Detroit Tigers: Sizing Up the Playoff Push

LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Detroit Tigers Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Al Avila looks on during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Complex on February 14, 2019 in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
LAKELAND, FL - FEBRUARY 14: Detroit Tigers Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Al Avila looks on during Spring Training workouts at the TigerTown Complex on February 14, 2019 in Lakeland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Following a quiet trade deadline, the Detroit Tigers must shift their focus to the final month of the season. Though a playoff push remains statistically unlikely, an optimized roster and a bit of good fortune can go a long way.

General Manager Al Avila and the Detroit Tigers decided to hold on to most of their top rental trade pieces at the trade deadline yesterday. Though outfielder Cameron Maybin was dealt, key players Jonathan Schoop and Austin Romine remain with the team in hopes of making a playoff push. A playoff push is a tall task for the suddenly red-hot Tigers, but series wins against the Indians, Cubs, and Twins in the last week gave the team even the small glimpse of success that has become almost nonexistent in the past several seasons.

Yes, the Tigers have performed well against some tough opponents recently, but the overall body of work still tells an unsightly narrative. The Tigers currently sit at 16-16, 1.5 games back of the Blue Jays, who spent the deadline actively bolstering the talent around their young stars Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, for the final playoff spot in the American League. The Blue Jays are far superior to the Tigers on paper, as are the Twins, who sit one spot ahead of Toronto. As of the trade deadline, FanGraphs estimates the Tigers playoff chances at 23 percent.

The Tigers pitching staff remains the worst in all of Major League Baseball, struggling to the tune of 5.51 ERA. The underlying metrics show that this is no accident, as opponents have recorded a league-high expected batting average, expected slugging, and hard-hit rate off of Tigers pitchers.

The Tigers have relied on hot bats as of late, but they certainly are no offensive juggernaut, either, as their 4.75 runs per game ranks in the bottom half of the league. They have hit the ball hard, generating the league-high hard-hit rate, but they also whiff on 30.7 percent of swings, the second-worst mark in the league.

All in all, the Tigers remain a highly flawed team that needs more than a little bit of good luck to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. There are three key things that need to happen in the final 28 games in order for the Tigers to give themselves a chance.

Optimize the Roster

The Tigers continue to frustrate fans with their unwillingness to roster their best players.

Grayson Greiner has been nothing short of a disaster this season, slashing .103/.212/.488. His defense has been no better, as his framing ranks in the bottom tenth percentile among catchers. Greiner also struggles to sequence pitches effectively, which is one of the many ways he has hurt his pitchers this season.

Greiner remaining on the roster would be a bad move regardless of who is waiting in the wings at the alternate site, but the presence of Jake Rogers in Toledo makes the move to keep Greiner on the roster inexplicable. Rogers, a top ten Tigers prospect, is now 25 years old and has previous big-league experience. Promoting Rogers would not only allow the Tigers to evaluate him going into next year but also massively help the pitching staff, many of whom have pitched to Rogers in recent seasons.

Christin Stewart has shown the Tigers all they should need to see to consider other options in left field. He is among the worst defenders in the league and has faltered at the plate this year as well, slashing .161/.232/.538. His power potential was once his calling card, but it has never shown up at the Major League level. In his three seasons with the team, he has hit 14 home runs, while striking out at a 25 percent clip.

Similarly to Rogers, Derek Hill is ready in Toledo and he would bring an element of defense and speed that the Tigers are missing. Hill became a fan-favorite in Spring Training, after making a series of highlight-reel catches. I wrote about his upward climb to becoming an everyday MLB player previously, but he can undoubtedly provide the team with more than Stewart is right now.

Key Bats Must Remain Hot

Following a terrible start to the year in July, Jeimer Candelario was the Tigers’ best hitter in August, hitting four home runs and three triples on his way to a 1.012 OPS for the month. Jonathan Schoop continued his torrid start, hitting five home runs in August to raise his OPS to .870 on the year.

On the flip side, Jacoby Jones has gone cold after convincing fans that his hot start was for real this year. His OPS fell to .688 for the month of August and his strikeout rate climbed to 34 percent. Jones has always been a streaky player and he is capable of carrying the Tigers to the playoffs if he hits another hot streak.

The Kids Must Improve

Isaac Paredes and his mature approach has been a breath of fresh air for the Tigers offense. However, young pitchers Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize have struggled significantly in their first taste of the Majors. They have a combined 6.99 ERA across six starts and have produced -0.2 WAR.

Skubal has improved in each outing, most recently giving the Tigers five quality innings in a win against the Twins. Mize, on the other hand, has failed to find his command in his first three starts, a trait that was his calling card coming up through the minors.

After the news that Tigers are shutting down Matt Manning and Alex Faedo for the remainder of the season with forearm strains, the options for reinforcements in Toledo are limited. Thus, the Tigers will likely continue to roll with Mize and Skubal. From a developmental perspective, there is little concern regarding their struggles, but the Tigers need them to pitch well now if there is any hope of making the postseason.