The Detroit Tigers currently find themselves in a battle for a wild card spot. Who knows how that will flesh out.
Whether the Tigs return to the postseason or not will determine how satisfied we are here and now in 2016.
But as we watch this team (which can be quite frustrating at times due to their inconsistency) we’re also seeing young players emerge as potential stars of the future. In fact, it’s been a long time since the franchise has had so many young promising players at once. While it’s unlikely that all of them will pan out, I thought it would be fun to peer into my crystal ball to see what the Tigers will look like in the future. Not in 2017, but in 2018 and beyond.
Starting Rotation: Fulmer, Norris, Boyd, and the Old Guys
When books are written about this era of Detroit Tigers baseball, Dave Dombrowski will be remembered for stealing Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins. He’ll also be admired for several other moves that landed the likes of Max Scherzer, Ian Kinsler, Doug Fister, Austin Jackson, Anibal Sanchez, and J.D. Martinez.
But his series of “exit deals at the 2015 trade deadline might proved to be the longest legacy for Trader Dave in Motown. In two key deals last summer that signaled a white flag by the club, Dombrowski acquired young pitchers Michael Fulmer, Matt Boyd, and Daniel Norris. Quicker than anyone could have imagined, those three are making an impact at the big league level.
Fulmer seems a lock to win the American League Rookie of the Year Award and has a chance to win the Cy Young too. With each start, Boyd reveals his potential and his great stuff. And the lefthanded Norris, despite being hampered by injuries in his first 12 months with the Tigers, has a fantastic repertoire of pitches and is coveted by other clubs in trade talks.
By 2018, Fulmer/Boyd/Norris will be the backbone of the Detroit pitching rotation. Fulmer and Norris will still be only 25, while Boyd will be 27 as the ’18 campaign starts.
The old man in the rotation will be Justin Verlander, who will turn 35 during spring training in 2018. The team has JV under contract through 2019 with an option for 2020, and they’ll keep him around assuming he continues to chug along as a very good big league pitcher. In 2016 the tall righthander has reestablished himself as one of the best starting pitchers in the game. By 2018-19, he’ll be poised to break the franchise record for wins, which is currently held by Hooks Dauss (223 victories for the Tigers).
Jordan Zimmermann (32 in May of 2018) will be in the middle year of a five-year deal with Detroit in 2018. Though injuries have limited him in his first season in Motown, they have been minor.
The “future” Detroit pitching rotation is exciting to consider and it’s the cornerstone for the future of this fracnchise.
Infield: Sluggers at the Corners
The 2018 season will mark the final year of Victor Martinez’s contract and he will be 39 years old. we shouldn’t expect his knees and back to be healthy by then. By ’18, VMart will be a high-salaried 3-4 times a week or perhaps a pinch-hitter. Look no further than the recent release of Alex Rodriguez to see what happens when a “bat-only” player loses the ability to hit big league pitching.
In 2018, Miguel Cabrera will be 35 years old, and believe it or not he will still have FIVE YEARS left on the guaranteed portion of his contract. Unless the Tigers have had a fire sale by then, Miggy will be in the middle of the lineup, working his way toward 3,000 hits, 1,500 runs, and 500 home runs. That’ll be fun to watch, but I don’t expect Cabrera to be able to play first base full-time by then. Which means he’ll be chewing up some of the DH at-bats from Victor, if VMart is still in a Detroit uniform.
That situation would create space for Steven Moya to play there on a limited basis too. First is a more comfortable position for Moya, who will only be 26 years old when the ’18 campaign begins. Moya will also see playing time in left field, but more on the outfield in a moment.
Nick Castellanos will turn 26 during spring training in 2018, and he’ll still be two years away from being able to declare his free agency. Before his injury in ’16, Castellanos was showing the progression long expected of him. By 2018, Nick will be one of the top power bats in the Detroit lineup, probably sliding into the fifth spot or cleanup behind Cabrera.
By 2018, Ian Kinsler will be 36 years old, an age when second basemen are usually washed up. Kinsler seems to be an exception to the rule thus far, though. In 2016 he’s having one of his best power seasons. I suspect that 2018 would be his last season at second for Detroit, seeing as the team holds the option for that year.
Dixon Machado is two years younger than Jose Iglesias and he has more upside on the offensive side of the game. Machado projects as a 250-275 hitter in the big leagues with more power than Iggy. Machado is also better at stealing bases and doesn’t display the brain farts we often see from Iglesias on the base paths and in the field. Iglesias may be a slightly better defensive player than Machado at short, but not by much. It would be best for the Tigers to deal a still-young Iglesias to a team needing a glove-first shortstop while he still has some market value.
Outfield: J.D. and the Question Marks
At the start of the 2018 season, J.D. Martinez will be 30 years old, still a young enough age to have several fine seasons ahead of him. “The other” Martinez has tremendous power to all fields and is solid in the field too, so the team must resign him when he becomes a free agent after the ’17 season. I think they will, which takes care of right field for 2018 and beyond.
The aforementioned Moya is a left fielder by trade, which is why he looked so lost in right during a brief trial with the Bengals earlier in 2016. But given a chance to play left, Moya would settle down and could grow into a 30 home run threat. He has that sort of power, and it’s from the left side. Problem is: the Tigers owe Justin Upton money through 2021. Upton is the same age as J.D. Martinez, but his future doesn’t seem nearly as rosy. The Tigers might be stuck with him, which means they have an option to move either J.D. or Moya to center field. Neither of those plans seem bright, however. They could deal Moya for a true center fielder, or they could look to an option in their own farm system.
Which brings me to Derek Hill. Hill is a speedster who plays center field naturally. He’s probably the best pure basestealer the Tigers have had in their own system since Milt Cuyler, or maybe even Ron LeFlore. His instincts are very good. He projects to hit at or near .300 in the big leagues, but he won’t have much power. Imagine Austin Jackson with a little less power but much, much, much better basestealing ability. Hill could be a top-of-the-order game changer. Most experts think he can be in center at Comerica Park by 2018.
Catcher: McCann and Greiner
You already know about James McCann, the Tigers second round pick in the 2011 draft. By 2018 he’ll be sharing some time with prospect Grayson Greiner, a 6’6 goliath out of the University of South Carolina. Catchers notoriously take a while to develop, but by ’18, Greiner will have four years of minor league seasoning under his belt. Greiner is nearly ready to play in the majors defensively, he’s great at blocking pitches and handling games from behind the dish. But he needs more time to learn the strike zone and develop more power. By ’18 he’ll likely be McCann’s understudy.
Bullpen: Everyday Joe
I won’t address the bullpen much, other than to say that Joe Jimenez is Detroit’s closer-in-waiting and he’ll probably be a very good one. A righthander from Puerto Rico, Jimenez has a good fastball and a nasty slider and he doesn’t walk a lot of batters, so he usually keeps himself out of trouble. Expect him to be in the Tiger bullpen in some role as early as 2017.
Manager: Still Brad or Post Brad?
I’m fairly confident that the everyday lineup for the Tigers in 2018 is very close to what I’ve outlined above. Absent a serious injury to a veteran or an unforeseen trade, the Tigers future is held among the players I’ve mentioned. But that’s not the same for manager Brad Ausmus. If the Tigers fail to snatch a playoff spot in 2016, he could be fired by an increasingly impatient Mike Ilitch. But I could also see the franchise choosing stability over switching managers a second time in three years. This part of my crystal ball is fuzzy.
What do you think? Tell me in the comments below.