gets lost in the mix, but I probably fall somewhere in between. On the one hand, we’re optimistic about Harris. The trades he’s made, as well as the front office and coaching hires he’s made since taking over, have only amplified that feeling. While there hasn’t been anything too exciting, the trades have been sensible, and the new hires have fulfilled our longstanding desire to poach well regarded scouts, coaches, and analysts from more successful organizations.

However, the roster itself is still pretty flawed and the Tigers passed on a ton of opportunities to make it significantly better this offseason. Without any seriously impactful players added, particularly to the offense, this still looks like a light-hitting team without much in the way of frontline starting pitching or dominant relievers. We’ll see if ZIPS disagrees when those projections are released, but per Steamer the Tigers appear to be headed for a 73-74 win season. That would be an improvement over 2022, but the team basically has the same projected win total as they did last season as a starting point.

Sure there’s enough potential that a season scraping the .500 level is at least within the realm of possibility, but it’s just as likely that another bad season on the injury front could see them struggling to avoid 100 losses. The range of possible outcomes feels extremely wide this season with big question marks all over the roster. For the moment, let’s run through the Steamer projections for the likely final roster with a few depth pieces thrown in to be thorough.

Position players

Designated Hitter

Miguel Cabrera: 329 PA, 90 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR

Catchers

Donny Sands: 215 PA, 100 wRC+, 1.2 fWAR

Eric Haase: 288 PA, 99 wRC+, 0.7 fWAR

Jake Rogers: 141, 92 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR

Infielders

Spencer Torkelson: 509 PA, 113 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR

Jonathan Schoop: 574 PA, 94 wRC+, 1.4 fWAR

Javier Báez: 627 PA, 98 wRC+, 2.1 fWAR

Nick Maton: 426 PA, 95 wRC+, 1.5 fWAR

Ryan Kreidler: 185 PA, 90 wRC+, 0.6 fWAR

Tyler Nevin: 176 PA, 102 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR

Outfielders

Austin Meadows: 568 PA, 117 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR

Riley Greene: 568 PA, 117 wRC+, 1.8 fWAR

Kerry Carpenter: 394 PA, 117 wRC+, 1.3 fWAR

Matt Vierling: 246 PA, 107 wRC+, 1.0 fWAR

Akil Baddoo: 379 PA, 100 wRC+, 1.1 fWAR

Projection systems are generally skeptical about both playing time and performance, so feel free to argue any individual players’ case, but this does give us an objective starting point to work from. Based on Steamer, the Tigers can expect 16.1 fWAR from their basic position player group if they can play their flawed hand reasonably well.

Maybe the biggest surprise is that Donny Sands, the 26-year-old right-handed hitting catcher recently acquired in the Gregory Soto deal, is easily the Tigers’ most valuable catcher according to Steamer. Some of that is based on the fact that Jake Rogers missed the last year and a half for UCL reconstruction in his throwing arm, and projections will have to treat him very conservatively. But the fact remains that Sands is a fairly sound defensive catcher who can get on base and mash a bit. Of course, adding Sands to the group above gives them one extra player beyond the 13 roster spots, so Hinch will have to ride the hot hands well to get the best out of this roster.

Perhaps things go well with prospects like Justyn-Henry Malloy, Parker Meadows, or Dillon Dingler, who will all be seasoning at Triple-A Toledo this spring. If one of them is rolling they may move to the front of the line for a call-up this summer. More likely though, modest help is going to come from depth Harris has added on minor league deals and off the waiver wire. Infielders like Andre Lipcius, Jermaine Palacios, Luiz Garcia, or Andy Ibanez, along with depth catchers like Mario Feliciano, are all assumed to be replacement level performers until proven otherwise. Recently acquired third baseman and utilityman Tyler Nevin, projected for 0.5 fWAR and added to the list as a result, is the best of the bunch. And based on the way Harris operates, this group will be shuffled some more by the time we get to Opening Day.

Obviously things will change a lot over the course of the season. Plate appearance estimates can’t account for how things will play out. Hinch will have to push the right buttons, but in the end what matters this season is the development of their younger hitters. Success or failure this season will have far more to do with the progression of Tigers prospects and the young talent already in the major leagues than with the win-loss total at the end of the year.

Starting rotation

Eduardo Rodriguez: 29 starts, 169 IP, 3.92 ERA, 2.2 fWAR

Spencer Turnbull: 19 starts, 132 IP, 3.90 ERA, 1.7 fWAR

Tarik Skubal: 21 starts, 71 IP, 3.74 ERA, 1.1 fWAR

Matthew Boyd: 26 starts, 153 IP, 4.18 ERA, 1.4 fWAR

Michael Lorenzen: 23 starts, 145 IP, 4.24 ERA, 1.0 fWAR

Matt Manning: 24 starts, 136 IP, 4.56 ERA, 1.1 fWAR

Joey Wentz: 16 starts, 100 IP, 4.52 ERA, 0.2 fWAR

Beau Brieske: 6 starts, 60 IP, 4.45 ERA, 0.1 fWAR

Reese Olson: 3 starts, 46 IP, 3.94 ERA, 0.3 fWAR

Joey Wentz still qualifies as a prospect for a bit longer, but otherwise Reese Olson is the top pitching prospect due to start contributing this season. With 144.1 innings thrown at the Double-A level, he’s on track to start in Toledo and will probably make his debut as needed later in the season. RHP Wilmer Flores is more highly ranked than Olson, and shouldn’t be too far behind him in terms of making the jump to Toledo. Flores’ plus fastball-curveball combination is ready for major league work, but he still has some refinements to his command and potentially his secondary pitches to make before the Tigers will likely be comfortable sending him out for his major league debut. Still, if things go reasonably well he’s likely to be the next man up at some point this summer.

Even so, the Tigers currently have 146 starts projected, leaving 16 outings to be covered by guys like Rule 5 addition Mason Englert, Rony Garcia, Tyler Alexander, Alex Faedo, and Garrett Hill. All of that will be assumed to be replacement level work.

There’s also the looming question of how much Skubal will actually pitch as he returns from surgery on his left arm. He’s currently in Lakeland and throwing on flat ground per his own Instagram, so things are at least progressing well to this point.

That gets the Tigers to 9.1 fWAR, which is not very good for a rotation though they do have significant depth to draw on, which could help moderate the injury bug.

Bullpen

Alex Lange: 65 IP, 3.61 ERA, 0.4 fWAR

José Cisnero: 64 IP, 4.16 ERA, -0.1 fWAR

Jason Foley: 64 IP, 3.93 ERA, 0.1 fWAR

Will Vest: 60 IP, 3.83 ERA, 0.2 fWAR

Rony Garcia: 52 IP, 4.14 ERA, 0.1 fWAR

Brendan White: 48 IP, 3.99 ERA, 0.1 fWAR

Obviously, considering wins above replacement is least useful in the bullpen. The difference in effect on a team’s win totals between low and high leverage work is significant, and can’t really be captured here. A weak bullpen can produce cascading effects whereby a manager can’t line them up as effectively as possible, and this can impact the way the rotation is optimized as well. The club only has five relievers expected to provide any production better than replacement level. They’re stockpiling possibilities on minor league deals, and we have some confidence in Chris Fetter and his staff, but it’s best not to expect much.

Tyler Alexander, Alex Faedo, Garrett Hill may contribute more or less than expected, but all are pegged as replacement level relievers heading into the season. Likewise, minor league signings like Kervin Castro, Trey Wingenter (signed on January 15), Aneurys Zabala, and Edwin Uceta may work out and contribute solid innings, but they aren’t going to be considered anything more than replacement level either right now. Neither will in house options like Elvin Rodriguez and Elvis Alvarado.

Potentially, several of the Tigers young starters will spend time filling out the bullpen as well, and that may prove their saving grace. We’re also expecting more from Lange in particular of the current group. Much of this is going to fall on Fetter and how he and his staff can tune up and deploy their rather modest collection of talent. They did alright in 2022, but the challenge is much greater with so many good relievers lost.

Steamer says 74 wins in 2023

Added up, the Tigers roster projects for 26.5 wins above replacement by FanGraphs’ calculations according to Steamer. Probably ZIPS isn’t going to be much different. That puts the Tigers generally on pace for 74 wins in 2023.

Notwithstanding the possibility that a prospect like Malloy, Meadows, or Olson breaks out and throws these numbers on their heads a little, there isn’t much hope coming from outside the 26-man roster this season. Injuries on a scale they suffered in 2022 could certainly drop this team toward the 100 losses mark. On the other hand, better than forecast seasons from Greene, Torkelson, Meadows, Báez, or Schoop on the positional side, or Manning, Turnbull, Wentz in the rotation, could all boost the Tigers toward the .500 mark.

The 2023 Tigers should be more watchable, with significant amounts of young talent which could improve, but until those young players actually step up, expectations are going to remain low. The plus side, at least compared to 2022, is the greater depth Harris has added to the roster and the upper minors that makes a slide toward 100 losses much less likely.

The real x-factor is whether pitching coaches Chris Fetter and his assistants can tune up the bullpen in the wake of Joe Jiménez, Gregory Soto, Andrew Chafin, and Michael Fulmer’s departures. The difference may only be projected as a win or two in WAR terms, but a bullpen that consistently blows leads is going to cost the club more than a win or two along the way. The Tigers have added quite a few solid minor league relievers with potential, but there are still some good relievers available on the free agent market, and they would be well advised to get themselves a bit more help.

Based on Harris’ performance to date, this roster isn’t close to set in stone, but the remaining moves will come around the periphery. Just in the past few weeks the Tigers have boosted their positional group via the Gregory Soto trade, and added a bunch of relievers on minor league deals. They also continued to add infield depth with the addition of Tyler Nevin. No doubt Harris will continue to scour other teams’ cuts as they sign players, looking for a semi-precious stone to fall through the cracks. Still, despite a few interesting hitters like Brian Anderson or Edwin Rios as potential injury rebound candidates still being available, it doesn’t really look like Harris is planning on signing much beyond pitching depth and shuffling the Toledo Mud Hens’ roster looking for potential contributors.

Best case scenario, the rebuilt coaching staff has more success maximizing the players they already have on hand, the additions do their part, and the Tigers are better. Most importantly, the young players they’ve stockpiled over the past few years have got to start carrying the team forward. If that doesn’t happen, a modest improvement in their record is going to ring very hollow.

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