Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Two years ago, the Detroit Tigers were a hot mess. Organizational infrastructure was barely out of the 1970s and the team seemed more the demure Daniel Tiger than the sinister Shere Khan.

Enter new team president Scott Harris in 2023, and the Tigers proved a very pleasant surprise despite the weak AL Central. Detroit finished 78-84, good enough to place second behind the Minnesota Twins and earn manager A.J. Hinch a contract extension.

What’s interesting is that the Tigers did this with one of the worst offenses in baseball and only a middling pitching staff. Even if it’s from playing in a weak division, Detroit still has a strong core developing both in the lineup and the rotation.

There’s more on the way, and the rest of the league is barely paying attention.

Greatest Addition: Kenta Maeda. Detroit needs arms, particularly since the team’s best young pitching still needs some time in the minors. Add losing lefty Eduardo Rodriguez to the Diamondbacks via free agency, and Maeda is practically a fresh-off-the-line Ford F-150. He signed a two-year, $24 million deal after three years in Minnesota. The Tigers also boosted their rotation by signing Jack Flaherty, formerly of St. Louis and Baltimore, to a one-year deal.

Maeda spent last season with the Twins and, fighting through injuries, pitched to a 4.66 ERA in 21 games (20 starts). That’s a little high, sure, but he managed a 4.10 FIP and 10.1 strikeouts per nine innings (K/9). Having the spacious Comerica Park as his home stadium sets up Maeda, a soft contact specialist prone to fly balls, for sneaky success.

Greatest Loss: Miguel Cabrera. Everyone remembers their first car. The smell, the feel of the steering wheel. Countless memories, good and bad, that last a lifetime well beyond the vehicle’s. Such is the story of the Detroit Tigers and future Hall of Fame slugger Miguel Cabrera, who retired after last season.

Cabrera hadn’t been the feared four-time batting champion and two-time MVP for a long time by the end. Not for over five years, in fact. But greatness is greatness and Miguel Cabrera oozed it. There was a time when he and Justin Verlander were Detroit Tigers baseball.

A .306 lifetime batting average paired with 511 home runs and 3,174 hits. An incredible 12 All-Star honors and the 2012 Triple Crown. Make winning a World Series as a then-Florida Marlins rookie in 2003 the cherry on top.

See you in Cooperstown, Miggy.

Greatest Strength: The core that’s coming together. Even without a winning record on paper, the Detroit Tigers are well on their way. Plenty of bats and arms are under team control for the next few years, giving Detroit plenty of time to develop into a winning team.

Let’s start on the hitting side. Outfielders Riley Greene and Kerry Carpenter, along with big first baseman Spencer Torkelson, are a great heart of the order just waiting to happen. Infielder Colt Keith hit .306 with 27 home runs and 101 RBI across Double and Triple-A last year, and just got a six-year extension that could be worth over $80 million. And without playing a single major league game!

The pitching side has even more upside, starring lefty Tarik Skubal and his bag of breaking pitches. Former No. 1 pick Casey Mize is working his way back from Tommy John surgery and in a fierce competition with Reese Olson for the No. 5 spot. Prospect Ty Madden might debut this season.

It would appear that the Tigers, despite being a mess for years, still scouted enough talent to build a new era. In 2024, we’ll see how close that era is to becoming Detroit’s new reality.

Greatest Weakness: Javier BaezUnfortunately for the Tigers, their future is tied to Baez’s boulder of a contract. The veteran infielder signed a six-year, $140 million contract with Detroit in 2022 and has proven an underwhelming Edsel instead of a Cadillac. Baez has an awful .230/.273/.361 line as a Tiger and his generally good fielding doesn’t justify the price tag.

Worse yet, the Tigers are stuck with Baez. He has minimal trade value, even with Detroit kicking in money to cover his salary. The best young shortstop in the system, No. 7 prospect Kevin McGonigle, is at least three years away.

The Tigers may soon face a tough decision if nothing changes. They can either ride out the rest of the deal and slowly phase Baez out, or cut their losses early and eat the money.

Can the Detroit Tigers drive themselves into the playoffs? Yes, literally. Detroit’s pitching doesn’t have a shutdown ace, so their path to success is through their lineup. That means the young core of Torkelson, Greene, and Carpenter taking leaps forward. Maeda staying healthy and continuing to turn back the clock, plus a breakout rookie season from Keith, will help too.

Such is the blessing and curse of playing in the AL Central. It’s a weak enough division that any one team can get hot at the right time and rally into the postseason. A Wild Card seems the Tigers’ best chance, and even a remote one at that.

Even so, don’t be surprised if they make some noise in the race for first place.

Josh Benjamin has been a staff writer at ESNY since 2018. He has had opinions about everything, especially the Yankees and Knicks. He co-hosts the “Bleacher Creatures” podcast and is always looking for new pieces of sports history to uncover, usually with a Yankee Tavern chicken parm sub in hand.