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Detroit Tigers on the prowl in MLB free agency after signing Kenta Maeda

Detroit Tigers
Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Tigers surprisingly finished second in the AL Central in 2023 with a record of 78-84, nine games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins and 10 back of the final AL Wild Card spot. They recently added Kenta Maeda on a two-year deal, signing him away from the Twins.

Could the Tigers be a threat in the Central if not the American League in 2024? Let’s take a look at how they stack up.

Detroit Tigers arrivals and departures

While the addition of Maeda is great for the club, Eduardo Rodriguez put up a 3.30 ERA with them last season across 152.2 innings. They very well could re-sign him with plenty of offseason left to go, but as of right now it’s Maeda and his 4.23 ERA in 104.1 innings replacing Rodriguez. That swap doesn’t look like it would be one that would push the Tigers into contention. But there are more additions to cover.

The biggest insertion onto the roster will be the return of Casey Mize, who missed all of the 2023 season while recovering from Tommy John surgery that he had in June of 2022.

Mize was throwing bullpens in September 2023, so he will presumably be ready for Spring Training. He will likely be on an innings limit. But he was a solid pitcher for Detroit in 2021 — his lone full season to date –pitching to a 3.71 ERA.

Outside of Maeda, the Tigers’ rotation figures to be quite young, and the results of young pitchers tend to fluctuate making it difficult to predict just how well they’ll do. That said, Mize was the first overall selection in 2018, and Matt Manning was taken ninth in 2016. They aren’t just any young pitchers.

Detroit also made a sneakily big upgrade at the beginning of the offseason when it acquired Mark Canha from the Milwaukee Brewers to play left field. The Tigers were last in production out of their left fielders in 2023, with Akil Baddoo and Eric Haase combining for a 67 wRC+ (100 is the league average).

Canha, 34, finished with a 111 wRC+ last season, and that was on the low end of production levels for his career. In one move, the Tigers turned a weak spot in their lineup into a strength. Canha’s .355 OBP in 2023 was 75 points higher than Detroit’s duo, which means more run-scoring opportunities in 2024.

If the Tigers can add a bullpen arm or two to take them out of the middle of the pack in reliever’s ERA (4.17), then they could really be in business.

Detroit Tigers vs. the American League Central

Detroit’s best path to a playoff spot in 2024 will be by winning its division. Luckily for the team, the Central is always winnable if a team actually tries. The Chicago White Sox are set to tear everything down and could end up trading Dylan Cease, Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez this winter. That’s in addition to Tim Anderson already being a free agent.

The Kansas City Royals were the second-worst team in baseball at 56-106, ahead of just the Oakland A’s (50-112), who were actively trying to lose games while they attempted to flee for Las Vegas.

The Royals have Bobby Whit Jr., who was great in 2023, and may have unlocked Cole Ragans on the pitching side. But they’re still trying to build an entire roster. They may be better in ’24, but they won’t be threats atop the Central.

2023 American League Central Standings

Minnesota Twins8775.537
Detroit Tigers7884.4819.0
Cleveland Guardians7686.46911.0
Chicago White Sox61101.37726.0
Kansas City Royals56106.34631.0

The Cleveland Guardians are going to be interesting in 2024. They dealt with a number of pitching injuries last season, and you have to think that they’ll be a little more lucky on that front next season.

They hired Stephen Vogt as manager. And while he is replacing the outstanding Terry Francona, Vogt’s presence could give the team a little jolt. He really caught the coaching bug last season with the Seattle Mariners, and he has a wealth of knowledge to share with the guys. They could be a problem.

Then there is the Twins, who finished at 87-75, worse than the first team to miss out on a Wild Card berth. Minnesota is riding high after the first win in the postseason in nearly two decades, and even won an entire series!

Related: Minnesota Twins lose Sonny Gray and Kenta Maeda in MLB free agency

Still, it just lost Sonny Gray, who finished second in the AL Cy Young voting, to the St. Louis Cardinals, and they may be ready to trim some payroll next season. They also lost Maeda to the division-rival Tigers. Minnesota may still be a good team in 2024, but this may not be the best Twins team we’ve seen in recent seasons.

Related: MLB’s Detroit Tigers hire new GM from NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks

How can the Detroit Tigers improve?

detroit tigers sign marcus stroman
Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

With Miguel Cabrera’s retirement, Detroit’s payroll is currently $36 million below what it was a season ago.

How much it is willing to spend this winter could be determined by how close it feels it is to a postseason berth. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some short-term additions the team could make that have the potential to make a big difference.

First up is Frankie Montas. The 30-year-old right-hander missed nearly all of the 2024 season because of injury. Still, before he was traded to the Yankees in 2022, he had a solid run of production with Oakland, finishing with a 3.70 ERA over 114 appearances (89 starts).

With the injury last season, Montas is likely to accept a one-year deal to re-establish his value on the free agent market for next offseason. Montas was always a better pitcher in Oakland, with a 3.67 ERA at the Coliseum. Comerica Park has nearly identical park factors, and Montas was even better there, posting a 2.27 ERA in five career starts.

Marcus Stroman is another pitcher who could probably sign a short-term deal. FanGraphs has him getting a three-year deal worth $66 million according to their crowdsourced projections.

The 32-year-old righty spent the past two seasons with the Chicago Cubs, posting a 3.50 ERA in 2022 and a 3.95 this past season. His ERA hasn’t been above four since 2018. Adding Stroman would provide more of a sure thing to make up for the Detroit Tigers’ potential loss of E-Rod.

Lou Trivino was traded to the Yankees from Oakland in the same deal as Montas. He missed the entire 2023 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in May.

He’s likely to miss at least part of the ’24 campaign, but he could be an interesting swing to take in free agency on a low-cost two-year deal that would include part of his rehab process, and then have him at full strength in 2025.

Trivino finished with a 3.18 ERA and 22 saves for the A’s in 2021, but his 2022 stats weren’t as sterling with Oakland, finishing with a 6.47 ERA before the trade. However, New York fixed him pretty quickly and he turned in a 1.66 ERA in 21 2/3 innings with the Bombers. The one hangup on signing Trivino could be that his recovery timeline is unknown and he may not be able to contribute to the club until the second half of the season.

Jordan Hicks is a name that many people might have forgotten about because of his injury history, but he has been healthy the past two seasons, and he’s been pumping gas.

He was traded by St. Louis to the Toronto Blue Jays last year at the trade deadline, and he finished the season with a 3.29 ERA and 12 saves between the two stops. He gets ground balls, limits barrels and hard-hit balls, and his expected ERA (xERA) has never been above four. FanGraphs has the 27-year-old projected for a three-year deal worth $27 million.