The 2020 season was not kind to the Detroit Tigers but it contains plenty of hope for 2021 and beyond. The team employed a few of its top prospects during the shortened campaign that will hopefully mean big things moving forward. There was no playoff birth for the team’s faithful and yet, Detroit has as much promise as anyone heading into the offseason.
Detroit Tigers 2020 Season Recap
The season started out better than many might have expected considering expectations on opening day. The Tigers went 16-16 through July and August, which put them only four games out of first place going into the final month of the regular season. The fun wouldn’t last, however, as Detroit stumbled in the final weeks as a lack of talent and experience caught up with them. They went 7-19 in September and finished with a record of 23-35, third-worst in baseball.
The team’s biggest struggles came against its own division opponents in the American League Central Division. The Tigers went just 12-28 against the Minnesota Twins and company. That was a huge obstacle in 2020 and is certainly something to improve in 2021. Detroit didn’t have a great offense, just 20th in the league in FanGraphs WAR but the pitching staff was even more problematic. The rotation and bullpen accumulated just 1.6 WAR, which was 28th in the league. The pieces are there for improvement on both sides of the ball so it is just a matter of development and experience.
Overall Grade: C-
Things to Highlight
The most obvious bright spot this season was Jeimer Candelario. The 26-year-old first baseman played in 52 games as one of the team’s best hitters. His .297/369/503 slash line over 206 plate appearances was good enough for a 137 wRC+ and 1.6 WAR, which was the most on the squad. Candelario’s breakout is one of the more exciting things heading into 2021. He lowered his strikeout rate and connected on a higher rate of pitchers than ever before. His z-contact percentage, a measure of contact on pitches inside the zone, jumped from 84.9 percent to 87.1. There are reasonable concerns if that production is sustainable; his overall contact rate dropped and his BABIP was an incredible .372 but 2020 could be a huge building block.
Detroit actually had a handful of players who were better than the league average. Jonathan Schoop, JaCoby Jones, Miguel Cabrera, and Willi Castro were all over 100 in terms of wRC+ with at least 100 plate appearances. That is a great sign as both Jones and Castro are both under the age of 30 and don’t cost much money. It is also nice to see Cabrera remain productive as he nears 38-years-old.
The pitching also had several noteworthy individuals despite the low overall output. Spencer Turnbull was the most productive arm with a 3.97 ERA in 56 and two-thjirds innings. He was the only starter to produce over 1 WAR and might even have underperformed slightly with a 3.49 FIP. A trio of relievers was also quite fine. Jose Cisnero, Daniel Norris, and Bryan Garcia were the Tigers’ most productive bullpen options and are all cheap. They look like a solid core at this point.
What Could Change for 2021
The Tigers have five pending free agents heading into the offseason and three of them are probably not returning. The trio of Jordan Zimmerman, Ivan Nova, and C.J. Cron had contracts totaling $32.6 million in 2020 but combined for just .4 WAR. None of them are critical pieces so replacing all of them should be easy.
Detroit should be relatively stable other than that. Schoop and Austin Romine are the other two pending free agents and both fill positions of need for 2021. Romine might have been terrible with -.5 WAR but he was the only catcher with more than 55 plate appearances. It’s possible that he bounces back in 2021 considering he had two productive seasons in a part-time role with the New York Yankees. There’s probably not much value left for the 31-year-old but keeping him is possibly the smartest move. The team’s other option is a duo featuring Grayson Greiner and Eric Haase.
Prospects on the Horizon
The team might have technically graduated two of its top pitchers but they’ll feature far more heavily into 2021. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal both made their debuts with below-average results that do not reflect their talent levels. Of the two top-five prospects, Skubal had the better season. The 23-year-old left-hander threw 32 innings with 37 strikeouts, 11 walks, and a 5.63 ERA. That was only good enough for -.1 WAR but a 27.6 percent strikeout rate is very encouraging. Mize had a rougher debut with a 6.99 ERA in 28 and one third innings. Both are still huge parts of Detroit’s future rotation.
The two will likely receive help in the form of fellow outstanding pitcher Matt Manning, who did not debut in 2021. The 6’6″ right-hander has a very exciting profile thanks to his build and performance since being drafted ninth overall in 2016. He has been nothing but outstanding since joining the Tigers’ organization. He did lose full development due to the 2020 pandemic but 2019 saw Manning post a 2.56 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, and 148 strikeouts in 133 and two-thirds innings. His fastball isn’t uniquely fast, sitting in the mid-90s and touching 97, but his curveball and changeup play well off of the primary offering and make him a true monster on the mound.
Fans should also get excited for position players Isaac Paredes and Daz Cameron. Both struggled in their debut seasons but neither is even 24-years-old. Paredes looks like a good third base option with a good hit tool and a strong arm. Cameron is an intriguing outfield prospect who has good, not great, power to all fields along with above-average fielding potential. Detroit has focused on pitching during its rebuild but these two well-regarded players who will play more in the coming season.
The Tigers feel so close to not being a doormat in its division anymore. Yes, 2020 ended with a thud in September and most of the top prospects weren’t good but it’s ridiculous to think 60 games taught us anything. Detroit’s farm system is packed with talent and some of its bright spots in the last year are still in the prime of their careers. It isn’t hard to imagine Mize, Manning, and Skubal dominating for years on the mound. Candelario, Castro, Paredes, and Cameron also form the start of a very solid hitting core. 2021 might not result in a playoff birth but 2022 seems very reasonable.
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