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2021 Record: 77-85
Third Place, AL Central
Team ERA: 4.32 (17th in MLB)
Team OPS: .707 (22nd in MLB)
WHAT WENT RIGHT
When looking at the Tigers picking up 77 wins, the first thought might be that they took advantage of playing in a wretched division. And while that might be the reason why Detroit finished third, they actually finished 30-46 against divisional foes; picking up a winning record against the East, West and interleague play. It's tough to quantify how much how managers help, but AJ Hinch's first season should go down as a success. One of the reasons for that success was starting pitching that -- for the most part -- got the job done. Former first-overall pick Casey Mize was much better in 2021 than his rookie campaign, finishing with a 3.71 ERA and showing the stuff at times that made him one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Some late struggles saw Tarik Skubal see his ERA rise to 4.34, but he struck out 164 hitters in just over 149 innings, and both arms look like front-line starters. The bullpen was mostly solid -- more on that later -- with Gregory Soto and Michael Fulmer looking like strong late-inning options. There were some success stories on offense, as well. One of the best being Rule 5 pick Akil Badoo, who posted a slash of .259/.330/.436 as a 22-year-old while hitting 13 homers and stealing 18 bases. It's not hard to dream on that future, even if there were expected highs and lows. Jeimer Candelario doubled 42 times with an OPS+ of 122, while Robbie Grossman put up a 20/20 season with 23 homers and 20 thefts.
WHAT WENT WRONG
While the Tigers certainly exceeded expectations, it's also fair to say that's due to expectations that were low. Low is putting it nicely. This was still a well below-average baseball team; one that still looks a year or two away from being a serious contender. The only hitter that finished with an OPS above .800 was Jake Rogers, and that was over all of 38 games. Miguel Cabrera continues his unfortunate slowdown -- not that it's a surprise considering he's 38 -- with a .386 slugging percentage in 526 plate appearances. And while the pitching was better, it was far from perfect. Jose Urena struck out 67 hitters in 100 2/3 innings with a 5.81 ERA, and Joe Jimenez continued to fail to live up to expectations with a 5.96 ERA in his 52 appearances. Again, while Detroit was actually better when they weren't playing against AL Central teams, it's still fair to say that they took advantage of that being easily the worst division in the American League.
** Skubal and Mize (mostly) impressed in their starts in 2021. Matt Manning -- a pitcher that many scouts ranked ahead of both not long ago -- did not. He didn't miss bats (57 strikeouts in 85 1/3 innings), and he was hit hard for a 5.80 ERA in his 18 starts in his rookie year. Let's also keep in mind that this is a 23-year-old, and take a look at the numbers that Mize and Skubal put up in their rookie campaigns in 2020. Manning shouldn't be on draft radars to begin 2022, but there's still reason for long-term optimism.
** One of the few consistent offensive players for the Tigers was Jonathan Schoop, who was signed to an extension in the middle of the season. He finished the year with a .755 OPS, 22 homers and 84 RBI and will be locked in as a regular for 2022. He's primarily a first baseman now, but he appeared in 38 games at second base last season, so he should have that eligibility to begin the year. Far from a perfect player, but this is one of the few Detroit hitters who will be worth a draft pick in the spring.
** Wily Peralta turned on the time machine and posted his best numbers in years, finishing with a 3.07 ERA in 93 2/3 innings in 19 appearances. Solid numbers, but the metrics suggest that there was an awful lot of good luck, as he finished with a 4.94 FIP while only striking out 58 hitters in that timeframe. He'll hit free agency in 2022 and should see interest, but it's very hard to imagine he approaches these kind of numbers again regardless of what club he lands with.
** The Tigers have one of the best farm systems in baseball, and two of their best prospects -- Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene -- were able to reach Triple-A in 2021. Both have a great chance of being regulars before the end of the 2022 season, and both offer fantasy upside. Torkelson is an infielder who has a chance to hit for a high average with significant power in his right-handed bat, while Greene is just a notch below in terms of skill set but offers a better chance of providing some steals. The risk of rookies is obvious, but both of these players will rank high on my list of prospects who have a chance for impact over the next campaign.
** Arguably the biggest fantasy question is just how much improvement will we see from Mize going forward. Like Peralta, the FIP for the right-hander suggests that there was some good fortune for the right-hander (4.71 FIP compared to 3.71 ERA), and 118 strikeouts in 150 1/3 innings isn't exactly the goal. Still, there were stretches in 2021 where Mize looked like a future ace, and again, the improvement he made from 2020 to 2021 was significant. He can't be counted on to be be a fantasy stalwart for 2022, but if he continues these gains, there's a very good chance he gets there.
Key Free Agents: Peralta, Urena, JaCoby Jones. Key is subjective.
Team Needs: There's nothing here that couldn't be upgraded, but there's also much here that is locked in for 2022, which creates a bit of a weird situation. Shortstop and the outfield seem like the most obvious positions that could use upgrades, but it's more likely that Detroit continues in their rebuild situation before being a potential contender in 2023.