No, really: The Detroit Tigers can exceed expectations, if these 10 things happen

Detroit Free Press

You could come from the future — in a DeLorean, Michael J. Fox style — and tell me: “Midway through the 2023 season, nothing has changed. The Tigers suck. It’s not even the trade deadline and they are out of it. There have been more injuries than I can count, several players didn’t bounce back like expected, the youngsters regressed and everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”

And I would believe it. Because I’m old enough to remember 2022.

Or you could come back from the future and tell me: “Midway through the 2023 season, this team is showing all kinds of progress. The youngsters are contributing in the most surprising ways, the bats have perked up, the vibe is amazing, A.J. Hinch is pushing all the right buttons, everybody is healthy, several prospects look like legit MLB players, and this is the team everybody was expecting in 2022 before it was derailed by injuries. Boy, this trade deadline is gonna be tricky. Because this team is suddenly interesting.”

And yes, I would believe that, too, even though I might be in the minority.

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Many are predicting the Tigers will win about 68 wins.

Maybe 70.

But I have a growing suspicion this team could be better than most are predicting right now.

“Could be” being the operative phrase.

Now, I’m not saying World Series or anything crazy.

But this team could be better than most expect, play competitive baseball, climb towards respectability and make things interesting. But that possibility hinges on these 10 things:

1. Spencer Torkelson must start to realize his potential

Torkelson had a rocky 2022. He struggled in Detroit, returned to Toledo and then climbed back to Detroit. But he has looked significantly better this spring, starting with his first round of batting practice. Even when he has made outs during games, he has hit the ball hard. It’s encouraging, to say the least.

He looks confident and in control. He looks like he belongs.

An improved Torkelson would be a huge boost to this offense.

Chances: Really good. All signs point to this happening.

2. Austin Meadows must return to form.

Meadows had all kinds of struggles last year, both physically and emotionally, and all well-documented. The Tigers got virtually nothing out of right field in 2022 — Victor Reyes appeared in 62 games and Willi Castro in 39 as the main contributors to a .591 OPS at the position. And they got only a little more out of left field — a struggling Akil Baddoo appeared 47 times while Tigers LFs produced a .645 OPS.

So whether Meadows plays right or left, he could be a huge boost. He has the potential to hit 25 home runs and drive in 90 runs. If the Tigers get that guy, the one they traded for, it would give this offense a huge jolt.

Chances: High if he stays healthy and plays more than 130 games.

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3. They must get more production out of centerfield

Last year, the Tigers got a gut punch when prospect Riley Greene fouled a ball of his foot at the end of spring training, suffering a broken bone. After he finally debuted in June, he hit .253 with five homers and 42 RBIs — a solid start.

But Greene has the potential to be a star. Maybe it won’t happen this year — that would be a lot to ask of somebody who doesn’t even have a full year of service time yet. But I firmly believe it will happen. He just has so much talent.

Just like Torkelson, Greene looks so comfortable on this team. He looks like he belongs. And if the Tigers get more out of him, closer to his potential, it will be another boost.

Chances: High.

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4. The Tigers’ rotation must stay healthy

Last year, it seemed as if every pitcher went down with an injury. Then their replacements got hurt. And then their replacements.

In all, 17 different pitchers started games, which was ridiculous and a franchise record.

Eleven of them made at least seven starts, which was crazy.

Even though Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal are out, Spencer Turnbull is back — and here’s a bold prediction: Turnbull is going to have a fantastic season (if he stays healthy).

One benefit of all of those injuries in 2022? The Tigers have several young pitchers who have gotten a taste of the big leagues.

So while this rotation won’t match the days of Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, it does have the potential for some stability.

If everyone stays healthy.

Chances: Possible but not probable. To me, this is the biggest question. So many pitchers are coming back from injuries that it seems unlikely to keep them all healthy.

5. Javier Báez has to be more consistent

In 2022, Báez hit .238 with 17 homers and just 26 walks, while leading the team with 147 strikeouts.

As far as batting average, it was the third-worst season of his nine-year career. So it’s safe to assume he can hit for a better average. But he has had four seasons with more strikeouts. So don’t expect him to change that much. He is who he is. He’s gonna swing out of his shoes and miss a lot. Oh, and make some errors that drive you crazy.

In an ideal world, the Tigers will get a more consistent Báez. He hit .159 in May in 2022 but finished strong, hitting .268 in the second half of the season.

Chances: Just tell Baez it’s June, and things should be all right.

6. The Tigers have to get more offense out of their catchers

Well, that’s not gonna be hard.

Last year, Tucker Barnhart appeared in 92 games and hit .222 with one homer and 16 RBIs. He struck out 74 times in 279 at-bats while walking just 25 times.

Ugh.

But now Jake Rogers is healthy and has been hitting bombs in spring training. More importantly, he is a tremendous leader and clubhouse guy.

Between Rogers and Eric Haase — who could make more than the 75 appearances he had behind the plate last season, or even move to the outfield just to get his bat in the lineup — the Tigers should get more production out of their catchers. They could hardly do worse.

Chances: Extremely high.

7. They have to get a boost out of some prospects

OK. I’m calling my shot here: Somebody will come up and make your jaw drop.

Personally, I think it will be either Parker Meadows or Andre Lipcius. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if both of them came up and produced, looking like they belong.

It might even be right-hander Wilmer Flores.

Chances: This will happen. I’m certain of it. These players have serious talent. They just need a shot.

8. They need Jonathan Schoop to bounce back

Schoop actually has a track record of putting up good numbers after a bad season.

Schoop hit .202 with 11 homers in 2022. But it wasn’t his worst year. He actually hit .202 with four homers in 2018. OK, now here comes the good news: He bounced back by hitting .256 with 23 homers in 2019.

He followed the same pattern early in his career, too. After hitting .209 in 2014, he hit .279 with 15 homers in 2015.

So if Schoop can hit again, just like getting some production from Meadows, it would be huge.

Chances: Considering he has done it before, it seems likely.

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9. They have to get production of the Philadelphia trade

In early January, the Tigers got Matt Vierling, Nick Maton and Donny Sands from the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for relieverGregory Soto and infielder Kody Clemens.

In an ideal world, Maton will settle in at third base and Vierling will man one of the outfield spots, and we spend all summer watching them bark and run bases, showing their athleticism.

But most importantly, in an ideal world, both will hit.

Chances:  I’m hopeful — spring training was encouraging — but just don’t know because there is so little track record. Maton has played 86 MLB games, hitting .254 with seven home runs, while Vierling has 151 games in which he has hit .260 with eight homers. Not much of a track record. But if they do produce, it will be a huge boost.

10. They need to get creative and mix and match and cobble together just enough offense

Like playing Haase in the outfield, or Kerry Carpenter at DH — yes, that means benching Miggy.

Or even moving infielders to the outfield, just to get more bats in the lineup.

Personally, I think this is going to be the story of this season. We might see players in strange positions, just to get the best offense on the field. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tigers turn to Lipcius or Parker Meadows at some point, just hoping for some magic in a bottle.

Chances: Look, it’s possible.

The big picture

Maybe they don’t need all 10 things to happen.

But they certainly need a bunch of them for the franchise to take a step forward and become interesting.

The encouraging part?

Some of it seems likely, and all of it is possible.

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Contact Jeff Seidel at jseidel@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.

To read Seidel’s recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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