Numbers prove Detroit Tigers making 2020 playoffs isn't as crazy as you think

Jeff Seidel
Detroit Free Press

Nobody can fake being good for 162 games. That’s the beauty of baseball.

If the Detroit Tigers were playing a normal season, in a normal year, there is no way they could contend for the playoffs.

But what will they do in a wild, abbreviated, mad-dash, 60-game sprint?

During a pandemic?

It’s not crazy to think the Tigers will have a shot to play meaningful games in late August or even September.

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If everything goes the Tigers' way — if they get off to a hot start, and get a little bit of luck and steal a few games, and everybody stays healthy, and Michael Fulmer can get back on the mound and be productive, and if their newcomers can bring some juice to the offense — then this could get real interesting.

OK, that's a lot of ifs. 

But there is only one thing we know for certain about the upcoming season: nobody has any idea how this is going to shake out. There is no question the Cleveland Indians and Minnesota Twins are better than the Tigers. But what about the Kansas City Royals and Chicago White Sox? The Tigers will play 10 games against each of those teams this season.

Good teams can get off to slow starts, and bad teams can get hot.

Detroit Tigers outfielders Victor Reyes (22), Harold Castro (30) and Travis Demeritte (50) the 9-6 win against the Minnesota Twins on August 23, 2019 in Minneapolis.

As crazy as it sounds, the most important statistic this season could be negative coronavirus tests. Because the team that stays the healthiest and takes social distancing seriously, as well as following other health protocols, might have the best shot at making the playoffs.

“The biggest thing is health,” Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire said Wednesday. “We know we've got a pretty good baseball team. We think we can play with anybody and the short season ought to make it really interesting if you get off to a good start.”

Here are five reasons why this season could get interesting for the Tigers:

1. Think about 2018. At the 60-game mark, the Tigers were 28-32. They were in second place in the AL Central, just 2 ½ games behind the Indians. In their 60th game, the Tigers put out a lineup that included CF Leonys Martin, RF Nick Castellanos, DH Miguel Cabrera, 3B Jeimer Candelario, 1B Niko Goodrum, C John Hicks, LF JaCoby Jones, SS Jose Inglesias, 2B Dixon Machado and an aging Victor Martinez as a pinch-hitter.

In comparison, this year’s lineup could be better at several positions, especially with the addition of C.J. Cron at first base and Jonathan Schoop at second. And Cabrera is probably healthier now than he was then.

Outfield and base running coach Gene Roof shares a laugh with Miguel Cabrera during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Tuesday, Feb. 18, 2020.

The main rotation in 2018 was Matthew Boyd (finished 9-13), Francisco Liriano (5-12), Michael Fulmer (3-12), Jordan Zimmermann (7-8) and Mike Fiers (7-6).

Yes, it’s hard to compare years, especially when the schedule will be so different. But it’s not crazy to think the Tigers could be around the .500 mark in such a short sprint. Some have projected 32 or 33 wins being enough for a playoff spot, which would easily put the Tigers in the mix down the stretch.

2. Cabrera was in fantastic health during spring training.

"He hasn’t missed a beat in this downtime," Tigers general manager Al Avila said.

Even at 37, a healthy Cabrera could give this offense some pop that it has been missing.

3. The virus is the unknown factor. Players are bound to test positive. And the team that takes the health protocols most seriously might have the best shot at keeping everybody in the lineup.

Which brings us back to Boyd.

“I am high risk,” he said. “I have had bad asthma my whole life.”

Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Matthew Boyd throws during the first inning against the Texas Rangers on August 3, 2019 in Arlington, Texas.

After spring training was cut short, he moved his family to Detroit and has been practicing how to be safe. He said how he disinfects not only his vegetables but also bags of chips when he comes home from the grocery store.

“That's going to be the new normal,” he said. “We can't be careless and going crazy.”

If that kind of attitude spreads around the team, instead of the virus, Boyd could be a fantastic example on how to stay safe. That kind of leader is important in this situation.

4. Catcher Austin Romine could have a huge influence on the Tigers' pitching staff.

“Our catcher is going to be big for this team,” Gardenhire said during spring training. “He’s a veteran guy, he knows what he’s doing.”

5. At some point late in the season, I think the Tigers will bring up their pitching prospects: Casey Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal. They won’t break camp. They figure to start in Toledo with the taxi squad. But I think they will end up in Detroit. 

“If this were a normal year, one or two or all of them might get a shot to come up and at least, you know, throw an inning or two,” Gardenhire said. “So I think that's still the plan.”

From left, pitcher Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal and Matt Manning pose for a photo during Detroit Tigers spring training at TigerTown in Lakeland, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020.

That would be beyond interesting.

“They deserve that — they're good,” Gardenhire said. “They are your foundation and they're close. We got some guys who can pitch in the big leagues right now.”

[ What Al Avila said about calling up Tigers' top prospects in 2020 ]

Now, can you imagine if that happened in the middle of a playoff hunt?

Yes, I know, that’s the best-case scenario.

But this short season gives you license for a little dreaming.

Contact Jeff Seidel: Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to