Tigers season preview: Let the tanking begin!

By Blake Froling

March 27 — Let’s start this by stating the obvious: the Tigers are going to stink. Unfortunately, that’s not a hot take. It’s a fact.

General Manager Al Avila spent the second half of last summer remodeling an aging and expensive team and actually did a decent job, as far as we can tell so far. The farm system is not barren anymore, and some might say it’s in the upper half of baseball in terms of talent depth.

But we’re not here to talk about the 2021 Detroit Tigers, we’re here to preview the 2018 Detroit Tigers. It’s not going to be pretty, but what you see on the field this year is necessary to making sure the club returns to its former glory. As for when exactly that will happen is anyone’s guess.

ESPN writer Sam Miller described the Tigers’ upcoming season perfectly:

Everything the Tigers…do this year will be sad, the product ugly, the philosophy underneath it uncomfortably crass. Lots of things will happen that will nudge up their chances of being good in 2020 or 2021, but the rewards are so far off — not even “wait ’til next year” — and uncertain that it’ll be hard to be emotionally moved by them.

He’s referencing tanking in the first sentence. Yes, the Tigers will be tanking. Is it morally responsible to intentionally field a noncompetitive team in order to get a better draft slot? If it’s within the rules and you have a plan, yes. The Tigers appear to have a plan at least. The Marlins, who Miller was also referring to in that quote, do not.

Be glad you don’t root for the Marlins.

 Bright spot at the hot corner

Yes, believe it or not, there are a few bright spots on this Tigers team. One of them is Jeimer Candelario.

The rookie third baseman came to Detroit from the Chicago Cubs via the Justin Wilson/Alex Avila trade. Candelario hasn’t even played a full season in a Tigers uniform and I’m already confident Detroit won the trade.

Here are Avila’s stats in Detroit and Chicago last season:

Justin Wilson’s splits were even worse:

Tigers fans got a brief glimpse at Candelario last season once he was called up from Triple-A Toledo and he didn’t disappoint, hitting .330 with three home runs in 94 at-bats. Candelario has already proven to be a far superior fielding third baseman than Nick Castellanos, who will be manning right field this season.

Some baseball pundits have even projected Candelario to be a possible AL Rookie of the Year candidate. The 24-year-old doesn’t even have to be that good to give Tigers fans hope. If he maintains a batting average above .280 and has a decent glove, that would be a win.

Candelario is projected to hit second in the batting order.

Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera are healthy — for now

The two sluggers both slogged through horrible seasons at the plate in 2017, largely due to various maladies, but now it appears the aging stars are finally healthy again.

Cabrera injured his back at the World Baseball Classic back in March and never fully recovered. His numbers reflected the pain he was fighting through all season, posting career-lows in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS.

Spring training numbers are not always a great indicator of regular season success, but Cabrera says he feels healthy and the numbers reflect it. In the grand scheme of things, Cabrera’s performance this year won’t add very many wins because of the lack of talent around him, but could help in a possible trade scenario, however unlikely that may be.

Martinez had heart problems at the end of last season and dealt with other injuries that kept him out of 55 games, the most he’s missed in a season since 2008 (not including 2012, when he missed the entire regular season due to a knee injury). When Martinez was in the lineup, he was devoid of any pop his bat, and don’t even get me started about his baserunning.

The best-case scenario for the Tigers would be for Martinez to rediscover some of the power he lost in 2017 and turn into a viable trade chip at the deadline. Worst-case would be if he posts similar numbers to last season and becomes a liability in the batting order.

Manager Ron Gardenhire will also have to decide if it’s worth keeping Martinez in the lineup if (when) the team is out of contention. Those at-bats would be better used by a younger player who might have a future with the team.

The tanking starts early this year

Jordan Zimmermann is starting on Opening Day.

Yes, that same Jordan Zimmermann who posted a 6.08 ERA last season. While this is largely a ceremonial title, it’s embarrassing that the Tigers have to trot out this guy on the only day Comerica Park won’t be half empty.

I do appreciate how Gardenhire wants to get the tanking started as soon as possible. This is a great first step in that regard.

All reports indicate that Zimmermann is again fully healthy and feeling confident, looking better blah blah blah. Insert all the spring training propaganda you want, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Zimmermann has been one of the worst free agent signings in franchise history, and he’d have to have one of his best seasons of his career to erase that.

As for the rest of the rotation

I am excited to see what new pitching coach Chris Bosio can do with the rotation. Bosio has earned a reputation as one of the best pitching coaches in the MLB thanks to the success Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks had under his tutelage. . He was with the Chicago Cubs when they won the World Series, so he has a pedigree of success.

Several Tigers pitchers have mentioned how he’s already helped them in the short time he’s been with the team. Maybe I’m falling for the spring training propaganda, but he’s got my hopes up.

As for the rest of the starting rotation, there is one bright spot and four or five question marks.

Michael Fulmer is healthy after undergoing season-ending elbow surgery last season. He should be poised to reclaim his spot atop the rotation and provide Tigers fans relief every fifth day. He also could be the most valuable trade chip Al Avila can dangle in front of other teams in July.

Francisco Liriano was brought in solely to be traded, that much is obvious. He had a fantastic spring and if he pitches well in the first few months of the season, he’ll surely have a one-way ticket to a contending team. That should be plenty of motivation.

Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris have been perennial breakout candidates ever since coming to Detroit. Both were up and down last season, both in performance and professional level, as both spent time in the minors.

Both had ERAs above 5 but both are dripping with potential. If one or both have decent years, the Tigers could have a fighting chance to not be the worst team in baseball.

Mike Fiers was brought in from the Houston Astros to be a veteran presence on the staff, but he’ll start the season on the DL and his spot in the rotation is far from safe, especially if Norris and Boyd get off to fast starts.

About that bullpen…

It’s going to be a disaster once again. Shane Greene will be the closer until he’s inevitably traded. After that, I honestly have no idea who will step up. All eyes will be on young flamethrower Joe Jimenez, who had a disappointing brief stint in the majors last season.

If the team accidentally gets a lead in the 7th inning, the bullpen will aid the tanking effort by promptly blowing said lead. Call it tanking insurance.

Bottom Line

You know what to expect this season with the Tigers. A whole lot of losing. Knowing this before the season should make it somewhat more tolerable. At least there’s a method to the losing, unlike back in the dark days before 2006.

Instead of focusing on wins and losses, focus on individual performances. There will be plenty of new faces you won’t recognize, but that’s OK! They could turn into the group that brings the Tigers back to relevancy. Or they could be shipped out in July, who knows.

It might be more worthwhile to check in on the Toledo Mud Hens if you’re bored on a summer evening instead of a Tigers game.

Predictions:

Record: 70-92, 5th in AL Central, not the worst in the MLB!

All-Stars: Nick Castellanos, Michael Fulmer

Trade candidates: everyone

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