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USATSI

On April 23 last season, the Detroit Tigers swept a doubleheader at Fenway Park and improved to 12-10 on the year. They won only 35 times in their final 140 games after that -- every other team had at least 45 wins after April 23 -- and were outscored an average of 2.32 runs per game. It was the worst single-season 140-game stretch by any team this century:

  1. 2019 Tigers: 35-105 (.250 winning percentage)
  2. 2003 Tigers: 37-103 (.264 winning percentage)
  3. 2018 Orioles: 39-101 (.279 winning percentage)
  4. 2004 Diamondbacks: 40-100 (.286 winning percentage)
  5. 2012 Astros: 43-97 (.307 winning percentage)

The 2013 Tigers went 43-119 and are the worst team of most our lifetimes, yet they still did not have as bad a 140-game stretch as the 2019 Tigers, who went 47-114 overall. That's what happens when you squeeze 25.5 percent of your wins in the first 13.6 percent of your schedule. It's been a long time since we last saw a team play as poorly for as long as last year's Tigers.

I suppose the good news is last year's 47-114 record gave the Tigers the No. 1 selection in this year's amateur draft, which they used on Arizona State slugger Spencer Torkelson. Also, the short 60-game season means just about every team will have a shot at the postseason, even the Tigers. They started 12-10 last year, right? Weird things happen in small sample sizes.

"We're excited that we do have a chance to make it to playoffs," Tigers GM Al Avila said during a recent conference call with reporters. "You talk to the staff, you talk to the players, you see how it was going into spring training before it was shutdown? Yes, we all feel we have a chance to be a playoff team in the shortened season."  

If you can't be optimistic in summer camp, when can you? The Tigers are far more likely to finish in last place than they are to make the postseason this year, of course, but the 60-game season gives them a chance to shock the world. I'd be down with a Cinderella story or two this year. Let's preview the 2020 season in Detroit.

Win total projection, odds

  • 2020 Sportsline projection: 20-40
  • World Series odds (via William Hill Sportsbook): 300/1
  • 2019 record: 47-114 (last in AL Central)

Projected lineup

  1. RF Cameron Maybin
  2. SS Niko Goodrum
  3. DH Miguel Cabrera
  4. 1B C.J. Cron
  5. 2B Jonathan Schoop
  6. 3B Jeimer Candelario
  7. LF Christin Stewart
  8. C Austin Romine
  9. CF JaCoby Jones

Bench: C Grayson Greiner, IF Dawel Lugo, OF Victor Reyes, UTIL Harold Castro

The Tigers had the lowest scoring offense in baseball last season (3.61 runs per game) and they committed $17.85 million ($6.61 million prorated) to four veterans on one-year contracts (Cron, Maybin, Schoop, Romine) in an effort to be respectable. Those guys won't move the needle much, but they mean youngsters like Candelario and Stewart won't have to carry the load offensively. Lugo and Reyes in particular will get more playing time should their performance warrant a longer look.

Projected rotation

  1. LHP Matthew Boyd
  2. RHP Jordan Zimmermann
  3. RHP Ivan Nova
  4. LHP Daniel Norris
  5. RHP Spencer Turnbull

The rotation x-factor is Michael Fulmer, who is working his way back from Tommy John surgery. He missed all of last season and would have started this season on the injured list had Opening Day not been delayed. Now he's throwing bullpen sessions and a candidate to be on the Opening Day roster. "I know he's chomping at the bit to get going," manager Ron Gardenhire said in a conference call last week. If Fulmer is healthy, it could bump Norris to the bullpen, or perhaps Detroit will go with a six-man rotation. That's something they'll figure out when the time comes. For now, Boyd is the headliner in the rotation.

Projected bullpen

I wouldn't get too attached to anyone in the projected Opening Day bullpen. Jimenez has been good overall and great occasionally, and as the closer on a bad team, that automatically makes him trade bait. Garcia, McKay, and Soto have promise but are unproven. Righties Nick Ramirez and John Schreiber, and veteran lefty Hector Santiago, are also in the bullpen mix. Detroit's bullpen is likely to look different -- very different -- when the team is ready to contend for an AL Central title again.

1. The next core is on the way

The Tigers have built a strong but not truly elite farm system the last few years -- Baseball America ranked it the 11th best system in the game prior to spring training -- and they have a reputation within baseball for being at the forefront of pitch design. Boyd took his game to another level last year, lefty prospect Tarik Skubal broke out, and even southpaw Alex Lange, who came over in the Nick Castellanos trade, made big gains after joining the organization.

Detroit's farm system is headlined by three high-end pitching prospects, all of whom are on their 60-man player pool and could make their MLB debut this season: Skubal and righties Matt Manning and Casey Mize. Over the winter our R.J. Anderson ranked Mize and Manning the 7th and 11th best prospects in baseball, respectively, and he praised Mize for his deep arsenal:

Mize has a trapdoor split-change that has more GIF potential than a waterskiing squirrel. Mize's arsenal runs deeper than his splitter. He has three other offerings -- a fastball, a slider, and a cutter -- that grade as at least above-average. Those pitches often play up due to his polish. He has above-average command and has walked fewer than five percent of the batters he's faced so far as a professional.

Manning, Mize, and Skubal all finished last season in Double-A and, in a normal 2020 season, we would have expected them to open the season at Triple-A, then make their way to Detroit at midseason. Mize, the No. 1 pick in 2018 and the most advanced of the trio, had the best chance to spend significant time in the big leagues this year.

COVID-19 has changed all that, obviously, and there is no handbook for developing top pitching prospects following a three-month layoff with no minor league games available. The Tigers have adequate rotation depth, especially with a healthy Fulmer, and that allows them to keep Manning, Mize, and Skubal with their taxi squad at the alternate training site as long as necessary.

Clearly though, those three young pitchers are the future of the rotation. Zimmermann is in the final season of his contract, Nova is on a one-year deal, Norris isn't standing in anyone's way, and Boyd has been on the trade block for two years now. At this point, the best case scenario is getting Manning, Mize, and Skubal through the season healthy, and hopefully giving them a taste of the show.

Beyond the three young starters, Detroit has another premium prospect in Torkelson, who some believe could hold his own in the big leagues right now. Division I to MLB is a huge, huge jump though. Also, the Tigers are planning to try Torkelson at third base, a position he's never played. Expecting a kid to go from college to MLB while learning a new position on the fly is a lot to ask.

The guess here is Manning, Mize, and Skubal all make their MLB debuts at some point this season while Torkelson spends the year with the taxi squad working out at third base. For the three pitchers, it's about getting their feet wet and preparing them to assume a larger role in 2021. For Torkelson, it's about the initial transition to pro ball. He's a little further away than the pitchers and that's OK.

For the Tigers, the important thing is the rebuild is starting to bear fruit. Manning, Mize, and Skubal are nearing the big leagues, Torkelson isn't too far behind them, and other prospects like outfielder Daz Cameron and infielders Willi Castro and Isaac Paredes are knocking on the door as well. Squint your eyes and you can begin to see the core of the next contending Tigers team.

2. A rebound season for Miggy?

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Miguel Cabrera had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2019. USATSI

If he retired today Cabrera would sail into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. He's on the very short list of the greatest right-handed hitters in history and he still has a shot at 3,000 hits (currently 2,815) and 500 homers (currently 477) even after the shutdown. That's because Cabrera is still under contract through at least 2023 and possibly through 2025:

  • 2020: $30 million ($11.1 million prorated)
  • 2021: $30 million
  • 2022: $32 million
  • 2023: $32 million
  • 2024: $30 million option (vests with top 10 finish in 2023 MVP voting)
  • 2025: $30 million option (vests with top 10 finish in 2024 MVP voting)

Cabrera turned 37 in April and last season he slugged .398 with only 12 home runs in 136 games despite the juiced ball and the most home run happy season in baseball history. Once an iron man who played at least 157 games every year from 2004-12, injuries have limited Cabrera to 581 of 810 possible games since 2015. Getting old stinks, folks.

Despite the injuries and waning production, Cabrera seems determined to show he is not nearing the finish line. He was noticeably slimmer in spring training -- Miggy hit .345/.406/.690 in 12 Grapefruit League games prior to the shutdown -- and he is currently in better shape than he has been at any point in years, according to Anthony Fenech of the Detroit Free Press.

Cabrera has been a negative contributor in the field and on the bases for a few years now. He's a bat-only player who will clog up the DH spot going forward, though he remains a monster in the clutch (.369/.427/.459 with runners in scoring position last year), and good health could bring back at least a little power. Miggy is still not someone a pitcher wants to face in a big spot.

The shutdown could really be beneficial to Cabrera, whose body was given three extra months to rest and repair all that wear and tear. He's in great shape and presumably he feels better physically right now than he typically does in July. The contract makes it possible, if not likely he will be part of the next contending Tigers team. A bounceback season in 2020 would be a welcome sight.

3. What would qualify as a successful season?

Despite Avila's proclamations that "(we) feel we have a chance to be a playoff team in the shortened season," the Tigers are not likely to be very good in 2020. The offense still lacks thump despite the veteran additions and the bullpen will keep the other team in games in the mid-to-late innings. Another high draft pick is in the cards in 2021.

Short of a surprise postseason berth, what qualifies as a successful season for the Tigers in 2020? Five things, I believe (in no particular order):

  • Manning, Mize, and Skubal all debut and have success heading into 2021.
  • Cabrera and Fulmer stay healthy and have strong bounceback seasons.
  • Young MLB players like Candelario and Stewart take steps forward.
  • Avila trades some of those one-year veteran pickups for prospects.
  • They're not pushovers.

That last point is not as important as the first four but it's not nothing either. The Tigers got steamrolled on the regular last season, especially after the 12-10 start, and you don't want young players getting comfortable with losing. You want them to compete and make the other team work for wins. As bad as the Orioles were last season, they played hard under new manager Brandon Hyde.

The Tigers are still in a rebuilding phase but the transition to contender isn't too far away with Manning, Mize, and Skubal (and Torkelson) knocking on the door. They need more than prospects to turn this ship around though. A revitalized Cabrera and a healthy Fulmer, and breakouts by incumbents like Candelario and Stewart, are necessary as well.