We’re still several weeks away from spring training and a couple of months away from the start of the 2019 MLB season, but the turn of the new year brings with it a new batch of storylines for the season to come. The Detroit Tigers aren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot in 2019, but their developing rebuild and upcoming roster crunch makes this year feel much more interesting than what we were anticipating in 2018.
We will likely delve into each of these individual topics multiple times throughout the season, but here are our most anticipated Tigers storylines for the upcoming year.
Will the Tigers make any more moves this offseason?
The Tigers have already filled a few holes this winter, signing a couple of pitchers and Jordy Mercer to major league deals while also filling their minor league rosters. They still have a few gaps on their major league roster, however, including at catcher and second base.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the solutions will be all that exciting. MLB.com’s Jason Beck reported that the Tigers probably won’t sign Brother Rice product D.J. LeMahieu, as they plan on waiting out the free agent market over the next couple months. They also want to find another catcher to pair with Grayson Greiner, and also seem interested in adding more pitching depth before the start of the season.
Given how general manager Al Avila has operated in the past, don’t expect any moves in the next few days. Under Avila, the Tigers have typically waited until late January and early February to fill the last couple spots on their roster; Francisco Liriano was signed on February 23 last year, while other minor deals — remember when they signed James Russell and Travis Wood? Me neither — didn’t happen until late January.
And yes, you’re also allowed to wonder if these moves will happen at all. The Tigers seem quite enamored with Dawel Lugo, even if he hasn’t shown much offensive upside in the upper minors yet, and have Bobby Wilson waiting in the minors if they can’t find a catcher to their liking. They are also more payroll-conscious than ever, and don’t appear all that motivated to spend money on another 90-loss team.
The Nicholas Castellanos trade saga
We wondered aloud last year if Michael Fulmer would be dealt at any point during the season, but those rumors felt rather speculative. This time around, with Nicholas Castellanos in his final year of arbitration before free agency, the Tigers have more incentive to get a deal done. Castellanos could net the Tigers a compensatory draft pick if he sticks around for the entire year, but there seems to be enough outside interest that Castellanos will likely be headed elsewhere before long.
Where will he go? Your guess is as good as mine right now. The Los Angeles Dodgers are seemingly the frontrunner in the Castellanos sweepstakes, but my guess is they ultimately pay up for Bryce Harper. The Atlanta Braves have also shown interest in Castellanos, and certainly have the farm system to get a deal done. Castellanos’ fit in the National League is an open question, however, and the Braves won’t give him any playing time at first base with Freddie Freeman around. The Cleveland Indians haven’t shown any direct interest yet, but many have pegged them as a possible suitor for Castellanos as well.
There’s also a small chance the Tigers and Castellanos come to an agreement on a long-term extension. This doesn’t seem too likely, though, so stay tuned to see where he ultimately ends up by the end of 2019.
Where will Casey Mize begin the 2019 season?
We can ask this question for most of the Tigers’ top prospects, but Mize’s status as the team’s top prospect and a highly polished arm warrants an extra level of intrigue. He threw a handful of innings at High-A Lakeland to finish the 2018 season, but they weren’t pretty.
1-0001 DET: RHP Casey Mize
The ’18 NCAA campaign featured less GB, more LD, & earlier OFFB contact than an also stellar ’17, likely owing to increased splitter usage. Over 55 mostly A+ batters, the RHB CTL/K game was incredibly poor while LD were plentiful & IFFB nearly absent. pic.twitter.com/pddSWMxkZW
— reillocity (@reillocity) December 28, 2018
The Tigers could send Mize back to Lakeland for what should be a quick tune-up before a midseason promotion, or they could get aggressive and promote him to Double-A Erie early on. The Atlanta Braves started righthander Kyle Wright (the No. 3 overall pick in 2017) off at Double-A in 2018, and he finished the year throwing a handful of innings out of their major league bullpen. I don’t know if Mize would get the same treatment — though the Tigers don’t seem too bothered by manipulating service time — but an aggressive promotion to start the year would be a nice challenge for their top prospect.
Elsewhere in the farm system, I’m also interested to see where outfielder Parker Meadows starts. The Tigers’ second round pick in 2018, Meadows impressed in his professional debut in the Gulf Coast League last summer. He only played six games at short-season Connecticut, which is where he will likely begin the 2019 season. The Tigers have historically been aggressive with their top picks in the past, though, so I wouldn’t be surprised (and would certainly be intrigued) if they promoted him to Single-A West Michigan to start the year.
Other top prospects to watch: OF Daz Cameron, RHP Beau Burrows, SS Willi Castro, 2B Kody Clemens, OF Derek Hill, and SS Wenceel Perez
Can Daniel Norris land a job in the starting rotation?
This is something we have been wondering for a few years now, but 2019 feels like a make-or-break season for Norris. He now has competition for a starting job, with Matt Moore and Tyson Ross in the fold, and only has one more minor league option remaining. It’s hard to imagine the Tigers sending Norris down to Toledo unless things really go sideways, so expect the loser of the Norris/Moore/Ross battle to start the year in the bullpen.
I’m fine with Norris having to earn his spot in the starting rotation, but I hope that the Tigers give him every chance to win the job. Still only 25, Norris’ ceiling is higher than what either Ross or Moore can provide. He still has three years of club control remaining, and could help expedite Detroit’s rebuild if he is able to stay healthy and regain his 2016 form.
What will the Tigers lineup look like?
We got a glimpse of this last September after Christin Stewart’s promotion, and the top of the order was quite interesting.
Adding a healthy Miguel Cabrera to that mix gives the Tigers a decent upper half of their batting order, and any other additions (D.J. LeMahieu, anyone?) only adds to the fun. The bottom of the order needs work, of course, but as long as this group stays healthy, the Tigers’ lineup will be much more potent than it was for long stretches of last season.
Will Michael Fulmer stay healthy?
A dazzling rookie season and All-Star campaign in 2017 distracted us from a harsh reality surrounding Michael Fulmer; he has struggled to stay healthy for most of his professional career. Fulmer’s last two seasons have ended prematurely, and he is still recovering from September knee surgery as we speak. The Tigers haven’t exactly been the most patient when waiting for their stars to recover from offseason operations, but the latest updates suggest that Fulmer will be ready to go when spring training begins.
It doesn’t stop there, though. Can Fulmer get through an entire season without falling victim to yet another injury? He has only topped out at 164 2⁄3 innings pitched in any given MLB season, and failed to even log 150 innings across all levels last year. Having a healthy and productive Fulmer atop the rotation would go a long way towards making the Tigers more respectable in 2019 and beyond, but the former has been more elusive than the latter so far in his young career.
Who will the Tigers take in the MLB draft?
The Tigers’ 2018 draft class was widely praised, and not just because they landed the top prospect available in righthander Casey Mize. The Tigers aimed for upside across the board, taking fliers on high-reward players like Parker Meadows, Kingston Liniak, and even people’s champion Brock Deatherage.
The Tigers have the No. 5 overall pick in 2019, and after drafting yet another pitcher with their first round pick last year, many are hoping they find an impact bat with their first pick. The 2019 draft class is still taking shape, and rankings will change countless times between now and June, but there are usually a few college position players who separate themselves from the pack as the season goes along. Early fan favorites in this year’s class include outfielder Riley Greene, prep talent Corbin Carroll, and (my early preference) third baseman Josh Jung.
Which prospects will make it to Detroit?
We know that Christin Stewart will be the team’s starting left fielder in 2019, but many of the team’s other top youngsters are still working their way up the minor league ladder. And while very few of those players will spend extended time in Detroit, there’s a chance we see a number of prospects for a few games here or there toward the end of the year.
For instance, look at all of the players we can reasonable expect to start the year in Double-A or higher:
And that’s just from the top half of our 2019 prospect rankings! Not all of these players will reach the big leagues in 2018, but we can reasonably expect a fair number of them to get a late season cup of coffee, as well as others like Zac Houston, Jake Robson, and Sandy Baez. There will be growing pains as this group reaches the majors — especially without much top-end talent to speak of throughout the minor league ranks — but the cavalcade of bullpen arms and injury replacements will at least be much more interesting to watch in 2019.
The pending roster crunch of November 2019
Remember when we wondered if the Tigers would protect prospects like Derek Hill and Anthony Castro for last year’s Rule 5 draft? This year’s roster crunch will be a lot more interesting. Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers will both need to be added to the 40-man roster this fall, along with righthander Kyle Funkhouser, outfielder Jake Robson, righthander Elvin Rodriguez, and newly acquired righty Logan Shore. With only a few pending free agents and others that will be added to the roster throughout the season, the Tigers will have a lot of interesting decisions to make early on next offseason.