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MLB Team Roundup: Detroit Tigers

Skubal, Abrams lead 2023's fantasy rebound players
D.J. Short and Eric Samulski explain why Tarik Skubal and CJ Abrams are among fantasy baseball's top comeback players for the 2023 season and preview their outlooks for next season.

Detroit Tigers

2023 record: 78-84 (.481)

Second Place, AL Central

Team ERA: 4.24 (17th)

Team OPS: .687 (28th)

What Went Right

We finally started to see that Spencer Torkelson breakout we were hoping for. The 24-year-old hit .233/.313/.446 on the season with 31 home runs, 88 runs scored, and 94 RBI. His power really exploded in the second half, slugging .498 with 19 home runs in 72 games. Now, he did hit .238 over that time, so the batting average hasn’t quite caught up; however, his strikeout rate remains in a good range for a power hitter, his 14.1% barrel rate was exceptional, and his contact rates in the zone remain good. It feels like only a matter of time before we see the batting average gains as well.

Kerry Carpenter also emerged as a solid regular in the Tigers’ lineup this season. The 26-year-old hit .278/.340/.471 with 20 home runs, 57 runs scored, 64 RBI, and six steals in 118 games. He also boasts a double-digit barrel rate and solid plate discipline metrics, and should be a fixture in the middle of the order with Torkelson next season. Those two hitters and Riley Greene, who hit .288/.349/.447 in 99 games, should provide Detroit with a solid foundation in their lineup for the next few years.

On the pitching side, it all seemed to go right for Tarik Skubal. The 26-year-old returned from injury in the middle of the season and looked dominant, registering a 2.80 ERA (2.77 SIERA) in 80.1 innings while striking out 102 and posting an absurd 0.90 WHIP. His swinging strike rate jumped to 14.9% on the year thanks, in part, to a 1.7 mph jump in his fastball velocity. Skubal also leaned into his changeup more, with the pitch providing a 0.47 dERA (Defense Independent ERA) and a 28.9% swinging strike rate. If Skubal can maintain that velocity jump, he has the makings of a true ace.

Eduardo Rodriguez also bounced back with a solid campaign, pitching 152.2 innings with a 3.30 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, and 143 strikeouts.

What Went Wrong

As you can see above, many other things went wrong for Detroit. Their team ERA was 17th in baseball with their starters posting a 4.31 ERA and their bullpen registering a 4.16 mark. Their bullpen also ranked 21st in strikeout rate while their starters ranked 17th. The Tigers only had two starters throw over 100 innings on the season as 14 different pitchers started multiple games as true starters for Detroit. One of them was Michael Lorenzen, who had a really strong season and was traded away at the deadline, which I guess at least brought back a potentially solid prospect for Detroit.

Closer Alex Lange flashed solid ability at times throughout the season, but he also pitched to a 3.68 ERA and walked 45 batters in 66 innings, which led him to lose his 9th inning role for a period over the summer.

On the offensive side, Detroit continues to get nothing out of Javier Baez after he signed a six-year $140 million deal after the 2021 season. This year, Baez hit .222/.267/.325 with nine home runs, 58 runs scored, 59 RBI, and 12 steals in 136 games. He did lower his strikeout rate to 22.9%, but nothing else really went right. Same goes for Jonathan Schoop, who hit .213/.278/.272 in 55 games before being released.

The Tigers weren’t able to get much from the others they inserted into the starting lineup with all of Zach McKinstry, Nick Maton, Tyler Nevin, Akil Baddoo, Zack Short, Eric Haase, and Parker Meadows hitting .240 or under and providing very little in the way of power. With only one Top 100 hitting prospect knocking on the door of an MLB call-up, the Tigers have some real work to do in order to put together a solid MLB lineup next year.

Fantasy Slants

** Matt Manning showed some fantasy goodness while healthy in 2023, pitching to a 3.58 ERA and 1.04 WHIP across 78 innings. He only struck out 50 hitters with a poor 7.9% swinging strike rate, so he has demonstrated nothing to suggest he will help fantasy teams in strikeouts; however, that’s now two straight seasons (albeit in smaller samples) where he has produced solid ratios and shown a deep arsenal of pitches that he can use to keep hitters off balance. There’s not a ton of appeal here, but it’s hard to find much fantasy appeal for Tigers players who are not Torkelson, Greene, Skubal, and Carpenter.

** I alluded to Riley Greene’s season above, and it’s clear that the young centerfield has plenty of athleticism and ability. He posted a strong 11.3% barrel rate this year while reducing his strikeout rate a bit and starting to get to his pull side more often. He’s a legit 20/20 threat hitting at the top of the lineup, if he can stay healthy.

** It was just 20 innings of MLB action, but Sawyer Gipson-Long took the fantasy world by storm with his 2.70 ERA, 1.10 WHIP and 31.7% strikeout rate. While he doesn’t possess an overpowering fastball, he gets elite extension on the pitch and was able to have success on the back of his slider and a filthy change-up, which registered 16.8% and 26.8% swinging strike rates respectively. Acquired at the 2022 trade deadline from the Minnesota Twins for Michael Fulmer, SGL averaged 13.7 K/9 across 99.2 innings with Double-A Erie, Triple-A Toledo, and the Tigers. The slider doesn’t always find the zone, so he’ll need to sharpen that command, but he’s put himself on the late-round sleeper lists heading into 2024.

** Reese Olson was another rookie pitcher who impressed in spurts in 2023. He finished with a 3.99 ERA (4.06 SIERA) in 103.2 innings while striking out 103 hitters and walking 33. He’s another young Tigers starter with a plus slider, posting a 20.2% swinging strike rate on his pitch. He rounds out his arsenal with a set of pitches that’s fine but nothing plus, which enabled him to post a 3.41 dERA but not flash anything - yet - that makes us think a huge leap is in the cards. Perhaps he, like Skubal, can lean more on a change-up that was intriguing in limited usage.

** Casey Mize might be a forgotten man, but there’s a chance he emerges near the top of the Tigers’ rotation in 2024 after he returns from two surgeries — on his elbow and back. He hasn’t pitched since April 2022, but he reportedly tweaked his mechanics during the rehab process and will lean on his four-pitch arsenal still contains his once-famous splitter.

** The only young bat on the immediate horizon for the Tigers with clear fantasy value is Colt Keith. The 22-year-old hit .306/.380/.552 with 27 home runs and 101 RBI in 126 games across two levels last year. While he finished with only 44 games at Triple-A, there is a chance he emerges as the every day third baseman for the Tigers in 2024.

** 22-year-old Eddys Leonard was once a top 100 prospect in the Dodgers’ organization. The Tigers acquired him at the deadline for cash considerations and watched him hit .302 with eight home runs, 17 walks, and 37 strikeouts across 40 games in Triple-A Toledo. Perhaps he can make a push for a starting spot in the infield in 2024.

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Key Free Agents
Matthew Boyd, Eduardo Rodriguez (player option), Javier Baez (player option - not gonna happen), Carson Kelly (team option)

Team Needs

Many. Looking ahead to 2024, it seems that the only spots secured in the Tigers lineup are Riley Greene, Parker Meadows and Kerry Carpenter in the outfield, Spencer Torkelson at 1B, and I guess Javier Baez at shortstop if they can’t move him. Perhaps Colt Keith emerges at 3B, but the other spots will be up for grabs.

Rotation spots are similarly up for grabs behind Skubal. It’s possible the team returns to players they used this year like Olson, Gipson-Long, Manning, Alex Faedo, and Joey Wentz, but there are also veterans like Spencer Turnbull and Casey Mize, who didn’t pitch much or at all in 2023. This is a young rotation with questionable upside, so it makes sense for Detroit to start out with as many of those young arms in the rotation as possible to see who has long-term claim to a spot. It’s highly unlikely we see the Tigers make any big splash in free agency. Teams like Detroit tend to have success making short-term bullpen signings and then trying to flip those players at the deadline for prospects, which might be their best chance at bringing in MLB-ready talent to an organization that ranks 13th in MLB Pipeline minor league rankings and 14th in FanGraph’s rankings but has much of the talent in the lower-levels of the minors.