This is Part 2 of the Free Press’ “Five most important players” series, in which we’ll take a look at the x-factors for the six major beats. Freep Tigers beat writer Evan Petzold consulted on this list.
If the Detroit Tigers continue suffering injuries at the rate they did last week, this list could become outdated very quickly.
In a span of roughly 24 hours at the end of May, the Tigers lost ace starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez, outfielder Matt Vierling and young center fielder Riley Greene to the injured list. By nearly all metrics, Rodriguez and Greene have been the Tigers’ best players in 2023.
Needless to say, it was a long day for the Tigers.
WHEN WILL THEY BE BACK: Doctors explain when Detroit Tigers’ Eduardo Rodriguez, Riley Greene could return from injuries
Remarkably, the Tigers are still only 3½ games out of the division, despite entering Saturday nine games below .500 and losses in nine of their past 10 games. (They can thank the wretched AL Central for that.)
With their depth diminished from injuries, every Tiger has seen their role increase, at least on some level.
For this exercise, we’re looking for the five most important players on the Tigers team this year. But again, a reminder: The most important players aren’t necessarily the best players, so a player left off the list isn’t a snub — there were just five more important players.
(All stats entering Friday’s games, except where noted.)
Honorable mention: Eduardo Rodriguez
If this list had come out two weeks ago, Rodriguez would’ve had a case to be No. 1. Now, after suffering a ruptured pulley in his left index finger, E-Rod could be out between eight to 12 weeks, according to experts who spoke with the Freep.
That timeline is important; if you remember one of the hottest talking points earlier this season, Rodriguez has an opt-out clause in his contract and could become a free agent again this offseason. That potential for departure made him a strong candidate to be dealt at the deadline, but it’s less clear now.
The trade deadline is on Aug. 1 — a little under eight weeks away. Even if Rodriguez returned sooner than the current timeline suggests, he would have, at best, a few starts to show he’s back up to speed. If the Tigers can hang on, E-Rod’s return could help them potentially push for the playoffs. Or he could be traded.
The good news is Rodriguez was cleared to start playing catch again, a sign that his timeline could be accelerated a bit, but not a guarantee by any stretch.
MORE ON E-ROD’S RECOVERY: Detroit Tigers’ Eduardo Rodriguez cleared for catch; Matt Manning ready for rehab start
No matter what, he’s one of the more important players on the roster. There’s just too much unknown to put him in the top five right now.
No. 5: Nick Maton, Donny Sands and Matt Vierling
For the second straight edition, we’re breaking the rules and cramming three players into the No. 5 spot. But hey, they were all part of the same trade. So that’s not entirely cheating, right?
This past offseason, the Tigers shipped proven closer and two-time All-Star Gregory Soto, in addition to utility player Kody Clemens, to the Philidelphia Phillies in exchange for Maton, Sands and Vierling.
Vierling and Maton both primarily served as bench or fill-in players with the Phillies, but the Tigers hoped they could be more. So far, that’s been mostly a bad bet.
Of the three players, Vierling has shown the most. He has a slash line of .241/.297/.352 with four home runs, 36 strikeouts, and 11 walks. His wRC+, a statistic that looks at runs created while adjusting for external factors such as park and league, is 83, which ranks 169th among 195 players with at least 170 at-bats. (A wRC+ of 100 is average.)
Vierling slightly edges out Maton, though, who’s at 72, which is 185th out of 195. (Javier Báez, meanwhile, is 190th in this category, which tells you a lot about the holes in the Tigers offense.)
Using the same standard of 170 plate appearances, Maton’s .166 batting average is the second-worst in the majors. His -0.7 bWAR (wins above replacement) is sixth-worst.
Maton did hit a bomb of a home run on Monday against his former teammate, Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Aaron Nola, to break up a no-hitter.
ANYTHING BUT A BREAKER: Detroit Tigers’ Nick Maton, hitting .163, continues career struggles against non-fastballs
Meanwhile, Sands has a slash line of .239/.323/.343 and just one home run this season with Triple-A Toledo. That doesn’t exactly scream “call-up.”
So why are these players x-factors?
There’s a reason the Tigers traded for these guys and have given Maton and Vierling so much playing time. Maton, despite his year-long slump, has hit some bombs — he was tied for the team lead before Jake Rogers homered on Friday night. Vierling has been a very hot-and-cold player.
If that duo can figure it out, the Tigers could have young solutions in the outfield and infield, as both are 26 (though Vierling turns 7 in mid-September.
Soto was a back-to-back All-Star when the Tigers traded him. They needed a solid return for himn. That now falls on the trio of hitters. The Tigers need them to succeed. To me, that’s the definition of an important player.
No. 4: Zach McKinstry
Is this just who Zach McKinstry is now?
That’s one of the biggest questions the Tigers are hoping to answer over the remainder of 2023.
Now batting leadoff nearly every game, McKinstry has found himself a knack in Detroit.
McKinstry is batting .278 this year with a .384 on-base percentage. He’s particularly thriving when leading off games, hitting .333 with a home run and six walks in his first at-bat in the leadoff spot.
THE STORY OF MCKINSTRY: How Zach McKinstry went from ‘the kid in the dirty uniform’ to a productive Detroit Tiger
And then there’s his versatility. McKinstry has played second base, third base, shortstop, right field and left field, plus a mop-up stint on the mound.
With all the injuries and moving parts, the Tigers will rely heavily on McKinstry for the rest of the year.
Beyond that, the Tigers will hope to learn if they have their second baseman of the future. With roughly 100 games to play, McKinstry has plenty of time to prove he’s a key part of the Tigers’ future.
No. 3: Michael Lorenzen
With the injury to E-Rod, Michael Lorenzen may be slowly becoming the Tigers’ best trade asset at the deadline.
The 31-year-old right-hander has been dealing in his third shot in a rotation. (Lorenzen started 21 of 27 games in his rookie year with the Cincinnati Reds back in 2015. Then he primarily served as a relief pitcher until last year when he started 19 games for the Los Angeles Angels.)
The Tigers signed him in the offseason to a one-year, $8.5 million contract, a deal that’s now looking like a good piece of business.
Lorenzen entered Friday with a 3.21 ERA in nine starts (though a late blowup inflated that to 3.75). He has also proven he can go late into games; in his past five outings, he’s gone seven innings, 6⅔ innings, 5⅔ innings, six innings, seven innings and 6⅓ innings.
If the Tigers want to avoid losing Lorenzen for nothing, they could trade him at the deadline. Or they could hold on to Lorenzen and try and compete for the division. Either way, Lorenzen will be a key to the Tigers’ finish.
No. 2: Riley Greene
Riley Greene’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time.
In his second year in the major leagues, Greene was hitting his stride at the plate.
In the month of May, Greene hit .365 with three home runs, nine doubles and a triple. For the year, he’s hitting .296 with an OBP of .362. He worked on increasing his pull-side power in the offseason, and it was paying dividends.
Then, on May 30, he was pulled from a game against the Texas Rangers because of a leg injury and hasn’t played since.
There is some good news; the initial injury was called a stress fracture in his left fibula. After getting a second opinion, the team is now saying it’s a stress reaction, which is basically a precursor to a stress fracture, and thankfully for Tigers fans, less severe.
The bad news for the Tigers; Their offense has fallen off a cliff since Greene’s exit.
In the seven full games since Greene got hurt, the Tigers have scored a total of 12 runs — an average of 1.7 per game.
It’s impossible to completely correlate Greene’s exit and this latest dry spell. But it certainly doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
You don’t need wOBA or wRC+ or any other advanced analytic to see the hole that Greene’s absence leaves in the Tigers lineup.
Hopefully, Greene’s injury is just a small blip in an otherwise healthy year and career. Because the Tigers don’t just need him this year, but for the next several.
No. 1: Spencer Torkelson
For this season, Spencer Torkelson is the most important member of the Detroit Tigers.
On some level, that’s awesome. Torkelson was drafted No. 1 overall in July 2020. Just three years later, he’s an everyday player and hitting at the top of the lineup.
And he has had his moments. After hitting just .206 in March and April, Tork found something at the plate in the month of May, hitting .267 with two home runs and a .368 OBP. But after starting the month of May on a heater, he has cooled off, with a .143 average in the past 14 days.
Putting it simply, the Tigers NEED the May version of Torkelson, at a minimum, and they need him now. When the Tigers were rolling, one of the keys was the stack of Greene and Torkelson in the lineup. For the first time in a while, it felt like the Tigers had two guys who could help protect each other. With Greene out for at least a few weeks, a lot of the weight is falling on Torkelson’s shoulders.
Torkelson projects as a key member of the Tigers going forwards. You can write his name in pen on the Tigers’ lineup card for the next few seasons, for better or for worse. If the Tigers want to get back to their winning-ways, they need Torkelson to deliver.