How much better will the Tigers be in 2020?

On Tuesday, USA Today released their annual win predictions for the 2020 Major League Baseball season, and somewhat predictably, the Tigers were projected to be the worst team in baseball with a 54-108 record. After losing 114 games in 2019, largely thanks to one of the worst offenses in the history of baseball, the idea that Detroit will be awful is a pretty safe take.

A bright spot (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

However, historically bad teams are hard to actually build. Last year was largely the result of a perfect storm of horrible: regression by Miguel Cabrera, Josh Harrison, and Jeimer Candelario; injury issues on the part of Jordy Mercer, JaCoby Jones, Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, and Michael Fulmer; and historically bad performances by rookies like Grayson Greiner and Christin Stewart.

Two good things happened to the Tigers at the major league level last year, and their names were Matthew Boyd and Niko Goodrum.

More after this!

The good news, however, is that storms of bad luck like 2019 do not come around all that frequently, and things tend to even themselves out. The 2003 Tigers club, which went 43-119, managed to improve by a whopping 30 games in 2004. While they still lost 90, the club managed to be something besides a complete dumpster fire.

The other bright spot (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

And the 2020 Tigers will likely follow the same track. The interesting question: how much better will they be?

Below, I do a position-by-position postmortem of the 2019 Tigers to figure out exactly what horrible thing happened to each position. Then, I take a look at what the Tigers did to fix those positions in the offseason. In traditional pessimist fashion, I also proffer some suggestions about how things can backfire once again, but I balance it out with some conservative optimism with regard to gained win totals.

I want to stress that last line, though. My analysis below uses Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections almost as gospel to control for any particular thoughts, optimistic or pessimistic, I have about individual players. There are a few places where I take liberties- I assume that the depth at short will carry enough so that the Tigers will be around league average like last year, and I also discount the aggressive ZIPS projection for Jeimer Candelario given how awful last year was- but, for the most part, these are exceptionally conservative estimates that assume zero growth among young players. I do not offer predictions as to breakout pieces, or prospect rebounds, or surprising veteran performances. This is just math. GHF will put together a prediction post later so you can see just how crazy-optimistic (and therefore wrong) we all are.

Onto the analysis!

Catcher

What Went Wrong in 2019?

Opening day starter Grayson Greiner put up 224 plate appearances right above the Mendoza Line (.202) and a -0.9 fWAR. Backup John Hicks put up 333 plate appearances between catcher and first base, hitting a whopping .212. He put up a -1.2 fWAR. So the Tigers turned to the untested and clearly rushed Jake Rogers.

Jake wasn’t ready (photo by Alexandra Simon)

He struck out almost 40% of the time and posted -0.6 WAR. Together, Tigers catchers were worth a whopping -3.3 fWAR. Tigers catchers were, in other words, more bad than Wilson Contreras was good last year.

What’s the fix?

Austin Romine, apparently.  The Yankees backstop posted 0.9 WAR as a backup last year, and is projected by ZIPS to be worth 0.6 WAR. If the Tigers could find a replacement level catcher among Rogers, Greiner, and newcomer Eric Haase, they’ll be four wins higher than last year. ZIPS predicts Tigers catchers will be worth 1 WAR, which isn’t a lot, but it’s an infinitely more positive number than -3.3 was.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Austin Romine can get hurt and the backups can be as bad as they were last year. But, barring injury, it’s going to be next to impossible for Tigers catchers to be as bad as they were.

Projected WAR change: +4.5 wins

First Base

What went wrong in 2019?

Opening Day first baseman Miguel Cabrera (-0.3 fWAR) is medically unable to play first base for any prolonged stretch of time. The Tigers found this out in June. In his absence, the Tigers relied on Brandon Dixon (-0.1 fWAR), John Hicks (-1.2 fWAR), Jeimer Candelario (0.3 fWAR) and various other utility players to fill the void. They did poorly, posting -1.3 fWAR. Ew.

Miguel had a rough year (photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

We steal the Twins’ C.J. Cron and hope he doesn’t get hurt. ZIPS projects Cron for a nice 1.5 fWAR, so that’s a lovely change of pace. Cron’s not got the best track record, but he’s assuredly above replacement level, and probably effective enough.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Same thing with the catching position: Cron gets hurt, the Tigers have no depth and run a replacement level player out there. But it can’t get worse, so at least there’s that.

Projected WAR Gained: +3 wins

Second Base

What went wrong in 2019?

I mean, what went right? The opening day starter, Josh Harrison, contributed 147 terrible plate appearances, posting a -0.6 fWAR. He was replaced by Gordon Beckham, the definition of replacement level (-0.1 fWAR). Toss in other appearances by the likes of Harold Castro (-0.3 fWAR) and Ronny Rodriguez (0.2 fWAR) and you get -0.8 fWAR cumulative for second base. It’s not as bad a trainwreck as catcher, but still not great.

Could Jonathan Schoop help stabilize the infield? (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

Much like first base, the solution is to steal a Twin. ZIPS projects Jonathan Schoop to post 1.5 fWAR next year, and that’s a nice turnaround. Schoop’s nothing special, but he hits for power and he’s not a butcher in the field, which is enough value to get Detroit to acceptable here.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Say it again for the people in the back: Schoop gets hurt, and a lack of depth leads to another suboptimal result. However, the Tigers have Willi Castro (-0.1 fWAR last season) at Toledo, which means a worst-case scenario even poses some upside. Now if Castro gets hurt too, you might need to panic.

Projected WAR Gained: +2.5 wins

Third Base

What went wrong in 2019?

Opening Day third baseman Jeimer Candelario disappointed on the field (0.3 fWAR), and battled injury issues. His replacement, Dawel Lugo, was just bad (-0.6 fWAR, though at multiple positions). The Tigers were at -0.4 fWAR largely thanks to him, so that’s fun.

Jeimer needs to rebound (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

There isn’t one. This is a rebuilding team, and Jeimer Candelario probably gets the rest of this season to figure it out. ZIPS projects him to put up 1.9 fWAR, which is optimistic even for me, and I love Candy. But if he can stay on the field, there’s no reason to think he can’t be a positive contributor if the Tigers give him the job and his defense stays solid.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Candelario gets hurt, or Dawel Lugo wins the starting job out of Spring Training. Or the last vestige of hope disappears and Candelario hits like garbage while regressing on defense. But there’s a bit of hope for the future, even if it’s less than there was last season.

Projected WAR Gained: +1.5 wins

Shortstop

What went wrong in 2019?

Look, I will die on the hill that Jordy Mercer (0.6 fWAR) isn’t bad. He isn’t great, and the move from Jose Iglesias to Mercer was lateral at best, but a healthy Mercer is probably a standout in the Tigers 2019 lineup, thanks to a 94 wRC+. And yes, I realize how sad that sentence is.

In his absence due to injury, the Tigers turned to Niko Goodrum (1.9 fWAR), Ronny Rodriguez (0.2 fWAR) and Willi Castro (-0.1 fWAR), among others. Fangraphs actually had Tigers shortstops in the middle of the pack, with 2.6 WAR, just below league average.

Goodrum was…good. (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

Niko Goodrum at short was one of the few bright spots from last season. While ZIPS has him at 0.8 fWAR, there’s some room to be optimistic, and at the very least, if he can handle shortstop, he can duplicate what a healthy Mercer would have brought to the table. And there’s depth in Castro, who probably isn’t more than a second-division regular or a utility player, but who can put up positive value.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Goodrum can’t stick at short or is needed elsewhere, Castro is terrible, and the Tigers have to turn to old friend Jordy Mercer to hold down the middle of the infield. Honestly, there’s some depth here, even if the upside isn’t tremendous. The bigger risk is that everyone as a group just isn’t *quite* as good as last year and the position takes a step back. If the Tigers regress anywhere, it’s here.

Projected WAR Gained: 0 wins

Left Field

What went wrong in 2019?

Christin Stewart (-1.2 fWAR) forgot he was supposed to hit for power, and posted a wRC+ of 80. But it’s okay, because his defense was terrible! Victor Reyes (1.6 fWAR) and his incredible BABIP (.384) managed to save this position, putting it at 0.2 fWAR on the season. But there are a lot of question marks.

Stewart needs to rediscover his power (photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

I have bad news. There isn’t a fix. Stewart will get first crack at the LF job, and if he can hit the ball with authority, the position won’t be a black hole. If he can’t, he’s a bust and off the roster in 2021. Otherwise, some combination of Victor Reyes, Travis Demeritte, and Troy Stokes Jr. will have a crack at the position. ZIPS has Stewart at 0.0 fWAR, for what it’s worth.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

I mean, unless the Tigers sign me to play left field, it’s hard to envision things getting worse. There’s enough system depth at OF that the Tigers should be able to cobble together something approximating 0 WAR, even if it means trying Daz Cameron and Derek Hill. But we reached rock bottom in 2019.

Projected WAR Gained: +0 wins

Center Field

What went wrong in 2019?

The Tigers managed 0.6 fWAR out of center field this year. Opening day center fielder Mikie Mahtook (-0.6 fWAR in a very tiny sample) was demoted by the end of April, to be replaced by JaCoby Jones (-0.2 fWAR), who was hurt in August. He, in turn, was replaced by Harold Castro (-0.3 fWAR) and Victor Reyes (1.6 fWAR). If not for Reyes, this would have been a black hole.

The Tigers will need JaCoby Jones to be healthy (photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

Much like third base and left field, there isn’t really one other than hoping Jones is healthy and effective. His WAR totals from last year looked terrible, but part of that was because of a poor showing in defensive metrics that didn’t meet the eye test. So the Tigers send him back out there and hope for the best.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Any number of ways, but they all start with a combination of injury and ineffectiveness out of Jones. Strained depth and a lack of other true center fielders on the 40-man save for Derek Hill and maybe Daz Cameron means that the Tigers could be in trouble here.

Projected WAR Gained: -.5 wins

Right Field

What went wrong in 2019?

Nicholas Castellanos (0.8 fWAR) didn’t hit like his usual self in a Tigers uniform, and while that was mostly luck and misery, poor defensive numbers hurt his overall value. Detroit got lucky later in the season with Victor Reyes (1.6 fWAR), but Travis Demeritte (-0.4 fWAR) took a lot of that value away, and with Reyes in CF and Castellanos in Wrigley, the Tigers ended the season with 0.4 fWAR at the position.

What’s the fix?

Nominally, the fix is to have Victor Reyes, Jorge Bonifacio, Travis Demeritte, and Troy Stokes, Jr. fight it out in Lakeland to see who can win the starting RF job. Realistically, one of those players (Reyes) has a ZIPS projection above replacement level, and at 0.2 fWAR, it isn’t great.

With Castellanos gone and the front office standing pat, Tigers will need a youngster to step up (photo by Alexandra Simon)

I haven’t mentioned it to this point, but this is where I think the front office has really failed. All three outfield positions are exceptionally shallow beyond a questionable starter, and a Yasiel Puig or Hunter Pence could essentially provide the same boost in the outfield that a Jonathan Schoop did in the infield. Otherwise, the Tigers are straining their depth.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Despite Castellanos no longer being on the roster, 2019 did not see a strong performance out of right field. That said, a lack of true starter in right means it’s the position where I think Detroit is most vulnerable to underperforming in 2019. The Tigers need to make a move here.

Projected WAR Gained: -.5 win

Designated Hitter

What went wrong in 2019?

Time. Miguel Cabrera (-0.3 fWAR) hit a wall in his age 36 season, and while he’ll still sell tickets as he chases 500 home runs and 3000 hits, he isn’t going to provide much value to the Tigers on the field.

Age and injuries have caught up to the once-fearsome Cabrera (photo by Alexandra Simon)

With his knees permanently shot, the best hope that the Tigers have is that his decision to lose weight and get into better shape yields better power numbers.

What’s the fix?

There isn’t one. Sorry, but this section is depressing.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

It likely can’t get that much worse. Miguel Cabrera has demonstrated that he’s pretty much a league average hitter at this point, and barring a miracle, that’s a replacement level DH or worse.

Projected WAR Gained: +0 wins

Starting Pitching

What went wrong in 2019?

Nothing. Holy cow, nothing actually went wrong!

In fact, a whole lot went right. Matthew Boyd became a solid 3 fWAR starter, and despite some late season struggles, Spencer Turnbull joined him around that mark. Daniel Norris has settled into a nice role as a #4, posting an additional 2 fWAR. Jordan Zimmermann, when healthy, managed to post 1.3 fWAR, and Tyler Alexander came out of nowhere to put up 0.9 fWAR last year, too. All that was good for a rotation worth 10.6 fWAR. Nice.

Zimm was surprisingly effective when he wasn’t riddled with injuries (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

What’s the fix?

Look, I’m not going to pretend there isn’t room for regression. I think last year’s close to Matthew Boyd’s true talent level, and I think it’s fair to question if Spencer Turnbull overperformed. But signing Ivan Nova adds a decent #4/#5 option to replace Zimmermann when he gets hurt, and getting Michael Fulmer back from Tommy John surgery means more upside infused into the rotation.

And, ultimately, the fix here is adding some combination of Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal. ZIPS has the top six starters at about 10 WAR, and with serious depth (Dario Agrazal is projected at 1.2 WAR, for God’s sake), I think the Tigers can stay in the middle of the pack for starting pitching. And the sky’s the limit.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Injury, probably. The Tigers have a good track record with pitcher health, having a whopping one major Tommy John victim over the last fifteen years (Michael Fulmer, a former Met- go figure), but arms are risky. The Tigers could also trade Boyd, or they could get slammed by regression among their young guns. But for all that to happen, you’re looking at an absolute worst-case outcome that would lead to mass recriminations in the front office and dugout.

Projected WAR Gained: +0 wins

Bullpen

What went wrong in 2019?

It’s a Detroit Tigers bullpen. What do you think went wrong?

The Tigers welcomed back an old bullpen friend (Photo by Alexandra Simon)

Sorry, that was undeservedly snarky. A top six of Buck Farmer (0.8 fWAR), Shane Greene (0.7 fWAR), Nick Ramirez (0.4 fWAR), David McKay (0.3 fWAR), Joe Jimenez (0.3 fWAR), and Jose Cisnero (0.2 WAR) isn’t terrible, even though losing Greene at the deadline is a blow.

The bigger issue was the replacement level killers. Zac Reininger posted -0.8 fWAR in 26 innings, Victor Alcantara posted -0.3 fWAR in 42 innings, and the normally reliable Blaine Hardy posted -0.3 fWAR in 44 innings. The result was a total of 0.6 fWAR total out of the unit, which was good for 26th in baseball.

What’s the fix?

Well, a couple of things. The departures of Reininger and Greene pretty much cancel each other out, and a surge of honest-to-god raw talent is on its way. John Schreiber, Gregory Soto, and Rony Garcia all have some upside, and should limit the exposure of AAAA players.

On top of that, some of the young starters will see a move to the bullpen. Beau Burrows had an off year in AAA, but if he gets squeezed out of the rotation, he has the potential to be a dominant piece. Kyle Funkhouser badly struggled with control in AAA last year, but if he can get it together in short bursts, he has major league stuff. The Tigers could give him a shot during Spring Training. Plus, a tight rotation means that Dario Agrazal and Tyler Alexander could get moved to the bullpen for long relief if they’re not stretched out in Toledo.

The big wild card here is Joe Jimenez, who struggled all of 2019. That was in large part due to a very high HR/FB rate, but some control issues hampered him all season. If he comes back the same form he was in 2018, look out.

For what it’s worth, ZIPS projects the Tigers to have a bullpen WAR of 1.0 next year.

How can it all go wrong in 2020?

Jimenez continues to be bad, the kids get hurt or suck, and some Toledo filler is given 50 innings. It’s not getting much worse, thankfully.

Projected WAR Gained: +.5 win

Overall Conclusion

Going position by position, I see an eleven-win improvement on last year’s club, just thanks to free agent signings and judicious 40-man roster cuts. An additional outfielder to shore up RF and reduce the amount of replacement level players that get time would increase that projection by somewhere in the neighborhood of one to two wins.

The takeaway is that we’re at a 59-103 record just assuming current projections. If anything manages to go right for the Tigers this season, expect a better record. Depending on pre-Spring Training signings and breakouts, the Tigers could cobble together a losing record that isn’t quite as depressing as last year. And with the three-headed pitching hydra of Mize-Manning-Skubal expected in AAA Toledo this year, real hope is right around the corner.

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