It’s pretty easy to write the Detroit Tigers off for the 2018 season, 2019 season, and possibly beyond. The roster isn’t meant to win now, and even if all the prospects turn into the players prospect watchers dream about, they’ll need a little time to mature at the major-league level.
Ticket sales have reportedly been slow, and unhappy fans take pleasure in telling others how the organization is doomed for eternity.
Still, there’s reason to tune in and to go out to the ballpark this year, and the play of some more veteran players likely will be as important to the team’s future as the development of the prospects.
For that reason, I’ll be keeping a close eye on how Nicholas Castellanos, Daniel Norris, and Miguel Cabrera progress in 2018. The latter two are set to be Tigers through at least 2022, barring trade or release. Castellanos will be a free agent after 2019, but told reporters at TigerFest he daydreams of being the young player who helps bring the World Series back to Detroit.
All of them will be important to speeding up a rebuild, and evidence 2018 will still be an interesting season to watch unfold.
Castellanos, who was shifted from third base to right field, now has had a full offseason to get ready for the position. He spent all of 2013 in left field for Triple-A Toledo, but had been the Tigers’ third baseman from 2014 until last year.
It didn’t go well. Advanced statistics revealed him to be the worst full-time fielder — at any position — in his rookie year. He spent a lot of time working on his defensive mechanics and appeared to show improvement, but never enough to be a long-term solution there.
We know Castellanos can bat: he was above-average statistically in each of the last two years and hit .262 with 26 home runs and 101 RBIs in 2017.
What remains to be seen is whether the soon-to-be 26-year-old can continue to grow at the plate while doing enough in the outfield to get people to stop talking about his glove.
The subplot on top of that is Castellanos becoming one of the senior-most players on the roster, after the shedding off of nearly every recognizable name over the past few years.
Castellanos now has the opportunity to be a leader to the next generation over the next two years; what will he do with it?
But without growth, he might just be filler until that next generation takes over.
When the Tigers began to make moves with an eye to the future in 2015, the two biggest acquisitions were starting pitchers Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris. Most of the hype focused on Norris, who entered 2015 as Baseball America’s No. 18 prospect overall.
Fulmer earned Rookie of the Year laurels in 2016 and, with the trade of Justin Verlander, is as close as this organization gets to an ace.
Norris struggled to a 5.31 ERA in 2017.
And yet whenever you are tempted to write off Norris as just another prospect who didn’t live up to the hype, he pulls you back in.
Only to stumble once again soon after.
If Norris can finally deliver on the hype, he and Fulmer will sit atop a rotation with some pretty exciting young pitchers underneath. Great pitching can do wonders in speeding up a rebuild.
If Norris remains inconsistent, it might be time for a change of scenery — even if that scenery is just a move to the bullpen.
This one is the big one. Cabrera is owed $184 million over the next six years. As a 34-year-old in 2017, he put up the worst season of his career.
Over the years Cabrera has battled — frequently playing through — injuries on the field, and you have to wonder if more recent family issues off the field contributed to his poor showing.
This season can go a long way toward showing whether Cabrera can bounce back to performing closer to the 11-time All-Star, two-time MVP that he was.
Andrew Simon noted at MLB.com that Jim Thome’s career might be a good comparison.
Both are big-bodied players who struggled with nagging injuries and posted poor age-34 years.
Across his next seven years, from 2006-12, Thome batted .265 with a .922 OPS, well above average.
If Cabrera can do that as well, the Tigers will be far better off for it, and fans will remember him fondly.
Otherwise, Cabrera and his contract will be an albatross pulling the organization down for years to come, and seeing his career in Detroit end like that would leave a terrible final image in fans’ minds as he faded out.
Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.