The surprising story of the Detroit Tigers’ 2018 season

Miguel Cabrera will silence his critics by having a bounce-back season in 2018.

If you like change, you’ll love the 2018 Detroit Tigers. The team has a new manager, a new opening day starter, several new faces on their roster, and they even have new logos on their uniform.

The Old English D may be bigger on the Tigers’ caps, but that doesn’t translate to bigger expectations. The 2018 Tigers are expected to lose a lot of games. Just ask their general manager.

Over the off-season, GM Al Avila has told anyone who will listen that the Tigers will be tearing the team apart as they undergo the first year of a major rebuild. Apparently he’s never been introduced to the PR and marketing departments, because his slogan this off-season was essentially “We’ll suck, but we’ll have young new players, so buy tickets anyway!” Way to get the fan base excited, Al.

Starting at the trade deadlines last season, Avila gutted his team like a blue gill on a fishing boat. Gone are most of the talented players who were on the ’17 roster: J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, and Justin Wilson. Most significantly, the team jettisoned Justin Verlander, the face of the franchise for more than a decade. After that white flag went up, the team collapsed, barely winning a few games in September as they limped to a last place finish. That’s when Brad Ausmus was asked politely not to come back and when the front office committed to a youth movement and a multi-year rebuild. Hunker in folks, Avila & Co. want us to swallow a 4-5 year rejiggering of the franchise. In the meantime we’re supposed to accept a heap of losses in return for the cheeky excitement of youth.

There are still a few worthwhile ballplayers on the roster, though they stand out like a long-term employee at the White House. First, there’s Miguel Cabrera, the future Hall of Famer coming off an injury-marred season, the worst of his great career. Cabrera played nearly the entire season with a serious back injury until the Tigers mercifully shut him down. He’s starting the ’18 season lighter, more nimble, healthier, and with a renewed interest after a season filled with personal problems. Cabrera is talented enough to still be a great player even if he’s 85 percent of what he used to be. But I say he’ll be more like 92-95 percent of the old Miggy. How soon we all forget how important this man has been to the franchise. In a few years Cabrera will hit his 500th homer and collect his 3,000th hit in a Tiger uniform (assuming Avila doesn’t trade him for younger options). In the years we have left with Miggy, we better appreciate him.

Another interesting figure who showed up in camp again is Victor Martinez, Miggy’s buddy who once was one of the best hitters in the game. Martinez has suffered several injuries that have left him damaged goods, including one to his spine last season. He looks thinner and his bat looks quick again, but you can’t bank on the 39-year old to give the Tigers much in 2018. It would be a welcome miracle if he somehow produced somewhere between his numbers of the last two season, namely 10-27 homers and 47-86 RBIs. Reports out of Lakeland are that VMart is even slower than he’s ever been, which means he’ll lose 10-20 hits just because of his legs.

Michael Fulmer is the only reliable arm in the rotation, but even he missed a few starts in his sophomore season due to shoulder soreness. If he is healthy, the former Rookie of the Year can be an ace. But you get the feeling he’s in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. If Fulmer pitches well, the 25-year old will likely be auctioned to the highest bidder. If he pitches poorly, the Tigers will lose even more games.

That’s because the rotation behind Fulmer is putrid. Jordan Zimmermann is back after a terrible second season with the team, in which he posted a 6.08 ERA. He allowed nearly 14 baserunners per nine innings last season and a home run every 5 1/2 innings. He’s added a slider to his repertoire in 2018, and new pitching coach Chris Bosio is optimistic, but the chances that Zimm will regain the form he had in his career with Washington before coming to Motown on a fat contract, are slim and none.

The other three pitchers in the starting rotation are left-handers Matt Boyd, Francisco Liriano, and Daniel Norris. The last time the Tigers had three southpaws in their rotation was in 2008 when they started the season with Kenny Rogers, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis. That didn’t last long and it didn’t work out well. This trio can’t be counted on for much. Boyd and Norris have yet to prove that they can move from “prospect” to “reliable big league pitcher” and Liriano, once a fine pitcher who topped 200 K’s twice, hasn’t enjoyed an effective, healthy stretch of starts since 2015. The 34-year old has struggled to throw strikes throughout his career and he’s frequently battled poor mechanics. The Tigers took a flyer on him, hoping he can return to the days when he was known as “The Franchise” with the Twins. Don’t bank on it.

With four starters so suspect, the Tigers are bound to need reinforcements, and quality arms are not at the ready. The best pitchers in the organization are at least a year away or more. Be prepared for a lot of games where the starters put the team in a quick hole. The bullpen will get a lot of work.

Speaking of the bullpen, the Tigers have one decent arm out there in former starter Shane Greene. He’s taken to the role of closer like a veteran and looks like he can handle the ninth inning. The problem? New manager Ron Gardenhire won’t be able to hand Greene many leads. If he can save 20 games that would be an accomplishment. The rest of the pen consists of failed starters and also-rans.

In recent years the Tigers have been one of the worst defensive teams in baseball. There may be some improvement in that area with acquisition Leonys Martin in center field. But Dixon Machado (second base) and Nicholas Castellanos (right field) will be playing out of position and that won’t help. Cabrera is a statue at first at this point in his career and Jose Iglesias is flashy at short when he doesn’t need to be. His defense can draw oohs and ahhs, but his fundamentals and lack of concentration cost him a few plays every year. James McCann is growing in to one of the better defensive backstops in the game, but the hot corner will be an adventure with Jeimer Candelario down there.

Iglesias, Machado, left fielder Mikie Mahtook, Martin, and DH Martinez are below average offensive hitters for their positions. That’s one-fifth of the Detroit lineup. Castellanos gets better (and more confident) each season at the plate, and I expect he’ll have a good year in 2018. Candelario can hit the ball hard and he has a good eye. The 24-year old switch-hitter will make fans happy when he has a bat in his hands.

With some luck, Mahtook will improve on his “surprise” 2017 season and inch close to 18-20 homers and increase his 23 walks. Martin is 30 years old and has never proven that he can do anything more than swing and miss a lot and maybe occasionally run into a ball and get a free trip around the bases. He’s fast but not a good base stealer, so his only value comes in his above average defense in center.

Don’t expect anything at the plate from Iglesias and Machado. The Tigers haven’t had a middle infield this weak with the lumber since they let Gary Sutherland and Tom Veryzer on the field together back in the 1970s. It’s absolutely terrifying that Gardenhire is planning to hit Iglesias second behind Martin. Those two have a combined career on-base percentage of .308. That’s a lot of outs that will be made in front of Miggy and Castellanos.

Lest you think I’m predicting complete doom for the Tigers in 2018, here are a few surprises I think we’ll see:

  1. Cabrera will win his fifth batting title and the comeback player of the year award. In the process he’ll break a tie with Harry Heilmann for the second-most batting crowns as a Tiger, behind only the 12 won by Ty Cobb.
  2. Second baseman Machado, who’s been in the Tiger organization since he was 17 years old, will show a good glove at second base and steal 30 bases as Gardy orders his team to be aggressive on the base paths.
  3. Rule 5 draft pick Victor Reyes, a surprise to make the team out of spring training, will show off his wheels and his bat and win the left field job away from Mahtook, who was a fluke last season.
  4. Somehow, through magic dust and four-leaf clovers, Gardenhire will have the team overachieving early in the season. They’ll come back to earth, but for a while, the veteran manager will be the talk of baseball.
  5. Showing poise at the plate, Candelario will earn some Rookie of the Year consideration. Only two Tiger position players have ever won the award: Harvey Kuenn and Lou Whitaker.

Fans will daydream this summer. They’ll daydream about the future, about how good Candelario can be or whether or not young Franklin Perez, the young stud the team got in the Verlander trade, can one day become an ace. But mostly they’ll daydream about the past, about days when the Tigers were contenders.

It’ll all start when Mickey Lolich throws out the first pitch on opening day. Oh how we’ll wish that the old lefty could take the ball every fourth day. That way, at least once a week we’d have a fighting chance.

What do you think will happen with the Tigers in 2018? Tell me in the comments section below.

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About Dan Holmes

The editor of Detroit Athletic Co. blog, is the author of Ty Cobb: A Biography. He previously worked for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY, and worked for Major League Baseball as a web producer. He contributed to Sock it to 'Em Tigers: The Incredible Story of the 1968 Detroit Tigers, and Deadball Stars of the American League. Follow him on Twitter at @thedanholmes or visit his personal blog at danholmes.com.