With the World Series champion Kansas City Royals in their division, the Detroit Tigers hit free agency hard by bolstering both their rotation and their lineup. Damian Dydyn breaks down the 2016 Detroit Tigers offense to determine whether or not enough was done to unseat to champions.
The Detroit Tigers are in trouble in the long term. They have an aging roster, their best players are all declining, they have left themselves little room to maneuver while staying under the luxury tax threshold and their farm system is all but depleted. Given the issues facing the Tigers, it is not surprising that they have approached this offseason like a team looking at a small competitive window. Jordan Zimmermann was signed to shore up the rotation, but his dip in velocity suggests he may be headed toward an arm injury soon or his effectiveness could be declining. Miguel Cabrera will be 33 and played in only 119 games last year, his 12th full season in the majors. Justin Verlander hasn’t looked like an ace since 2013. Ian Kinsler is probably still a league average bat, but he’s no longer a difference maker on the base paths and at 33-years-old, isn’t likely to become one again. Victor Martinez is 37-years-old and could see a steep decline at any time. It might even have started last season.
This roster has some long-term questions that aren’t easily answered but if you shorten your gaze and squint a little, things start to look much better. They signed Justin Upton to a six-year, $132.75 million dollar contract which takes their outfield from questionable to very solid, moving Anthony Gose to the fourth outfield spot. Upton, Cameron Maybin, and J.D. Martinez compare favorably to pretty much any other outfield in the game. The Upton signing also lengthens their lineup, which will be the focus of this article.
Cabrera is still one of the best hitters in the game. The only possible question with him is: Can he be expected to play a full season? Before 2015, he was an iron man – having never played in fewer than 148 games and having nine seasons of 157 or more games played on his resume. Maybe 2015 will be a blip on the radar, or maybe his body is starting to break down as he enters his age-33 season. If he can stay healthy, he is still a monster at the plate and is a phenomenal anchor for any lineup. Steamer projects him at 135 games and a 151 wRC+. I’ll be optimistic and take the over on games played by a comfortable margin and the under on his production, but only by a little. He should be in the running for another MVP.
J.D. Martinez had an impressive 2015 campaign following an outstanding breakout year in 2014. Yes, his wRC+ dropped by 16 points, roughly equivalent to 16% against league average, but a wRC+ of 137 is still a very strong season and he demonstrated that his power was very real with 38 home runs. Steamer projects him to play in 142 games with a 119 wRC+. I suspect he will outperform both projections. In 2016, Martinez and Cabrera should form one of the best middle of the lineup duos in the game.
New acquisition Justin Upton comes in as the third best hitter on the team. He’s a consistent 25-30 home run and 10-15 stolen base threat. He should return to around a 130 wRC+ as he leaves Petco Park behind . Upton doesn’t excel at any one thing, but he does everything well and has enough pop to be an option in the 5th spot in the lineup if Victor Martinez doesn’t bounce back. If everything goes perfectly, he’ll be an incredibly good 6th hitter or could even be considered for the top of the lineup. He gives the Tigers a lot of flexibility. Steamer predicts 144 games played and a 127 wRC+. I think they’re pretty close to spot on there, though considering he has bested that mark in each of the last four seasons, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see him play in more than that.
Speaking of Victor Martinez, the only reason he didn’t slot in ahead of Upton on this list is his age and the fact that he wasn’t healthy last year. If he bounces back, he’s in the conversation for best designated hitter in the game and is an easy choice for 5th in the lineup. Before his injury-riddled 2015 season, he had a career year at the plate in 2014 and has been consistently 20-30% better than league average over most of his career. When healthy he’s an on-base machine (career .367 OBP) and has shown himself capable of providing some pop (career .165 ISO). Steamer is expecting just 123 games and a 113 wRC+ next year and it’s hard to argue with that given his age. Steamer’s games played projection seems reasonable but I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t end up more than 13% better than league average at the plate.
We’ve covered all of the hitters who have demonstrated they are reliably better than league average with the stick, but the next hitter is probably a good bet to do that as well. Nick Castellanos has been pretty close to a league-average bat in his first two seasons, posting a 94 wRC+ in both. He will be just 24-years-old at the start of the 2016 campaign and was a very solid hitter in the minors before being called up. Castellanos will never be a huge home run hitter, but the 15 home runs he hit last year showed he will probably have about average power for the position going forward. Steamer expects him to play in 137 games and to have a 104 wRC+. Given his age and pedigree, I’ll take the over on both without any hesitation. Don’t be surprised if he l plays in closer to 150 games and hits around 10% better than league average.
Ian Kinsler hit 11% better than league average last season, but that was fueled by a BABIP that was 36 points above his career mark, so some regression can be expected. With a 100 wRC+ in 2012, a 104 in 2013 and a 103 in 2014, it’s a pretty safe bet that Kinsler is roughly a league-average hitter. While he used to be a significant base-stealing threat, he has definitely lost a step going from 21 stolen bases in 2012 to 15 in both 2013 and 2014, with just 10 last season. He still has enough upside on the basepaths to be a solid top-of-the-order option assuming his on-base percentage ends up somewhere in the neighborhood of his career mark of .344, though Steamer projects him at .318 with a wRC+ of 98 and 10 stolen bases. Don’t be surprised if his OBP ends up between those two marks.
Jose Iglesias is going to fall off a cliff offensively any day now. Or, at least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself since he cracked the majors with the Boston Red Sox back in 2012. Since becoming a full-time major leaguer in 2013, he’s defied critics and consistently hit at a league-average level. His biggest asset is his glove, but what was supposed to be a nearly insurmountable weakness has ended up being far more than just tolerable. Shortstops, on average, are the second worst hitting position in baseball – with only catchers being worse. A league-average bat at shortstop is considered extremely valuable. To date, the only real knock on him as a player is his health. He’s played in just 109 and 120 games in his first two full major-league seasons. Steamer predicts Iglesias to play in 125 games and to hit at an 89 wRC+, which may not be unfair, but until he actually fails to hit at league average, I’m not sure I’d bet against it. The injury troubles he’s had are the main concern here.
Next on the list is Cameron Maybin. As a prospect he had people drooling over his potential, and while he hasn’t put it all together, he did take a nice step forward last year which suggested he could be a roughly league average bat. At 28-years-old, he has probably reached his ceiling, but a good defender at a premium position with a league-average stick is a solid player to have as your eighth best hitter. Steamer sees him playing in 103 games with a 93 wRC+ but with 2013 being the only year in which he’s suffered from any kind of significant injuries and the Tigers’ outfield being less crowded than San Diego’s in 2014, I’d bet the farm on him being closer to his 2015 total of 141 games played. His career production at the plate has been almost identical to what is being predicted by Steamer and I see no reason to disagree.
The final player to look at in the Tigers lineup is their 25-year-old catcher, James McCann. He is a bit of a wild card in that he’s looked like a league-average hitter in the minors. Even if he doesn’t perform at league-average levels, he would represent the lone weak link in the lineup. Steamer predicts 89 games at a 79 wRC+ from him in 2016, but with 119, 109, and 114 games played in his last three seasons, I would be surprised if he plays in fewer than 110 games and can absolutely see him being somewhere in the 5-10% below league-average with his bat.
The biggest weakness this lineup has is that the bench behind them is quite thin. With a good bit of luck regarding their health, the Tigers should score plenty of runs, but when your backups include Mike Aviles, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Andrew Romine and Anthony Gose, you are crossing your fingers and hoping for no significant injuries.
So what does it all mean when we put it together? The Tigers have four comfortably above league average bats with two of them being legitimate middle of the order threats, three hitters who are likely to be somewhere around league average with one of them having the potential to break out, and one hitter who will likely settle in at something closer to a 90 wRC+. That’s a pretty darned good lineup and looks like the best in the AL Central. The Tigers are looking at an uphill battle in the division with reigning World Series Champion Kansas City re-signing Alex Gordon, but neither the Royals nor the White Sox have clearly better lineups. The signing of Justin Upton makes it very hard to pick against the Tigers’ offense among the division’s five teams and that could be what keeps them in the hunt for their fifth division title in the last six years.
Damian Dydyn has written about an illegal slide, Mookie Betts, rookies adjusting, and managing a fantasy baseball team.
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