The Case for Keeping the Tigers Together

Even a diminished Justin Verlander is a pretty good Justin Verlander. (Photo: Keith Allison)

The Detroit Tigers should probably undergo a massive sell-off and rebuild, effective immediately. They’re a mediocre, aging team with a bunch of huge contracts set to hurt the franchise for years if they’re not moved. In truth, Detroit probably should have begun to rebuild a year or more ago, when Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander might have brought a better return and required less money to go from the Tigers to another team. Detroit has already begun to sell a bit, moving pending free-agent J.D. Martinez for a few middling prospects. Reliever Justin Wilson seems likely to go. The team could and probably should move Verlander for whatever they can get and then net some prospects for Ian Kinsler, as well. All that said, there’s an argument for keeping the core of the Tigers together this year and going for it again next season, too.

The Tigers do have a sliver of hope this season, owing to how the hunt for the AL Wild Card has become a race to the bottom and not the top. That said, whatever decision Detroit makes in the coming month-plus, it won’t really concern their present, but rather their future generally. The Tigers could save some money in the near term by trading some of their long-term deals, but they’ve never hesitated to spend the money required to field a contender.

What the club really needs to consider is how long it’s willing to stomach a rebuild. Holding on to Cabrera and Kinsler and Verlander — and even Michael Fulmer — would only extend and water down any possible rebuild effort. A more effective method would probably be for Detroit to purge itself of its current roster and attempt to start over. That being said, the allure of going for it one more time does have its appeal.

The first argument for trying to contend in 2017 has little to do with the Tigers and more to do with the division of which they’re a member. Take a look at the American League Central in 2017. The Chicago White Sox have done a great job with their own rebuild, but their outlook for 2018 isn’t good. The Kansas City Royals are making one last run with their current group, but are likely to see three of their four best players depart from a team that’s already mediocre. The Minnesota Twins have a few good players in Brian Dozier and Miguel Sano, promising development from Jose Berrios, and untapped talent in Byron Buxton, but given their current level of talent and general spending habits, it seems difficult to believe the Twins are going to be a real threat for contention.

The leaves just Cleveland as the main threat for the division next year. They’re likely to be favorites just like they were this season, but they’re about to lose Carlos Santana, and unless they’re willing to increase payroll or let go of Cody Allen or Michael Brantley, they won’t be able to make any meaningful additions next seasons. Given Cleveland’s great young core on both the position-player and pitching sides, they’ll certainly remain a formidable team, but the Tigers could easily put themselves at number two in the division, in a position to capitalize should Cleveland falter.

While Detroit isn’t a great club at the moment — and probably won’t be next season, either — it’s also not a team devoid of talent. While most organizations probably wouldn’t want to pay $28 million per season for Justin Verlander, he’s still a solid pitcher. Michael Fulmer has a ton of value. Ian Kinsler is a good player, and so is Justin Upton. Nick Castellanos, meanwhile, has improved his outlook this season. Below, let’s take a look at the decent players the Tigers have on their own roster, and how those players’ projections have changed since the beginning of the season.

Tigers Position-Player Outlook
Name ROS PA WAR ROS WAR/600 ROS WAR/600 Pre Difference
Miguel Cabrera 253 1.4 3.3 3.8 -0.5
Ian Kinsler 239 1.2 3.0 2.9 -0.1
Justin Upton 256 1.3 3.0 2.4 0.6
Alex Avila 210 1.1 3.1 1.8 1.3
Jose Iglesias 230 0.7 1.8 2.0 -0.2
Nick Castellanos 211 0.6 1.7 1.4 0.3
James McCann 90 0.3 2.0 2.0 0.0

Miguel Cabrera’s forecast has declined a bit, but he still projects decently over the rest of the year. Alex Avila has improved his projections considerably and makes a decent trade candidate. Castellanos is now one more season removed from his mediocre 2014 and 2015 campaigns, and his projections have improved a bit. Justin Upton, for his part, has rebounded to form after a rough 2016 season.

While we can’t assume that these projections will be exactly the same next season, it’s fair to say that the team has a halfway decent base on the position-player side, roughly as good as the .500-ish squad they have right now, even without Avila. If Justin Upton opts out of the four years and $88 million remaining on his deal, the team loses a little bit of surplus but gains more payroll freedom.

Here’s what they have on the pitching side:

Tigers Starting-Pitcher Outlook
Name IP ROS ERA ROS FIP ROS WAR ROS WAR/180 ROS WAR/180 Pre Difference
Justin Verlander 82 3.98 3.94 1.5 3.3 3.7 -0.4
Michael Fulmer 79 3.88 3.94 1.4 3.2 2.8 0.4
J. Zimmermann 59 4.78 4.74 0.6 1.8 2.5 -0.7
Daniel Norris 34 4.35 4.32 0.4 2.1 2.3 -0.2
Matt Boyd 34 4.74 4.78 0.4 2.1 1.9 0.2

Verlander has been a bit disappointing, but he’s still a solid pitcher and, outside of a rough start against Cleveland, has pitched pretty well lately, with a 3.67 FIP over his last seven starts (including the no-strikeout, three-walk, two-homer game against Cleveland). Michael Fulmer’s projections keep going up. Zimmermann has taken a bit of a hit, while Daniel Norris looks about the same if he can recover from his groin injury. The team probably won’t exercise Anibal Sanchez’s option, leaving Matt Boyd as the de facto incumbent. So, like the hitters, the Tigers will return roughly the same talent next year to a team that is roughly .500 right now.

The rest of the Tigers are essentially replacement level, which is a bad thing for this year, but it makes it easy to improve the roster heading into next season. Factor in arbitration raises and Kinsler’s option, and the Tigers are looking at around $160 million in payroll, roughly $40 million less than than they’re presently carrying.

That’s roughly $40 million to address holes in the depth chart. That means finding someone for center field (no offense to Mikie Mahtook), right field (no offense to Alex Presley), and designated hitter (Victor Martinez might take offense). In center, Lorenzo Cain might be out of their price range, but Jarrod Dyson or Carlos Gomez might fit. In the corner outfield and designated hitter (or first base), Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, and Carlos Santana are all options. Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez, too. A return from J.D. Martinez might be a possibility. Add in another starting pitcher for depth, and the Tigers can contend without increasing payroll.

The team the Tigers have right now is projected to win half of the rest of its games despite almost no projected production from designated hitter, center field, and right field. The Tigers probably should rebuild, but if they are willing to carry a high payroll for one more season, they do have an opportunity to go for it next year. Signing a few of the players mentioned in the previous paragraph isn’t going to get too many people excited about their prospects and won’t make anyone declare the Tigers winners in the offseason, but if the team wants to make one more run, they do have an opportunity to do so.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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Antonio Bananas
6 years ago

I like this. Does the amount of teams blatantly rebuilding also hurt their rebuild chances? There are only so many top 100 prospects and it seems the Braves and ChiSox are hoarding them.

6 years ago

And Yankees. The three of them have something like 29 of them (by BA’s list).