Detroit Tigers: who is most likely to flop?

Last week, I looked at three x-factors for the 2014 Detroit Tigers. Now, it’s time to examine the likely 25-man roster and determine three players that have the biggest potential to flop in 2014. As in the last article I’ll nominate one player from each position group (offense, starting pitching, and bullpen).

Caveat: by no means am I saying that these three players will all flop, or that any of them will. This is merely my assessment of who I think are most likely to perform below my expectations.

Austin Jackson

Austin Jackson

Offense – Austin Jackson

Despite his up and down ways, which would actually project for a nice season in 2014, Jackson remains too inconsistent and could freefall in ’14. Jackson’s strikeout rate is now an acceptable 21% of his at-bats. What scares me are that his walk rate tumbled in 2013 (from 10.9% in ’12 to 8.5% in ’13) and that his productivity is so reliant on his BABIP (batting average on balls in play).

In Jackson’s good offensive years he has posted .397 and .371 BABIPs, well above league norms. In his two down years of 2011 and ’13, his BABIPs were .340 and .333. These are still decent numbers but with his questionable contact rates he remains a volatile member of the lineup game in and game out. Throw in missing significant time due to injury each of the past two seasons and the Tigers have to have a backup plan for their 27-year old centerfielder.

For more evidence of his wild swings in production, consider his batting averages by month in 2013:

  • April: .286
  • May: .231
  • June: .339
  • July: .223
  • August: .280
  • September: .278
  • Playoffs: .214

Last spring, Jackson worked heavily on reducing his leg kick and was met with mixed results. This year he claims he’s just going to be instinctual and play ball. He has one year of arbitration eligibility left after ’14 and then will hit the open market in 2016. He will be hoping for a big contract but will need to prove he’s more than a streaky player at best, and much less than that at his worst.

Jackson has often been the catalyst for the Tigers offense but will more than likely find himself batting around #7 in the lineup this time around, rather than his usual leadoff spot. Less pressure may mean greater results. It could also mean less attention to detail and even streakier performances.

History says Jackson should have a good year, but of the 13 guys suiting up to hit the ball for Brad Ausmus, he remains the greatest unknown to me, and yes, that includes incoming rookie Nick Castellanos.

Drew Smyly

Drew Smyly

Starting Pitching – Drew Smyly

This is no knock on Drew Smyly who has been remarkably solid since coming up in 2012 after a brief yet dominant run in the minors. But this is an easy pick for these reasons:

  • Smyly has never started a full season in the big leagues. His durability is a concern until he proves otherwise. Smyly stands 6’3’’ but is very slightly built. Rumor has it that he added 20 pounds in the offseason to help his body stand up over a full season of starting. The Tigers plan to watch his innings load closely so figure on a lot of 5-6 inning starts, especially early on.
  • Also, the other four components to this rotation are well established. This isn’t Smyly’s fault but it seems unlikely that any of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, or Rick Porcello will be falling on their face anytime soon.
  • Smyly could come in and remain solid, posting a sub-4 ERA over 32 starts. He could also find the sledding tough over the long haul and, of any of the five starters, is the only one with the potential to post a +5 ERA.
  • I’d like to see Smyly get a little more heat on his fastball and maintain his impressive strikeout rates. He should be able to do this but given his peer group he remains the most likely to flop.

Bullpen – Bruce Rondon

It’d be easy to say ‘anyone but Joe Nathan’ but that would be too simple. Remember, this is all based on my expectations of what the player should be in 2014. Rondon should be a dominant force with lofty strikeout numbers, paving the way for Nathan in the 9th all summer long.

I don’t have similar expectations for Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, Al Alburquerque, Ian Krol, or Luke Putkonen. Their ceilings are much lower than Rondon’s and any member of this group struggling wouldn’t surprise me in the least.

This assessment on Rondon is based on big Bruce’s skill set and a filthy August on the mound in Detroit last season.

Rondon, however, remains the same young pitcher (23-years old) who hasn’t thrown more than 58.1 innings in any season of his career, had a major confidence crisis multiple times in 2013, had up and down performances mainly due to occasional command problems, and couldn’t stay healthy for the stretch run.

If he’s right, Rondon could put up a 2.50 ERA and 80 K’s in about 70 innings. If he’s wrong, he could balloon to an ERA in the 4’s, lose his setup gig, and possibly get some mental health time in the minors. His ceiling and floor couldn’t be further apart.

Related article: Three ‘x-factors’

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  • rayder409

    Spot on assessment again… Ajax is still too inconsistent.. and it was a bad break last year when he had to go on the DL again…. He started out so great with his new approach at the plate… Same with Avila… he started showing great signs of driving the ball and flat out mashing again but then he would take a foul tip right in the coconut and have to sit out for 7-10 games… I read that because our starters are so good at making opposing hitters not being able to square up the ball… they foul tick a lot of pitches right back into Alexs’ face mask… And Drew is most definitely the guy to watch closely of the starters for your above stated reasons… Same with Rondon… it will boil down to throwing strikes that don’t get hit too hard (lol) and not walking guys… (Albuquerque’s curse)…. Go Tigs!

  • Jim Rohlman

    If Krol is ready for the big time, he and Rondon could become a dominant R/L setup combo…If not …..We will need 8 innings out of the starters :)

  • Bert

    I would say Coke, Joba and Al

  • Vince in MN

    I will be very interested in seeing how Ausmus manages the bullpen. Leyland was never very good at it, and to some extent that contributed to its failings on occasion. I’m not a big fan of the 7th-inning guy, followed by the 8th-inning guy, followed by the closer meme. Putting in someone who can get three outs without creating a crisis situation every time (this means NOT Phil Coke) should be the guideline – going more with match ups rather than roles is what I would like to see. But I expect we’re stuck with “The Myth”, so role playing is most likely what we will see. In any case, I wouldn’t be too quick to annoint Rondon as the setup man this season any more than closer for last season. With the exception of Coke, our bullpen may not actually be that bad. Did I mention I don’t like Phil Coke?

    Jackson getting dropped to the lower third of the order has the potential to help. The role change could reduce the pressure on him. But he has been streaky his whole career, so who knows what to expect. It should be nice to have some more speed and a bit of extra pop down there in what has the potential to be black hole territory. A .272/.337/.417/.754 line like last year would actually be super production from the No. 6 or 7 slot.

    Smyly will be on an innings limit I would guess. We’ll need a couple of dependable long men to take up the slack every fifth day since he will likely be going 5-6 innings max most starts. Also, he will need to be backed up by some of our starters from Toledo and Erie. We’ll need the occasional 6th man anyway, but being that there are really no sure bets on the way, that could get interesting.

    • Tony Martin

      To me, Jim had a bad bullpen, which in turn made him a bad bullpen manager. How can you blame the todd jones/jose valverde/phil Joke stuff on him? You run out there what your GM puts on the squad. I wholeheartedly agree on the Rondon part, I don’t think he has what it takes, until he can learn to harness a fastball with location and movement.
      My most likely to flop? unfortunately its Kinsler for now. He has been around for awhile, and isn’t exactly an on base machine, if you know what I mean. Plus his progression has been arduous, considering what he has demonstrated to be capable of early in his career.

  • jeff s

    I hope you are wrong regarding your predictions, but I couldn’t argue with any of them. I hope Jackson hitting lower in the line up and Rondon’s new role as set up man, will take away some pressure and let them perform to their God given abilities. I also think that Rick Porcello’s success (maturity + much better defense) will take up any drop off from Fister to Smyly

  • Rob White

    Jackson sure is an enigma. I’ve mentioned this before, but every time you talk about the bullpen I get really nervous.