What Matters in 2018

In years past, I’ve previewed the upcoming season with a countdown of the nine bellwether players whose fortunes will dictate the Tigers’ performance. That doesn’t make a lot of sense this year, neither does my annual piece explaining the path the team could take to a World Series win. The Tigers aren’t going to win the World Series and it would be a massive surprise if they earned a wild card berth. For these reasons, I want to take a slightly different approach to the preview. I’m going to run through the players whose 2018 performance will shape what happens for the Tigers in 2019 and beyond.

Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera had his worst season as a professional in 2017, and while it’s easy to point to injuries (and significant turmoil in his personal life) as contributing factors, it’s not clear that we can count on those to abate going forward. At Cabrera’s age, his body may be breaking down rather than dealing with individual acute injuries. At his best, he’s one of the most gifted hitters of his generation, but superstars don’t say superstars forever. If Cabrera bounces back and has a good 2018, we’ll take it as a sign that he’s capable of being an elite hitter for the immediate future. And that matters a lot because starting from a place where Cabrera is a 5-win player is much different than starting from a place where he is a 2.5-win player. It’s hard to imagine building a contender in 2019 if Cabrera’s days as a star are over.

Daniel Norris: Norris was the centerpiece of Phase 1 of the rebuild, but after a solid showing in 2016, he took some steps back last year. His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up, and he allowed a lot of runs despite keeping the ball in the park a little better. He turns 25 next month and has plenty of time left to develop, but it will be important for him to show signs of growth this year. Whether Norris turns into a #2 or a #4 will say a lot about the Tigers over the next few years.

Matt Boyd: The story for Boyd is pretty similar to Norris, except that he’s two years older. He’s shown flashes of great potential, but has also struggled mightily at times. Boyd doesn’t have the same prospect pedigree as Norris, but he’s had a ton of success in the minors and has shown more velocity in recent years than he was expected to have. I’ve been driving the Boyd bandwagon for the last two years and don’t intend to de-wagon any time soon, but it will be important for him to put some good results on the board this year as the club figures out what to do this offseason.

Jeimer Candelario: Candelario came back in the Avila/Wilson deal last July and proceeded to have a very solid 38-game run for the Tigers down the stretch, hitting 111 wRC+. The scouting reports like what he can do at the plate, and if he’s good enough to stick at third, the Tigers might have themselves an above-average regular for the next six years. But there are still plenty of questions for Candelario who is less than 160 PA into his MLB career. He’ll have every chance to establish himself this year, but figuring out if he’s more likely to be a 1.5-win player or a 3-win player is going to be a big part of 2018.

Joe Jimenez: Jimenez has dominated in the minors but was truly terrible in his 19 MLB innings last year. One reliever isn’t going to make or break a rebuilding team, but Jimenez is hopefully going to be given a chance to get acclimated to the majors in 2018 and we’ll see whether he is equal to the competition. The raw talent is there, but there is a reason relief prospects are relief prospects — some aspect of their game is limited. Jimenez certainly looked over-matched last year, but he’s young and was facing hitters that could handle his heat for the first time. If Jimenez is a relief ace or top tier right-handed reliever, the Tigers will be in good shape.

Nick Castellanos/Jose Iglesias/Victor Martinez: Barring something very unlikely, Castellanos, Iglesias, and Martinez won’t be Tigers on Opening Day 2019. The big question is whether they will be Tigers on August 1, 2018, and if not, what kind of return the Tigers will have gotten for them. Each player could earn the Tigers a mint with the right season. Castellanos’ power has developed nicely, but he still struggles to control the zone. He’s a good player, but he’s limited defensively so a couple months of Rentallanos isn’t going to bring back much unless he has a breakout. Iglesias is a good defensive shortstop, who looks great at times, but he really isn’t a very good hitter. A career year at the plate would help. Finally, Martinez has had a remarkable career that looks like it’s coming to an end. If he can recover from health problems that plagued him all last year and hit like it’s 2016, he’ll be in demand at the deadline. If he can find the magic and hit like it’s 2014, teams will be falling all over themselves to grab him at the deadline.

***

I’ll put the Tigers at 73-89 for the year. We’ll get to obsesses about the first overall draft pick in June and there will be some interesting young players to follow. I’m confident that if the Tigers want to, they can put themselves back into contention next winter. It’s going to be a rough season at Comerica, but hopefully we’ll find sun among the clouds.

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