by Matt Korte

Opponent Preview: Detroit Tigers – Position Players

The Reds face the Detroit Tigers in six of their first ten games of 2020. So this week is a great time to get to know the opponent. This is the first of a two-part series introducing the team from Motown.

While many Reds fans may not be overly familiar with the Detroit Tigers, there are more ties between the two clubs than most realize. Sparky Anderson is the biggest link between the franchises. The storied manager brought World Series championships to Cincinnati in 1975 and 1976, then Detroit in 1984. In terms of player connections, two of Cincinnati’s premier position players came from the Tigers’ franchise. Eugenio Suarez was the Reds’ return in the infamous Alfredo Simon trade in 2014 and Nick Castellanos is a product of the Tigers’ farm system and was a staple in Detroit until his trade deadline move last season.

Outside of roster connections, Reds fans can sympathize with Detroit’s current state. Much like the Reds, the Tigers were legitimate contenders in the early 2010’s, making it as far as the 2012 World Series where they were swept by the San Francisco Giants. Since then, the Tigers have suffered gradual decline from being one of the best teams in the American League to the worst team in baseball, winning just 47 games in 2019. The Tigers payroll grew to nearly $200 million in 2016 and 2017. Now it is down to $100 million.

Something else familiar to Reds fans, the Tigers have offloaded many great players, including Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. The only carryover from the 2012 squad is 37-year-old Miguel Cabrera.

As Detroit waits for promising prospects to reach the big leagues, they will suffer a long 2020 season, albeit shortened.

2019 Recap

The bottom dwellers of MLB, the Tigers posted a 47-114 record, just short of the franchise worst 43 wins in 2003 and the league record of 40 set by the 1962 expansion New York Mets. Outside of pitching, which will be looked at in Part Two of this series, the biggest bright spot in the lineup had been Nick Castellanos. As a team, the Tigers recorded a 77 wRC+ which was dead last in the majors. Things were no better in the field, as Detroit collectively had a defensive WAR of -53.8, only ahead of the Baltimore Orioles.

The Offseason

2020 looks to be another year of rebuilding for the Tigers as their biggest moves were for placeholders for future prospects or larger free agent signings of the future. The highlight of the offseason came on one day — December 21 — as the Tigers signed former Twins C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop to identical one-year $6.1 million deals. While Cron and Schoop may not be the sexiest of signings, they are marked improvements over Brandon Dixon and Gordon Beckham.

Detroit added two more free agents in the offseason both coming from the New York Yankees. Cameron Maybin and Austin Romine are familiar names for Tiger fans. Maybin had been a product of the Detroit farm system and had a one-year stint with the big league club in 2016. Romine is the brother of former Tiger Andrew Romine and was at the center of a fight with Miguel Cabrera in 2017.

The Tigers also resigned infielder Jordy Mercer to a second, one-year contract, but this time for $1 million compared to his $5.25 million contract last season.

Stories to Watch

The exciting stories for the Tigers now and near future are on the pitching side. Miguel Cabrera is and always will be the center of focus of the club, for better or worse. At least until his 8-year, $240 million contract expires after the 2023 season.

Niko Goodrum is the most exciting player in the Tigers lineup and could be poised for a real breakout season. Outside of “Miggy” and Niko, the Tigers are hoping one of their offseason signings can make an impact in the shortened season. Expanded rosters allows Detroit a chance to give their prospects a cup of coffee at the major league level.

Projected Opening Day Lineup 

These players should be the starters for Detroit when they open the season against the Reds on Friday.

Cameron Maybin – RF

Maybin had a career year with the Yankees in 2019 in spite of a left calf strain that kept him on the IL for over a month. His injury and a crowded New York outfield limited his playing time. Maybin saw action in 82 games and hit extremely well. He was well above average with a 127 wRC+ and .335 xwOBA. Much of this could be accredited to his improved 11.6 launch angle, 89.4 exit velocity, and 10.2 barrel %, which were all significantly higher than years prior. Maybin gets on base at a high rate (.364 OBP), but his steep strike out rate of 26.8 % is cause for concern.

As a fielder, Maybin was just below average with -1 Outs Above Average (OAA) last season, but despite being 33 years old he can still make an impact on the base paths. Maybin ranks in the 87th percentile in sprint speed at 28.7 feet per second and could provide close to double digit steals for the Tigers like the previous two seasons. The addition of Cameron Maybin gives Detroit a legitimate leadoff hitter with significant speed, which the Tigers have lacked in recent history.

Niko Goodrum – SS

A name unfamiliar to most outside of Detroit, Niko Goodrum has solidified himself as a gifted utility man for the Tigers. With the ability to play every position outside of catcher, Goodrum should be a starter more often than not. The Tigers used him as such last season, giving him over 45 innings at every position except for third base where he logged nine innings. Goodrum provides more than simple flexibility as he had an impressive 7 OAA in 2019.

Not only is Goodrum proficient at seven positions, but he was arguably the Tigers’ best hitter last season. Goodrum boasted a 3.4 offensive WAR in 2019, while no one else outside of Castellanos had a value higher than 1.0. His 94 wRC+ was supported by a high 41.8 hard hit % and .303 xwOBA in a breakout year for the 28-year-old. Pegged as the every day starter at shortstop this year, look for Goodrum to thrive with a marginally improved lineup around him.

Miguel Cabrera – DH

The utterance of the name Miguel Cabrera evokes the same reaction from Tigers fans as Joey Votto does in Cincinnati. Similarities abound as both were once known as one of, if not the best, hitters in baseball. As of 2020, both have experienced age-related downward trends while a segment of fans belabors their massive contracts. You thought Votto’s contract was bad at $25 million a year through 2024? Try Cabrera’s $30 million a year through 2023 deal for size. For what it’s worth, Votto is a year younger and has played better than Cabrera as of late.

Cabrera went from a triple crown season in 2012 to a below average hitter with a 92 wRC+ in 2017, an injury shortened season in 2018, and a 96 wRC+ in 2019. Gone are the days of “Miggy” playing first base, let alone third base, as he will solely be a designated hitter for the rest of his career thanks to his declining fielding skills. While he might start in the three hole for Detroit, it would not be surprising if manager Ron Gardenhire moved him down in the lineup if his bat continues to fall off.

C.J. Cron – 1B

The Tigers did well to bring in a hard hitting first baseman in Cron to permanently replace Cabrera in the field. He comes in as just above average in terms of his 101 wRC+, but he rates highly in many Statcast metrics. Most notable is his 15.0 barrel % which is in the 95th percentile among the likes of Ronald Acuna Jr. and Pete Alonso. Cron touted a .362 xwOBA with the Twins in 2019 which would have easily led the Tigers, bar Castellanos. One concern could be Cron’s transition to the pitcher friendly Comerica Park, but in 2019 he hit .290/.313/.677 in Detroit in a decent sample size. Cron might just be what the Tigers need to spark their abysmal offense.

Jonathan Schoop – 2B

Joining Cron in the middle of the Tigers lineup is Jonathan Schoop. Reds fans might remember Schoop from his two months playing with the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018. Schoop will bring an average-at-best bat and steady glove to Detroit. In 2019 Schoop had a wRC+ of 100 which is definitively average. The second baseman had poor plate discipline in 2019 with a dreadful 4.3 walk rate and 41.4 chase %. What Schoop provides is a more than passable second baseman in the field. He ranked in the 84th percentile last season with 4 OAA which will make for a steady middle infield this year between Schoop and Goodrum.

Jeimer Candelario – 3B

Projected to bat sixth for the Tigers is the switch hitting Jeimer Candelario. FanGraphs expects Candelario to face right handed pitching in a platoon with Jordy Mercer (most likely having Mercer play short and Goodrum sliding over to third). With Sonny Gray announced as the Reds opener, Candelario will get the nod.

Confidence in Candelario’s bat has been fading and his 72 wRC+ in 2019 emphasizes that. Candelario struggled to hit from both sides of the plate last year with his .193/.295/.277 versus lefties and .206/.309/.357 against right handers. The silver lining to his lackluster bat is Jeimer’s 3 OAA in 2019, putting him in the 80th percentile. It would not be surprising to see Jordy Mercer, Dawel Lugo, or even Isaac Paredes usurp his role if they can show anything with their bats. In reality, whoever plays at third is purely a placeholder until 2020 1st overall pick Spencer Torkelson arrives in the big leagues.

Christin Stewart – LF

Left field looks to be a platoon for the Tigers with lefty Christin Stewart set to face right handed pitching and Victor Reyes poised to hit against lefties. Stewart had a measly 80 wRC+ last season, but the Tigers are hoping he can replicate his minor league success. Even though the production wasn’t there, Stewart still managed to post a .315 xwOBA which was just below league average and fourth best on the 2019 squad. Stewart is making quality contact and that his performance should come around.

Austin Romine – C

Newly added Austin Romine will come in to replace John Hicks behind the plate who left in free agency to Arizona. Romine is average (52nd percentile) at pitch framing as he converted 48.7 % of non-swing pitches near the edge of the zone into called strikes last season. His pop time is 2.07 seconds, which is in the 12th percentile of qualifying catchers. What he lacks behind the plate he makes up for with an adequate bat. His 95 wRC+ was 21st among catchers last season and will provide the Tigers with a solid number eight hitter.

Jacoby Jones – CF

The Tigers expect Jacoby Jones to patrol center field in Comerica Park in 2020. Jones comes in as an average defender with 1 OAA (61st percentile) thanks to a 12th-percentile outfielder jump made up for with 81st-percentile sprint speed. At the plate Jones has shown flashes, but has yet to eclipse 100 in wRC+, with his closest coming in at 92 last season. That being said, he boasted the second best xwOBA on the squad last year at .321, so the potential is still there. Jones needs to prove his worth soon if he wants to keep his job before the next crop of outfielders emerges from the farm system.

Bench/Prospects

Victor Reyes will be the most intriguing name not in the starting nine, although he should find his way into the lineup often. The switch hitter had a 100 wRC+ in 2019 and could easily take over as an every day starter if any of the current three outfielders falter. A series of injuries has plagued a trio of candidates for the fifth outfielder spot between Derek Hill, Travis Demeritte, and Daz Cameron, so Jorge Bonifacio might get the call if Detroit wants five true outfielders.

Jordy Mercer, Dawel Lugo, and Harold Castro look to be the bench infielders in Detroit, but a pair of highly anticipated prospects could work their way into the mix. Isaac Paredes could have battled Candelario for a shot at third base this summer if Paredes hadn’t contracted COVID-19. The Tigers’ fifth-ranked prospect is expected to start the season in Toledo, but could still get a shot at playing in the majors in 2020. Willi Castro is a shortstop prospect who likely won’t make the opening day roster, but could fight his way on or fill in for an injury. As previously mentioned, the top pick of the 2020 draft, Spencer Torkelson will be training in Toledo, but is not expected to make an immediate move to Detroit.

Grayson Greiner will backup Romine at catcher, but don’t be surprised if Jake Rogers makes his way into the lineup as he is claimed to be their catcher of the future (a la Tyler Stephenson).

Conclusion

Thanks to four new starters via free agency the Tigers should have an improved offense. They may not be the worst lineup in baseball this season, but it’s also not likely they will overwhelm opposing pitchers. If a few key players can see an uptick in their production, the Tigers maybe, just maybe, could fight for fourth in the AL Central with the Royals.

[Featured image: https://twitter.com/NikoGoodrum/status/1279554947856695296/photo/1]

Matt Korte is a lifelong Reds fan despite living most of his life in Michigan. The first five years of his life were spent in Cincinnati, but Matt became a lifetime fan when revisiting Cincinnati and watching Brandon Phillips hit a grand slam to defeat a Barry Bonds led Giants team in 2007 with his father. He hopes to one day see a Cincinnati sports team advance in the playoffs for the first time in his lifespan. A recent BS and MBA graduate, Matt currently works at Concordia University Ann Arbor as the Assistant Sports Information Director. When not working, you can find him consuming as much Reds, Bengals, fantasy sports, Star Wars, and Survivor content as possible. You can catch Matt on Twitter at @MKorte7815 where he can be found discussing all of the above.