“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…except without the real best of times”. This could describe a ball club finishing .500 pretty well under the proposed 82-game schedule.
Let’s be honest…there isn’t a lot to hang your hat on by finishing .500. You’re not making the post-season except under the most unusual circumstances. The team will also get a mediocre mid-level draft position. Many will find it dull. It’s literally a step forward and a step back. But what if under this proposed 82-game schedule, if the Tigers could finish .500?
The Detroit Tigers have been in a playoff drought however since 2014 and they’ve been non-competitive, or downright feeble, for most of that time. If fans were to be slightly enthused by a .500 season, even in a COVID-19 mini-season, it’s understandable. People want to enjoy some victories and a few even equate those extra wins pushing to .500 as growth or steps forward for the following years.
Can the Tigers make the push this season? Is it the small step ahead in the rebuilding effort many fans long to see?
Let’s assume MLB manages to pull off an 82-game schedule and let’s not worry too much about exactly who the Tigers will face on their schedule. We’ll see in due course. Is there a path to 41-41 for the Tigers?
Some would say “no”. You can’t really blame them. Indeed, I’d set the over/under on wins for Detroit at about 32.5 as things stand now. It’s not likely a good team. However…it might not need to be all that good. It’s a short season. Two healthy hot streaks could make a mediocre crew look competent in the standings.
A bad team can cover its warts much easier over 82 games. One needs only to look back at Ron Gardenhire’s first season at the helm in Detroit. The 2018 Tigers were not a very good baseball team by nearly any measure. Journeymen were playing plenty, vets like Victor Martinez were playing out the string, unproven youngsters were getting plugged in, and major talents like Miguel Cabrera and Michael Fulmer were absent much of the time with injuries.
Despite the sorry looking roster and an ugly run differential, the ‘18 Tigers managed to stay competitive for nearly half the season. They were 36-37 through 73 games which would have them nearly finished this season if they can duplicate it.
Now…those ‘18 Tigers immediately lost 11 in a row after the 36th win on its way to finishing 64-98 (say hello Riley Greene). They predictably had no staying power.
However, this season is going to be an odd and possibly very uneven sprint. It’s not the 6-month endurance contest we typically enjoy. We don’t know where teams will play and under what conditions. We don’t know how Coronavirus testing will play a role in the W/L columns for teams. There are plenty more variables in play and all of those are on top of the usual things that change seasons such as injuries, career downturns, career years, surprising rookie performance, etc.
What will a Tigers optimist look for this year to catapult them from the dregs of 2019 to some level of respectability in 2020? To check off 41 wins it might not take as much as some belief. Let’s tick off a few possibilities.
1. Starting Pitching
The Tigers have a chance to assemble a passable rotation. Matthew Boyd could be positioned to take a step ahead if his home-run rate can settle down just a bit. Spencer Turnbull showed he can take the ball and provide competitive innings despite his 3-17 record. Daniel Norris isn’t a workhorse but he can get through a lineup twice at times. If Michael Fulmer returns with 50+ innings of presentable effort that’s a possible 2-win boost.
The wildcards in the equation are the youngsters in the minor leagues. Will the Tigers get some innings from Matt Manning, Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Beau Burrows and some others. Will those innings be a boost or include rookie growing pains?
2. The push for league average hitting
The Tigers don’t have a ton of hitters with very high ceilings. But for our purposes of seeing if they can get to .500, they don’t need All-Star hitting. They need relative competence. An OPS+ of 100 for instance. Will a few guys who didn’t do that last year find a way in ‘20? Christin Stewart, Jeimer Candelario, Dawel Lugo, JaCoby Jones, and Grayson Greiner. Will two off this list grind out a respectable half-season? That’s the difference in a lineup that can provide an occasional run from lower in the order and one that doesn’t.
3. A power infusion from the new vets
CJ Cron and Jonathan Schoop were brought in to be guys who can occasionally wallop a ball over a fence. The ‘19 Tigers were a club unable to join MLB’s homer-frenzy. Cron and Schoop should help a bit. Add in Miguel Cabrera getting steady DH at-bats and possibly Cameron Maybin being semi-productive and there are some vets around to sustain some offense.
4. The Twins hit the warning track
Assuming the Tigers play in the division only this year, the Twins will be on the docket a lot. Last year Minnesota hit homers in an ungodly fashion. It sustained their offense throughout the year. Will baseballs be so lively this year? Will the Twins power bats replicate such a surge in dingers? They don’t have to fall completely flat…we aren’t talking about overtaking Minnesota. Just a step back. A few balls finding leather on the track instead of being souvenirs. That could be enough to take the Twins from a .625 victory pace down to .580 or so which could mean an extra couple of wins for the Tigers.
There are multiple weaknesses we can list to counteract any positives the Tigers might have. Their defense will likely still be suspect. The bullpen does not look deep. They may not have any returning hitters step toward league average competence. As optimists today, we’ll close our eyes to those factors for a bit. We just want that dash for 41 wins by hook or by crook.
Mostly we’re all hoping for a season. The daily rhythms of the baseball season can lift plenty of spirits in the COVID Era even for just a half-season. We shouldn’t overestimate what sports can do for us. It’s still just a game and people will still be getting sick and struggling. Business owners will be worrying more about finding customers than if the Tigers win a series versus the Tribe.
But baseball has the ability to help put the country in motion. It can’t fix things, but it can be the daily fix of summer normalcy even under abnormal circumstances.
Is there any nobility in finishing .500? It’s debatable. Each extra win has a diminishing rate of return if you don’t make the playoffs with them. Winning is fun, however, Tigers fans have swallowed some losing the last few years. A run at .500 could be enjoyable and really shouldn’t be a shock in a short season. Weird stuff happens even for a team that might look like a 30-52 club on paper.
Be a Tigers optimist. We’ve had a few months of national pessimism to endure. Take a break from it.