37 thoughts from Detroit Tigers’ season — promising indicators, bullpen, prospects, contenders next 12 months?
DETROIT – A surprisingly enjoyable Detroit Tigers season has come to an end, and between the development of the current players and several emerging prospects, the team could be competitive next year.
The Tigers finished with 77 wins in A.J. Hinch’s first season — a much higher total than anyone expected. Even though they were never in contention, the Tigers hovered around .500 for the entire second half and went 68-61 after limping out to a 9-24 record through mid-May.
Here are 37 takeaways from what turned out to be an encouraging building block season:
Tigers never quit
The most obvious change from the last few seasons to this one: It rarely felt like the Tigers were completely out of a game.
Hinch instilled a resiliency in this group that manifested in comeback wins, late rallies and, at the very least, games worth watching until the final out. In past seasons, when the Tigers fell behind by a couple of runs, it was time to turn off the TV. This year, most games were competitive throughout.
Detroit was also resilient on a game-to-game level. Every time the Tigers lost a few games in a row, they would answer with series wins against some of the best teams in the league.
Beating the best
In the final 21 games of the season, the Tigers played 15 times against division winners who are heading to the postseason. They went 9-6 in those games, including four wins against the best team in the American League (the Tampa Bay Rays).
This trend wasn’t some end-of-the-season fluke, either. Detroit finished the year 39-36 against teams with winning records — the only team in the AL Central to do so, and one of only six in the AL.
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Detroit’s ability to compete with playoff teams might mean contention is closer than we think.
AL Central woes
By far the most discouraging part of the 2021 season was the Tigers’ performance against AL Central opponents.
Losing 12 of 19 games against the Chicago White Sox can be forgiven because they were by far the best team in the division. But falling consistently against Cleveland, Kansas City and Minnesota? Yikes.
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The Royals and Twins were two of the worst four teams in the AL this season, but the Tigers finished with a combined record of 15-23 against them. Add in a 7-12 mark against Cleveland and you end up 22-35 against three very beatable division rivals.
If the Tigers hope to compete for a playoff spot anytime soon, they have to get over this confounding inability to win divisional games.
Defending Comerica Park
When the Tigers were one of the best franchises in baseball from 2011-2014, Comerica Park was an extremely difficult place for opposing teams to play. That hasn’t been the case the last four years.
But in 2021, the Tigers took back their home field advantage, winning 42 games and clinching their first winning record in Detroit since 2016.
Casey Mize improves
The Tigers got what they wanted from their former No. 1 overall pick this season, as Casey Mize stayed healthy and made obvious strides toward becoming a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Mize started 30 games this season, posting a 3.71 ERA and 1.137 WHIP in 150.1 innings. He kept his walk rate low and led the rotation with 3.3 WAR (wins above replacement).
He needs to take another step in 2022, though. Mize’s 4.71 FIP suggests he benefitted from some batted ball luck this season, and he obviously needs to strike out more than 7.1 batters per nine innings. Mize ranked below the 30th percentile in almost every meaningful category in terms of batted balls and missing bats.
It’s encouraging to see Mize have success in spite of those indicators, but his underlying numbers need to improve.
Tarik Skubal’s upside
Mize and Tarik Skubal will be mentioned alongside each other for their entire Tigers careers, but their rookie seasons were very different.
Unlike Mize, Skubal finished with inflated ratios — a 4.34 ERA and 1.259 WHIP. The home run ball — 35 allowed in 149.1 innings — proved to be Skubal’s undoing in many starts.
But the 24-year-old struck out 164 batters and kept his walk rate below three per nine — both indicators of his great stuff and ability to get hitters out inside the strike zone. While his numbers were worse than Mize’s overall, Skubal appears to have more ace upside.
What to make of Matt Manning
Matt Manning desperately needed a positive outing to close the season, and that’s exactly what he got Saturday: Five shutout innings with seven strikeouts, two hits and one walk against the first-place White Sox.
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If you’ve followed along with my coverage of the Tigers all season, you probably know my stance on Manning. I’m not giving up on him, but I’ve been discouraged by his rookie season.
Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Matt Manning, right, celebrates with catcher Eric Haase as they walk back to the dugout after the fifth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox in Chicago, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (The Associated Press 2021)
His swinging strike rate was alarmingly low, the contact against him was loud and oftentimes he looked overmatched. Even during Saturday’s strong start, he only induced eight swinging strikes.
This was Manning’s first taste of MLB action, and it came after a canceled minor league season, so we’ll obviously give him a pass. But there’s plenty of work to be done before spring training.
Starting pitcher injuries
Losing Spencer Turnbull for most of 2021 and all of 2022 is a major blow, especially when it’s compounded by the injuries to Matt Boyd.
Nobody seems to know how much Boyd will play next season, which leaves the Tigers without their two veteran starting pitchers and 40% of their rotation. Both were having strong seasons, and with Boyd set to hit free agency, the Tigers have some difficult decisions to make.
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Keep Wily Peralta?
When the Tigers signed Wily Peralta to a minor league deal this offseason, they probably hoped they would never have to use him, especially for 18 starts.
But that insurance policy worked out shockingly well, as Peralta tossed 93.2 innings with a 3.07 ERA.
That’s the good news. More concerning: His 4.94 FIP, 1.335 WHIP a 1.53 strikeouts per walk.
Peralta will probably get a look from the Tigers as they try to fill out the final two spots behind Mize, Skubal and Manning. But this is an instance where Al Avila and company need to make the hard decision, because it’s probably the right one.
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Peralta struck out just 5.6 batters per nine innings this season while walking 3.7 and allowing plenty of hard contact. He kept the ball on the ground extremely well, but the rest of the numbers scream “regression.”
Keeping Peralta around in the same capacity — as an insurance policy — would be a fine move. But make no mistake: counting on him to make 30 starts would be bargain bin shopping and finger-crossing by the front office — nothing more.
Tyler Alexander: starter or reliever?
This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I would rather the Tigers commit to Tyler Alexander as a starter than Peralta, if forced to choose between the two.
Alexander is quietly solid pretty much every time he takes the mound. He posted a 3.38 ERA in 15 starts this season, with a 1.215 WHIP, 52 strikeouts and 18 walks in 66.2 innings.
The strikeout rate is on the low side, but it’s paired with an excellent walk rate and better quality of contact stats.
Preferably, the Tigers would sign two free agent starting pitchers and keep Alexander as a long reliever and occasional spot starter. But if he has to slot into the No. 5 spot in the rotation, it’s not a bad fallback option.
Bullpen saves Michael Fulmer (and vice versa)
As a starter, Michael Fulmer looked like he was nearing the end of the line. As a reliever, he’s dominant.
Fulmer saved 14 games for the Tigers this season and showed elite stuff pitching in one- and two-inning stints. His strikeout rate jumped from 6.5 per nine in 2020 to 9.4 per nine in 2021. His WHIP improved from 2.060 to 1.278, and his ERA plummeted from 8.78 to 2.97.
Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Michael Fulmer (32) delivers during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Chicago White Sox, Sunday, Oct. 3, 2021, in Chicago. (The Associated Press 2021)
Fulmer was borderline unusable the previous season as a starter, but now he’s a potential contract extension candidate and a future anchor for the Tigers’ bullpen.
Fulmer showed a near-triple digits fastball this season and a devastating mid-90s slider. By sticking mostly to his two best pitches, Fulmer tapped into his former elite form.
With only one more year of team control left, the Tigers have to consider keeping Fulmer around well into his 30s.
Both finished the season on the injured list, but Gregory Soto and Jose Cisnero were rocks for Hinch throughout the entire year.
The pair combined for 125.1 innings out of the bullpen, striking out more than a batter per inning with sub-4.00 ERAs.
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Soto, in particular, emerged as a force, representing the Tigers in the All-Star game and striking out 10.7 batters per nine innings. When he’s in the strike zone, Soto is one of the most unhittable pitchers in the game, right up there with Milwaukee’s Josh Hader. Consistency is the key going forward.
Reinventing Kyle Funkhouser
The future was foggy for Kyle Funkhouser going into this season. He couldn’t find his footing as a starter in the minor leagues, and early exposure to MLB action as a reliever didn’t go well.
But by the end of 2021, he was one of Hinch’s go-to guys — and it was well-deserved.
Funkhouser pitched 68.1 innings in 57 games for the Tigers this season, posting a 3.42 ERA, 1.405 WHIP and 8.3 strikeouts per nine innings. He filled a number of roles throughout the year, most notably squashing rallies when called upon to clean up a starter’s mess in the middle of the fifth or sixth innings.
He’s always had electric stuff, but now Funkhouser has found a role, and he should stick there for the next several years.
Free passes from the bullpen
As this solid core of relievers begins to form, I have one prevailing concern: walks.
Soto walked 5.7 batters per nine innings this season. Funkhouser was at 5.0. Joe Jimenez: a monstrous 6.9.
Even Cisnero issued 4.5 free passes per nine innings, which is far too many. Unless these high-leverage relievers can find the strike zone more often in 2022, they risk costing the Tigers much more often than this season.
Secret weapon: Alex Lange
If you checked out of the season early, you probably missed the resurgence of Alex Lange — a former minor league starter the Tigers got in the Nick Castellanos trade.
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Lange, 26, allowed 13 earned runs in 16 innings during his first stint from April through June. But after getting called up for good Aug. 22, he was the team’s best relief pitcher.
From Aug. 22 through the end of the season, Lange made 17 appearances for the Tigers, allowing just three runs on 13 hits and six walks in 18.2 innings. He struck out 18 batters and posted a 1.45 ERA, 2.69 FIP, .191 batting average against and a WHIP just over 1.00.
Most notably, Lange induced swings and misses on 18% of his pitches during those final 17 outings — an elite swinging strike rate. He also gets a decent number of ground balls, which is useful for getting out of jams.
This is a small sample size, but it’s an encouraging one.
Welcome, Akil Baddoo
My favorite player to watch throughout the course of the season was Akil Baddoo, who just turned 23 years old in August and hadn’t played a game above Single-A before 2021.
Baddoo received 461 plate appearances this season — probably twice as many as Hinch originally intended after the rule-five pick forced his way onto the roster in spring training.
Detroit Tigers’ Akil Baddoo reacts to hitting a one-run double against the Chicago White Sox in the second inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (The Associated Press 2021)
Baddoo finished his first full season with a 26.5% strikeout rate and a 9.8% walk rate — excellent numbers considering the situation. His development in-season was just as impressive as the overall end-of-season numbers.
Looking into the future, Baddoo profiles as an ideal leadoff hitter. He gets on base at a high rate — a .330 OBP, with even more upside — and has both speed and extra-base power. He stole 18 bases in 22 attempts while racking up 40 extra-base hits (20 doubles, seven triples and 13 home runs).
Defensively, Baddoo developed and improved at the end of the season. It was never really much of a concern because of his obvious physical tools. He should be just fine as a long-term corner outfield who can make the occasional start in center.
You too, Eric Haase
Detroit’s other out-of-nowhere contributor was Eric Haase, who hit 22 home runs in just 98 games while splitting time between catcher and left field.
Haase finished the season ice cold, watching his OPS drop from .856 on Aug. 1 to .745 by the end of the season. In that 39-game stretch, Haase went just 29-for-140 with three doubles, four home runs and 49 strikeouts. But that shouldn’t erase all he accomplished this summer.
Strikeouts are the biggest problem for Haase, accounting for more than 31% of his plate appearances. Paired with a 6.8% walk rate, Haase got on base at just a .286 clip, which the Tigers would like to see improve.
Still, getting 1.9 WAR out of Haase was a big lift for the Tigers, and he has locked up a spot on the 2022 roster. Whether it’s as the primary catcher or a versatile utility player remains to be seen.
Post-extension struggles for Jonathan Schoop
When the Tigers announced a two-year extension for Jonathan Schoop on Aug. 7, he was batting .291 with an .803 OPS and 18 home runs. Over the final 48 games that followed, Schoop slashed .250/.290/.365 with only four home runs and a .655 OPS.
Schoop will likely fall somewhere in between the red-hot player of June and July and the one who limped to the finish line. But it’s a little concerning since the Tigers are counting on him to be a middle-of-the-order bat in 2022.
At the very least, Schoop needs to recapture his home run stroke. The Tigers don’t have power to spare.
Team MVP candidate No. 1: Jeimer Candelario
Nobody really noticed when Jeimer Candelario posted a .872 OPS in the shortened 2020 season, but he validated it with another excellent offensive campaign across 149 games this year.
Candelario tied Bryce Harper for the MLB lead with 42 doubles and added 16 home runs. He struck out in just 21.6% of his plate appearances while walking in 10.4% of them — that sounds an awful lot like what was expected from the former top 100 prospect when the Tigers traded for him way back in 2017.
Detroit Tigers’ Jeimer Candelario celebrates after hitting an RBI-double to drive in Miguel Cabrera against the Kansas City Royals during the sixth inning of a baseball game Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Detroit. (The Associated Press 2021)
Candelario is as reliable as it gets in the heart of the Tigers’ lineup, with extra-base power and on-base skills. He’s average defensively, but reliable.
Candelario’s 3.7 WAR led the Tigers, so he’s my pick for team MVP.
Team MVP candidate No. 2: Robbie Grossman
What an excellent offseason signing Robbie Grossman turned out to be — and the Tigers should consider giving him a Schoop-like extension.
Grossman drew 98 walks and posted a .357 OBP this season while leading the team with 23 home runs. He also hit 23 doubles and stole 20 bases in 25 attempts.
Grossman is an absolute bargain at $5 million per year, even though he doesn’t cover much ground in the outfield. His veteran presence is valuable in a young lineup, and he said he wants to stick around long-term. What more do the Tigers need to hear?
Glimmer of hope for Miguel Cabrera?
Obviously, the chase for 500 home runs was the storyline for Cabrera this season, and the same will be true early next year as he approaches 3,000 hits.
But I’m going to focus more on his current value to the team. Cabrera ended the season as a negative-WAR player, even strictly in terms of offense. His base running played a big part in that, but it doesn’t help Cabrera posted a .701 OPS and grounded into 21 double plays.
There were stretches when Cabrera looked like he might be turning a corner, and he still makes pretty regular contact. But after a fifth straight season of uninspiring production, it’s probably best not to expect anything different in 2022.
The mystery of Willi Castro
Willi Castro went step-for-step with Candelario as the two best hitters on the team last season, so he entered this year with heightened expectations.
It was clear from the start that Castro wasn’t seeing the ball well, though, and he finished with a .273 OBP, very little power and plenty of defensive concerns.
What are the Tigers going to do with Castro? The infield is about to get very crowded over the next couple of seasons, and the experiment with him in left field isn’t even worth pursuing if he doesn’t hit.
I think the final nail in the Castro coffin could come from:
Do not forget about Isaac Paredes.
At just 22 years old, Paredes is still one of the team’s top young prospects, and I really like what I saw from him at the plate to end the season.
Paredes was starting to find a groove in July when an injury knocked him out for more than two months. Even though the raw numbers didn’t manifest when he returned, Paredes only struck out six times in 38 September/October plate appearances and worked some excellent at-bats.
Most of my excitement about Paredes is based on the eye test. I like the way he takes pitches and admire his willingness to work counts. Paredes doesn’t care if he gets to two strikes — he trusts his approach and usually puts the ball in play.
He’s not hitting the ball hard yet, but he is making solid contact to the pull field. The power was always a question mark for Paredes as a prospect, so we’ll have to wait and see how that develops.
I see him as a dark horse for the starting second base job next year, though I don’t know exactly what the Tigers will do if Spencer Torkelson takes over at first base and Schoop gets bumped over to second.
Pesky Victor Reyes
Just when we think we’re seeing the last of Victor Reyes, he puts himself right back in the conversation for another year.
From Aug. 5 to the end of the season, Reyes batted .333 with an .891 OPS across 111 plate appearances. He hit six doubles, three triples and three home runs during that stretch, while stealing two bases.
Reyes is a frustrating player because his production seems to come in bunches, and he’s not very useful in between. But the end product is almost always a decent player, especially as a reserve outfielder, defensive replacement and pinch runner.
Who is Harold Castro?
I might live my whole life without fully figuring out Harold Castro.
Once again, he posted bad offensive numbers pretty much across the board — a .310 OBP, .669 OPS, 88 OPS+ (100 is MLB average). He only hit three home runs and isn’t a threat on the base paths.
Yet, somehow, all the times when he came through stick out in my mind. Castro has a career .291 batting average in 772 plate appearances, and there is some value to that. It’s almost shocking how pedestrian the numbers look after watching him on a day-to-day basis.
What should the Tigers do with him going forward? I wouldn’t mind keeping him around, but I’d choose Reyes, Daz Cameron, Zack Short and Paredes ahead of him if forced to do so.
Disappointing injury for Jake Rogers
One of the low points of the season was when Jake Rogers got injured in the middle of what appeared to be a breakout. He finished with an .802 OPS and six home runs in 38 games.
Rogers is considered an elite defensive catcher, and that was playing out early this season. He also showed the power that made him one of the top catching prospects in baseball at the time of the Justin Verlander trade.
In the 18 games leading up to his injury, Rogers slashed .296/.367/.611 — a .978 OPS. The Tigers can only hope he regains that form whenever he returns in 2022 or 2023.
Is there room for Derek Hill?
Injuries and strikeouts represent the two greatest obstacles for Derek Hill, and both reared their ugly heads at the MLB level this season.
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Hill appeared in just 49 games due to two stints on the 10-day injured list. When he was on the field, he made some excellent defensive plays, stole six bases and even hit for a little power.
I don’t know where Hill fits into the future outfield with Grossman, Baddoo, Cameron, Reyes and Riley Greene in the mix. He definitely showed some positive flashes this season.
Excitement grows for Riley Greene
Speaking of Greene, it won’t be long before he makes his Tigers debut.
The team’s No. 5 overall pick in 2019 spent time in Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo this season, hitting a combined 24 home runs and 25 doubles with 16 stolen bases and a .921 OPS in 124 games.
Riley Greene #19 congratulates Spencer Torkelson #7 of the American League Futures Team after both scored against the National League Futures Team in a game at Coors Field on July 11, 2021 in Denver, Colorado. (2021 Getty Images)
Greene was especially impressive after being promoted to the Mud Hens, posting a .400 OBP across 40 games, with 20 extra-base hits.
Strikeouts were a bit of an issue for the now-21-year-old, as he whiffed in 27.4% of his plate appearances overall. But he was extremely young for that level of competition and still posted an 11.3% walk rate, which suggests he has a great understanding of the strike zone. That strikeout rate will likely decrease.
Spencer Torkelson hits 30 home runs
Since the minor league season was canceled in 2020, this was Torkelson’s first taste of pro ball, and he responded by hitting 30 home runs across three levels.
He started the season with High-A West Michigan and got promoted from there to Double-A to Triple-A very quickly. He slashed .267/.383/.552 in total, with the aforementioned 30 home runs and 29 doubles.
Torkelson, 22, struck out in just 21.5% of his plate appearances alongside an elite 14.5% walk rate. His combination of power and plate discipline is what made him the obvious choice at No. 1 overall in 2020.
Torkelson needed some time to adjust to all three minor-league levels, but he ultimately mastered them, over time. He likely won’t start 2022 with Detroit, but he should make his way there eventually.
Which Ryan Kreidler is real?
Greene and Torkelson are the headline prospects for Detroit, but Ryan Kreidler also turned heads with an excellent showing at Triple-A.
What’s giving me pause is that he wasn’t very good in twice as many games at Double-A.
Before his promotion, Kreidler posted a pedestrian .754 OPS in 88 games at Double-A this season. He hit 15 homers and 15 doubles, but struck out 119 times in 388 plate appearances (30.7%) with 32 walks (8.2%).
Then, the Tigers moved him up with Greene and Torkelson, and Kreidler hit .304 in 41 games with the Mud Hens, drawing 24 walks (14.8%) compared to just 39 strikeouts (24.1%). He also hit eight doubles and seven home runs while posting a .926 OPS.
If Kreidler can validate those Triple-A numbers again next season, the Tigers have to find a spot for him. But I wouldn’t avoid signing a star player in free agency solely based on a 41-game sample size.
Tale of two halves for Dillon Dingler
For the first two months of the season, it was Dillon Dinger’s name being mentioned with Greene and Torkelson. In his first 40 games, Dingler hit seven doubles, three triples and nine home runs while slashing .305/.385/.570. Those are incredible offensive numbers from the catcher position.
Double-A proved difficult for Dingler, though. In his final 45 games, he hit just .181 with 55 strikeouts and three home runs in 187 plate appearances.
Dillon Dingler #79 of the Detroit Tigers catches during the Detroit Tigers Summer Workouts at Comerica Park on July 18, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. (2020 Getty Images)
Keep in mind: Dingler only just turned 23 years old, and this is his first taste of professional baseball. He was playing in the Big Ten last year and managed to rise from Single-A to High-A to Double-A in his first full minor-league season.
Catchers sometimes develop slower offensively due to the other demands of the position. Overall, Dingler showed flashes of why the Tigers were so excited to get him in the second round last year.
Kody Clemens knocking on the door
How much more do the Tigers need to see from Kody Clemens at Triple-A? The better question might be how they fit him into the lineup.
With so many infielders battling for MLB at-bats, Clemens is one of the odd men out despite a strong season with the Mud Hens. He’s already 25 years old, so the Tigers probably need to make a decision on him soon.
Clemens played 97 games in Toledo this season, batting .247 with a .312 OBP and .778 OPS. He hit 18 home runs, 15 doubles and six triples — solid, but unspectacular.
Joey Wentz returns
Before an injury forced him to undergo Tommy John surgery, Joey Wentz was flirting with the Mize-Skubal-Manning tier in the minors. This year, returning from nearly two full years off proved difficult, at first.
Luckily, Wentz finished the season very strong, posting a 2.70 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 23.1 innings across his final five starts. The Tigers took it easy with their young lefty’s workload, but it was encouraging to see him trend in the right direction before he builds up more next year.
Wentz’s swinging strike rate was only 10% over that final five-start stretch, but the Tigers are hoping his elite bat-missing stuff returns once the effects of the injury are fully behind him.
Daniel Norris trade return
When the Tigers traded Daniel Norris to the Brewers at the deadline, fans were happy to get anything at all in return. Reese Olson’s performance after the deal was a cherry on top.
The 22-year-old right-hander made seven starts in the Tigers’ system — two with High-A West Michigan and five with Double-A Erie. One seven-run outing inflated his overall numbers drastically, but in the other six starts, Olson allowed just six earned runs across 31.1 innings.
He posted a 3.28 ERA and struck out 35 batters in 35.2 innings for the Tigers’ minor league affiliates while holding opponents to a .541 OPS. His 14% swinging strike rate and 48% ground ball rate make up an enticing combination.
In his final start with the SeaWolves, Olsen struck out eight batters across six innings while allowing just one run on one hit. He had 11 whiffs on 59 pitches (18.6%).
Beau Brieske making a name for himself
You’ve certainly heard Beau Brieske’s name if you followed Tigers minor leaguers this season, and that’s because he was the most productive pitcher in the system.
Brieske threw 106.2 innings between High-A and Double-A, posting a 3.12 ERA, 1.013 WHIP and 9.8 strikeouts per nine innings. The most exciting part of his profile: Brieske averaged more than five strikeouts for every walk issued.
The Tigers drafted Brieske in the 27th round in 2019, and he’s still only 23 years old. A 15% swinging strike rate paired with elite control is a combination to get excited about.
Distant future: Colt Keith
Remember the high school hitter the Tigers took with their last pick in the 2020 draft? Everyone was excited about Colt Keith falling to the fifth round, and he made a strong first impression.
Keith played 44 games with Single-A Lakeland for his first taste of pro ball and posted an .858 OPS with 30 walks and 39 strikeouts across 181 plate appearances — excellent discipline for a 19-year-old out of high school.
High-A proved much more difficult for Keith, as he went just 11-for-68 in 18 games. He’ll have a full season to adjust to that level in 2022.
Top 2021 draft picks
The Tigers didn’t debut either of their first-round picks — pitchers Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden — this season, electing to wait until 2022. That pair will add excellent pitching depth to the organization once they take the mound next year.
Izaac Pacheco played 30 games in rookie ball after the Tigers took him in the second round. He slashed .226/.339/.330 with only one home run, 18 walks and 43 strikeouts.
We shouldn’t draw any conclusions about this draft class until we get an extended look next season.
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