Detroit Tigers 2019 season preview: It's going to be another long summer in the Motor City

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The Detroit Tigers have lost 98 games in each of the past two seasons. There’s reason to think they could it again as part of what’s certain to be a long summer in the Motor City.

Probable lineup

  1. Josh Harrison, 2B
  2. Nicholas Castellanos, RF
  3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
  4. Jeimer Candelario, 3B
  5. Christin Stewart, LF
  6. Niko Goodrum, DH
  7. Jordy Mercer, SS
  8. Grayson Greiner, C
  9. Jacoby Jones, CF

Bench: John Hicks, 1B/C; Bobby Wilson, C; Ronny Rodriguez, UTL; Mikie Mahtook, OF

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The Tigers aren’t going to have the worst offense in baseball, but they’re a Cabrera injury or a Castellanos trade away from coming close. The only other hitter PECOTA projects as above-average is Harrison, and he’s posted an OPS+ over 100 once in his last four tries. Candelario is respectable in a second-division sense, and Stewart might threaten 30 homers if he gets the playing time. Otherwise, there’s not a whole lot here to like. Mercer makes Jose Iglesias seem exciting; Greiner is tall and miscast as a starter; Goodrum’s ball-tracking metrics suggest he probably played over his head last season; Jones seems more likely to finish the season with 300 more strikeouts than walks for his career than with 20 homers and 20 stolen bases; and so on. It’s an underwhelming group.

Probable rotation

  1. Matthew Boyd, LHP
  2. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP
  3. Tyson Ross, RHP
  4. Matt Moore, LHP
  5. Daniel Norris, LHP

This bunch isn’t much better, either. Michael Fulmer had seen his ERA, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and games started totals worsen in each of the past two seasons. He’s expected to undergo Tommy John surgery and miss the year. Boyd was one of the relative bright spots for the Tigers last season, tossing a staff-best 170 innings of 100 ERA+ ball. His velocity ticked up throughout the year, returning to his normal 92-mph range by season’s end. Zimmermann is coming off easily the best season of his Tigers career. That’s a heck of a thing to write about a season in which the two-time All-Star averaged just over five innings per pop and allowed nearly two home runs per nine innings. Ross and Moore are both around as upside plays. Ross’s hurdle is his health while Moore’s is his vanishing fastball — not in terms of velocity, but life. Norris was once the top piece in return for David Price. He’s since peaked as the guy who lives in his van. Should anyone falter or fall or get towed away overnight, then Ryan Carpenter would likely be first in line to take their spot. 

Probable bullpen

Closer: Shane Greene, RHP
Setup: Joe Jimenez, RHP
Middle: Buck Farmer, RHP; Blaine Hardy, LHP; Drew VerHagen, RHP
LOOGY: Daniel Stumpf
Long: Reed Garrett, RHP

A fun (or not-so-fun, depending on rooting interests) game to play is: name Tigers relievers. Greene is probably the one everyone knows. Last season he became the fifth reliever since the most recent round of expansion (and the first in nearly a decade) to post more than 30 saves and an ERA over 5.00. Brad Lidge did it twice; Greene will hope to avoid that fate. He might not have a choice. Jimenez is well-known for his big-time arm strength and he recorded more than 3.5 strikeouts per walk. He’s the closer of the future here. The Tigers have a lot of recently converted starters in their bullpen. Farmer gained velocity with his move to the bullpen, but missed the zone too often for comfort. Hardy split the season between the rotation and the ‘pen; he’s a better fit in relief. Stumpf is an adequate left-on-left option. Reininger and Garrett throw hard. Barring a few breakout seasons, this group is going to be bad and prone to change. Expect Victor Alcantara, Jose Fernandez, Sandy Baez, and Louis Coleman to be among those who see the light of a Detroit day.

How bad are they?

If this preview seems negative, it’s because the Tigers are likely to once again be one of the worst teams in baseball. FanGraphs has them with the fourth-worst record in the majors (68 wins), while Baseball Prospectus has them tied for the second-worst record (67 wins).

It makes sense, right? The Tigers have lost nearly 200 games the past two seasons, and there’s at least a chance they run that to 300 this year — especially if they trade Castellanos (who is in his walk year) and have to go long stretches without Cabrera. Their biggest talent additions were pitchers who used to be good (Ross, Moore) and position players who tend to be mediocre (Harrison, Mercer). Whatever leads their lineup is able to establish are likely to be given back — either by their starters or by a leaky bullpen. 

It’s going to be a long, bad season in Detroit.

Things to watch

Is there anything to look forward to here? We’re glad you asked! Here are five things, to varying degrees of importance, that we think bear mentioning:

  1. Cabrera marches toward history: He’ll enter the season 35 home runs from 500 and 324 hits from 3,000. He isn’t going to reach either big number in 2019, so this year will be about setting himself up for a huge 2020.
  2. Anthony Fenech’s Twitter: Fenech is one of the better beat writers in the game, and he’s been on a tear on social media this offseason. Can he keep it up? We’ll see.
  3. The race for the No. 1 pick: The Tigers selected first overall last June, and will pick fifth this coming draft. They’re likely to add a third top-five pick, and you can’t blame their fans if they hope it’s closer to the top of the board.
  4. Comerica Park hits a milestone: Did you know this is the 20th season for Comerica? Feels like it just opened yesterday, no? 
  5. Veterans’ leashes: How long will the Tigers stick by some of their older players in the name of preserving trade value?

On that note ….

It’ll get better (because it can’t get much worse)

Mercifully, the Tigers do have some youngsters slated to arrive before this season ends.

Per MLB.com, the Tigers have 12 prospects who have an overall future potential of 50 or better — or league-average or better. Of those 12, half are expected to play in and/or reach the majors this season: infielders Isaac Paredes and Willi Castro, outfielders Daz Cameron and Stewart, and pitchers Beau Burrows and Kyle Funkhouser. The three top prospects in the system — pitchers Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Franklin Perez — are expected to reach the big-league shores in 2020, though the Tigers could opt to be more aggressive if they so choose.

Beyond those dozen prospects, the Tigers have some other players of note who should be joining the 25-man roster at various points. Catcher Jake Rogers came over in the Justin Verlander deal and possesses at least backup quality catch-and-throw skills; infielder Sergio Alcantara has a good glove; another infielder, Dawel Lugo, has a strong arm; pitcher Logan Shore was the return on Mike Fiers and has a decent three-pitch mix; outfielder Jake Robson can really run; and so on.

Those players alone aren’t going to turn the Tigers into contenders, but at minimum they’ll make the team easier to watch.