Detroit Tigers 2018 season preview: Cabrera looks to bounce back as Tigers rebuild

Following a decade of contention that saw the Detroit Tigers go to the ALCS four straight years from 2011-14, the wheels finally came off last season, and the Tigers finished with baseball's worst record at 64-98. Manager Brad Ausmus was let go after the season and replaced by veteran skipper Ron Gardenhire.

To his credit, GM Al Avila acted decisively at the trade deadline and moved veterans for prospects. J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson, and Alex Avila -- yes, the GM traded his own son -- were dealt for prospects at the July 31 deadline, then, on August 31, both Justin Upton and longtime ace Justin Verlander were traded as well. Verlander went to the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros. The selling continued over the winter as Ian Kinsler was sent to the Los Angeles Angels.

Avila and his staff are now committed to a rebuild, a rebuild that will include the No. 1 selection in the 2018 amateur draft in June. The goal this summer will be to shed payroll and acquire as many future assets as possible. Winning will be a secondary concern this year, which is no fun for fans, but is the right direction for the franchise at this point in time.

The 2003 Tigers were the worst team I've ever seen -- that team went 43-119 and were outscored by a whopping 337 runs -- and I don't think the 2018 Tigers will be that bad. They're going to be bad though. Very bad. The good news? The Tigers were miserable in 2003 and AL pennant winners in 2006. The rebuild doesn't have to take forever. Let's preview Detroit's upcoming season.

The vitals

  • 2017 record: 64-98 (minus-159 run differential)
  • 2018 depth chart: Click here.
  • 2018 schedule: Click here.

Can Cabrera rebound from the worst season of his career?

If he retired today, Miguel Cabrera would be a no-doubt first ballot Hall of Famer, and he'd go down as one of the 10 best right-handed hitters in history. He's been a truly brilliant hitter since his MLB debut as a 20-year-old in 2003, when he helped the Marlins win the World Series as a rookie.

This is 2018, however. Cabrera will turn 35 shortly after Opening Day, and last season he hit a career worst .249/.329/.399 (92 OPS+) with 16 home runs in 130 games. We're talking about a two-time MVP who hit .330/.412/.578 (166 OPS+) and averaged 36 homers per 162 games from 2009-16. Cabrera battled groin, collarbone, and back trouble in 2017, which can certainly explain the poor numbers. Nagging injuries are part of getting old in baseball though.

As great as he's been in his career, Cabrera is now in his mid-30s and he's coming off by far the worst season of his career, and he's owed $184 million from 2018-23. That is not good. Trading Cabrera and unloading that contract is a pipe dream right now. The hope this season is Miggy will get healthy this year and rake like he used to rake, creating trade interest next offseason or maybe even at the deadline. If he doesn't, his contract will hamper the club's rebuild.

MLB: Spring Training-Detroit Tigers at New York Yankees
Miguel Cabrera will look to bounce back from the worst season of his Hall of Fame career in 2018. USATSI

Who else can be shipped off for prospects?

Avila and his staff picked the roster pretty clean. Cabrera is unmovable, ditto Victor Martinez, though at Martinez is entering the final season of his contract. Jordan Zimmermann has been terrible the last two seasons (5.60 ERA in 265 1/3 innings) and he's owed $74 million the next three years. He's going to need to rebound in a big way this year to have any trade value. Right now the Tigers have little hope of moving Zimmermann and either a) getting a prospect, or b) shedding significant salary.

Aside from the three well-paid veterans, the Tigers do still have attractive trade chips in third baseman-turned-outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, starter Michael Fulmer, shortstop Jose Iglesias, and relievers Alex Wilson and Shane Greene. Fulmer had ulnar nerve transposition surgery over the winter and will probably have to show he's healthy before commanding a big trade return. Scrap heap free agent pickups Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano could pitch their way into trade value at the deadline as well. 

The most desirable trade chips (Verlander, Kinsler, Upton, Wilson, Avila) were moved last year and over the winter. Avila -- the GM, not the catcher -- still has some more veterans to peddle to contending teams this summer, and if any of the expensive veterans (Cabrera, Martinez, Zimmermann) rebound and generate interest, I imagine the Tigers will look to move them as quickly as possible. 

So who will they take with the No. 1 pick?

Only once before have the Tigers held the first overall selection in the amateur draft. They selected Rice closer Matt Anderson with the top pick in 1998, and, as the legend goes, he blew out his shoulder throwing an octopus at a Detroit Red Wings game. Octopus or no octopus, Anderson wrecked his shoulder early in his career and was never the same. Surely Detroit is hoping things work out better with the No. 1 pick this time around.

At the moment both MLB.com and Baseball America rank Florida Gators right-hander Brady Singer as the No. 1 prospect in the 2018 draft class, though the draft is still more than three months away, and so much can and will change between now and then. There is no Stephen Strasburg or Bryce Harper in this year's draft class. No generational talent who is the clear cut No. 1 pick. That's okay. There are still plenty of quality players available this year, and whoever the Tigers select will become the face of their rebuild.

Probable lineup

The Tigers are in the early stages of their rebuild and that means their lineup will be populated with youngsters and overpaid veterans. Lineups inevitably change throughout the season. Here's the starting nine Gardenhire figures to run out there in 2018:

  1. LF Mikie Mahtook
  2. 3B Jeimer Candelario
  3. 1B Miguel Cabrera
  4. DH Victor Martinez
  5. RF Nick Castellanos
  6. C James McCann
  7. CF Leonys Martin
  8. 2B Dixon Machado
  9. SS Jose iglesias

    Bench: C John Hicks, UTIL Alexi Amarista, OF Victor Reyes

Mahtook had a nice under-the-radar season last year, hitting .276/.330/.457 (105 OPS+) with 12 homers in his first extended opportunity in the big leagues. The Cabrera-Martinez-Castellanos middle of the order could be very dangerous if Miggy and V-Mart return to form. Otherwise that is not an overly intimidating lineup, which is par for the course for a rebuilding team.

Probable rotation

MLB: Detroit Tigers-Workouts
Once he recovers from elbow surgery, Michael Fulmer will become a top trade chip. USATSI

Verlander was traded away and Anibal Sanchez became a free agent after the season, so Detroit's rotation will have a new look in 2018. Here is the projected starting five:

  1. RHP Michael Fulmer
  2. LHP Matthew Boyd
  3. RHP Jordan Zimmermann
  4. RHP Mike Fiers
  5. LHP Daniel Norris

Liriano, who joined the Tigers on a one-year contract Friday, is also expected to compete for a rotation spot in spring training. It's possible he will make the starting five with Norris opening the season in Triple-A or in the bullpen.

Rotation depth options include Travis Wood, Ryan Carpenter, and Chad Bell. No team makes it through the season using only five starters, so chances are all of those guys (and more) will get a chance to start game in 2018.

Probable bullpen

Generally speaking, the bullpen of a rebuilding team is the land of opportunity. Pitch well and you'll keep getting looks. Pitch well and you might get traded! But the opportunity to step up and seize a job most definitely exists. Here is the projected relief crew:

Closer: RHP Shane Greene
Setup: LHP Francisco Liriano, RHP Alex Wilson
Middle: RHP Buck Farmer, LHP Blaine Hardy, RHP Joe Jimenez, LHP Daniel Stumpf
Long: LHP Travis Wood

Liriano could end up in the rotation with Norris in the bullpen. Or Wood could wind up in the rotation with Liriano and Norris in the bullpen. Other bullpen depth options include Carpenter, Bell, Warwick Saupold, and Johnny Barbato, among others. As is always the case with a rebuilding team, any reliever who pitches well could find themselves traded for short order.

CBS Sports Writer

Mike Axisa joined CBS Sports in 2013. He has been a member of the BBWAA since 2015 and has previously written about both fantasy baseball and real life baseball for MLBTradeRumors.com, FanGraphs.com, RotoAuthority.com,... Full Bio

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