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, continuing in the outfield.
2019 Positional Performance
In 2019, two notable things happened regarding the Tigers outfield. First, this marks the season the Tigers finally traded Nicholas Castellanos. Al Avila reached a deadline deal with the Cubs bringing two prospects back to Detroit and also bringing to an end all the speculation about when (if) he would be traded. However, with the trade the Tigers also saw their most productive offensive outfielder walk out the door. In 89 starts in right field (he also started 11 times at DH), Castellanos amassed 1.2 bWAR, by far the most productive among the Tigers regular outfielders. Sticking with his history, all of his value came while he was in the batter’s box as he again provided negative value defensively (-0.8 dWAR).
Second, moving on from Castellanos allowed the Tigers to fully commit to a youth movement in the outfield. Christin Stewart, JaCoby Jones, Victor Reyes, Harold Castro and Travis Demeritte combined for 332 starts in 2019. The problem with the youth movement was (at least during 2019) it didn’t yield much production and didn’t answer any questions about who could be a long-term solution. Reyes was the lone player from the group to have a positive bWAR (1.3) but even his true offensive profile is clouded by an unsustainably high batting average on balls in play (BAbip). Each of the remaining players struggled in at least one aspect of the game. Stewart’s power didn’t manifest itself and his defense in left field was as advertised (which in this case isn’t a good thing). Jones saw his previously sterling defensive metrics reverse course (-1.1 dWAR per Baseball-Reference) even if his offensive production took a step forward. Demeritte came over from the Braves at the trade deadline after scorching Triple-A in the first half of the season, however he struggled in his first big league exposure on both offense and defense. Finally, Castro spent a number of games in centerfield but defensive metrics weren’t impressed with his glovework (-4 defensive runs saved over almost 300 innings in centerfield) and his offensive production came with a solid batting average, but an unsustainably high average on balls in play and little in the way of walks (2.4% walk rate) or power (.093 ISO).
Several others players spent time in the outfield in 2019 including Niko Goodrum (clearly an important member of the 2020 team however he should be a full-time infielder now so won’t be discussed here), Mikie Mahtook, and Brandon Dixon.
Nicholas Castellanos – Traded to the Chicago Cubs prior the trade deadline
Dustin Peterson – Outrighted to Toledo, elected free agency (currently unsigned)
Mikie Mahtook – Designated for assignment after 9 games in 2019
Castellanos was the Tigers best offensive player during the first half of last season. His offense will be difficult for Detroit to replicate given the players in spring camp. If the Tigers right field production approaches Castellanos’ levels from 2019 it will likely be due to a defensive improvement from the position. Peterson and Mahtook didn’t have significant roles last season.
Cameron Maybin – Free Agent; one-year, $1.5 million (Previous Team: New York Yankees)
Jorge Bonifacio – Free Agent; minor league agreement (Previous Team: Kansas City Royals)
Troy Stokes – Claimed off waivers (Previous Team: Milwaukee Brewers)
Third times a charm. At least, that’s the hope in Detroit, after the Tigers resigned Cameron Maybin for $1.5 million on February 12th. Maybin was likely the last addition to the team this off-season and he will be returning to the outfield he has called home two other times in his career (albeit on a limited basis at the Major League level). Tigers’ fans should be familiar with the overall profile for Maybin but they may not be aware he is actually coming off a solid season with New York. In 269 plate appearances, he posted a career best OPS+ of 127 while displaying a strong combination of power (28 extra-base hits), patience (11.1% walk rate), and speed (nine stolen bases). Even his defense was respectable grading out around average (although much better in right field than left). Given the very modest price tag and a solid season, Maybin feels like a reasonable signing even if it isn’t one that will move the needle significantly in 2020 or beyond (which coincidentally I could write about any of the Tigers off-season signings).
Bonifacio is an interesting acquisition and the type of (slightly) higher upside minor league contract that makes sense given the uncertain outfield situation in Detroit. He had a solid rookie year offensively in 2017 which included 17 home runs and a .432 slugging percentage. He took a large step backwards in 2018 however. His home run production slipped to 4 (and his slugging dropped by 72 points) even though his at-bats only declined by 38.5%. Last season saw him completely fall off of Kansas City’s radar (well, obviously considering he became a free agent). He spent nearly the entire season at Triple-A posting a power-driven (his OBP was only .284) OPS of .701. Still he represents a very low-risk option who does have some chance to stick because of his power.
Troy Stokes was actually acquired during the 2019 season but has yet to make his debut in the Tigers organization. Last season was a down year for Stokes at Triple-A which led to him being placed on waivers by Milwaukee and then subsequently claimed by Detroit. However, he does have some intrigue given his power/speed profile and what had been solid minor league production prior to last year. Fangraphs gives his raw power, speed, and future fielding ability above-average grades (55) so there are clearly some tools for the Tigers to attempt to develop.
2020 Player Projections
TigsTown 2020 Outlook
That may seem like a large number of players who have the potential to contribute in the outfield but keep in mind, teams have around 4000 outfield innings to fill over the course of a season. For a team like Detroit, without many answers, that provides numerous opportunities even when chances appear limited for the players farther down the depth chart. None of the outfield spots currently have a long-term solution, meaning fans should expect to see a number of players rotate through as the season progresses. During the early portion of the season the Tigers will continue to give opportunities to Reyes, Jones, and Stewart. Entering the season, these three have a chance to define their roles either positively or negatively. The projection systems are not overly optimistic about the trio, however each has provided glimpses they can be part of the future in Detroit. Given each has spent, at least, a full season in the Majors it seems likely each will be on the twenty-six (yes, that felt weird to type) man roster come Opening Day.
Cameron Maybin signed a Major League contract and it seems very likely he will make the team. Based on the projection systems it also appears likely that given enough opportunity he could be the Tigers most productive outfielder. Now, the key word here is “opportunity”. Maybin was signed to a very (in MLB terms anyway) inexpensive deal which gives the Tigers the flexibility to reduce his playing time if the other players listed begin to produce and prove themselves worthy of increased playing time. There is also a chance that Maybin becomes a trade chip at the deadline if he produces at a similar level to last season.
The remaining players mentioned above appear to be on the outside looking in as spring training begins but that isn’t to say that they are all on equal footing. Bonifacio and Demeritte have accrued big league service time and have little to prove in the minors. This likely gives them an advantage over Stokes and to an even lesser extent Daz Cameron, as camp starts. If either player performs well it may force the Tigers to make a cut elsewhere to include them on the opening day roster. Both, Stokes and Cameron are coming off disappointing seasons offensively and should start at Triple-A giving them a chance to prove last year was a fluke. But, assuming all four of these players remain in the system and start the year in the minors any outfield opportunities early in the year should be filled by one of these players.
Later in the season, there are some other names to know. The upper levels of the Tigers system are pretty full with outfielders. Jose Azocar, Derek Hill, Jake Robson, and Danny Woodrow all have different levels of prospect status but have all played at Double-A or higher. Any of those players are candidates to see time at the big league level if the need should arise and they are performing well.