Rebuilds aren’t fun for many people – well, maybe for GMs. Rebuilds are particularly un-fun for the fans. If you are a fan of the Tigers, this stage of the rebuild is sickening, as the Tigers dropped 114 games in 2019 – their second worst loss total since the franchise was born in 1901. For such a proud franchise – the city that boasted Ty Cobb, Charlie Gehringer, Hal Newhouser, Hank Greenberg, Al Kaline, Jack Morris, Alan Trammel, and Lou Whitaker, just to name a few – they have to feel the stench of all 114 losses like a lemon juice-filled paper cut. The Tigers won the last of their four World Series trophies in 1984 and won their division four straight years from 2011 through 2014, but have lost at least 98 games each of the last three seasons.
Looking at the curve of a rebuild like the one the Astros came out of in 2015 may give Tigers fans hope that winning is only two seasons away. Houston lost at least 92 games for four straight seasons before signaling that winning ways were returning to Houston when they won 86 games in 2015 and made the playoffs. While Detroit has made progress in reworking their minor league system to where they are now ranked 11th by Baseball America after dropping as low as 30th in 2015, their system is nowhere near as strong as the Astros system was when they pulled out of their tailspin. The Tigers are unlikely to feel the slingshot effect the Astros felt as their string of number one picks matured, in part because the Tigers top three prospects are pitchers, while the Astros rebuild primarily centered around position players like Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman. Yes, pitching is important of course, but it is also harder to develop and much more prone to disastrous injury that can turn a top prospect into a bank teller. Did the Tigers build their system pitching heavy because they already have the position player talent to take them to their next championship? How about we start by examining their current outfield and the players who are close to establishing themselves in the majors.
At 26, left fielder, Christin Stewart, had his first real audition in the Majors in 2019 after a 72 plate appearance “cuppa” in 2018. His run through the minors, after being chosen in the first round of the 2015 draft, showed Stewart to possess great raw power, and the ability to get on base via the walk. Stewart also showed that he would strike out a decent amount and maybe not hit for a very high average or play great outfield defense. In the equivalent of three full seasons in the minors, he hit 98 balls over the fence and slashed .264/.366/.501. In 2019, he received 416 plate appearances with Detroit and hit only 10 long balls while slashing .233/.305/.388. It wasn’t impressive, nor was it a complete disaster although his defensive numbers made it even worse than the slash line alone. His glove cost the Tigers between 6 and 15 runs depending on which metric you use. With a wRC+ of 80 and defense numbers suitable for a DH, Stewart will have to step up his offensive game substantially to be worth more than a bench spot with the big club.
Centerfielder, Jacoby Jones has been trying to catch on with the Tigers since 2016, and, after a disastrous full audition in 2018, he rebounded to have his best season yet. Before you get too excited, his best season was a wRC+ of 92 for a centerfielder with poor defensive numbers (-21 UZR/150 and -13 DRS). Jones is 27 (28 in May) and has had one season with a positive WAR. That was in 2018 when his WAR was 1.2, based entirely on his defensive numbers, as his wRC+ was 69 that year. There is some power and some speed, and while projections see him being around average defensively, they also widely agree that he will cost the team runs with his bat. His slash line from 2019 was .235/.310/.430 and for the second year in a row he hit 11 home runs. Since he doesn’t get on base a lot (6.1% career walk rate), you can’t use Jones and his speed at the top of the order. He doesn’t make enough contact to hit for much average as he got his strikeout rate down to 28.2% last year. Expecting him to do more with the bat than match his 2019 slash line is just wishful thinking. Granted, he could surprise, but it is hard to see much growth coming that would make him more than a below average placeholder.
The most accomplished member of the Tigers outfield, heading into 2020, is former top prospect, Cameron Maybin. In part-time play for the Yankees, the now nearly 33 year old Maybin had a productive season with 11 home runs and a slash line of .285/.364/.494 for a wRC+ of 127 in 269 plate appearances. Maybin’s best asset used to be his speed. In 2011, he stole 40 bases for the Padres and played excellent D in center field (10.3 UZR/150 and 14 DRS). Maybin is no longer an efficient base stealer and has been pushed over to right field where he will likely be a good defender. The former 10th overall draft pick has started taking more walks (11.2% in 2019 and 11.3% in 2017) and showing more power, making him a home run threat who can get on base at a respectable rate. Maybin is talented but it is hard to know what you will get out of him as he swings from 0.5 WAR to 2.4 WAR from season to season. He is also getting to that age where it would be hard to project him being around when the Tigers break the 81 win threshold. Still, for now Maybin will start most days as he is the best outfielder on the team.
The Tigers fourth outfielder, Victor Reyes, is poised to take the starting spot of any of the three mentioned above who get off to a slow start. The former Rule 5 pick steal from the Diamondbacks put up better defensive numbers (14.3 UZR/150 and 1 DRS in all three outfield spots combined) than all three men he is competing against. Reyes also slashed .304/.336/.431 for a wRC+ of 100 – better than all but Maybin. The biggest knock on Reyes is that his ability to get on base is almost entirely reliant on his batting average, as he has only walked 3.7% of the time for his career and 4.8% in 2019. The tall, athletic Venezuelan is a really good fourth outfielder right now but could become more if he would only let the ball thump into the catcher’s mitt a bit more often. At 25, he might get a chance to show that he can be more than a speedy bench guy.
The only Tigers minor league outfielder above single-A listed in their top 10 prospects is Daz Cameron. While the son of former Major Leaguer Mike Cameron has a really cool name, his performance at triple-A was anything but cool as the 23 year old slashed .214/.330/.377 and struck out 28.8% of the time. Cameron showed a little power with 13 home runs in 528 plate appearances and drew some walks (11.7% walk rate), but otherwise had a disappointing year with the bat (84 wRC+). The report on him is that he should be good in a corner outfield spot, so, if he can put it together with the bat this year in triple-A, there isn’t a lot blocking him from above. Is he good enough to be a starter? This season should go a long way towards answering that question for the Tigers.
To find another legit outfield prospect in the Detroit organization, you have to go down to single-A where their number three prospect, Riley Greene, and their number eleven prospect, Parker Meadows, just got their first tastes of full season ball. The former first and second round prospects have some promise, but they are both far, far away from debuting in the majors.
There is some chance that Reyes, Stewart, or Jones will make a late leap of development and turn into a starter worth keeping around for a few more years as the farm system begins to bear fruit, but it is unlikely that any of them will turn into stars. Maybin is a useful player, but in two or three years it is highly unlikely that he will still be with Detroit as they will trade him as soon as they can get something of interest for him (or age will catch up to him). Daz Cameron still has room to develop and turn into a starter although he hasn’t developed like anyone hoped he would when he was taken 37th overall in 2015. If Cameron can’t take and hold a job, then the Tigers will have to make trades or sign free agents to fill all three outfield spots once their pitching is ready if they want to compete. Or they can hope that one of the youngsters – Greene or Meadows – turns into a keeper. Right now, it looks like the Tigers are employing three placeholders to patrol their outfield as they head into another 100 loss season. There is no pretty way to paint it for Detroit fans because there isn’t an obvious superstar developing in the minors who will take over an outfield spot any time soon. They simply need to be patient and hope for better days while they watch their team play out the string. Ack.