The 2022 Detroit Tigers offense was terrible, but you know that already. They were at the bottom of the league in most offensive categories and even historically bad in a few key stats. A club that was looking to build off their relative success in 2021 and position themselves for future contention finished nearly 20 games worse in 2022.
Such miserable results ultimately led to sweeping changes in the Tiger’s front office. When the new President of Baseball Operations, Scott Harris, laid out his plan for the club, he emphasized establishing a strong identity as an offense based on hitters that control the strike zone. When asked what specific areas he was looking for this offseason, he offered this reply.
More specifically, Scott Harris said the #Tigers will prioritize acquiring a left-handed hitting infielder, right-handed hitting outfielder and pitchers.
“We’re always going to need more pitching.” https://t.co/YxaQUPivvO
— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) November 9, 2022
Those are logical and straightforward goals for the lineup, yet Harris has yet to add anyone likely to fill those roles on Opening Day. Despite expressing plenty of confidence that the Tigers would have a quality player acquired to handle third base, and optimism about other positions, the only moves Harris made regarding the lineup were to dismiss several hitters from last year’s team including Jeimer Candelario, Victor Reyes, Willi Castro, and Harold Castro. While these weren’t very good hitters by many measures, the total lack of upgrades to date means that the state of the offense remains rather bleak.
The Tigers have good reason to expect better performance from several of their best hitters, but at least half the lineup still looks worse than the 2022 model with less than seven weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Lakeland.
Plate appearances to be replaced
Of the players that have departed the organization, here’s where they ranked in PA’s on the 2022 team:
Jeimer Candelario: 467 PA – 3rd
Harold Castro: 443 PA – 4th
Willi Castro: 392 PA – 8th
Victor Reyes: 336 PA – 10th
Robbie Grossman: 320 PA – 11th
Tucker Barnhart: 308 PA – 12th
Add it all up and players responsible for 38.6% of last year’s trips to the plate have all headed off for greener pastures. Those pastures included a woeful Washington Nationals club for Candelario, and minor league deals in Minnesota and on Chicago’s south side, for Willi Castro and Reyes, respectively. which says quite a bit about the level of talent cut from the Tigers’ roster.
Candelario leaves behind a big opening for an everyday third baseman, while Harold Castro, leaves behind a role that was expanded to pretty much an everyday lineup spot as injuries and underperformance saw the utility player turn into an everyday top-of-the-lineup hitter. Willi Castro, Robbie Grossman, and Victor Reyes combined to play just about as much as two everyday outfielders, largely due to Austin Meadows’ various ailments and the trade of Grossman himself.
While there is a staggering amount of playing time to be occupied, the good news is that not everything needs to be filled from the outside. A regular utility role and fourth outfield role shouldn’t be an issue to fill internally, and heck, they stand to get at least comparable results or hopefully even better results with the new coaching staff. But they do need at least two everyday players and a catcher to take at least an even split of the catching duties.
The front office surely realizes this, and this is where another of Harris’ quotes starts causing concern for Tiger fans.
Vague but worrying statements from Scott Harris
More from Scott Harris on the 2023 roster: “We are going to earmark at-bats and innings for our young players. One of our most valuable resources in this organization is opportunity at the major-league level.” #Tigers
— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) December 6, 2022
This is in parts illuminating and incredibly vague, as are most quotes from major league front offices. I can see this meaning many things, but I’ll focus on just a couple. On one hand, Victor Reyes and Harold Castro combined for 779 PAs. Harold was pushed into more of a starting role than he should have been but even with more stability at key starting positions, there will be plenty of at-bats up for the taking. Assuming they give these roles to young players there are about 300 PA each earmarked for young players which satisfies his quote.
On the other hand, a starting corner 3B, like Candelario played, logged in 467 PAs last year. If they fail to bring in an opening-day starting third baseman, someone will have to take those plate appearances, and the options currently in the system are not particularly exciting. This is not to say that someone in the organization couldn’t earn their way into an everyday role. The opportunity is certainly there and there’s no reason to think there would be any major obstacles in the way for a young player who just start hitting and doesn’t stop. Such an event would be huge and very welcomed, but no blue-chip prospects are waiting in Toledo to step into an everyday role in 2023 the way Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson were last year.
Should Scott Harris fail to pull off a trade or impactful free agent signing or two between now and opening day for at least 2 or 3 primary starting position players, this team would undoubtedly be facing the prospect of having an even more anemic offense than last year. That thought is gut-wrenching when you remember the historically bad performance last year’s offense mustered. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at the open roles the Tigers will be looking to fill and identify where potential replacements might be found.
The current replacements
2022 departing Tiger: Victor Reyes, 4th OF role (2022 stats: 336 PA, 85 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR)
2023 candidate for 4th OF role – Kerry Carpenter (2022 stats: 113 PA, 126 wRC+, 0.5 fWAR)
The first of Avila’s Rule 5 picks that worked out was a nice story for a while but in the end, well, there’s a reason he was available in a Rule 5 draft. The Tigers spent way too long with Reyes, doing little to address his issues at the plate and simply hoping for a breakout. Time to pivot to the next up-and-coming outfield bat.
Enter Kerry Carpenter. He showed he can carry his minor-league power to the majors in his cup of coffee last year. Now it’s time to see if he can keep it up over a majority of a season. The bar isn’t very high at all. Reyes produced a mere 85 wRC+ in 336 PA. Carpenter hit with a 126 wRC+ in his 113 PA. Even with some regression as the league adjusts to a new hitter, getting 85 wRC+ seems well within his reach. Early projections from the Steamer system expect Carpenter to post a 117 wRC+ this season, so there is good reason to believe he can keep it going.
The key issue that will likely hold Carpenter back from a starting OF role is his defense. He’s never graded out well in that area and counting on him to take a corner OF position 4 or 5 games a week might be a bit unsightly. Although if we’re being perfectly honest, that has never stopped the Tigers from deploying a glorified DH in an everyday OF role as evidenced by…well…see just about every Tigers corner OF from any year in the past decade and a half. Still, the ideal scenario for the Tigers would be to simply have Carpenter take the 4th OF role where, between him and Eric Haase, they can provide some roster depth for the outfield. Carpenter would then likely take a decent portion of the designated hitter work, with Miguel Cabrera slated to play about half the time at most in his final major league campaign.
2022 departing Tiger: Harold Castro, Utility role (443 PA, 94 wRC+, -0.4 fWAR)
2023 candidate for Utility role – Ryan Kriedler (2022 Triple-A stats: 250 PA, 106 wRC+)
The era of Hittin’ Harold ™ is no more. While he was one of the more memorable utility players in recent memory, given his rise from unranked organizational fodder to clutch late-inning hero, he wasn’t anything special. The team around him was typically so bad he looked better in comparison. His skill for putting balls in play was his biggest strength and while it’s certainly not a bad skill to have, without power behind it there’s nothing more to see. That he ended up with a 94 wRC+ last year is rather impressive and a respectable size number to fill, but I think Kriedler has the best chance to get there.
We didn’t get to see a full picture of Kreidler’s improved swing due to an unfortunate hand injury early in the season. Those swing changes produced a very nice breakout campaign in the upper minors in 2021, and there’s good reason to think that a healthy Kreidler, having seen a fair bit of major league pitching, can take a step up in 2023. Of all the major league-ready positional prospects still in the system, he’s arguably at the top of the list right now in terms of major league readiness, with more highly ranked prospects such as Parker Meadows, Wenceel Perez, and Andre Lipcius likely getting a little more seasoning at the Triple-A level before their first look at the show.
Given his multi-position flexibility in the infield, Kreidler is a good candidate for that utility infield role. He should get a fair bit of time in that role, as his defensive ability makes him a capable option at shortstop as well as at third base and second base. However, should Kreidler end up playing third base everyday, he’s still likely to be overmatched by good right-handers and exposed somewhat as a part-time player in over his head.
2022 departing Tiger: Tucker Barnhart, Primary Catcher – (308 PA, 63 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR)
2023 candidate for Primary Catcher – Eric Haase/Jake Rogers?
Here is the one position I can’t get a good read on. Will the Tigers seek out a starting-caliber catcher via trade, or are they willing to move Haase into that role as Jake Rogers gets eased back into playing after missing a year following elbow surgery? The free agent options are gone at this point, and it’s hard to fathom leaving such a crucial position spinning in the wind this late in the offseason. The quotes from Harris about the catcher position offer no help either about which way he’s leaning.
Scott Harris on catcher position: “Catching is an area we can improve. We also have some young prospects coming through the system that I think are really talented and present an opportunity to fill that need internally, (but) it won’t this year.” #Tigers
— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) November 9, 2022
Does Scott Harris view Eric Haase as a starting catcher?
“Yeah, I think he put up a pretty strong case for it last year. He is one of the catchers that will impact us this year.”
Harris added: “I always value versatility. He’s comfortable in those positions (C/LF).” #Tigers
— Evan Petzold (@EvanPetzold) December 6, 2022
Let’s just say it’s not ideal when a key point of praise for a player slated to be the team’s starting catcher is his positional versatility.
Haase has exceeded most fans’ expectations since he was first called up from Toledo, but is there anything more in his game? He’s not quite good enough to be the everyday catcher and hasn’t been noted for his game-calling or framing. He’s not bad as a catcher, he’s just okay. For a young club trying to develop its stockpile of young pitching talent, the catcher position is crucial. “Okay” wouldn’t seem to cut it here.
Jake Rogers is not long removed from his billing as the next “catcher of the future” and he was off to a hot start in 2021 before his elbow injury ended his season, hitting to the tune of 116 wRC+ in 127 PAs, accumulating 1.0 f WAR in the process. He has not seen the field since mid-July that year so there are legitimate concerns about whether he can recapture that success offensively, as he’s remained heavily strikeout prone in the major leagues. He’s also 27 years old now so there’s little room left for development in his projections. Once he’s up to speed, he is what he is at this point.
Defensively, Rogers is the superior option to Haase. Gifted with quiet, deft hands for receiving and a very good and accurate throwing arm, defense has always been Rogers’s calling card as a catcher. However, returning from Tommy John surgery on that throwing arm adds a level of uncertainty to the proceedings. The Tigers were careful with him, refusing his desire to return in September/October, and making sure that he was fully rehabbed and ready to go this spring. On that score, we’ll just have to trust their evaluation of his condition this offsa eason.
There’s not a whole lot available on the free agent market, with Gary Sanchez and Roberto Perez representing the best available options at this point. Trade-wise, the Blue Jays were thought to be a potential partner, but after dealing their top catching prospect to Arizona for Daulton Varsho, their catching surplus no longer exists. If Harris does swing a trade for a catcher, it will require some serious creativity. Right now, such a move seems very unlikely.
2022 departing Tigers: Willi Castro/ Robbie Grossman, Corner Outfielder – (2022 combined stats: 712 PA, 82 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR)
2023 candidate for Corner Outfielder – TBD
A big hole is an everyday starting corner OF. I’m combining these two players into one because they essentially both played the same position. While Robbie Grossman was the everyday right fielder up to the trade deadline, Willi Castro was seeing semi-regular reps in left field due to Injuries to Riley Greene and Austin Meadows. Once Robbie Grossman was traded, Willi Castro joined the mix to cover the vacancy in right field while Austin Meadows never returned to action.
Meadows should be healthy and able to man left field every day this season and Greene will have centerfield covered, so it’s the right field spot that needs an everyday player. Finding someone with the ability to also cover center wouldn’t be a bad idea as Parker Meadows would ideally get plenty of time in Toledo before being called upon as an injury replacement. Akil Baddoo is the only other outfielder on the roster with the speed to handle center field in Comerica Park, but as a defender has generally remained a bit of a liability.
While you might be able to squint and envision a Haase/Carpenter/Baddoo platoon in right field, that idea presents some issues. First off, both Haase and Jake Rogers do their damage at the plate against left-handed pitching. Using Haase in right field against left-handed starters would get both catchers into the lineup against their favorable platoon matchup, so that would be optimal.
However, while Haase is probably the second fastest outfielder on the team after Baddoo and has a much better-throwing arm than the rest, he’s extremely inexperienced out there. Playing him semi-regularly in right field while also catching half the games could put him at extra risk of injury, and the Tigers aren’t stocked with much attractive roster depth here. The Tigers have added some minor league depth in the upper minors already, claiming Marco Feliciano from the Brewers last week, but top catching prospect Dillon Dingler will only just be reaching the Triple-A level this season. He’ll likely get a look at some point, but the Tigers don’t appear to be in any hurry to rush him, and after a solid but somewhat flat 2022 season, Dingler needs a bit of a breakout to force his way to the majors otherwise.
We’d all feel much better about deploying a single player every day to go with Greene and Meadows, but that isn’t in the cards without a trade for such a player. Neither Haase nor Carpenter grade out well defensively and they profile best as left fielders, which is also Meadows’ preferred position.
Akil Baddoo doesn’t have the arm to play right field at all, and while he should benefit from the limited shifting and shorter basepaths, he struggled mightily last year (65 wRC+, -0.2 fWAR). He’s still a young and developing player with fairly minimal pro reps for his age, so he may yet become a productive, if flawed, corner outfielder. Still between his struggles and the fact he hits left-handed, the Tigers would be looking at a roster where Eric Haase is potentially the only right-handed hitting outfielder.
If this were a group of all first-tier outfielders, the side of the plate they hit from would not be an issue (see last year’s starting Blue Jays lineup). But that’s not the case and AJ Hinch probably wants to have a more balanced mix to help with matchups as much as possible. Harris also made it a point to mention that an RH outfielder was a specific need they wanted to address.
Since there’s not an internal candidate ready to come out of Toledo for this role, this will have to be filled by a signing or trade. The good news, if you want to call it that, is the bar to clear is barely above replacement level. A player like Jurickson Profar or AJ Pollock would be enough to stabilize this spot. No reason either couldn’t be had on a short-term deal with the appeal of solid playing time and a potential trade to a contender in July a strong possibility with a good first-half showing. A trade for a young, controllable outfielder capable of playing in Detroit right away is possible and perhaps the best choice here, given the lack of MLB-ready outfield prospects in AAA now for the Tigers.
2022 departing Tiger: Jeimer Candelario, Third Base – (2022 stats: 467 PA, 80 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR)
2023 candidate for Third Base – TBD
This position, perhaps more than any other on the roster, is where the Tigers need to make a move to bring in an everyday player. While a corner OF role could possibly, but not ideally, be handled by a platoon of players already in the system, there’s no readymade option for even a platoon situation at third. Ryan Kriedler is perhaps the most MLB-ready choice to plug in here internally, but for all the reasons mentioned above, he’s best suited for a utility role at first. He certainly will have plenty of opportunity to play his way into a starting role, but he needs to establish that level of play in the majors first. Other internal candidates like Justyn-Henry Mallory and Colt Keith may be fine options in the future and perhaps as early as mid-summer, but they are not likely to break camp with the Tigers, nor should they.
The problem is the names linked to the Tigers aren’t particularly inspiring. Candelario struggled mightily so his ever-so-slightly less-than-replacement-level production shouldn’t be hard to surpass, but players like Brian Anderson and Edwin Rios turned in results at nearly the same level. Anderson has been slumping the past two seasons to below 100 wRC+ and while Rios is intriguing and has undeniable power, his K% and struggles to control the strike zone are worrying. Both have flaws, but those flaws may be linked to injury issues in recent years, providing some hope that they can finally break through.
Reports have emerged that the Tigers pursued Jean Segura, who ultimately chose to sign with the Miami Marlins on a 2-year $17 million contract. His primary position has been second base in recent years but he’s a veteran shortstop who has experience at third and could likely handle the position. Regardless of the position he played, his projected 2.7 fWAR and 105 wRC+ would have been a much-needed upgrade for the roster. Clearly, Harris and the Tigers are indeed looking to bring in another starting infielder to add to the current mix.
A smart trade here to bring in someone young who fits the desired offensive profile and could then shift over to 2B once Schoop leaves would be the ideal move. Potential names like Ryan McMahon or Brandon Lowe would be great gets, though there’s been no indication the Tigers are looking in that direction. While they did make a recent trade with the Orioles for infielder Tyler Nevin, he’s at most a first baseman who can handle third occasionally, and shouldn’t be on the starting roster unless they exhaust all other possible options and come up empty. That would be a failure on Harris’ part in our estimation.
Frankly, replacing these hitters from last year’s offense shouldn’t be particularly difficult. In totality, those 38% of plate appearances were taken by players that collectively produced -0.7 fWAR. On paper, replacement-level players for each of the departing hitters would be an improvement. But, giving that much playing time to unproven prospects with limited upside could easily produce catastrophically worse results. Harris will likely make additional moves to address this situation because they would be foolhardy to roll with the current roster on Opening Day, even in a rebuilding year.
Reserve roles can be filled internally and there is little chance they’d get worse results. At best they’d provide a boost and are filled by young players with some room to grow. But the two biggest needs are everyday types, and the Tigers must fill them with at least league-average production. Getting even 2 fWAR improvements on average from the catcher, outfielder, and third base position, combined with modest improvements around the roster could be the difference in turning this from a 25-games under .500 team to a team more like 2021 that finished about 8 games under .500.
Torkelson and Greene could easily take some modest improvements this year. A full season from Meadows and a modest rebound from Báez are very possible as well. With added stability in the rotation, some offensive improvements would be a step in the right direction and give Tiger fans a reason to tune in every game. The Tigers do have some young position players this season in Parker Meadows, Wenceel Perez, Andre Lipcius, and potentially Dingler who may all earn a look, or at least see their first cup of coffee as injury replacements. With just modest offensive help and some reinforcing of the bullpen, this team could be significantly improved without even committing any major assets in prospects or payroll.
Getting this team over .500 and in the playoffs in 2023 is unrealistic with so little apparent commitment to do so, but getting this team watchable is well within reach and I hope and trust that Harris will make progress toward this goal. There are three months left till Opening Day. Plenty of time to finish off the roster and put the team on the path forward and hopefully out of this seemingly unending rebuild they’ve been stuck in for the last seven years.