Playing Pepper 2019: Detroit Tigers

Every year since 2009, I’ve spent some time before the season starts trying to find out what fanbases are thinking about their team.  It’s so easy to get myopic, especially with Twitter, so it’s a good chance for us (and by us, I mean me) to take a step back and remember there are 29 other Major League Baseball teams.  We’ve got current bloggers, former bloggers that indulge me still, and this year a few media folks chiming in as well.  Get out the bat, ball, and glove: it’s time once again to play some pepper.

Detroit Tigers
64-98, third in AL Central
Website | Twitter
Last year’s Pepper

When was the last time you saw a team almost lose 100 games yet finish third in its division?  The AL Central was its own sort of interesting last year and the Tigers took advantage, if you could call it that.  With the division still in a fallow period, could Detroit jump up and make some noise?  We’ve got three bloggers today to let us know just how realistic that thought is.

Writer Site Twitter
Jennifer Cosey VivaTigres
Neil Weinberg New English D NeilWeinberg44
Ashley MacLennan Bless You Boys 90feetfromhome

C70: What are your thoughts on the offseason? What was good, what was bad, what else should they have done?

Jennifer: The Tigers offseason can only be categorized as extreme blah. Even though fans knew the Tigers wouldn’t be all in on any of the high-profile free agents, I think it was still disappointing. The club did ink former Pirate Josh Harrison on February 20th, which I view as a good addition. The common feeling is that Chris Ilitch does not have the same penchant for spending that his father Mike did, may he rest well.

Neil: I think the Tigers missed a significant opportunity to jump start their rebuild. I don’t have any objections with the additions they did make (Mercer, Harrison, Moore, Ross), but those were all supporting moves. With the kind of free agent talent that was available at below market rates this winter, the Tigers could have gotten a lot better. Their payroll is way below their recent norm and Cabrera is the only player with whom they have a long term commitment. They could have been in on Harper, Machado, Keuchel, Kimbrel, et al, and they didn’t even make an attempt. Their prospects are due to start graduating over the next two years and Harper/Machado would have been in their primes at the same time. It was disappointing to see the organization make no effort to acquire a franchise-level talent when they easily could have afforded it. Chris Ilitch is not following his father’s example.

Ashley: The offseason ranked a pretty solid “meh” for me. I went into it thinking the Tigers needed to get a shortstop and a solid veteran catcher, and I got Jordy Mercer. And don’t get me wrong, Mercer is a totally serviceable SS who will be a fine replacement for Jose Iglesias, and I’m certainly not mad at the Josh Harrison signing, but I was really hoping they might scoop up Maldonado or Wieters (both of who went late in the offseason for very, very team friendly deals.) I think they paid too much for what they got in a lot of cases, and didn’t get a lot to make the team markedly better.

C70: As Cardinal fans, we saw Tyson Ross at the end of the year. What are your expectations of him?

Jennifer: Ross has been shelled in Spring Training so far, but that is far from predictive for his season. I saw him pitch in Lakeland on February 23rd, which was early, and he did not look good–wasn’t fooling anyone with his pitches.

Neil: The way I look at it, if Ross can capture any of his pre-injury magic, it’s a bonus for the Tigers. Shoulders are tricky and his strikeout and ground ball rates are nowhere near where they were during his 2014 and 2015 seasons. Especially in today’s game, those couple of miles per hour he lost on his fastball make a big difference. I’m not expecting a ton, but a couple good months is all it will take for the Tigers to flip him for a prospect the way they did with Mike Fiers.

Ashley: In his current appearances in spring training I haven’t been terribly wowed. At best I’d love him to have a Mike Fiers-type season where he has a spike in value and the team can trade him at the deadline.

C70: Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t seemed to pan out like the front office thought. Is there any chance he can recapture the form that got him that big contract?

Jennifer: At this point, it’s doubtful. Maybe it’s just me protecting myself, but I don’t have any great hope that he’ll regain his prior form after three full subpar seasons. I know he has worked hard, and his struggles are not for lack of trying. Rooting for him! Footnote: after I typed all that stuff, @cmccosky of the Detroit News tweeted that “Zimmermann in three outings this spring has 12 punch-outs in 7 innings. Getting swings-and-misses on his slider. He has four Ks in two innings today — three swinging.”

Neil: Obviously Zimmermann isn’t going to be an ace during his remaining days in Detroit, but I actually do think there is some hope. He’s lost velocity and he’s been hurt, and it’s all come together in the form of a ton of home run damage against him. But he does strike me as the kind of guy who could reinvent himself a little and survive the velocity loss. If he’s healthy, I’d expect a bit of a bounce back.

Ashley: I don’t think Zimmermann will ever really max out the value of what the front office paid for him. Aside from Miguel Cabrera, he’s one of the last remaining big deal contracts that Mike Ilitch signed in hopes of netting himself a championship team. Thus far in spring Zimm has been pretty impressive, actually. I’m not anticipating an All-Star season out of him, but if he can maintain momentum I’d love to see him really balance out the top of the rotation with Matthew Boyd and win some games.

C70: What is your general outlook for 2019? Where will they finish in the division?

Jennifer: The general outlook is a whole lot of awful, to be honest. The second year of a full rebuild isn’t going to be pretty, and the Tigers are doing nothing to accelerate the process. We’ll be wallowing in mediocrity or worse. The club will probably finish near the bottom of the division again. Last year, I said that a true fan can always find something to enjoy about baseball, and I stand by that, although there are bound to be dark days and many disappointments ahead.

Neil: They’re going to be very bad, but the AL Central is also very bad. They’re clearly worse than Cleveland and probably a clear step behind the Twins, but they could finish third again even if they don’t beat expectations. It’s a 65-70 win roster with some room to exceed that if some of the young players develop a little ahead of schedule.

Ashley: A lot of the big lists are out and all of them have the Tigers at the bottom of the AL Central, which I don’t think will be the case. While the White Sox might surprise folks this season I find it hard to imagine the Royals pulling out anything substantial in terms of 2019 wins. I believe the Tigers will finish third or fourth in the division with about 68 wins. 

C70: What’s the biggest question for this team going into the season and what’s the answer to it?

(Editor’s note: this was obviously before the report this week that Fulmer may need Tommy John surgery.)

Jennifer: I think people want to see if Michael Fulmer will come back after surgery for a torn meniscus. He has gone from ace of the future to questionable status after two straight seasons interrupted by injury. If Fulmer can come back strong, he will either solidify his spot as our ace, or return to being a valuable trade chip. People will have to have a little patience, since his velocity may take some time to return as he begins to trust the repaired knee. When asked if people should be concerned about his lower velocity, Fulmer seemed to be either unconcerned or a little annoyed, replying “you can be concerned about whatever you want.” He still has several spring starts remaining, and his velocity increased a tick already.

Neil: I think the health of Miguel Cabrera and Michael Fulmer will define the season. Cabrera missed a huge portion of 2018. Is that a one off thing or are we gearing up for this to be the norm for the rest of his career? Fulmer is also trying to come back from an injury and it will really tip things depending on whether he is going to be durable or oft-injured. I think Gardenhire watches them both carefully this year and they wind up reasonably healthy.

Ashley: For me it’s Daniel Norris, and has been for the past several seasons. He has so much potential but has yet to show it come to much, and has been bogged down with injury. I think the answer to the question comes in terms of whether or not the team is willing to take a shot on him as a starter, or if they just fully invest in him as long relief. He seems willing to take any role as long as it means helping the team. Ideally I’d love to see him shine in a starter role, but the team seems overly cautious of trusting him there and it’s leading to a lot of uncertainty.

C70: What do you expect will give you the most joy watching this team on a regular basis this season?

Jennifer: Without a doubt, it will be Miguel Cabrera. Miggy carries joy of the game with him wherever he goes, and spreads it around. He even brought joy to a young fan of the opposing team, so it’s a universal truth, darnit. I am very thankful to have had the opportunity to watch the career of a HOF player like Miggy from an up-close vantage point over the years. Bad contact or not, I am happy to have him in Detroit.

Neil: I’ve been on the Matthew Boyd bandwagon since he was acquired, and I’m hoping this is the year he doesn’t have any sustained struggles. There’s a lot to like, but he’s fallen out of whack at times the last two seasons. It would be very satisfying if he put together a 3+ WAR season.

Ashley: On a rebuilding team the joy can be hard to find, but I think it’ll be a mix of good-guy utility man Niko Goodrum, a healthy bomb-hitting Miguel Caberera, and Nicholas Castellanos just generally being a ton of fun. The Tigers skew very young this year so I think there’s going to be a lot of fun moments with the young guys. 

My thanks to everyone for taking the time to talk about this Tigers team.  While it might not be a team that looks to be a surprise team this coming season, hopefully there will be plenty of bright spots for the fan base!

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