Those who follow the Tigers baseball firmament had a hunch last March playoff tickets would not stress their autumn 2018 budgets.
But there was enough vigor and enough new blood — and often sufficient pitching — to have made this year’s Tigers more entertaining, perhaps, than would be suggested by their final record, which could be as bad as 63-99 or as good as 69-93, with Ron Gardenhire’s team heading into its final two series at Minnesota and Milwaukee.
A review of Tigers forecasts confirmed, as well as surprises unseen, would include some of the following players and moments:
►Best blindside from a position player: Niko Goodrum. He was signed last autumn as a minor-league free agent after his former team, the Twins, had not regarded him overly seriously. Goodrum was supposed to go to Tigers spring camp and contend for a bench job. He instead made the team and stayed with it the entire year. He has smacked 16 home runs. He has 29 doubles, a .748 OPS (plus-102) and a 1.6 WAR. He has played every position except catcher and center field. He is 26. This was good scouting and analytics work by the Tigers.
►Biggest jump anticipated by a position player in 2019: Jeimer Candelario. This was his first full season in the big leagues. And as first full seasons go for lineup regulars, it was a pogo-stick campaign, up and down, with one number overriding any others: 19 home runs. Candelario will be better in all phases, almost assuredly, in 2019. His batting average (.226 today) will rise, maybe by a lot. He will draw more walks as his strikeouts drop. And he could crowd 30 homers in 2019, all as he gets a bit smoother at third base. At some point, maybe in 2020, he’s got a shot at becoming the Tigers’ new first baseman. For now, he’s evolving into a better hitter and infield fixture.
►Most talented mystery player from 2018: JaCoby Jones. You’re forgiven for believing Jones will never hit much higher than the .213 he has shown in 2018, with a .268 on-base average. He is 26 years old. But he was better, significantly better, in each category during five seasons in the minor leagues. If he can make any meaningful progress in 2019, oh, have the Tigers a potential weapon here. Jones has 23 defensive runs saved in 2018 and a 2.6 defensive WAR. He also has ripped 11 homers. If he makes any — any — progress in swinging at strikes, he becomes a heavy plus player.
►Biggest tumble, position side: James McCann, in terms of offense. He has a .569 OPS on the season and a negative-0.6 WAR. He has improved markedly on defense and still ranks as a good bet to win a contract next season as the Tigers wait on Jake Rogers.
►Player who showed in September he probably belongs: Christin Stewart. Power and a batting eye — check, check. He sees nearly five pitches per at-bat and probably will hit 20-30 homers next season if he plays regularly in left field. His defense is, as was known, so-so. But he has gotten better and will improve. What’s clear even after two weeks is that Stewart can handle big-league pitching. Expect him to be Opening Day’s starting left fielder. And if you want to project that a year from now he might be earning a vote or two for Rookie of the Year, your call.
►Pitcher whose stock was a smart buy in April: Matthew Boyd. Take a gander at his jump in strikeouts. He’s at 11.4 per nine innings during four September starts and 8.4 on the year, with a 3-to-1 ration on whiffs to walks. He has four pitches and a better fastball than some imagined. He is the team’s present-day rotation ace.
►Reliever who came around, pleasingly: Joe Jimenez. Everyone wants kids to perform during those early weeks and months as if their skills alone can make them instant big-league weapons. Doesn’t work that way, even when you have Jimenez’s palette of pitches. He’s durable and can blow away three batters with 10 pitches. Tigers were so smart to have followed him in 2013 and signed him post-draft.
►Most confounding pitcher in 2018: Shane Greene. Simply shouldn’t have so many rough innings. Something isn’t clicking, and it isn’t that his slider too often gets hammered. Greene’s fastball also has lost some gyration. The Tigers were counting on more three years ago when they dealt Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba in a three-way deal that brought Greene from the Yankees. Greene’s ERA a year ago: 2.66. His ERA in 2018: 5.20. Not a lot of big-league closers with those latter digits.
►Player most likely to not be back who could be back: Jose Iglesias. It’s assumed Iglesias will move elsewhere once free agency arrives in a few days. But where is he relocating? There has been no market for him the past two years. The Tigers need a shortstop in 2019 and Iglesias will want full-time work. It makes sense the two parties might re-up for a one-year deal, even if Iglesias and agent Scott Boras almost certainly will insist, at least initially, on something lengthier.
►Player with most potential outcomes in 2019: Nick Castellanos. He could be a force in 2019. Or he could put up numbers on par with his 2018 score. Say it’s the former, which would be a personal pick, and a guy who turns 27 in March hits .300-plus with 30 homers. He then would acquire trade gloss for July or become the brand of bat a team might want to sign next autumn as a free agent. The Tigers, of course, hope he explodes like Mount Vesuvius when such fury will benefit all parties in the short and long term. If he hits furiously next season but eludes a mid-summer trade, the Tigers can afford next fall to make a qualifying offer that will earn a decent draft pick if another team plucks him.
That’s a best-case scenario for Castellanos, and for the Tigers, who won’t care to pay him nearly $20 million in QO money in 2020, but who neither will want to say goodbye minus compensation. In their rebuilding phase the Tigers aren’t likely to pay for an expensive extension. Nor are they moving him to first base. Castellanos needs to tear pitchers to pieces in 2019, for his and his team’s benefit.
►Player who changes everything if he stays healthy in 2019: Miguel Cabrera, of course. I’d still bet on him. He has had a steady stream of ills, yes, and in six months he will be a few weeks from birthday No. 36. But he is Cabrera. And he will remain Cabrera, with a deadly bat, for probably the brunt of his remaining five years in Detroit. Some who haven’t had the benefit of medical school insist Cabrera will annually break down and spend his months in Miami healing from various tears and fractures and trauma. The wager here is he’ll bounce back in 2019, and a year from now be a most appealing candidate for Comeback Player of the Year.
►Best pitching candidate to have a Cabrera-like revival in 2019: Daniel Norris. Again, there’s a sense Norris has had his quota of weird ailments and will snap together a sturdy year in 2019. He has looked like a different pitcher in September, even with a sub-prime fastball that next year should be back to its 94-mph norm. He has too much talent. And there’s no reason to believe he’s an injury waiting to happen. This is the guy a team has waited for, patiently. Don’t be shocked if he becomes one of spring camp’s big stories and carries it into a full season. He’s due. Overdue, in fact.
►Relievers who prove a bullpen's unpredictability: Drew VerHagen and Daniel Stumpf. VerHagen remains the waiver wire’s missed lottery ticket after he was shunned in April when any big-league team could have grabbed him. Big mistake. The man’s 27. He pitched at Vanderbilt. Fourth-round draft pick by the Tigers, with an arm waiting to be toned and unleashed. Looks as if it has happened.
Stumpf, it sometimes is forgotten, was a Tigers Rule 5 pick who didn’t want any further contact with the Royals after a second Rule 5 tryout had fizzled. He instead signed with the Tigers. Now he’s a deadly lefty with a big fastball and a deep zeal for his role. Not a lot of bullpen bettors would have selected this pair as Relievers Most Likely To Surprise in 2018. But they have been difference-makers during the second half and look as if they should be pluses in 2019.
►Still trying to find a home after a mixed 2018: Mikie Mahtook. He’s a lot like Jones in that (a) he covers tremendous patches of ground, (b) has power (five homers in the last month), and (c) isn’t much into taking walks (.284 on-base percentage). These gents presumably will duke it out next spring to decide who starts and who works primarily as a fourth outfielder — assuming Stewart ascends as a daily choice in left field.
It’s not a bad combo from which to choose, Jones and Mahtook. But it would be nice in a team’s eyes if one decided to chop down that strike zone and became the regular a team waits to anoint in center field.