I don’t have to tell anyone reading this article, The Detroit Tigers were the worst team in baseball during the 2019 season. With a roster that was only able to produce 47 wins (I think this sounds way worse than 114 losses or actually now that I type it maybe it doesn’t) improvements are needed at basically every position group.
The Major League Baseball off-season affords teams with many avenues to acquire additional talent. Free agency, trades, the Rule 5 draft, and waivers can all be mined to increase an organizations odds of being successful now and into the future. Al Avila and his lieutenants have been working all of the above channels looking for players to help win more games. Avila has stated he believes the Tigers are done tearing down and are ready to start building the Major League roster back up. Of course, given the starting point, any improvement made this off-season is going to be marginal, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be meaningful to the overall rebuild. Let’s take a look at some of the work that has been done this off-season to accomplish that goal, starting with the catching and designated hitter positions.
2019 Positional Performance
By any measure the Tigers catching production during 2019 was atrocious. Whether viewed through a traditional or analytical viewpoint it is difficult to find many positives. The combined output from Grayson Greiner, Jake Rogers, John Hicks and Bobby Wilson was the worst in Major League Baseball. The group actually produced below replacement level, posting a bWAR of -2.6. The hope was that this was the year that either Greiner or, more likely, Rogers ascended to the majors and took hold of the starting catching job. Obviously this didn’t happen as Greiner produced a weighted runs created plus (wRC+) of 45 (or about 45% of league average) and Rogers struggled to make contact in his late season call-up. Hicks took a step back offensively and was never strong enough defensively to be an everyday catcher anyway. Bobby Wilson was jettisoned during the season and mercifully so for most Tigers fans.
Miguel Cabrera transitioned to a full-time designated hitter during the 2019 season due to injuries limiting his ability to play the field. Given those injuries and a lack of conditioning (or at least a perceived lack of conditioning anyway) his offensive performance was nothing close to the vintage version from the previous decade. Cabrera did play in 136 games but his wRC+ was essentially a career low (his 2017 performance was similar) of 96 and he was actually a drain on the overall team production posting a bWAR of -0.3. As with many teams, a number of other players cycled through the DH spot to give them a break from the daily grind of playing the field.
John Hicks – Elected free agency after being designated for assignment
Bobby Wilson – Was released during the 2019 season (again, mercifully)
Hicks departs the Tigers after being a catcher/first baseman during his time with the team. He had seen the majority of his at-bats come at first base toward the end of the 2019 season as both Greiner and Rogers were seen as superior defenders. Hicks was however the Tigers best offensive option behind the plate even during his down 2019 campaign (he had been a roughly league average offensive player in 2017 and 2018). But, with the signing of Romine and the other depth options acquired, specifically Eric Haase (who can fill a similar role), the Tigers will most likely not miss John Hicks in 2020.
Austin Romine – Free Agent; one-year, $4.1 million (Previous Team: New York Yankees)
Eric Haase – Trade (Acquired from Cleveland for cash considerations)
Jhon Nunez – Trade (Acquired from Boston for LHP Matt Hall)
Enter, Austin Romine. The first free agent to agree to terms with the Tigers, Romine signed for one-year for $4.1 million. As a part-time player the past two seasons for the New York Yankees, (approx. 250 plate appearances each year) Romine posted bWARs of 1.3 and 0.9, respectively. While this certainly isn’t all-star level production, it does represent a rather sizable upgrade for Detroit. It even seems likely that given additional innings behind the plate and more at-bats Romine could produce a season in the 2 WAR range (however as seen below the projections systems are not forecasting this). Given that the innings Romine is absorbing were previously taken by below replacement level players he could be a 3-4 win upgrade behind the dish. Making him a very reasonable investment by the front office.
In addition to finding a new starting catcher, the Tigers front office clearly saw the need to enhance the depth at the position as they targeted catching in multiple smaller trades during the off-season. Haase hasn’t had many opportunities at the big league level (32 at-bats combined over the past two seasons) despite playing the previous season at 26 years old. But, he has demonstrated the ability to hit for power during his minor league career. Haase has hit at least 20 home runs during each of the past three seasons at either Double-A or Triple-A, peaking at 28 during 2019. Despite the power he has some serious swing and miss in his offensive game which most likely will limit his ability to use his power in the majors. His defensive reputation isn’t great however he has been adequate in cutting down base stealers, eclipsing 40% caught stolen multiple times in the minors. The power could allow the Tigers to retain Haase on the opening day roster as a third catcher and potential part time designated hitter to give Cabrera some rest (which will be very necessary). Lastly though, it should be noted Haase was designated for assignment by the Indians before the Tigers picked him up for cash, so clearly expectations should be tempered.
Jhon Nunez was re-signed by Boston on a minor league deal in November (per MLBTR) and then was shipped to Detroit in the Matt Hall trade. A career minor-leaguer (seven seasons) Nunez spent the 2019 season with the Red Sox Double-A affiliate the Portland Sea Dogs and has yet to break through to the big leagues. Nunez did post a .746 OPS in over 200 at-bats with Portland and threw out 67% of the runners trying to steal against him but he most likely represents minor league depth during the 2020 season.
2020 Player Projections
TigsTown 2020 Outlook
Austin Romine should get the majority of starts behind the plate during the 2020 season and provide manager Ron Gardenhire with a much more productive season than anything he received in 2019. Looking at the other options it seems likely Greiner will start the season as the primary back-up to Romine since he spent the entire 2019 season with the team and his defensive reputation is superior to that of Haase. Haase could break camp with the Tigers and be used in a role similar to Hicks (spending time at C/1B/DH) if he demonstrates an ability to hit big league pitching during spring training.
The front office clearly hopes Jake Rogers will solidify himself as the catcher of the future (and it appears ZiPS is thinking he may be able to accomplish this given the number of at-bats they are projecting) but after a tough stint in Detroit to end last season he should start the year as the primary catching option in Toledo to continue his development. Nunez, along with the Tigers in-house minor league options such as Kade Scivicque, Brady Policelli, and Joey Morgan will make up the rest of the depth chart in the upper minors in some combination but shouldn’t have much of an impact at the Major League level this year, barring injuries.
At designated hitter, Cabrera will reprise his role from last season and if healthy and in-shape (please make note of the “if” used) it’s possible he can provide slightly more production in 2020. Expectations though should be tempered given his results from the past three seasons, age, and limited impact outside the batter’s box. Several other players will likely get starts at DH this season with Haase, Christin Stewart, and CJ Cron the most likely (projections not provided since they will be covered in other positional breakdowns). The upper levels of the minors don’t have much in the way of obvious DH guys but a player like Josh Lester (please note he is not among the TigsTown top 50 prospects and shouldn’t be considered a long-term option) may get a chance due a lack of alternatives.