Three Half-Baked Predictions: Detroit Tigers

With Opening Day less than a week away, I felt that some kind of general AL Central preview was in store on this blog. Thus, I wanted to do short preview posts of the different outlooks for the teams in the AL Central (with culminating one being the Royals shortly before Opening Day). Because of time constraints (yay grad school!), I am going to simply keep these posts pretty brief, and thus, limit them to “three half-baked” predictions in regard to each team. (Of course, I say short, and then “short” becomes 1,700 to 2,000 words).

So in this first post, I am going to take a look at the Detroit Tigers, who finished in last place in the AL Central in 2020 with a record of 23-35. Here are my predictions in regard to the “Motor City Kitties” and what their outlook is as a club for 2021.

The Tigers will probably finish in last place again for a third-straight season

The Tigers are probably a better club on paper than they were a year ago. They got a pretty good performance from rookie infielder Willi Castro last year, and he’s off to a good start this Spring, as he is hitting .318 with a .975 OPS that includes three home runs in 18 games and 47 plate appearances. I imagine the Tigers have been looking for someone to bump Niko Goodrum out of the starting lineup for quite some time, and it looks like the Tigers have their guy in Castro, who could be a key player for them, especially in the transition to a 162-game season.

Furthermore, the Tigers lineup is boosted by the return of second baseman Jonathan Schoop, who had a pretty strong year at the keystone in 2020, and third baseman Jeimer Candelario, who finally lived up to his once hyped prospect status last year. Lasstly, the Tigers have an interesting outfield composition with Robbie Grossman in left, Jacoby Jones in center field (Jones was a Royals-killer early in the year), and Nomar Mazara in right field (whom I wrote about at Pitcher List). All three could be really solid players, but they also could be busts as well, which is why they find themselves in Detroit on reasonable deals financially, and not on more competitive clubs in 2021.

In addition to upgrading their lineup slightly, general manager Al Avila also boosted the rotation with some “veteran-ish” arms in Jose Urena and Julio Teheran, both former top prospects with other clubs. The Tigers do have a bevy of talented arms in their system, as MLB Pipeline ranked the Tigers with the 2nd best farm system in baseball, primarily due to their high upside arms in Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Riley Greene, and Matt Manning. However, it feels like the arms in their system are a year away from seriously contributing at the MLB level, despite Mize and Skubal debuting a year ago. Thus, will Urena and Teheran hold the fort for the Tigers in 2021 until their talented pitching prospects make their way to D-Town? Maybe, but I feel like they have more “Ivan Nova” upside, i.e. they are decent starters, but probably barely above replacement level at the end of the day.

An influx of veteran talent in the field and in the rotation, as well as a new managerial change with AJ Hinch, should make this Tigers club better than a year ago. However, the Tigers still feel a year away from making any serious gains in the Central, and didn’t do more than other clubs as well in terms of getting better. Hence, it is hard to see the Tigers escaping the basement for a fourth-straight season, though they should be more fun to watch, and should give Tigers fans hope that better days are on their way soon.

2021 will be a rough year for Casey Mize

Mize is the consensus No. 2 prospect in the Tigers system behind Spencer Torkelson, who was No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 MLB Draft. Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in 2018 out of Auburn, made his highly anticipated MLB debut in 2020 during the COVID-affected season. However, he failed to impress in his rookie campaign, as he posted a 6.99 ERA and -0.3 bWAR in 7 starts and 28 innings, according to Baseball Reference.

This Spring, though he is coming off a good outing on Thursday, his Grapefruit League numbers have been pretty lackluster. In five appearances and four starts, Mize has posted an 8.36 ERA and has allowed 17 hits and 13 runs in 14 innings of work. While he has struck out 21 batters, demonstrating his strong ability to make batters swing and miss, he also has walked 10 batters, which has produced a BB/9 of 6.4 this Spring. Mize had a BB/9 of 4.1 last year, so the fact that it has increased this Spring is not an encouraging sign, though Spring Training numbers always have to be taken with a grain of salt.

There is no question that Mize has the profile of an elite pitching prospect, and has the tools and skill set to be at the top of the rotation in Detroit at some point in time. However, I think his struggles this past Summer and Spring should be noted, and the fact that this rotation is pretty crowded may not be a good sign for him to break in early this season. While Mize did earn a spot in the rotation to begin the season, it would not be surprising to see Mize yo-yo between Triple-A Toledo and Detroit this year, especially with so many options available to the Tigers (Teheran also made the Opening Day roster, but things will get interesting once Spencer Turnbull returns off the IL).

As of now, it would not be surprising to see the Tigers rotation get production from Mize or Skubal, but not both, during the first couple of months of the season. Unfortunately for Mize, Skubal has looked much better this Spring (12 innings, 15 strikeouts, 1.50 ERA, though he does have 8 walks).

Thus, while Mize has promise and still could turn into the pitcher he was drafted to be nearly three season ago, I think 2021 will be another growing season for the right-handed pitcher.

Miguel Cabrera will regress a bit after a promising 2020

After a -0.4 WAR season where he posted a wRC+ of 96 in 2019, Cabrera saw a little bit of a bounce back at the plate in 2020 during the shortened season. The 37-year-old Detroit franchise player posted a fWAR of 0.3 and a wRC+ of 102, according to Fangraphs. Furthermore, Cabrera also led the Tigers with 10 home runs, and also saw his ISO increase to .167, his highest mark in this category since 2016 (when it was .247). Thus, there may be a handful of Tigers fans who are hoping that this could be a sign of a second renaissance for Cabrera, who has been on the decline since signing his eight-year, $248 million deal in 2016. While Cabrera won’t offer anything in the field, Tigers fans are banking that Cabrera can at least be closer to the power hitter that he was during his prime, even if it may come at the expense of other metrics such as batting average.

Unfortunately, I am not sure if Cabrera will be able to build on his promising 2020, as many of his plate discipline metrics paint a more concerning picture for Tigers fans. His contact rate in 2020 was 70.4 percent, and his swinging strike rate was 14 percent. Comparatively, in those categories, that was nearly an eight percent drop in contact rate, and nearly a four percent increase in swinging strike rate, according to Fangraphs data. Furthermore, while he saw less contact at the plate, there wasn’t a substantial increase in regard to crucial batted ball and Statcast metrics. His barrel rate did increase from 5.4 percent in 2019 to 9.7 in 2020, but his GB/FB rate was only 1.33, which demonstrates that Cabrera still hits way too many ground balls for a cleanup hitter (which Roster Resource is projecting him to be). While he did see his exit velocity in batted balls go from 90.3 MPH in 2019 to 93.2 MPH in 2020, it will be interesting to see if that exit velocity regresses back to those 2019 numbers, especially over the course of a full 162-game season.

To see Cabrera show flashes of the pre-2016 self was nice to see, especially since he was one of the best hitters in the American League for so long (and he always happened to be a thorn in the side for Royals pitchers and fans at the plate). However, Baseball Prospectus is projecting Cabrera to post a 99 DRC+ and 0.7 WARP for 2021, and honestly, that seems about right, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him slightly below that, perhaps in the 96-98 DRC+ range. He hasn’t seemed to age as gracefully as fellow AL Central DH Nelson Cruz, and I am not sure if he’ll be able to carry the Tigers as their main run producer in the cleanup spot in 2021.

And if he doesn’t produce similarly in 2021 like he did in 2020, that could spell doom for the Tigers’ chances of escaping the AL Central cellar this season.

In addition, a Cabrera regression in 2021 could also make the next two guaranteed years of Cabrera’s contract (which totals $64 million, according to Roster Resource) even more painful for Tigers fans as well.

Photo Credit: Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

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