Pat Caputo: Tigers' postseason hopes depend on this

Acquiring outfielder Mark Canha was a significant move by the Tigers.

His 2.2 WAR in 2023 was better than any Tigers’ position player.

The Tigers had a glaring need for a right-handed hitting outfielder, especially since they will likely need Matt Vierling, their only righty outfielder, to play third base, too, in ’24.

Trading for a 35-year-old in exchange for a promising minor league arm, albeit down the list of Tigers’ prospects, also sent a message the Tigers expect to contend, which makes perfect sense considering the sorry state of the American League Central.

And general manager Scott Harris has made it clear he is seeking veteran pitching help with Eduardo Rodriguez opting out of his contract.

But make no mistake, nothing the Tigers do this off season is going to suddenly vault them into contention unless the core of players they have been developing the last few seasons take a major step forward.

There is much confusion about WAR and what it means. It’s not the be all and end all to measure the effectiveness of an MLB player, especially with technological advances providing such definitive evidence of tools.

Yet, it's still a solid indicator and telling in regard to the Tigers.

A 2.0 WAR player in a given season is considered an average MLB regular. Last season, the Tigers didn’t have a position player meet this threshold.

In contrast, the Orioles, who led the AL in wins, had six position players above 2.0 WAR. Baltimore’s most celebrated prospects in recent years, infielder Gunnar Henderson (6.2) and catcher Adley Rutchschman (4.3) combined for 10.5 WAR. Their salaries: $723,000 and $733,000.

For the Tigers to move upward into contention, their versions of Rutchschman and Henderson, have to provide much more consistent all-around production.

For Spencer Torkelson that not only means continuing the second-half power surge that vaulted him into being a Silver Slugger finalist, but improving defensively. His metrics both mathematically and technology were subpar in the field. He was minus 1.9 defensive WAR, and in the bottom sixth percentile in both range factor and arm strength, according to Baseball Savant’s tech measurements. He particularly struggled with range to his right, with an outs above average of minus 8 on balls hit in that direction.

Riley Greene must stay healthy. He has played just 93 and 99 games his first two MLB seasons, and also the type of power which flashed so brightly at Erie and Toledo.

There were times in ’23 when the stories of Kerry Carpenter and Parker Meadows were almost too good to be true, and sometimes they were. Carpenter was a brilliant addition with 20 home runs through August 23, but he didn’t homer after that, a span of 145 plate appearances. Meadows’ speed, range and arm are excellent, but it’s still very much up in the air how well he will hit MLB pitching, The encouraging news: His average exit velocity was solid, an indication of power potential.

The Tigers don’t have to rush top prospects Colt Keith and Jace Jung, each capable of providing dramatic offensive impact this season. Jung is learning to play third base and Keith second. Zach Mckinstry, Andy Ibanez and Vierling give manager A.J. Hinch, who was outstanding mixing and matching his lineups in ’23, flexibility.

Oh, and there is Javy Baez. He will be 31 this season, so theoretically anyway, he is still in his prime despite a dreadful ’23 campaign.

There is plenty of angst about what the departure of Rodriguez means to the Tigers. They were 14-12 in the games he started last season, 6-11 in 2022.

While the Tigers will nonetheless address starting pitching, Tarik Skubal has given every indication he is on the verge of being a No.1 starter. He had a .896 WHIP and 102 strikeouts in 80 innings last season. The Tigers were 8-4 in his final dozen starts.

Reese Olson was the ultimate find last season, and Matt Manning pitched well, although he has been decidedly unlucky with injuries.

Recent first-round draft picks Ty Madden and, particularly Jackson Jobe, have made tremendous strides and will likely be in MLB this season.

A wild card is Casey Mize. The timeline recovering from Tommy John surgery isn’t necessarily linear, but it is reasonable to expect Mize to return to form sooner or later this season.

The Tigers’ bullpen has depth both in MLB and the farm system.

The Tigers had a 4.24 ERA last season, 17th in MLB and better than the World Series champion Rangers (4.28), and the National League pennant-winning Diamondbacks (4.48). But that was with ERod, and, oddly, those were the only two playoff teams with worse ERAs.

The Canha trade is just the beginning of what should be an active off season. The Tigers have organizational depth to deal, and a low payroll to reasonably pursue free agents.

That will undoubtedly help, but only if their young players make considerable progress.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Getty Images