Do you remember the face book? Not TheFacebook.com. We’re talking about its localized analog predecessor: an actual book schools printed and circulated to incoming students to help them get to know their new classmates. After roughly a decade of relative roster stability bookended by the arrival and departure of Justin Verlander, it suddenly feels like things are new and confusing in Tigertown. Because of that, Mark and AD, your erstwhile Detroit Tigers profilers, thought that, more than a traditionally formatted season preview post for a team that finished 2017 with the worst record in baseball and has not yet introduced into evidence a clear picture of a return-to-contention strategy, fans of the Detroit Tigers would appreciate a face-book-style preview that helped orient them to who and what they’ll be seeing on the field in 2018. Who are some of the new guys? Who’s still hanging around? Read on to find out!

 

Jordan Zimmermann (RHP; age 32): On November 2, 2015, Zimmermann completed seven years of rookie servitude to the Washington Nationals and became a free agent. Less than a month later, the Tigers signed him to a five-year, $110 million contract. Why did they ever think he was good? It’s very easy to forget. In his two years in Detroit, he’s made 47 starts, which seems high, and posted an ERA (5.60) double his mark in D.C. (3.32) while manifesting symptoms of an injury that requires him to get a literal shot in the neck every so often. In his last three seasons for the Nationals, Zimmermann demonstrated durability (league-leading 33 starts in 2015 and 32 starts in each of 2013-14) and performance levels (all star and top-10 in Cy Young voting each of 2013-14) that would seem to legitimize the contract then-new GM Al Avila offered him. Were there signs Zimmermann was slipping from his top-tier status at that time? There were. By WARP, Zimmermann easily was one of the twenty best starters in baseball in 2013 and 2014, but his DRA jumped a run and a half from 2014 to 2015 (2.88 to 4.37); his average fastball velocity suddenly fell a full MPH; and he dropped outside the top fifty starters by WARP in his final season in Washington. Maybe Avila did see all of that and decided to offer Zimmermann five years instead of six or seven, but those were different days, and the contract looks like a prehistoric albatross in 2018. While PECOTA sees a significant rebound for Zimmermann this year, he’s still projected below replacement level, and his spring training performance suggests he caught Anibal Sanchez’s home-run disease on the latter’s way out the door.

Victor Martinez (DH; age 39): Widening the gap between him and his teammates in the seniority race, Señor Martinez, now four years removed from his maybe-shoulda-been-MVP season and conclusively constrained to a DH role, has not aged quite like his former teammate David Ortiz. Injuries and ailments (including a not-insignificant heart condition) mean his 500-plus-PA seasons are a thing of the past. The team owes him $18 million for this final year of his contract, but it’s tough to tolerate an 85 wRC+ designated hitter, as Martinez was in 2017, especially when there may be some reason to question the clubhouse-leadership component that leads teams to keep guys with Martinez’s profile around their younger players. Martinez is going to be put out to pasture soon; the only real question involves the extent to which he does it on his own terms.

Daniel Norris (LHP; age 25): The young lefty still is trying to find enough traction to maintain a permanent spot in the Tigers’ starting rotation. Many point to his injury history as the chief culprit, and it’s impossible to dismiss his extended DL trips for damage to his oblique, groin, and back. A potentially deeper concern for the future, though, is what Norris did when he was healthy. In 2016-17, he averaged a little more than 5.1 innings per start, but, on average, he threw well over ninety pitches in each of those starts. In other words, even healthy Norris has exhibited an efficiency problem. He needs to find a way either to be more efficient or more effective; if he wants to stay in the rotation, he’ll need to do both. On the subject of rotation-bullpen dynamics, Norris has been a bit of a flashpoint who has illuminated a source of potential conflict between two of the new Tigers coaches: manager Ron Gardenhire, who reportedly prefers a traditional bullpen setup with defined roles, and pitching coach Chris Bosio, who has pressed for a more dynamic approach. Norris has indicated that he will be amenable to whatever course his coaches recommend, but the uncertainty at this point can’t help. If you’re looking for predictably consistent performance from Norris, at least we’ll always have his Instagram account.

John Hicks (C; age 28): Under Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila, the Tigers have famously been weak in the bullpen, but things behind the plate have been pretty rough for a while now too. Due to the positional demands, catcher is a classic tradeoff spot: teams tend to get defense or offense, but rarely both. There just aren’t that many Buster Poseys (or random Tyler Flowers) out there. Detroit, however, has managed to field a series of backstops who offer little of either defense or offense, at least in ways we know how to measure. Everybody remembers late 2011, when Alex Avila punished baseballs (213 wRC+ that August), but he wasn’t above-average with the bat again until 2016-17, which he mostly spent in Chicago. Plus, his defensive numbers went into the tank in 2015 and have not resurfaced. He’s reputed to be a good game caller and seems to offer a steady leadership presence (maybe it helps when your dad’s the boss, or it could just be that magnificent beard), but we don’t yet have a good way to detect that. Avila’s replacement, James McCann, has been sort of the same but worse and without the periodic breakouts. Indeed, McCann was the worst defensive catcher in all of baseball last year (-22.7 FRAA). (Avila was merely fifth-worst.) When you’re a career .231 TAv hitter, that just won’t play. That probably is why Hicks has been getting a lot of looks this spring. The offense hasn’t looked any better, but at least Hicks has been close to average defensively in limited play across three seasons in Seattle and Detroit. Derek Norris also is in camp this spring on a minor-league deal after he finished his 2017 one-year contract with the Rays with a suspension for a violation of MLB’s domestic violence policy.

Leonys Martín (OF; age 30): After parting ways with Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez (and Tyler Collins and now-pitcher Anthony Gose, plus Cameron Maybin the year before), the Tigers’ spacious outfield was looking bare. They filled in the right-field hole by moving Nicholas Castellanos from third base. Mikie Mahtook hit well enough in 2017 to remain in contention for a starting outfield spot, but his routes in center left much to be desired and leave him in left in 2018. Still needing to find someone for center, a need that arguably stretches back at least to 2014 when they traded Austin Jackson to Seattle, the Tigers signed former Mariner Martín to a one-year, $1.75 million contract. In his seven-year career, Martín mostly has played center field, mostly for the Texas Rangers, and defensive metrics like FRAA and UZR seem to like him, as do Statcast-generated fielding measures: Martín was a top-25 fielder by Outs Above Average (“OAA”) last year and top-10 in 2016, the first year for which OAA is available. For one year and less than $2 million, that sounds like a pretty good deal. Of course, Martín can’t really hit. He’s never been above-average at the plate, and, although he plays a defensive-priority position, his sub-.300 wOBA doesn’t look good even by comparison to his fielding peers. Until new manager Ron Gardenhire’s recent announcement that Jordan Zimmermann would receive the opening-day nod over Michael Fulmer, the primary source of spring training internet fan outrage from the Detroit delegation sprung from Gardenhire’s apparent plan to use Martín as the leadoff hitter this  year. Exhibit A for the opposition is Martín’s career .300 OBP. It’s easy to criticize, obviously, but unless you offer a constructive alternative, you’re just engaging in some unhelpful shouting. Mahtook seems to be the popular alternative, and he certainly reached base more often than Martín in 2017. One problem for the opposition, however, is that PECOTA projects Martín to reach base at a slightly higher rate (.308 OBP) than Mahtook (.305 OBP) in 2018. And when it comes to baserunning, speed isn’t everything, but it seems worth noting here that Statcast had these two with nearly identical Sprint Speeds (28.5 ft/sec. for Martín versus 28.4 for Mahtook) in 2017. The bigger point, obviously, is that there just aren’t a lot of good personnel options available to Gardenhire right now. Lineup optimization remains an important part of the game, but it isn’t that important when your team’s situation decidedly is on the wrong side of the win curve.

Mike Fiers (RHP; age 33): After six years as a major-league starting pitcher for the Brewers and Astros, Fiers became a free agent and signed a one-year, $6 million deal with the Tigers. If your first reaction to this news is that it sounds a lot better than the Mike Pelfrey deal, then you’re off to a good start. Fiers was a fairly hot commodity when Milwaukee traded him to Houston at the 2015 deadline, but he’s cooled off substantially since then. With a DRA over 5.00 in 2016 and 2017, Fiers may have a workload issue, as his trade year was the first in which he threw more than 130 innings. The latest report is that Fiers will start this season on the disabled list due to a back problem, likely further opening the rotational door for Norris. PECOTA sees Fiers as a positive contributor in 2018 (0.7 WARP, 5.17 DRA, 127.2 IP), albeit in a fourth-starter-type role, even on this team. For this season, he’s a reasonably good value as a one-year placeholder who may find a spark after being reunited with Bosio. For next season, he’ll be an arbitration-eligible 34-year-old starting pitcher likely looking for his fourth team.

Jeimer Candelario (3B; age 24): Pronounced “Jay-mur” according to those on the beat in Lakeland, Candelario was part of the return from the Chicago Cubs in last summer’s Justin Wilson/Alex Avila trade. He appeared in five midsummer games for Chicago in 2016, covering for an injured Chris Coghlan, and, although the team left him off the postseason roster, he technically still is a World Series champion, since he was on the 40-man roster at the time that Cubs team won it all. He played sparsely for the Cubs in 2017 but, following the trade to Detroit, he started at third for nearly every September and October game for the Tigers, and he’ll get the chance to do that from day one this year. Candelario’s defense won’t wow except by comparison to his immediate predecessors at that corner. His offensive numbers last fall (.330/.406/.468) were pretty solid, and his bat has been hot this spring as well. He should be a reasonably bright spot during the coming dark days.

Joe Jimenez (RHP; age 23):  The latest name on the Tigers’ wheel-of-future-closers, Jimenez’s major league debut was greatly anticipated by Tigers fans ever since he help lead the West Michigan Whitecaps to the Midwest League (single A) title in 2015 with a 1.47 ERA and 12.8 K/9 in 43 innings out of the bullpen. Jimenez flew through the Tigers system in 2016, with quick stops at high-A Lakeland (0 runs, 5 hits, and 28 K in 17 1/3 IP) and AA Erie (2.18 ERA and 12 saves with 34 K in 20 2/3 IP) before settling in at AAA Toledo (2.87 ERA and 8 saves with 16 K in 15 2/3 IP). And he did it all with a fairly acceptable walk rate of 2.9 BB/9 and a K/BB ratio of 4.59. Jimenez was called up early in 2017, replacing previous closer-of-the-future Bruce Rondon. His debut went well, striking out Byron Buxton in a perfect 9th inning in an 11-5 loss to the Twins. That was just about his last MLB highlight–Jimenez gave up 2 HR and 6 ER in the next 3 1/3 innings and earned a trip back to Toledo after just two weeks. He was recalled after another solid AAA season (1.44 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, and 8.1 K/9), but the results were pretty much the same. Jimenez ended 2017 with MLB numbers that were pretty dreadful even by Tigers bullpen standards: 31 H, 9 BB, 4 HR in 19 IP, and a 12.32 ERA. But Jimenez is hardly the first relief pitcher to have a rough start to his career and his eye-popping minor league numbers should translate into an effective major league reliever; maybe even a great one. Jimenez throws a high-90s fastball that usually has good tailing action (though it flattened out when he pitched in the majors) and he worked with pitching coach Chris Bosio this spring on a new grip for his already potentially plus slider. If he puts it all together, the Tigers might finally have the bullpen stopper they’ve needed since Joel Zumaya flamed out in 2010.

Victor Reyes (OF; age 23):  Reyes was selected with the first pick in December’s Rule 5 draft from the Arizona Diamondbacks and is the Tigers’ #17 prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Reyes had a solid 2017 in AA Jackson, hitting .292/.332/.399, but with little power (29 2B, 4 HR) and a mediocre walk rate of 5.2%. Reyes does an excellent job putting the bat on the ball, featuring a well-above average K-rate of 15.5% in 479 AB in AA. He has good but not great speed, though with 18 SB and 9 CS last season, his success rate leaves something to be desired. While Reyes is a switch-hitter, FanGraphs lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen describes his right-handed swing as “totally unusable.” The Tigers are fairly high on Reyes defensively, and if his defensive instincts match his speed he could be a good fit in Comerica Park’s spacious center field. As a Rule 5 pick, Reyes will have to stay on the active roster for the entire season or be offered back to Arizona for $25,000. We would be shocked to see Reyes go back to the Diamondbacks, even if he does look overmatched this season. After all, the Tigers aren’t going anywhere and decent outfielders with above-average speed and contact skills are a pretty valuable commodity.

Franklin Perez (RHP; age 20):  One of the worst moments in the past 14 years of being a Tigers fan was the news late last season that Justin Verlander had been traded to get his ring with the Houston Astros. But getting a talent like Perez back could certainly be a balm on that wound. Perez was signed by the Astros in 2014 as a 17-year-old out of a baseball academy directed by former Tigers fan favorite Carlos Guillen. Perez put up big strikeout numbers right away in Rookie League before a breakout 2016 in the Midwest League. Perez turned in a 2.84 ERA with 75 K in 66 2/3 IP and pretty solid 3.95 K/BB ratio with the Quad Cities River Bandits. That turned heads, and Perez found himself as a consensus top-100 prospect entering the 2017 season. He validated that pedigree by blowing through the Carolina League (high-A) with a 2.98 ERA and 53 K in 54 1/3 IP and forcing an early promotion to AA Corpus Christi. The more advanced Texas League hitters had relatively more success against Perez, but he still turned in very solid numbers–a 3.09 ERA, 1.37 WHIP and 25 K in 32 IP at just 19 years old. A 6’3″, 197-pound power pitcher, Perez features a mid-90s fastball and potentially above-average curveball and changeup and is the #39 overall prospect according to MLB Pipeline. Unfortunately, Tigers fans probably will have to wait until mid-June or early July to see Perez make his debut for the AA Erie Seawolves, as he will miss the first twelve weeks of the season with a lat injury.

Miguel Cabrera (1B; age 35): The two-time MVP and eleven-time All Star turns 35 three weeks into the season, and it already feels like an old 35. He’s the only current member of the team who was on the 2012 World Series roster (missed it by that much, Brayan Holaday, Omar Infante, and Luke Putkonen) less than six years ago, and much has changed since then. While Cabrera repeated his 2012 MVP season with another in 2013, he bottomed out in 2017. Relative to his own high standards, last sesason easily was Cabrera’s worst MLB year. It was his only season as a below-average hitter (91 wRC+, .243 TAv, 92 OPS+). He slugged under .400 for the first time ever, hitting the fewest doubles and homers (529 PA) since his rookie year (346 PA). By the various wins-above-replacement metrics, it was the first season in which he hurt his team (-0.2 fWAR, -0.8 bWAR, -1.2 WARP). It was the first year he didn’t chart in the MVP voting. In a sense, the bad news is that we know why this is happening: Cabrera’s body is breaking down, and it appears to be doing so in a way that suggests continued decline. Sure, everyone’s noticed Cabrera looks like he’s lost weight this spring, but he isn’t dealing with knee and calf problems anymore; we’re in herniated disc territory, the type of back injury that rarely improves with time. Time is something Cabrera and the Tigers have, though, by virtue of the contract extension they surprisingly executed at the beginning of the 2014 season. It’s true that he’s earned his contract, but, from the present vantage point, it still doesn’t look pretty:

Some context is warranted, of course. After all, if you believe each win above replacement now is worth $10 million, Cabrera could offset his payroll hit this year by being a merely below-average version of his old self, and a bounceback from rock bottom really wouldn’t be especially newsworthy. Still, that back injury is not a good sign, and Cabrera’s health seems likely to sap any late-career resurgence that might have allowed him to catch up to the counting-stat tallies of slightly senior guys like Albert Pujols. For now, we’ll leave it like this: expect Cabrera to be a free agent entering the 2024 season.

Team Prediction: Between year-to-year variance and the authors’ unshakeable optimism, AD and Mark predict the 2018 Tigers will win a few more games than the 2017 edition and finish with a 69-93 record.

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