How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood? How many years does a baseball team need to rebuild?
These three questions may not be on the mind of every Detroit Tigers fan, but the last one definitely is.
As spring training starts in Lakeland, the Tigers enter a pivotal year in their “rebuild” process. They have a new manager, and the team is finally seeing the fruits of a plentiful farm system ripen in big-league uniforms.
How likely are the Tigers to surprise their fans in 2021? Fans who would be happy with a winning record, let alone a wild card spot or a division title?
MLB Futures Bets On 2021 Tigers
Are the Detroit Tigers a good futures bet for the 2021 season?
The Tigers are +4000 to win the American League Central, according to BetRivers. That same sportsbook has Detroit as the longest odds to capture the AL pennant, at +6000 for the 2021 season.
FanDuel has Detroit at +10000 to win the World Series, +6000 to win the pennant, and +4000 to be AL Central division champions.
This shouldn’t be surprising: the Tigers have averaged 103 losses in their last three full seasons. The team finished in the cellar in 2017, 2019, and 2020. The last time the team had a winning record, in 2016, a lovely lady named Kate Upton was still their #1 fan.
Wait, Does This Scenario Sound Familiar?
In 2006, the Detroit Tigers had a first-year manager who had previously won a World Series in seven thrilling games for another team. In 2006, the team had several young, promising pitchers on their roster. In 2006, the Tigers were coming off a losing season in a seemingly never-ending rebuild with no end in sight.
In 2021, the Tigers have a first-year manager who won a thrilling seven-game World Series for another team. In 2021, Detroit has several promising pitching prospects on its roster. And in 2021, the Tigers are in year four of a total rebuild of the franchise.
In 2006, the Tigers made the playoffs as a wild card team and shockingly won the American League pennant under Jim Leyland. They got fantastic performances from rookie pitcher Justin Verlander and an aging superstar leader in Ivan Rodriguez. The 2021 team has manager A.J. Hinch and young hurlers Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal. They have an aging superstar leader named Miguel Cabrera.
Queue spooky organ music.
The Pragmatic Take on the 2021 Tigers
The Tigers will play better under A.J. Hinch, a young, ambitious manager with a fresh look at the game. Ron Gardenhire was a fine caretaker of the untalented Tigers the last three seasons, but a new approach is needed. The 2021 Tigers will play with more urgency, and they’ll be in more games and try to win more games as opposed to just getting playing time for youngsters.
But the Tigers roster has more holes than a honeycomb. The pitching staff is inexperienced, and there isn’t a proven ace who can stop losing streaks. There will be losing streaks. Mize and Skubal, both of whom tasted the big leagues in 2020, will be back in the rotation, and Matt Manning is coming soon. Those three are the tentpoles the Tigers are building their future beneath.
Manning may be the next Verlander. Or he might be the next Matt Anderson, the #1 pick in the 1997 MLB Draft by Detroit, who pitched a total of 256 ⅔ innings in the majors. That’s the thing about young pitching: it’s unreliable and unpredictable.
Even if the Tigers get unexpected early returns on their young starting pitching, the bullpen is suspect. In today’s game, when you’re lucky to get five innings from a starter, that means you need four innings from the bullpen. Bryan Garcia is being tabbed as the possible closer, but the 25-year old has pitched fewer than 30 innings in the majors. Other bullpen arms are in one of two camps: those who have proven they aren’t much good, like Joe Jiménez, José Cisnero, and Gregory Soto, and those who have proven they’re mediocre, like Buck Farmer, Tyler Alexander, and Derek Holland.
What happens when your starters are inexperienced and your bullpen is mediocre (at best)? You lose a lot of games. Still, Hinch might get lucky and his young pitchers might make big strides.
The lineup is still built around Cabrera, who will likely reach several career milestones during the 2021 season. Should Miggy stay healthy, he should reach 2,500 games, 1,500 runs scored, 600 doubles, and 1,800 RBIs. But the two big prizes would be 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. Cabrera is only 134 hits and 13 homers away from those big milestones. Only Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Rafael Palmeiro, and Albert Pujols have reached both 3,000 hits and 500 homers. Detroit fans should get prepared to congratulate Cabrera often in 2021.
Beyond Cabrera, the lineup will consist of two types: unproven and unwanted. Second baseman Jonathan Schoop, first baseman Renato Núñez, third baseman Jeimer Candelario, and outfielder Victor Reyes will begin the season in starting roles. The bad news is they have all seen their best days or proven they aren’t everyday players. While the farm system has some help on the way (shortstop Willi Castro and catcher Jake Rogers) the offense doesn’t have the spark to push a lot of runs across the plate.
The best thing we can hope for offensively is that Hinch and new hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh can help the Tigers younger hitters take more pitches and be more patient. The Tigers have finished near the bottom in on-base percentage for the last four seasons.
Is it likely the Tigers will win a playoff spot in 2021? Well, it’s not impossible. But a realistic expectation would be for Hinch and the Tigers to crawl their way up the AL Central standings to fourth place and 70-74 wins.