Will 2022 be the season that sees the Tigers return to the playoffs or can Tiger fans expect another year of rebuilding?
With the World Series beginning last night, the vast majority of the baseball world is focused on two teams: the Braves and Astros. For some teams, however, the end of the World Series cannot come fast enough, as something that is even more important to them and their respective clubs come on the other side: the offseason.
The countdown to free agency is something that is on the mind of many Tigers fans. The reason? They may be one good offseason away from making that jump back into the playoff discussion. Although the 2021 season began looking like another rebuilding season in Detroit, by the end the narrative surrounding the Tigers’ direction could not have been further from a rebuild. This is a team that is a few legitimate pieces away from being a Wild Card team and a pesky challenger in the Central Division.
PECOTA (Player Empirical Comparison & Optimization Test Algorithm) had the 2021 Tigers finishing with a 67-95 record, finishing in front of only the worst team in the league, the Baltimore Orioles. Given Detroit’s finishes in previous years, this was a pretty common prediction. Add to this that the biggest free-agent acquisitions the Tigers made in the previous offseason were Robbie Grossman (2-years, $10 million), José Ureña (1-year, $3.25 million), and Wilson Ramos (1-year, $2 million) and it was understandable why many had the Tigers finishing so poorly.
However, AJ Hinch and his bunch had other ideas. After a poor start to the season which saw the Tigers fall to 9-24, the Tigers went on to close the first half of the season at 40-51 and actually posted a winning record in the second half of the season at 37-34. Often outmatched talent-wise, the theme of the year for the Tigers was winning the day. Contributions came from all over to allow Detroit to finish 77-85. Casey Mize led a depleted starting staff, while guys like Kyle Funkhouser and Gregory Soto held down the back-end of the pen. Offensively, Jeimer Candelario, Robbie Grossman, Akil Baddoo, and Eric Haase steadied the Tigers. The efforts of these players, along with many others, have Tigers fans and management looking towards this offseason with supreme optimism.
The next logical step in Detroit’s plan should be to attack free agency. Luckily for the Tigers, their biggest position of need also happens to be the most stacked position in this free-agent class: shortstop. The Tigers have been linked to nearly every big-name, free-agent shortstop including Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Marcus Semien. However, the Tigers also need help in the starting rotation and could use another solid piece or two in the pen. A Justin Verlander reunion could be feasible for the right price. Free agency prediction will be coming in a later article, but the point here is that the Tigers have significant holes that need to be filled if they are looking to contend in 2022. Given their current cap positioning and the teams’ rumored interests, 2022 could be the most exciting offseason the Tigers have had since the Justin Upton and Yoenis Cespedes years.
Apart from this, Detroit does not have any impact players hitting the market this season that they should feel obligated to replace, which should make free agency pretty simple. Additionally, it seems unlikely that the Tigers would be too invested in any rule-5 prospects if the goal shifts more towards contention, given that roster spots will be much harder to come by.
The Prediction: 2022
Currently, the Tigers are a middle-of-the-road team. They aren’t bad by any means, but they need some help if they are going to launch themselves back into contention. Much of the thought surrounding the 2022 Tigers will be centered around how they handle this upcoming off-season, but there is no doubt that the 2021 Tigers showed us that they are only a couple of pieces away.
One thing seems clear: AJ Hinch is the right guy for the job. His recent comments about restoring Detroit to a place where people want to come to play could be an indicator that they are on the verge of a spending spree, but ultimately Chris Illitch and Al Avila will decide Detroit’s fate. Given the fight that the 2021 team showed, Illitch and Avila owe it to the team and the city to start pulling out of rebuild mode and be the aggressors this off-season. Personally, I think that is exactly what will happen. If Detroit ends up with their future shortstop, a high-level starter, and a few other nice, complimentary pieces, the expectation surrounding the 2022 team should center around pushing for the playoffs.
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