Unfortunately for Tigers fans like myself, there are few players who will draw much attention in 10- and 12-team leagues. The offense has potential coming from players like Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, but that potential has yet to be realized.
Expect a number of players to rotate in and out of his lineup as AJ Hinch looks to somehow maximize the limited talent he has on this roster, but if things do go well in the Motor City in 2023, I suspect it will be because of three players doing as well as I hope and two others exceeding my currently low expectations.
2022 stats (225 PA): .204 AVG, 30 R, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 9 SB
Conventional wisdom suggests I need to get off this ride, but I still can’t get over the transformations Akil Baddoo has made as a hitter in his short time in the major leagues. After a bombastic debut in 2021 that saw him smacking home runs while striking out nearly 40% of the time and never walking, Baddoo changed into a walk machine while cutting the strikeouts down, albeit with a distinct lack of power. He changed again in the second half of the season, displaying average walk and strikeout rates while getting some power back into his game.
While I believe that Baddoo has 20-home run potential in his bat, that’s not why he’s a sleeper; it’s the speed and opportunity to win a spot at the top of the order. The Tigers don’t have a lot of offensive firepower on the squad, and if AJ Hinch wants to win ball games, he will need to manufacture some runs. That’s where Baddoo—the team’s most potent base stealer—comes in.
The Tigers are short on leadoff hitters, with Austin Meadows (more on him in a moment) currently penciled in at the top of the order over at Roster Resource. Meadows is not a typical leadoff hitter, though, and his combination of plus power and routine contact woes probably plays better hitting second or third.
Baddoo’s speed and on-base prowess plays much better at the top of the order than Meadows’ skill set, and even if Baddoo is unable to display the power he showed early in his debut, a 20-steal season is very much in play. Baddoo racked up 31 combined home runs and stolen bases in 2021 and looked much more like that version of himself in September of 2022 while walking 14.3% of the time and striking out a palatable 26.2% of his trips to the plate. The rolling chart below (you knew one was coming, right?) shows that he was on the right track in the second half of the season, and I believe he can build on that growth heading into 2023.
A 15-home run, 20-stolen base season is not that much of a stretch if you squint just right, and that’s not too bad considering Baddoo can be put on your watch list in all but the very deepest of leagues.
2022 stats (147 PA): .250 AVG, 9 R, 0 HR, 11 RBI, 0 SB
2022 was a lost season for Austin Meadows, who even before an injury ended his season was a shell of his former self. After hitting 27 home runs and driving in 106 Rays in 2021, Meadows was traded to Detroit for infield prospect Isaac Paredes, who went on to hit a fair number of home runs for Tampa Bay while Meadows put up a goose egg.
Calling Meadows a sleeper requires you to ignore most of what happened in 2022. Sure, he continued to show improved plate discipline, striking out in just 11.6% of his plate appearances which built upon his 20.6% strikeout rate from 2021, but the power all but evaporated.
That being said, Meadows hit 60 combined home runs in 2019 and 2021 (2020 was a clunker in much the same way that 2022 was), so there’s reason to believe that he could still be a power threat for a team in desperate need of one. He should hit near the top of the order every day for the Tigers when healthy, and Meadows should be able to accumulate plenty of stats in that role even if the power is more modest than what we saw in years past.
If Meadows continues to put balls in play as he did last season and the year prior, there’s a somewhat foggy but still rather plausible path to 80 RBI or more in a full season to go along with 20-25 home runs. The batting average is unlikely to help much due to his penchant for fly balls and pop-ups, but his OBP skills combined with even average power should be more than useful to those in 12-team and deeper leagues that require a deep outfield.
2022 stats (147 PA): .203 AVG, 38 R, 8 HR, 28 RBI, 0 SB
Don’t worry, this won’t take long. The path to fantasy relevance for Spencer Torkelson comes from two places: his pedigree and his plate discipline.
The pedigree part is easy enough to understand. The Tigers selected Torkelson as the first overall pick in the 2020 draft because many scouts pegged him as the best college hitter to come out in the last 10-15 years. While I could list a boatload of stats and facts from his time at Arizona State here, I’ll go with a very simple one: he broke Barry Bonds’ record for home runs by a freshman. Breaking a Bonds record is something that should get your attention regardless of your position on what a Bonds record should be worth (and for what it’s worth, there’s little evidence he was using steroids in his younger days). 2022 was disappointing for Tork, sure, but it was his first taste of the big leagues and just his second year in pro ball. You can forgive a lackluster performance.
Interestingly, though, Torkelson’s struggles didn’t come from strikeouts. Many rookie sluggers struggle to make contact with the ball or get a feel for the strike zone, but not so with Tork. His 9.2% walk rate and 24.5% strikeout rate are a-OK for any player, especially a rookie. Tork’s issues instead come from his poor quality of contact. His barrel rate was exceedingly average, and his IPA% (or Ideal Plate Appearance rate, which is the percentage of plate appearances where he either walked or made good contact) was a disappointing 24.8%, ranking just 213th in baseball.
To Tork’s credit, though, he did make contact, and if I am going to dream about a player taking it to the next level, I am much more comfortable doing so for a player who needs to go from poor contact to good contact than I am a player who needs to go from no contact to some contact. The Tigers and Torkelson will be focusing hard on how to help him take the next step and turn those mediocre outcomes into good ones, and history suggests that Torkelson has the ability to make that adjustment when given time to do so.
2022 stats (590 PA): .238 AVG, 64 R, 17 HR, 67 RBI, 9 SB
If someone told you that Javier Báez would drop his strikeout rate by nearly 10 points coming off a year where he hit 31 home runs and stole 18 bases, you’d be thrilled, right? Well, the stat line above is exactly what happened in that scenario.
Simply put, Báez may have finally shown the improved plate discipline many have been begging for, but it came at the steep price of sapping his power. Báez has gotten away with an incredibly aggressive approach for much longer than he should due to his other-worldly hand-eye coordination and ability to punish baseballs that are well outside of the strike zone. In other words, Báez swung at everything because he knew if he got the bat on the ball, it could go a long way at a high speed.
2022 did not work out that way, though, as evidenced by his lowest average exit velocity, max exit velocity, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate since 2017. While it’s possible that Báez is a victim of a bad team and a big ballpark, it’s worth noting that neither of those things is expected to change quite yet, and a passionate player like Javy may continue to be frustrated by his team’s ineptitude. Worse yet, the metrics suggest that he can’t sting the ball like he used to.
Even if Javy continues to show a wiser approach at the plate, it’s hard to imagine a return to his former glory in 2023.
2022 stats (60.1 IP): 3.28 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, 60 K, 30 SV
I’m admittedly impressed that Soto was able to keep the closer role despite a fourth consecutive season walking at least five batters per nine innings. His 5.07 BB/9 was the sixth-worst mark among qualified relievers, and four of the six players who walked at least five per nine innings had an ERA north of 4.3. It’s just not easy to succeed as a closer when you are walking that many batters.
Soto’s 3.28 ERA was unusual for relievers with that high of a walk rate, but perhaps more unusual was his low strikeout rate. His 9.9% strikeout-minus-walk rate was the 11th worst among the 152 qualified relievers, and do you know who the only other closer with a comparable rate was in 2022? Mark Melancon.
I don’t want to get too complicated here — Gregory Soto compares quite similarly to Mark Melancon after a devastating drop in his swing-and-miss numbers. Being highly comparable to Mark Melancon is great if you want to talk about career saves or longevity, but not so much when you’re talking about current abilities.
Put another way, you can fairly call Gregory Soto a left-handed Mark Melancon. Yes, Soto throws about seven miles per hour harder than Melancon, but when the results are the same, does it really matter? Soto is a prime example of why you want to target high-end relievers and then skip the middle tiers. Job security is a thing until it isn’t, and the skills Soto showed in 2022 suggest a very precarious hold on his role, even for a Tigers team that doesn’t really have much need for a closer.
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Redler (@reldernitsuj on Twitter)