Detroit’s contention window didn’t just close in 2017, it dramatically shut on the team’s fingers, the paramedics arrived and kicked them in the groin, and then everything caught on fire. I have zero problems regarding the 2006-14 team as a dynasty even if they failed to to win a championship. At their best, they were as dangerous a team as the Tigers of the mid-1980s.
The Tigers squeezed out an 86-75 season in 2016, but they were also clearly a team on the downswing, with most of the key contributors approaching free agency, well into their 30s, and sometimes both things. With a 56-48 record at the trade deadline and sitting just 4.5 games back in the AL Central, the Tigers did precisely nothing, likely a result both of a farm system weakened by previous trades and a lack of understanding between the front office and ownership about what lay ahead for the team.
In this case, rather than a stubborn inability to agree, the discord (such as it was) was a product of owner Mike Ilitch’s interest in winning a championship before his passing, a fact which his age (he was 87 at the time) dictated must occur sooner than later.
This après moi, le déluge was, of course absolutely justified — even if it wasn’t necessarily great for someone who’d remain a fan of the Tigers into the 2018 and -19 seasons. After all, this is a sports team. The only consequences for unwise spending in the present are (a) fewer wins in the future and (b) slightly fewer millions of dollars for the billionaire’s heirs.
Ilitch passed away before the 2017 season, but there were no big offseason additions — unless you’re the world’s biggest Brendan Ryan or Alex Avila fan. The team managed to lurk around .500 into early June, 29-29 representing their final .500 record, but the club struggled after that, going 18-28 in the period from then to the trade deadline, and I don’t think any analyst (and I doubt anyone internally) really thought Detroit was going anywhere.
After the occasional toe-dipping into situational rebuilding/retooling in previous years (Yoenis Cespedes, David Price, Joakim Soria), the team finally jumped headfirst into a complete teardown, trading Justin Upton, Justin Verlander, Justin Wilson, Justin Martinez (OK, I lied, the J in J.D. stands for Julio), and certifiable non-Justin Alex Avila in a six-week period. The die was cast or thrown or set, or whatever turn of phrase you want to use.
The shedding-off of assets continued over the winter with the long-rumored trade of Ian Kinsler (to the Angels) finally occurring. The offseason was a quiet one, with Detroit signing a number of flippable players and short-term fill-ins for a roster that was too early in the rebuilding process to be able to populate the majors internally. This wasn’t the worst bet in the world, as players like Mike Fiers, Francisco Liriano, Leonys Martin, and Derek Norris all had some kind of value at the time.
ZiPS projected the Tigers to go 68-94, tying for last in the American League Central with the Chicago White Sox, although with a smaller path to the playoffs given Chicago’s youth and wider range of possible outcomes. That projection was hardly surprising to anyone given the team’s teardown — and, in fact, represented a four-win improvement from 2017. As with Chicago, the actual 2018 win total was beside the point, even if that would have been a particularly poor slogan to use for marketing purposes.
It says a lot about just how far Detroit had fallen that the team’s record in the first full year of the rebuilding process isn’t actually worse than the 2017 team’s and is heavily favored to beat that squad’s 64 wins. (They just need to go 6-13 as of Tuesday morning.) Like last year’s team, Detroit even hovered near .500 well into June, though luckily nobody in the front office took that as a signal that they were close to finishing a rebuild that started less than a year ago.
Detroit had already dealt away the team’s most valuable players in the trade market, but they managed to find takers for Fiers and Martin, two of the cheap no-risk signings with whom the team snagged free prospects this summer.
The Tigers ended baseball’s busy trade season with only a single free-agent-to-be who may have had value remaining on the team, Jose Iglesias. I’m honestly surprised a team like the Brewers didn’t come calling for Iglesias, a legitimate league-average shortstop without an oddball distribution of offensive and defensive ability. We never found out if the Tigers would move Iglesias before the August 31st postseason roster deadline thanks to an abdominal injury that is very likely to have ended his season.
Like the White Sox, the Tigers did an admirable job in 2018 of giving older or fringe minor leaguers an opportunity to prove themselves. I’ve always been a big believer in this strategy, as it exploits one of the advantages that a rebuilding team possesses over a contending one — namely, the luxury of happening upon a winning lottery ticket. For a team like the Tigers, finding a 25-year-old who can even be a role player for the next four or five years is more beneficial to the team than giving a 35-year-old an early audition for this offseason’s free-agency paycheck. It’s a good organizational culture that never gives up on players and sends the message that playing well at Triple-A can actually earn a player a shot to prove the GMs/scouts/analysts wrong.
Niko Goodrum is an example of this. No, he’ll never be a star and probably would be a weak starter. But Goodrum played six positions for the Tigers with an OPS near .750, which has real value to any team. He won’t be Alan Trammell or Lou Whitaker for Detroit, but he could be Tom Brookens or Johnny Grubb.
Detroit didn’t have a ton of success in the end with these types of players in 2018, but it’s the trying that matters; if fringe minor leaguers came with guarantees, they wouldn’t be fringe minor leaguers.
What Comes Next?
Detroit’s rebuilding process presents an interesting situation for at least the Royals and White Sox, though I use “interesting” more in the ancient Chinese curse form of the word than a suede-elbowed professor pondering a particularly confounding postulate. The three teams all started rebuilds that they likely see as ending in the same time frame. Will the team’s controlling owner, Chris Ilitch, be as aggressive financially with the roster as his father was? After all, Detroit is not a huge market in the way that New York or Los Angeles or the Bay Area are. Sure, Chicago is Chicago, but the White Sox are run more like a lower-middle-class team.
I think eventually, the team will have to pull the trigger on a Michael Fulmer trade — similar to what the O’s did with Kevin Gausman — unless they sign him to a reasonable long-term extension. The package desired in return for Fulmer has been reportedly very high, but I think the Tigers likely value Fulmer more than any team in baseball does. He’s a good pitcher and was an excellent pickup for a Cespedes rental, but he’s more of a No. 2 starter than a top-of-the-rotation monster. The truth is that his 3.06 ERA in an excellent rookie season featured a FIP closer to 4.00, and he still doesn’t strike out as many batters as you’d expect given his repertoire. While there’s an argument for the Tigers to keep him and hope for further development as a pitcher, I think the team needs to make sure they could actually reap the benefits when they’re actually good.
All in all, this won’t be the most exciting offseason for the Tigers. While I’m an advocate of the team trading Nicholas Castellanos before he hits free agency. he’s is also nearly a hundred points off his June 1st OPS, and the market for corner types who don’t contribute defensively has been extremely weak.
What will make 2019 exciting is the arrival of several Tigers prospects to the majors. Christin Stewart likely starts 2019 with the team, Casey Mize has the potential to blow through the minors very quickly, and the upper levels are full of interesting players not far off, like Beau Burrows, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro (a wonderful pickup from the Indians), Kyle Funkhouser (the foot shouldn’t be an issue), and Matt Manning
Way-Too-Early Projection: Miguel Cabrera
As bleak as these projections look, they actually represent an improvement of about 0.2 WAR per year and five yearly points of OPS+ from the 2019-24 projection for Miguel Cabrera entering 2018. After Cabrera’s .249/.329/.399 season in 2017, there was a very open question about whether he had dropped off the offensive cliff at age 34. Yes, Miggy’s recurring, chronic back problems played a large role in that very bleak season, but with most reports suggesting that those issues would likely recur for the rest of his career, it’s hard to just dismiss that performance as an aberration.
Until the biceps rupture that ended his season prematurely, Cabrera had in fact bounced back significantly, hitting .299/.395/.448 in his shortened year, and while it’s a small sample, he was also more selective than usual with what he swung at — a natural reaction as his physical state declines from his peak — and he even put up his best exit velocity of the Statcast era, combined with a seven-degree launch angle. (He’d been around 12 in previous season.) In other words, Cabrera showed some signs of bouncing back as a different kind of hitter than when he won the Triple Crown.
Suffice it to say, Cabrera’s not likely to earn, based on his performance, a large chunk of the $162 million he’s guaranteed over the next five seasons, including the $8 million buyout for 2024. One of the elder Ilitch’s admirable qualities as an owner was that he had a certain loyalty to the players who were a significant part of the team above the terms of the contract. In Cabrera’s case, that was an eight-year extension given to a 33-year-old two years before his previous deal came to an end. It remains to be seen if new ownership will show that same tendency, but with the Tigers likely having to eat almost all of the deal to get anything in return for Cabrera at this point, there probably isn’t much of a benefit to get in return for saying goodbye to a key member of Tiger history, so I expect Cabrera to finish his career with Detroit.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.