Detroit Tigers' 2021 Opening Day prediction: Lots of holes to plug still
The 2020 season is officially in the books.
At least for the Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers face a plethora of offseason tasks, including interviewing managerial candidates, making a hire, shopping the free-agent market (despite industry-wide financial concerns) and, eventually, putting together a lineup for next season.
While a playoff berth isn't likely in 2021, the Tigers can take a step forward with a strong 2021.
Yes, it's way too early, but here's a look at how the Tigers should fill their 26-man 2021 Opening Day roster:
C: Free agent
The Tigers plugged this hole in 2020 by picking up Austin Romine on a one-year, $4.15 million contract. In 37 games, he hit .238 with two home runs and 17 RBIs. He started with a 23-for-79 (.291) stretch in July and August before stumbling in September with a .157 average and three RBIs through 15 games.
Because the Tigers didn't call up prospect Jake Rogers — ranked No. 12 in their system by MLB Pipeline — at all in 2020, it's unlikely they will hand him the keys. (He hit .125 in 35 games in 2019.) This season's backup, Grayson Greiner, was sent down in September after hitting .118 in 18 games, so he's not a reliable option. Nor is Eric Haase, a 27-year-old Dearborn Divine Child product who has only played 26 career games.
That leaves the Tigers needing a free agent; bringing back Romine on a short-term contract makes sense. Detroit could turn to a few old friends in free agency, as well: ex-Tigers Alex Avila (Minnesota Twins) and James McCann (Chicago White Sox) are set to hit the market again.
It's unclear if the Tigers would be willing to spend for J.T. Realmuto. His contract was $10 million (prorated to $3.7 million) with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2020, but he will get a raise in free agency after hitting .266 with 11 homers and 32 RBIs.
Other starting options: Rogers, Greiner, Haase.
1B: Free agent
The Tigers moved Miguel Cabrera off first base because of injuries, specifically his right knee in 2019, so they snagged free agent C.J. Cron on a one-year, $6.1 million deal in the offseason.
He only played 13 games, electing for season-ending knee surgery in August, but managed four home runs, eight RBIs and a .190 batting average. The Tigers moved Jeimer Candelario from third to first base; he put up career offensive numbers — .308/.384/.514 from Aug. 11 on — but he was nowhere near as good of a defender.
Outside of Candelario, there aren't many in-house options, unless the Tigers are willing to use Brandon Dixon or Harold Castro — who slot in better as backups. Expect the Tigers to consider Cron on another low-cost, short-term contract to get them through 2021.
In September, Cabrera expressed interest in returning to first base, but he hasn't played there since June 26, 2019. Would the Tigers give him a conditional OK — saying he can play first as long as he produces at the plate?
Probably not. But crazier things have occurred.
Other options: Jeimer Candelario, Miguel Cabrera.
2B: Free agent
The free-agent prize this offseason appears to be the New York Yankees' DJ LeMahieu, formerly of Birmingham Brother Rice. The Tigers selected him in the 14th round of the 2007 draft, but he opted to attend LSU.
He won this year's batting title with a .364 average, becoming the first player since 1901 with batting titles in both leagues, and was an All-Star in 2019. He should get a raise form his two-year, $24 million contract with the Yanks.
If LeMahieu isn't an option, Jonathan Schoop is a second-tier option at a reasonable price. He signed with the Tigers on a one-year, $6.1 million deal for 2020, and he hit .278 with eight homers and 23 RBIs — his best season since 2017, when he was with the Baltimore Orioles.
Alternately, they could move Isaac Paredes, a 21-year-old rookie who held down third base for 34 games this season, to second base (further clearing Candelario's move back to third). Paredes looked like a big-league hitter at times, with a .220 batting average and four doubles in 100 at-bats. But he had jus tone home run, on Aug. 24, and the organization wants him to be more aggressive at the plate; he may need more time in the minors to develop.
Other options: Isaac Paredes, Willi Castro, Niko Goodrum, Sergio Alcantara.
Shortstop: Willi Castro
Castro has earned the right to be in the starting lineup next season, regardless of where he ends up playing. He hit .349 with six homers and 24 RBIs in 36 games this season, after a .230 mark in 30 games in 2019.
While he needs to succeed over a longer span, the Tigers think he is the long-term answer at shortstop.
But his defensive struggles — minus-7 defensive runs saved above average, according to the Fielding Bible — might give the organization second thoughts. For now, pencil Castro in as the starting shortstop in 2021. But if there's a cheap shortstop on the market, the Tigers might try to make a deal.
Another candidate is Niko Goodrum, who hit .184 with 69 strikeouts in 158 at-bats. His offense was poor, but he was a plus-6 in defensive runs saved at shortstop and second base.
Other options: Goodrum, Alcantara, Paredes.
Third base: Jeimer Candelario
There's no chance the Tigers will open the year with No. 1 prospect Spencer Torkelson on the big-league roster, and Paredes is a long shot for the Opening Day roster (unless it's to play second base).
But there should be a healthy competition between Paredes and Candelario in spring training. Even though Candelario turned his career around with a .297 average and seven homers in 52 games, he went through a 1-for-23 slump to end the year.
Still, third base is Candelario's to lose. But if he stumbles early in 2021, don't expect the Tigers to wait to give Paredes another shot.
Sergio Alcantara is another name to keep an eye on, but he's not nearly as ready as Paredes because of his offensive concerns. He homered in his first at-bat as a Tiger, but only played 10 games in 2020, hitting .143.
Other options: Paredes, Alcantara.
Outfield: Victor Reyes (LF), JaCoby Jones (CF), Daz Cameron (RF)
JaCoby Jones and Victor Reyes are locks for starting outfield positions. Jones will play center field, while Reyes takes one of the corner spots. His versatility gives the Tigers some wiggle room.
The biggest question is where Daz Cameron fits in.
Although Cameron slumped when he got called up in September, he went 10-for-30 in his final nine games. If Cameron makes the Opening Day roster, he'll likely play right field — where he played all 16 of his games in 2020 — with Reyes taking over in left field.
Christin Stewart, a starter to open 2020, spent 10 days at the alternate training site in Toledo when Cameron was called up. He ended the year with a .167 average in 36 games, casting doubt on his role when the Tigers are ready to contend again.
If the Tigers want to give Cameron more time to develop in the minors, they could look to free agency. Prime outfield options include George Springer, Michael Brantley, Joc Pederson and Marcell Ozuna.
Second-tier options include Yasiel Puig, who sat out the entire 2020 season and tested positive for COVID-19, and ex-Tiger Yoenis Cespedes.
Would the Tigers want a short-term reunion with Cespedes, who hit .293 with 18 homers and 61 RBIs in Detroit before being dealt to the New York Mets for Michael Fulmer at the 2015 trade deadline? The circumstances of his 2020 make it unlikely: The final year of Cespedes' $110 million contract with the Mets was amended to $6 million before the season to settle a team grievance after Cespedes was allegedly injured in a prohibited activity. He played only eight games before opting out for 2020 on Aug. 2 (without informing the team beforehand), reportedly because he didn't want to be used as the designated hitter, according to Yahoo Sports.
Also, don't bet on No. 4 prospect Riley Greene until August or September at the earliest.
Other options: Free agent, Travis Demeritte, Stewart, Greene, Parker Meadows.
Designated hitter: Miguel Cabrera
There's no competition for this spot unless the organization grants Cabrera's wish to return to first base. Otherwise, the 37-year-old is going to complete his $244 million contract extension — which kicked in in 2016 and ends after 2023 — as the designated hitter.
At that point, he will be 40. In his last four seasons, Cabrera has a .267 batting average with 41 home runs and 176 RBIs combined in 361 games. He led the Tigers with 10 homers and 35 RBIs this year.
Bench: Free agent, Harold Castro, Niko Goodrum, Jake Rogers
The Tigers might add a free agent — think a veteran utilityman — to fill a bench role. If not, Derek Hill could have a spot on the bench as a defensive replacement and pinch-runner. If Stewart has a good spring training, he should join this mix.
Castro, Goodrum and Rogers also make sense for bench roles in 2021.
Starting rotation: Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer
The 2020 starting rotation was the worst in baseball with a combined 6.37 ERA, nearly a run worse than the No. 29 team.
But there are a few reasons for that. Rookies Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal, the organization's No. 2 and No. 5 prospects, respectively, were just getting a taste of the majors. And Michael Fulmer, the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year, was making his first starts since undergoing Tommy John surgery before the 2019 season.
Those three will need to prove their value in 2021.
Matthew Boyd, the 2020 Opening Day starter, fell apart in his 12 starts, with a 6.71 ERA and 15 homers allowed (most in the majors) in 60⅓ innings. He becomes a free agent after the 2022 season and has prospects Matt Manning and Alex Faedo in pursuit of his job.
The bright spot from this season was Spencer Turnbull's 3.97 ERA in 11 starts. He struggled with command but projects to be the 2021 Opening Day starter.
Like Boyd, Fulmer will get the 2021 season to show he can return to his previous form, but if he doesn't, Manning and Faedo — both shut down in late August with forearm strains — should be well prepared for their debuts.
Other options: Daniel Norris, Tyler Alexander, Manning, Faedo, Franklin Perez.
Bullpen: Bryan Garcia (closer), Buck Farmer (setup), Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto, Joe Jimenez, Daniel Norris, Tyler Alexander, free agent
Both Mize and Skubal are likely to be under an innings limit, which would create some spot starts for left-handers Daniel Norris and Tyler Alexander, both outspoken about wanting to be starters.
Most of the 2020 bullpen should return, with 25-year-old Bryan Garcia as the closer. He had a 1.66 ERA in 21⅔ innings across 26 appearances, with four saves after taking over for Joe Jimenez.
Once dubbed the Tigers' "closer of the future," Jimenez has the least room for error. He had a 7.15 ERA in 22⅔ innings.
Other options: Nick Ramirez, Kyle Funkhouser, Beau Burrows, John Schreiber, Anthony Castro, Nolan Blackwood.
Evan Petzold is a sports reporting intern at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzold. The Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here's how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.