Playing Pepper 2023: Detroit Tigers

If there is one thing baseball is good at, it’s tradition.  (OK, so that point could be debated with the changes over the last few years.)  Tradition around here states that the beginning of the season means that it’s time for Playing Pepper!  This is the fifteenth season–a decade and a half!–of the series that helps you get ready for the season by going around the league and talking with people that live and die with their teams.  Bloggers, former bloggers, podcasters, we’ve got them all as we take a tour of MLB and play some pepper!  If you get inspired to make some predictions during this series, this contest is open to fans of all teams so enter today!

Detroit Tigers
66-96, fourth in the AL Central
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Last year’s Pepper
Top pitcher by fWAR: Tarik Skubal (2.9)
Top hitter by fWAR: Javier Baez (2.0)

When you have lost 114 games just three years ago, 96 losses isn’t really overwhelming.  That said, it wasn’t the direction that Tigers fans expected the club to go in 2022.  Success in Detroit has been limited–they’ve not finished over .500 since 2016–but there’s so much talent starting to converge on Motown that it seems certain to change.  To see how soon, let’s find out what those that watch the team regularly are saying!

Contributor Site Twitter
Tyler Kotila Detroit Jock City tyler_kotila
Roger Castillo Tigers ML Report rogcastbaseball

C70: The second half of 2021 didn’t seem to carry over to 2022. How are you feeling about where the team stands going into 2023?

Tyler: Frankly, the Detroit Tigers are going to be in a tough spot once again. The Tigers need to re-group. As much as Tigers fans marvel at the fact of turning the corner, the 2021-22 off-season leading into the 2022 season was a lot of false hope. There was a feeling that a corner was turned, but a lot of adversity and injuries seemingly put the team a few steps back. But the Tigers faithful need to just buckle up for a long season once again. There are going to be some storylines to watch this season, between Miggy’s farewell tour, some young prospects, and Riley Greene being… Riley Greene, to name a few. For me personally, it’s going to be another rough season of the team just getting through the 162-game schedule. My hopes are high in terms of development. I’m up on A.J. Hinch and have been since he came to Detroit, so I’m hopeful that he and the 2023 coaching staff are able to really get these guys bought in on doing the right things each game. What I mean by that is, finding ways to get these players bought in on grinding out at-bats in the batters’ box, winning each pitch on the mound, and making sure they take care of business even if the end result of the game is not always great. It’ll likely be another season full of adversity, and it will be interesting to see how the team handles it.

Roger: With a new front office and the progress of the minor league system as of late, which seems crazy to think about that the Tigers have produced just a handful of MLB regular positional players over the last 35 years, it seems like now there is an actual plan in place. The Tigers have seemed to always be behind and will struggle this season, but to me, 2023 will be one of the more interesting years because there is some sort of identify forming under Scott Harris. They are looking players who can draw walks, taking chances on the waiver wire, and hiring people who can evaluate players’ weakness via scientific methods. Detroit has been able to develop pitching recently but now it’s time to see hitters.

C70: A number of players were received via trade this offseason. Who do you think will be the standout from that group?

Tyler: There are two that come to mind almost immediately. Justyn-Henry Malloy and Matt Vierling. While Malloy is not currently on the Tigers’ 40-man (at the time of writing this), he has a chance to turn some heads with a good performance in spring ball. I have been up on Malloy since he was acquired and think that he brings some exciting tools in the batters’ box. He’s also athletic and versatile to play third base. It looks like he has the athleticism to lock it down over there, which could be a huge asset to the Tigers moving forward. The other name is Matt Vierling, who the team got from the Phillies. He’s likely to patrol the outfield, and there’s something about his ability to work at-bats that might get him into the lineup more often than not. He’s got a good eye and is able to make good swing decisions which should continue to help him be an effective bat as called upon. Vierling could very well find himself being one of the standout newcomers from the Tigers’ off-season moves.

Roger: Nick Maton, I think, will surprise people. He has a good approach at the plate and is really looking to prove himself. He can play multiple positions in the infield, which gives the Tigers flexibility, something Detroit has lacked, and depth. 

C70: It’s the last year for Miguel Cabrera, who has been synonymous with the Tigers for a decade and a half. What’s it going to be like for you watching his final go-around, and how productive do you think he can be?

Tyler: I’m just 23 years old, so all of my mindful baseball memories include Miguel Cabrera in a Tigers uniform. I remember him being with the Marlins and trading for him with a big trade, and when I played MLB 2K7 on the PlayStation 2 at my grandparents’ house, I would always trade for him. It’s been a while since then, and watching Cabrera growing up was incredible. I definitely took it for granted as a youngster, being able to watch one of the greatest players to pick up a bat so often. It will be bittersweet to see Miggy depart after the 2023 season. It will officially close the door on my childhood era of Tigers baseball, growing up and watching him murder baseballs with Mario Impemba and Rod Allen on the call. Watching him collect hit no. 3,000 like only Miggy would, a well-executed back-side single into right-center field, or his 500th home run on the road in Toronto. Miggy’s personality was always talked about over the years for the good and bad at times, but in the last few years, he really has shifted to being a true leader for these younger players. He’s provided that guidance, wisdom, and helping hand to these players fighting to crack it in the big leagues, and taking hitting advice or just general advice on the big leagues from Miguel Cabrera is only going to help you if you ask me. It’s going to be a long year, and even if his number of at-bats is much lower than usual, I’d expect Miggy to get it done as he always does. Even if it’s not full of home runs and doubles, but being able to just do what he does and hit.

Roger: This will be bittersweet because Miguel really enjoys playing the game and you can see it in all of his actions. His body is breaking down but to do what he is doing, purely on muscle memory and baseball knowledge over the last few seasons, has been a pleasure to watch.

C70: From the outside, Javier Baez’s first year in Detroit didn’t seem to meet up with expectations. Is that a fair statement, and what do you expect from Baez going forward?

Tyler: It’s a more than fair statement. The Detroit Tigers cannot be thrilled with what Javier Báez brought to the table in his first season. The team’s token shortstop was a bit underwhelming, to stay the least. I would expect him to perform at a much better clip in 2023, but that also seems a bit optimistic. I have not been super high on Báez since day one and find it hard to get excited about that contract overall. The swing-and-miss and inability to make adjustments on sliders time after time are just frustrating to watch. Paying him $23.3 million a year to strike out as much as he did in 2022 is going to get old quickly. He’s a big leaguer and has shown he can be a good hitter when things click; heck, when he does damage on hanging sliders over the middle of the plate, he gets some serious jump off the barrel for the deep drives pull-side. But I think there’s got to be some adjustments for that contract not to look tough in 2-3 years for the Tigers as they (hopefully) start to compete. I think he can get things going; it’s a matter of him making the adjustments.

Roger: Fans forget he had a thumb injury in the first half of the season that really limited in the field. After June, he was just above a 2.0 WAR player. Does he swing at a lot of bad pitches? Absolutely, but Tigers fans, despite knowing that, felt it was his biggest holdup, but in reality, he has been that way since he was in Chicago. He can opt out after this year, so I expect him to have a good season in which he will hit 20 or more home runs and drive in at least 70 runs.

C70: What’s the best case, worst case, and most likely scenario on how 2023 plays out?

Tyler: This is a tough one. Part of me wants to say that the team goes out and competes, but it’s just hard to say that this Tigers team is going to be competitive for anything. Now, if they go out and compete game in and game out, do the right things and show some growth, that’s the best-case scenario. Putting win-loss aside, there are some things that could happen that I would call “wins.” Riley Greene building on a solid first season and Spencer Torkelson finding his footing would be the best-case scenario. Similarly to what was talked about in the previous question, a rebound with Báez is also crucial to a “positive” season. The pitching staff needs to have the bullpen settle in. Defining roles and finding a closer (hopefully in Alex Lange) is going to be crucial. On top of that, seeing the rookies start to take off and settle in. The flip side of all of that would be the wheels falling off. I mean, it’s hard to see the team have to deal with more injuries on the pitching side than they did last year. The Tigers have to avoid the wheels falling off and players just giving up on the season. Which could be tough come late June and into July. But it will be interesting to see how the Tigers are able to manage things in 2023.

Roger: Best case, the Tigers win 80 or more games with several players having career years and a few prospects like Parker Meadows and Colt Keith emerge as regulars. Worst case? I don’t know, last year was a historical terrible offense so it’s all up hill from here. 

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