Last year was supposed to be different…
The rebuild was coming to a close. The Detroit Tigers addressed nearly all their glaring needs in the offseason. Former General Manager Al Avila identified assets through trades and owner Chris Ilitch authorized some free agent splashes. (Javier Báez, Austin Meadows, Eduardo Rodriguez, Andrew Chafin and Tucker Barnhart).
After two decades with the organization, Avila earned his chance to command the ship. Concluding eight lackluster years at the helm, the Tigers were left with nothing to show for their rebuild but a heap of losses. In a year where they were thought to turn the corner, the archaic roots of the organization burst at the seams…
There was little life at the ballpark, and just mere pockets of meaningful baseball in 2022. (Hey, at least Miggy hit 3,000!) The team ranked last in Major League Baseball in walks and home runs. A tidal wave of injuries hobbled the roster. Half the lineup hit below the Mendoza Line for half the season. After five months of catastrophic failure, Avila was fired Aug. 10.
Enter new President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris. The former San Francisco Giants executive from the Theo Epstein tree took over Sept. 19. He sung a tune of modernity for Tigers baseball, summarizing his vision in three concepts during his inaugural press conference Sept. 20.
“We need to acquire, retain and develop young players,” Harris said. “We need to create a culture of development. We want to dominate the strike zone on both sides of the ball.”
The only thing that saved the Tigers from the eighth 100-loss season in franchise history was a last-ditch effort to stomp out season-long embarrassment. Whether it was the new flare of Harris, or simply a change in culture, things immediately took a turn for the better on the field.
Detroit tied a season-high six-game win streak Sept. 23-29 and won 11 of its last 16 games. The team narrowly eclipsed the Kansas City Royals by one game, finishing in fourth place in the AL Central with a 66-96 record.
New mantra, new leaders
After taking the reins, Harris cleaned house. The up-and-coming executive delivered with a decorated staff that carries a track record of success across many different levels and organizations in professional baseball.
As the first big hire, Rob Metzler was named Vice President and Assistant General Manager Oct. 25. Metzler joined the Tigers after spending the last 15 years in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. For the past seven seasons, he served as Senior Director of Amateur Scouting and led the Rays’ MLB Draft process.
Following the firing of longtime Scouting Director Scott Pleis, Mark Conner was named Amateur Scouting Director Oct. 30. Conner spent the last 13 seasons with the San Diego Padres and eight seasons as the team’s Amateur Scouting Director. He helped the Padres transform their farm system into a warehouse of young talent that propelled them into World Series contention.
Perhaps as Harris’ most important hire, Ryne Eubanks, signed as the team’s Head Athletic Trainer Nov. 15. He spent the past nine seasons with the Arizona Diamondbacks in various medical trainer roles, most recently serving as Assistant Athletic Trainer at the MLB level for three seasons. Eubanks is tasked with keeping an injury-plagued roster on the field and healthy in 2023.
The core of the coaching staff hired by Avila remains in place. A.J. Hinch is the Manager. University of Michigan product Chris Fetter returns as Pitching Coach, as well as Assistant Pitching Coach Juan Nieves. Gabe Ribas remains as Director of Pitching. Former Los Angeles Dodgers First Base Coach George Lombard stays as Bench Coach. Base coaches Alfredo Amezaga and Gary Jones will also retain their roles.
The Tigers made one addition to the pitching side of the coaching staff. Robin Lund joined Nov. 15 as Assistant Pitching Coach with a data-driven approach. (I mean, just scour his Twitter feed. It is a gold mine.) Lund adds to the Tigers Big Ten coaching talent, spending the last four seasons at the University of Iowa. He has a doctorate in exercise science and will assist Fetter and Ribas in further modernization of the Tigers pitching lab.
Finally, while revamping a historically anemic offense is no easy feat, a trio of candidates with a strong resume in development also joined Nov. 15. Michael Brdar and Keith Beauregard were named dual Major League Hitting Coaches. James Rowson will work under them in an Assistant Hitting Coach role.
Brdar, another U of M product, was the Padres hitting coach last season. San Diego’s offense ranked sixth in walks and posted the ninth-least strikeouts en route to an NLCS appearance.
Beauregard spent the last four seasons with the Dodgers organization. Rowson has two decades of professional coaching experience, most recently serving as bench coach for the Miami Marlins.
The first annual MLB Draft Lottery took place Dec. 6. Despite finishing with the sixth worst record, fortune favored the Tigers and they climbed to pick third overall. While official draft financials are not currently available, Detroit significantly improved their bonus pool for the 2023 Draft. This has major implications for the money the Tigers can spend in the first 10 rounds. It had the potential to make a major impact in the early rounds as Detroit has four selections in the top 75, and three in the top 50 (No. 3, 37, 45 and 75).
The easiest bonus pool explanation comes from the Tigers 2021 MLB Draft. For example, Avila and co. picked RHP Jackson Jobe third overall in 2021. The slot value for the pick was just over $7.2M, but Jobe signed under slot at $6.9M. With the money saved on Jobe, the Tigers were able to land RHP Ty Madden at No. 32 in Competitive Balance Round A for over slot value.
Madden was thought to have the talent of an early first round pick, but fastball metrics shied some teams away from a hefty price tag. The slot value for No. 32 was about $2.2M, and the Tigers used the $300k they saved on Jobe to land Madden over slot at $2.5M. Time will tell what Harris and co. have planned for next summer’s draft, but extra bonus pool money creates all the more flexibility on Draft Day this summer.
The Tigers selected sixth overall in the Rule 5 Draft Dec. 7. Detroit picked RHP Mason Englert from the Texas Rangers in the Major League portion of the draft. Englert must spend the full season on Detroit’s 26-man roster or he will be returned to the Rangers organization. He slots in as the team’s No. 26 prospect.
The 23-year-old had an encouraging season in High-A Hickory before getting a brief taste of Double-A at the end of 2022. In 103.1 innings with the Crawdads, he posted a 3.57 ERA with 116 strikeouts and 26 walks. He was bitten a fair amount by the long ball, however, surrendering 15 home runs.
The 6′ 4 righty primarily features a mid-90s sinking fastball and a sweeping slider. Fangraphs assessed a 55 future value to both his slider and changeup. Most notably, Englert’s 35 rated command has an FV of 60. With a few tweaks from the coaching staff and some fortuity, the Tigers may find much needed starter depth with Englert in 2023.
Rounding out the Minor League side of the draft, Detroit lost third baseman Dane Myers to the Marlins and picked up right-handed relief prospect Layne Henderson from the Houston Astros. No Tigers players were selected in the Major League portion of the draft.
More roster additions
It seemed like only a matter of time before Harris started to dismantle the bullpen for future success. Later Dec. 7, he did just that. For the first time in what seems like a long time, the Tigers leveraged an asset to acquire a close-to-MLB-ready hitter. Baby steps, but nonetheless steps forward for an organization devoid of offensive production.
RHP Joe Jiménez was sent to the Atlanta Braves for 3B/OF Justyn-Henry Malloy and LHP Jake Higginbotham. Malloy is the headline of the package with an advanced approach at the plate and added defensive versatility. While the defensive side to his game is work in progress, Harris stated Malloy was a personal long-term target and will help reshape Detroit’s offensive identity.
Malloy climbed three professional levels in 2022, slashing .289/.408/.454 in 133 games. The 22-year-old was the top remaining position prospect for the Braves (No. 6 overall) and posted an impressive 16.4% walk percentage throughout the year. His advanced approach and knowledge of the strike zone should pay dividends in the future, and possibly at some point in 2023. All signs point to him starting this year’s campaign with Triple-A Toledo.
What may have contributed to the Tigers sinking ship in 2022 was a lack of veteran pitching depth, and too heavy a reliance on the youngsters. Rodriguez was the only true veteran starting pitcher on the roster, and he only tossed 91 innings due to a two-month personal hiatus on the restricted list.
The Tigers first move in free agency was reuniting with LHP Matthew Boyd to address this issue. He signed a one-year, $10M contract Dec. 14. Missing nearly all of 2022 with injury, Boyd returns to Detroit healthy and ready to assume a role in the starting rotation. The intangibles of the signing are to note, as Boyd was regarded as a terrific mentor for young pitchers during his six-year stint with the Tigers from 2015-2021.
Concluding additions to the starting staff, Detroit agreed to a one-year, $8.5M contract with RHP Michael Lorenzen Dec. 20. The 30-year-old started 18 games with the Los Angeles Angels in 2022. While his walk and strikeout rates left much to be desired, Lorenzen posted a respectable 4.24 ERA across 97.2 innings. Dipping 15+ starters into the depth chart is DEFCON 5 for any Major League organization, and this certainly serves as insurance. (I hope we never have to witness something like that again…)
If last year’s starting pitching reality was DEFCON 5, the offense could only have been a full-blown nuclear apocalypse. While much of the fanbase (and the writers of this website) were hoping for the Tigers to make further splashes to address the fallout, it appears Harris is interested in taking a different direction in 2023.
“One thing we won’t waver on is we’re going to invest in our young players,” Harris said Dec. 5. “We are going to earmark at-bats and innings for our young players.”
With the non-tendering of Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, Harold Castro and a few others, the Tigers will undoubtedly invest in the youth moving forward.
Whether it is to create every-day starters, develop trade chips or simply to save money, Detroit’s young core will take up a significant portion of at-bats next season.
Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson will be everyday players. (No, there’s not a 1B failsafe. Tork will be fine.). Akil Baddoo is positioned to get a healthy dose of at-bats in the corner outfield positions. Barring any further roster additions, Ryan Kreidler is thought to be the team’s Opening Day third baseman. Kerry Carpenter’s power surge in 2022 likely earned him an outfield role. Kody Clemens will get additional time to prove himself.
If he continues to build on a terrific 2022 season, Parker Meadows will enter the outfield mix at some point in 2023. He will join his brother, Austin, on the Major League roster. It will mark the first time brothers are MLB teammates since B.J. and Justin Upton on the Braves in 2013.
(Look, it’s probably not exactly what you wanted, but it’s what you’re going to get. At least we didn’t get lumps of coal. (*Cough* Royals *cough*)
A handful of players are set to return or make their Tigers debuts in 2023. Following Tommy John Surgery, RHP Spencer Turnbull and catcher Jake Rogers will provide a much-needed boost to the MLB roster on Opening Day.
LHP Tarik Skubal had a breakout 2022 and was definitively Detroit’s most valuable pitcher last season. He underwent flexor tendon surgery Aug. 17 and is set to return around mid-season in 2023.
While a late-season return from Tommy John is in the realm of possibility for RHP Casey Mize, it is more likely he does not pitch again until 2024.
Several up-and-coming prospects will get a crack at the Majors in 2023. RHP Wilmer Flores, the Tigers No. 3 prospect, comes off a dominant 2022 campaign where he was named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year. He will need some refinement in Toledo, but he will certainly get a call to the Bigs in the near future.
RHP Reese Olson, acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers for Daniel Norris at the trade deadline in 2022, serves as further pitching depth. Olson took off after joining the organization, posting impressive strikeout rates across High-A West Michigan and Double-A Erie. If his skillset continues to grow, the No. 10 prospect will debut with the Tigers later in 2023.
Catcher Dillon Dingler, Detroit’s No. 11 prospect, is another intriguing option for depth at the catcher position. The Tigers expressed interest in the free agent catcher market, but opted not to ink names like Willson Contreras and Christian Vázquez. With the return of Rogers and the steady bat of Eric Haase, Dingler will have plenty of time to refine his skills in the Minors before breaching the Show.
On the position player side, a few young prospects and a waiver claim make their way to the 40-man to solidify infield depth. Zack Short is set to contribute in a bench role. The versatile Andre Lipscius and contact machine Wenceel Perez round out the young prospects. Andy Ibáñez was claimed off waivers from the Rangers Nov. 10. The 29-year old added another corner infield option to the roster as he posts low strikeout rates.
Potential remaining free agent targets
It is unlikely the Tigers make a splash, but there may be a move or two remaining. This offseason, Harris mentioned the need for a right-handed outfield bat and a left-handed infield bat to improve the MLB roster. Internal candidates may be favored in the long haul, but these on-record needs are yet to be properly addressed.
A pair of 34-year-old outfielders could be potential fits. A.J. Pollock comes with relevant AL Central experience and a track record of success. He strikes out at a low rate, but a power sap in 2022 with the Chicago White Sox combined with career-long injury concerns could turn Detroit the other way. Adam Duvall is still available and checks some boxes for the right-handed role. His high strikeout and mediocre walk rates may also deter Harris from signing him.
Tommy Pham is another outfield option, and Trey Mancini is still on the table. Mancini also comes with experience at first base, potentially serving as a backup plan for Torkelson. (Again, I don’t believe the Tigers are interested in insuring Torkelson’s role much.)
Former Marlins 3B/OF Brian Anderson fits the profile of a Harris target. However, he is primarily a third baseman and is a right-handed batter. He is a great defender, posts good walk rates and strikes out at about a league-average clip. He struggled a bit offensively last season, but still would have been one of Detroit’s top offensive contributors with a below average 90 wRC+.
Finally, 3B/1B Edwin Ríos could provide some desperately needed pop to the Tigers offense. The 28-year-old was non-tendered by the Dodgers after battling injuries. He strikes out a ton, but has immense power from the left side that would have no trouble clearing the long fences of Comerica Park.
Potential trade targets
None of the aforementioned names feel like strong fits to Harris’ philosophy and the 2023 plans. It appears more likely by the day that a trade would better address needs. If the Tigers are to make additional moves, most signs point to it coming from the block.
The bullpen is still stocked with talent. All-Star closer Gregory Soto, Alex Lange, Jason Foley and Will Vest should all be dangled as trade chips to improve the offense.
Perhaps left-handed (or switch hitting) infielders like Ketel Marte, Tommy Edman, Jazz Chisholm, Eduardo Escobar or J.P. Crawford could be trade targets. The Tigers would likely have to unload some of the bullpen, along with a young starter or two. Madden is the most movable starting prospect to make a splash. Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo may be trade bait if they return to form following injury.
Financial freedom awaits
At long last, the 2024 Tigers may be free from the shackles of any long-term investments. Miguel Cabrera, who makes $32M in 2023, announced he will retire following the season.
Jonathan Schoop’s contract also comes to a close.
If this year’s winter frenzy is any indication where the market is headed in the future, the Tigers could be departing with Rodriguez and Báez, too. Both have opt-outs following 2023, and will certainly exercise them with any semblance of a productive season. Báez fell off a cliff last year, but steadily improved and turned into a solid performer in the second half.
In the eyes of most baseball minds, there is no such thing as a bad one-year deal. The Tigers plugged some holes with temporary options until Harris develops a broader vision of the organization’s future. When the 2023 season comes to a close, it is likely there is not a single long-term contract on the 2024 payroll. Spend away, Ilitch. Opportunity awaits.
Wrapping up… it’s Christmas after all
With a deep-dive analysis, 2023 feels more like a one-year retool than a true effort to compete for the World Series. Financial flexibility looms on the horizon. Enforcing a new identity of strike zone dominance will take time, so it is understandable why the Tigers may be reluctant to take an over-aggressive approach to roster building.
Harris needs to flesh out what the Tigers are working with, and the players will get all the opportunity to show him. It will be sink or swim for the young guns, and the roster churning has just begun.
Rebounds by Schoop and Báez open a treasure trove of middle-infield trade options. Dealing Rodriguez may give the Tigers much needed offensive depth. Parting with some top-tier farm arms could gift a young, offensive star-in-the-making to Detroit.
While the entirety of the AL Central sits on their cheap asses (excuse my language), it may not be crazy to think the Tigers can approach .500 ball with an overhauled culture in 2023. Then again, maybe the Kool-Aid is extra flavorful this winter. Either way, a new era of Tigers baseball is brewing, and 2023 is just the tip of the iceberg.