2024 Detroit Tigers spring training preview: New faces but no big offseason splash

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The hope coming into the offseason was that the Detroit Tigers would be able to replace their losses on the pitching staff and add a serious dose of offense to a 2023 roster that still sorely needed it. A series of moves to accomplish those goals would put the club in reasonably good position to make a run at the division in 2024. They arguably fell a little short, but in betting instead on a farm system loaded with upper level talent they did keep their long-term options open while giving them the roster space to play their young talent and see what they’ve got to offer.

If there’s a simple dividing line between a good and a bad season for the 2024 Detroit Tigers, it’s probably whether they’re buyers or sellers in July. They aren’t going to be favorites to win the AL Central in most quarters, but if they’re out of it by July 31 the season is a failure. They do have enough young talent on hand now to expect the team to improve over the course of the season, but they really can’t afford another bad start in Api

Opening Day is still nearly two months away, and this is a busy front office that tries to keep their cards close to their vest, so perhaps there’s still a trade or signing left ahead of them. There just isn’t an obvious move to make. The problem is that their big concerns are the left side of the infield, and there aren’t a lot of obvious remedies that make sense. The 40-man roster is basically set for now, and we don’t expect too many changes until it’s time to lock in the roster for the beginning of the season.

The range for the more well regarded projection systems put the 2024 Tigers at somewhere between 75-81 wins on the year. FanGraphs gives them a 30.6 percent chance of making the playoffs, projecting them to finish third in the division just behind the Cleveland Guardians, with the Minnesota Twins running away with another division title. With a quality pitching staff, several good young hitters, and more talent on the way from the farm system they have a real shot to beat the projections badly, as they did in 2023 by finishing with 77 wins. However, the flip side of that argument is that they don’t have a lot of proven top shelf talent. If young players like Tarik Skubal, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson take a real step back, they’re in trouble.

New faces for 2024

The Tigers made five significant major league moves this offseason, while cutting bait with Spencer Turnbull and losing Eduardo Rodriguez to free agency and Miguel Cabrera to retirement. They acquired corner outfielder Mark Canha, starting pitchers Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty, and relievers Andrew Chafin and Shelby Miller this offseason. They also made some small minor league claims and signings, a process that is just an ongoing cycle from this front office.

One of several smart moves the Tigers made this offseason was their first one. They targeted a Milwaukee Brewers club looking to trim payroll and managed to pick up a quality veteran hitter in Mark Canha to balance a very young starting group in the outfield. It cost them a decent relief prospect in right-hander Blake Holub, but they got an above average hitter with a lot of experience at one of their few positions with space to add talent. There’s no long-term commitment in Canha’s final year before free agency and yet they landed a player that models the “control the strike zone” emphasis the Tigers preach and should be an above average hitter for them.

Another wise move was signing veteran right-hander Kenta Maeda to a two-year, $24 million deal. Maeda isn’t particularly durable, but he tends to give his team 20 average or better starts in most season. The Tigers have three, if not four, depending on how you feel about Brant Hurter as a starting prospect, young starting pitching prospects slated to start the year in Triple-A Toledo. Any of the three right-handers, Keider Montero, Ty Madden, or Wilmer Flores, could take the next step and be a solid starting option in case of injury. So they needed good innings and quality performance more than volume and durability in the rotation.

The Tigers are coming into camp with seven quality major league options in the rotation. Right now, they have Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Reese Olson, and Sawyer Gipson-Long competing for two spots in the rotation. Maeda, Tarik Skubal, and presumably Jack Flaherty, have the first three rotation spots locked down for now. So, they don’t need 180 innings from Kenta Maeda. Considering the prospect depth, and the Tigers desire to build from within, Maeda’s modest durability at this point in his career is almost a feature rather than a bug. They just need some stretches of good performance and Maeda still seems very capable of delivering that much.

Maeda also brings some extra elements to the table. He is highly regarded as a teammate and brings a ton of experience to a young staff. He’s known for a good splitter, and the Tigers now have a good reliever in Shelby Miller who just developed a split with the Dodgers last year. They also have a former number one overall pick in Casey Mize trying to make his way back from Tommy John surgery and in dire need of a splitter to compare with the effectiveness of the one he had as a dominant college pitcher. Having each other to bounce ideas off of in terms of getting the splitter feel dialed in can’t hurt.

The Tigers have shown some ability to teach the pitch at the minor league level as both Jackson Jobe and Keider Montero developed much improved splitters last season. In the case of Jobe, his splitter is now a consistent plus pitch for him. Montero’s isn’t quite as impressive but it’s good and the pitch got a lot more consistent over the course of the 2023 season. Those two young pitchers will both be in major league camp for the first time as well and perhaps all that comparing of notes on the pitch will help.

Maeda’s value may even extend beyond the field, as President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris has made a point that the Tigers need to expand their reach for talent and become a more desirable location for players from Asia. As Japan continues to grow as a hotbed for top shelf pitching talent, trying to establish the Tigers as a more desirable option as a team familiar with easing the difficult transition to living and playing in the United States is a wise idea.

Certainly it would be a bit simplistic to think that signing one well respected and talented Japanese pitcher is going to make Detroit a destination for NPB talent. However, they’ve got to start somewhere and Maeda has made the transition, put together a nice MLB career, and played a fair bit in the Midwest already. It can’t hurt to have him as an advocate. At very least it’s nice to see the Tigers finally paying serious attention to a blind spot for them internationally and actively saying they want to make themselves a more attractive destination for Japanese players looking to try their hand in the States.

Another pair of moves that look pretty good are the additions of LHP Andrew Chafin and RHP Shelby Miller to the bullpen. The acquisition and development of LHP Tyler Holton really saved the Tigers bacon in 2023 when closer Alex Lange was struggling. Holton, RHP Will Vest, and RHP Jason Foley emerged as a pretty dependable group, but the absence of Joe Jimenez and Gregory Soto was felt at times too. So it was good to see the Tigers take opportunities to add a pair of quality relievers. Neither is overpowering, but both are smart low cost additions who look primed for good seasons. The Tigers don’t have that one overpowering ace reliever, but they do have a deep pool of good ones now, and have shown the ability to get a lot out of their pen over the past few years.

The one signing that remains a little questionable is the addition of right-hander Jack Flaherty, simply because it’s a straight one year deal without an option for 2025. The right-hander is a perfectly good pickup as depth with the potential to recapture some of his early career form. But the Tigers outbid some teams to land him, paying $15M for 2024, so they’re bound to start him in the rotation. And for that commitment, they didn’t get any future control or team options. As things stand, it’s possible the Tigers have four better starters than Flaherty who will be competing for two jobs in Mize, Manning, Olson, Gipson-Long. That roster battle will be the crucial one this spring.

Colt Keith arrives on the scene

We’ll have a full piece on prospect watching in spring training shortly, but if we’re talking new faces we have to mention Colt Keith, who is set to make his major league debut as the Tigers everyday second baseman. The 22-year-old is generally regarded as one of the best hitting prospects in the game, but he has work to do to shore up his defense.

Another crafty stroke from the Tigers front office this winter was Keith’s recent long-term contract, inked before he’s played a day in the major leagues. In guaranteeing his six years of team control at very reasonable prices, the Tigers bought cheap team control over Keith’s first three years of free agency. The move was a surprise and a fairly bold act of faith from the Tigers’ front office, but we’ll have to see if this becomes a trend.

At this point, Keith is regarded much like Spencer Torkelson was as a prospect. Keith has good hands and controls the strike zone well, combining that with huge raw power from a short, sharp, left-handed stroke. The Tigers first baseman didn’t hit the ground running in the major leagues, and Keith might need some time to settle in as well, but the contract is a pretty safe bet to turn out well in the long-term.

New coaches

The Tigers had a fair of numbers of changes in the coaching staff this offseason, though the lead coaches remain unchanged. Chris Fetter, along with assistants Juan Nieves and Robin Lund all return to coach the pitching staff. 2023 assistant hitting coach James Rowsom was hired as the Yankees head hitting coach, but Michael Brdar and Keith Beauregard return as the twin head hitting coaches. The Tigers hired minor league hitting coach Lance Zawadski away from the Boston Red Sox to serve as Brdar and Beauregard’s assistant hitting coach in 2024.

The most well known coaching addition is new third base and infield coach, Joey Cora. Elder brother of Red Sox manager Alex Cora, the Tigers got a very well regarded infield coach who also has a longstanding relationship with shortstop Javier Báez. Manager AJ Hinch sung Cora’s praises on a recent episode of the New York Post Sports podcast.

Ryan Sienko has been promoted from the Tigers player development system to work as the major league catching coach this season. 2023 third base coach Gary Jones will move to the bench this year. Finally, 2023 first base coach Alfredo Amezaga has been replaced by Anthony Iapoce, who was the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens manager in 2023.

New play-by-play man Jason Benetti

In terms of the Tigers viewing experience, the biggest change to the 2024 Detroit Tigers may come through the press box, as the Tigers hired play-by-play man Jason Benetti to replace Matt Shepherd. Benetti is well regarded but the Chicago White Sox apparently forced him out to Tigers fans benefit. Like Dan Dickerson, Benetti was hired by the team rather than by Bally Sports Detroit, so while the bankruptcy proceedings of Bally parent company Diamond Sports Group leaves the sport with a lot of uncertainty as to how the sport will broadcast in the coming years, the Tigers will have Benetti calling their games regardless of what platforms end up hosting the broadcasts for Tigers games.

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