Is 2024 the Tigers' turn to make a leap?

December 27th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Jason Beck’s Tigers Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

The Detroit Lions ended 2023 showing the world how starved the Motor City has been for its sports teams to break out. Will 2024 be the Tigers’ turn?

Detroit ended 2023 having played .500 ball from May onward, including winning baseball after July 1, all while showing some long-awaited results from the patience-testing process of building around the farm system and its top prospects. The Tigers dominated their division rivals, going 35-17 against the rest of the AL Central. While Miguel Cabrera is no longer the face of the franchise, the Tigers have candidates for successors, including Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene.

Detroit has been here before, notably two years ago. The Tigers splurged that offseason, signing Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodriguez to long-term deals with short-term opt-outs, and they got little in return. This time, they’ve established enough of a young core to be more disciplined and instead focus on complementary players.

The coming months will tell if 2024 is the year the Tigers break through for their first winning season since '16 -- and maybe contend for their first postseason berth in a decade.

“The city deserves a playoff team,” manager A.J. Hinch said in October. “We’re trying to build toward that. On this day, I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet, but the tone behind the scenes is always going to be to find ways to improve, find ways to get more wins.”

Let's take a closer look at what awaits the club in 2024.

Biggest question before Spring Training
Will the Tigers add one more bat to extend their lineup? President of baseball operations Scott Harris has been consistent on keeping opportunities open for young hitters to crack the roster, namely slugging infielder Colt Keith. But if a potentially useful veteran falls through the cracks and becomes available on a short-term deal, could Harris turn opportunistic and use the chance to push Keith and/or third baseman Matt Vierling?

Who's poised for a breakout season?
So far, we’ve only seen Tarik Skubal’s dominance in small servings, mostly due to injuries. Now, he's healthy, he has his body in good shape thanks to rehab and he ended the year by earning AL Pitcher of the Month honors for September/October to cap a season in which he went 7-3 with a 2.80 ERA in 15 starts. With Rodriguez gone -- and Kenta Maeda and Jack Flaherty stepping in -- the opportunity is there for the 27-year-old Skubal to take a place at the front of Detroit’s rotation.

Prospect to watch in 2024
While other organizations’ top prospects dominate AL Rookie of the Year speculation, Keith is quietly lurking as a darkhorse candidate -- a potential jolt to a Tigers lineup already stacked with young hitters. The 22-year-old combined to hit .306 with 27 homers, 101 RBIs and a .932 OPS last season between Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo. But his ability to hit for impact while displaying plate discipline -- he had an 11.6% walk rate and a 19.3% strikeout rate over his half-season in Triple-A -- has people believing he could make the adjustment to Major League pitching quickly and come out swinging.

One New Year's prediction
The Tigers have struggled with slow starts under Hinch, but this is the year they change that. With 17 of their first 31 games at home (all but five of them being day games), 18 of their first 31 against AL or NL Central foes and seven games against the defending AL Central champion Twins, there’s a big opportunity to build momentum from the outset if they can put their rotation in order and find offense in typically chilly Michigan conditions. In fact, a fast start could be critical before the schedule gets tough in May and June.