The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Detroit Tigers 2018 Season Preview
Opening Day is a celebration unlike any other. We have been waiting since Nov. 1, 2017—yes, that's right, November—to get back to baseball, and we have finally reached the finish line. From this day forward, we will have at least one game to watch every single day until the 2018 World Series concludes. Think about that. Isn’t it beautiful?
What might not be as beautiful is the season the Detroit Tigers are primed for. They entered the 2017 season hopeful, but things went, well, poorly. A disastrous campaign triggered the trades of Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila during the regular season, and then Ian Kinsler in the offseason.
On the bright side, they acquired a healthy amount of strong prospects to boost an anemic farm system and locked themselves into making the first overall pick in June’s MLB Draft, so that’s something.
This year is going to be different in the sense that nobody expects the Tigers to sneak into the postseason (though it’s not technically impossible). But, that doesn’t mean that this team won’t be worth watching. Here’s a breakdown of who and what to look out for and why.
Team MVP: Nicholas Castellanos
Every spring for the last 10 years, Detroit fans came into the season expecting Miguel Cabrera to absolutely dominate everything and everyone in his path, and he did—until last year. In 2017, Miggy put up career lows in a Tigers uniform with 16 home runs, 60 RBI and an uncharacteristic .249 batting average. The big man was dealing with chronic injuries, an alimony case and political unrest in his home country of Venezuela all season long. Do I think he’s going to be better this year? Absolutely. Will he return to his triple crown ways and capture another AL MVP award? Probably not, but it wouldn’t necessarily shock me.
However, 24 isn’t my pick to be the Tigers’ most valuable player in 2018. That honor goes to the third-baseman-turned-corner-outfielder Nicholas Castellanos. The 26-year-old was far and away the most productive hitter that played the whole season in Detroit’s lineup last year, blasting 26 home runs with 101 RBI and a .272 batting average while leading the league with 10 triples. And being that young, he still has room to improve.
Now that Castellanos doesn't have the pressure of locking in a postseason spot and is away from playing third base (where he struggled mightily defensively), he has more time to focus on hitting and strengthening his approach at the plate instead of dedicating massive chunks of time to fielding the hot corner. While he still needs to become at least a league-average outfielder, early reports indicate he’s almost there.
Team Cy Young: Michael Fulmer
Do I even need to say it? It’s Michael Fulmer or nobody. Even though the staff ace is inexplicably not the Opening Day starter, guys like Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Fiers are simply not good enough to have an above-average season, let alone be the best on a team. That's why the Tigers will need reigning All-Star and former Rookie of the Year Fulmer to carry the weight of this staff.
While 2017 might not have been the best season that Fulmer will have, he did improve on some statistics, including innings and walks. He threw five more innings in one less start, indicating that he was going deeper into ball games, while walking two fewer batters in those increased innings.
If the new ace can combine the best parts of his 2016 and 2017 seasons, he’s looking at a second consecutive All-Star selection and possible AL Cy Young consideration. One thing I do fear is that Fulmer may be traded at the deadline, but until then, enjoy him while he's here.
I’d also like to give an honorable mention to Shane Greene. The closer has been one of the better bullpen pieces the Tigers have had in years, and he gives the fans some comfort when he comes in to seal games that players like Francisco Rodriguez (shudder) and Joe Nathan (vomit) don’t attribute. If Greene can spin another season with a sub-three ERA and earn a decent amount of saves, he could fetch the Tigers some hearty prospects come July.
Young players to watch
Like I mentioned before, the flurry of trades made by general manager Al Avila last season has brought in a considerable amount of young talent to the Tigers’ system. While most of the team's top prospects are still just that—prospects—there are some guys ready to make an impact in Detroit as soon as the first pitch is thrown.
Third baseman Jeimer Candelario is that player. Acquired from the Chicago Cubs as part of the Justin Wilson/Alex Avila trade last July, "Candy" arrived in Detroit and produced considerably. In 27 games with the Old English D, he slashed .330/.406/.874 with two home runs and 13 RBIs during September, a month in which they won only six games.
At only 24 years old, Candelario appears to be a future building block for the new-look Tigers. His bat is just about everything one could want out of a young and growing third baseman. Look for him to hit around .290 while clubbing 15 to 20 home runs this season.
Another young player to watch, who was also acquired by Detroit in a trade, is pitcher Matt Boyd. He came to the Motor City from Toronto in 2015 as part of the David Price trade. His first 10 starts for the Tigers in 2015 were not promising. 2016 looked better, but still not great, before he seemingly reverted back into destruction in 2017 with bad numbers.
So, why should we expect good things from a 27-year-old who hasn’t even had a good season yet? For starters (no pun intended), he was a few outs away from thowing a no-hitter on Sep. 17, 2017. The lefty spun nine scoreless innings, allowing only one hit and one walk in the process against the White Sox. That one hit came with two outs in the ninth inning.
While a strong finish is not always going to carry over into next season, look for that to be the case here as Boyd pitched well in spring training and is getting a feel for his off-speed stuff, citing that his slider is becoming more of a weapon for him. His hard-hit rate on curve balls and sliders was second best among qualified starts in 2017.
I’m not saying he’s going to compete for a Cy Young nod or even an All-Star spot, but Boyd is going to make strides in 2018.
Overall, there are things to like about this team. Cabrera could show us a resurgence of his true Miggy form. Castellanos could become a household name. Fulmer should make some noise despite being a quiet guy. Greene could be the most sought-after closer on the trade market. Candelario could be one of the most consistent young hitters in the league. Boyd could become a solid rotation piece.
These are all good storylines to follow, but it’s not all hopefulness in Detroit this season. New head coach Ron Gardenhire has already irritated fans, with some already yearning for his dismissal. Zimmermann is the Opening Day starter despite his incredible 6.08 ERA in 2017. Victor Martinez has evolved from one of the league's best hitters to an old man who can only be a designated hitter and a contract too large to become a trade asset. Leonys Martin—a man who hit .172 last season—is going to be the Opening Day lead-off hitter and starting center fielder. And don’t even get me started on Mike Fiers or the bullpen.
The heavy pressure to lock into a playoff spot is gone from Detroit and has been replaced by the pressure to simply transition into the next era of Tigers baseball, which will hopefully start in 2020. These guys are going to lose games this year, and that’s a given, although sharing a division with the equally pitiful Chicago White Sox and Kansas City Royals should minimize the amount of damage Detroit takes.
Prediction: 70-92, fourth place in the AL Central
Let’s play ball.