Tigers Are Building Something Sustainable For The Future
Tigers pitchers shaved nearly a run off their ERA from 2019 to 2021. Still, their 4.32 mark last season was slightly below the American League average, after adjusting for the pitcher-friendly nature of Comerica Park.
This flashes like a neon sign in a dark tavern when you consider the key moves made by Tigers general manager Al Avila and Co. this winter to become even more stingy:
- Signing flashy Gold Glove shortstop Javier Baez to a six-year, $140 million deal.
- Acquiring two-time Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart from the Reds.
- Inking free agent lefthander Eduardo Rodriguez, who pitched better than his 4.74 ERA last summer would suggest, to a five-year, $77 million deal.
Leather and grace. Combine a winter emphasis tilting toward run prevention, still-improving pitching talent like Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal and top-shelf talents like Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene—two of the top five prospects in the game—and the stripes finally are beginning to align in the Tigers’ five-year rebuild.
Detroit, the breakout team of 2022? No, we’re not calling a World Series shot here, but the Motown baseball assembly line again is whirring and purring. The Tigers, poised to pounce forward, absolutely have what it takes to be the surprise team of the summer.
“I think they’re a really up-and-coming team that is going to give teams fits this year,” says one veteran MLB talent evaluator who watches the Tigers closely. “I don’t know if they’re going to be 162 games good, but they’re going to be good.”
That will be the challenge for a Tigers team that surprised for part of 2021 under new manager A.J. Hinch and finished third in the AL Central at 77-85, 15 games behind the division-winning White Sox.
For three months in the middle of the season—May, June and July—the Tigers combined to go 42-38. They were 68-61 after May 8. At times they were good, but certainly nowhere close to 162 games good.
The season didn’t land anywhere close to the memory of the 1984 World Series champion Tigers around Michigan. But it was enough to dream on—and, more importantly, to act on.
“This is a turning point for the Tigers, undoubtedly,” owner Christopher Ilitch said on the day the club introduced Baez. “Signing a player like Javy, I think, sends a message to the baseball world and to our fans that the Tigers are here to compete.”
Smart scouting and building over the past five years has the Tigers’ farm system ranked No. 6 in the organization talent rankings this spring.
Top prospect Greene, a swift, lefthanded masher who was the fifth overall pick in the 2019 draft, is expected to debut in Detroit this summer. Torkelson, the No. 1 overall pick out of Arizona State in 2020, came to spring training as a non-roster invitee with a real chance to win the first base job.
“Riley Greene can really, really hit,” the MLB evaluator said. “And he’s an impact defender. He can play center field. It’s really good.
“If he comes out being the best guy out of all those guys, I wouldn’t be shocked.”
Torkelson, to some, is reminiscent of another formerly steady AL Central bat, Chicago’s Paul Konerko.
“There are a lot of similarities,” the evaluator said. “I think he’ll sacrifice some power for some hit. He likes to hit, which is pretty cool in this day and age. He likes smoking a ball to right-center field and getting a double out of it. He thinks that’s pretty cool.”
How fast Torkelson arrives likely will have an effect on Detroit’s up-the-middle defense. Jonathan Schoop proved his versatility last year by moving over to first base to spell franchise icon Miguel Cabrera for much of the season. Torkelson’s emergence could make Cabrera a full-time DH and move Schoop back to second base.
The ’84 Tigers, Detroit’s last World Series-winning team, were strong up the middle, behind catcher Lance Parrish, all-time double-play combo Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell and center fielder Chet Lemon. Barnhart, Schoop, Baez and, say, Greene upon arrival surely won’t supplant those legends, but as with a transmission powering a car, Michiganders understand the importance of up-the-middle stability on a winning baseball team.
The Baez contract is the largest free agent deal of Ilitch’s tenure and the Tigers’ largest since the owner’s father, Mike Ilitch, signed free agent Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal before the 2013 season.
Hinch called Baez “the perfect fit,” and Avila likes the fact that, as the club vetted Baez, the infielder was all in on playing a big role in Detroit’s baseball “renaissance.”
“We explained to him where we were as an organization, as a baseball team, and where we wanted to get to, and how we felt he could be a big part of making us better and getting us to the playoffs,” Avila said.
Improving run production will be a big part of the Tigers getting to where they want to go.
No AL team has scored fewer runs or hit fewer home runs or reached base less frequently than the Tigers since 2017. The club bottomed out with 114 losses in 2019.
Adding Baez will help. He is good for about 30 home runs, while helping support the young pitching staff with his exemplary defense.
Speaking of Baez, Barnhart and Rodriguez together, another veteran MLB talent evaluator views the trio as “a direct investment in the young pitching.
“Barnhart is one of my favorite catchers in all of baseball. E-Rod, I’m not saying he’s an ace, but he should bump every young pitcher back a slot and there’s real value in that. Baez is an investment in pitching, but also you need glue to hold a lineup together. Somebody’s got to be the focal point.
“They could give you fits last year, but they also were capable of beating themselves in a moment’s notice. I like the balance approach, investing in young pitching but at the same time they’re developing a young position player core and you’ve got to put it all together.”
Mize, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018, posted a 3.71 ERA last year in 150.1 innings over 30 starts. Lefty Skubal was at 4.34 in 149.1 innings over 29 starts. Both are projected as top-of-the-rotation starters. Homegrown rotation options Matt Manning and Tyler Alexander have farther to go.
The Tigers have developed most of their talent base from within but have scored a couple regulars from outside the organization. Detroit added third baseman Jeimer Candelario from the Cubs in the Alex Avila deal in 2017, and it snagged outfielder Akil Baddoo from the Twins in the Rule 5 draft prior to last season.
“These rebuilds are tough—tough to sit through—and I don’t think front offices are appreciated enough when they get it right,” said one evaluator who compares the young talent and energy in Detroit to that of the Royals and said it would be a mistake to pencil those two clubs into fourth and fifth place in the AL Central.
“How many more times is Baltimore going to lose 100 games? Do we see any inkling in Baltimore of young talent like they have in Detroit and Kansas City?”
Said another, looking at other top Tigers prospects like the young shortstops Gage Workman, whose mother ranks fourth all time in Cal State Fullerton women’s basketball scoring; and Ryan Kreidler, the son of author and sportswriter Mark Kreidler:
“The impact guys are a couple of years away, but I do think that when it does hit, it’s going to be sustained. Because there are some really good young players here.”
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Scott Miller is a veteran baseball writer who can be found on Twitter at @ScottMillerBBL
HOW THE 2022 TIGERS WERE BUILT
Age is baseball age in 2022. First indicates first season with the Tigers organization.
Pos Player (Age) Acquired First
C Tucker Barnhart (31) Trade 2022
1B Spencer Torkelson (22) Draft 2020
2B Jonathan Schoop (30) Free agent 2020
3B Jeimer Candelario (28) Trade 2017
SS Javier Baez (29) Free agent 2022
LF Akil Baddoo (23) Rule 5 draft 2021
CF Riley Greene (21) Draft 2019
RF Robbie Grossman (32) Free agent 2021
DH Miguel Cabrera (39) Trade 2008
Pos Rotation (Age) Acquired First
SP Eduardo Rodriguez (29) Free agent 2022
SP Casey Mize (25) Draft 2018
SP Tarik Skubal (25) Draft 2018
SP Matt Manning (24) Draft 2016
SP Wily Peralta (33) Free agent 2021
Pos Bullpen (Age) Acquired First
CL Gregory Soto (27) Int’l FA 2013
RP Michael Fulmer (29) Trade 2015
RP Andrew Chafin (32) Free agent 2022
• While top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene may not break camp with Detroit, they will be up early in the season.
• The back of the Tigers’ rotation is unsettled, with veterans Wily Peralta, Chase Anderson and Drew Hutchsion invited to camp as non-roster players and prospects Joey Wentz and Alex Faedo coming back from Tommy John surgery.