This week has brought a glimmer of optimism that there may actually be a 2020 MLB season. To prepare for this possible season, I’ll take a look around the country and examine each of the 30 major league teams. (Or at least I will until I get bored of the concept and move on to something else.)
Most analysts will give you a fair and balanced opinion when performing such an endeavor. Seeing how I’m a bit of a hater, I decided to take a different approach and focus heavily on the negative. With that in mind, I figured it made as much sense as anything to start at the bottom, and kick things off with the team that finished with the majors’ worst record in 2019: The Detroit Tigers.
A very brief history of the franchise
The Tigers have been around for over 100 years, and the franchise’s most prominent player was often described as dirty, and may - or may not - have been a racist. The Tigers have played in eleven World Series, but managed to lose the majority of them.
As far as positives, they once had a pitcher named Dizzy Trout. If there’s one thing baseball needs, its more players named Dizzy.
Ron Gardenhire was hired in 2018 after a 13-year tenure in Minnesota. During his time with the Twins, he made an art form out of losing in the LDS, managing to do so five times in a eight-year stretch. That hasn’t been a problem for him lately, as the LDS usually features teams with winning records, and between the Twins and Tigers, Gardenhire is working on a streak of six-consecutive losing seasons. Based on the projected roster for the 2020 Tigers, it’s very likely that streak will be extended to seven.
What happened in 2019?
In 2019, the Detroit Tigers went 47-114, and if that you think that sounds like a lot of losses, you’d be right, as that was the 16th most in MLB history. How bad were the Tigers in 2019? They finished 9.5 games behind the Kansas City Royals - a team which lost 103 games themselves.
As you might have guessed, the Tigers were really bad at scoring runs as well as preventing them. Their 582 runs scored ranked them dead last in the American League, although their 915 runs allowed was only the second worst total in the league.
That’s not to say there weren’t some highlights along the way:
The Detroit Tigers playing baseball in 2019 looks like this: pic.twitter.com/zaBWVgo98A— Brad Galli (@BradGalli) August 14, 2019
Most valuable player
Based on their record, it would be correct to assume the 2019 Tigers were not loaded with star power. Their lone All-Star representative was closer Shane Greene, and they quickly purged themselves of his basic competence by trading him to the Braves in late July. Once he got to Atlanta, he blew a save in game four of the NLDS that would have clinched the series for the Braves.
According to bWAR, the team’s best player in 2019 was starting pitcher Matthew Boyd. If the name is unfamiliar, that’s because pitchers who put up 9-12 records to go along with an ERA of 4.56 tend not to be household names. The most notable thing about Boyd’s season was that he gave up the most home runs in the American League. Baseball Reference’s formula for calculating WAR is a mystery to me, so someone needs to explain how they thought those numbers were worth 3.6 wins above a replacement player.
Boyd was also the victim of a strong clap back:
The 2018 Detroit Tigers finished with a 64-98 record, Matthew Boyd was 9-13 with a 4.39 ERA.— Boston Strong (@BostonStrong_34) January 14, 2020
NOBODY had something on you guys, you just were trash. https://t.co/7nzmtlmdaa
Least valuable player
Miguel Cabrera is likely going to end up in the Hall of Fame, but the later years of his career aren’t likely to take up a lot of space on the plaque. To be fair, Cabrera wasn’t awful in 2019. (At least he wasn’t awful on offense. On the rare occasion he was forced to play in the field, it wasn’t pretty.) A .744 OPS isn’t bad, especially for a 36-year-old. The problem comes when you look at Miggy’s salary, and notice that its a bit out of line with his current level of production.
Back in 2010, the Phillies signed Ryan Howard to a five-year contract extension that was immediately bashed by some critics. They (correctly) warned that giving big money to a large, immobile slugger in his thirties was not a good idea. Apparently, the Tigers didn’t pay much attention to how that turned out for the Phillies. In 2014, they signed a 31-year-old Cabrera to a contract extension that would pay him almost $30 million a season for the next ten years.
This graph I made for the signing of the Miguel Cabrera extension (everybody within 3 WAR over 27-30 seasons) reminds the most frightening graph I ever made. pic.twitter.com/Awu8jLJlQG— DSzymborski (@DSzymborski) April 25, 2018
There have always been concerns about Cabrera’s weight. One of the reasons the Marlins traded him back in 2007 because they were worried that his weight would cause him to break down. (Of course, that was only a secondary reason to the Marlins disdain for spending money on player payroll.)
Much like Howard before him, Cabrera experienced a drop off in production almost the second the extension kicked in. He’s now dealing with a chronic knee issue, and those don’t often get better for heavy players in their late thirties. We did get some “best shape of his life” stories this spring, but its fair to question if that shape has been maintained during the shutdown.
So of course, Miguel Cabrera is FINALLY healthy and is in the best shape he’s been in for YEARS,— Miguel Cabrera’s Bat (@Miggysbat) March 15, 2020
… and the season gets suspended. pic.twitter.com/iZr9lpfD1s
You don’t get to 114 wins on the back of one player, and to be sure, the Tigers have A LOT of problems besides Cabrera’s contract. But you have to figure that their efforts to rebuild aren’t going to be helped by paying a mediocre - and likely to decline further - first baseman/designated hitter $30 million a season.
What to expect in 2020
Because they were so putrid last year, it would be near impossible for the Tigers to not show some improvement in 2020. But the team also brought in some players who should lift the team to the level of simply “bad” instead of “historically awful.” Free agent hitters Jonathan Schoop and C.J. Cron each have 30 home run seasons under their belts, and pitcher Ivan Nova is a cromulent part of a rotation.
With those additions, and a little bit of luck, the Tigers could rise to the heights of fourth place in the American League Central.