The Detroit Tigers Discovered Their Nadir in 2019

With their best players in decline or gone, the Tigers are in an undeniable rebuilding phase. (Photo: Keith Allison)

“When you decide to hit rock bottom, humiliation is part of the deal.” – Guillaume Musso

The Baltimore Orioles may have kicked off this year’s set of team elegies, but the Detroit Tigers are now the favorite to finish the 2019 season with baseball’s worst record. That possibility is hardly earth-shattering –practically everyone knew that when Detroit’s window finally shut, part of the deal was that pieces of glass would fly everywhere.

Did the 2010s Detroit Tigers do enough to be considered a dynasty? Dynastic ambition is largely in the eyes of the beholder. As amusing as I find the idea personally, the BBWAA doesn’t hold a decennial vote on a team’s dynasty status and then confer jewels and a royal scepter on teams that receive 75% of the vote. I would suggest that the Tigers were at least a mini-dynasty by virtue of them being one of the league favorites to start the season several years in a row and winning four consecutive division titles, all while relying on essentially the same core of players. (The World Series requirement has always seemed a little unrealistic in modern baseball given that the postseason is largely a crapshoot as a result of its structure.)

Whether a dynasty, a mini-dynasty, or simply a good team that crushed a weak division for a while, it’s over. The Tigers are now the crushees rather than the crusher.

The Setup

The 2018 Detroit Tigers didn’t actively move many assets due to the simple truth that they didn’t really have much to offer. Of the team’s five, 2018 two-WAR players, two didn’t make much sense as trade candidates (Matthew Boyd and Jeimer Candelario), José Iglesias was injured on the verge of the August trade deadline; Leonys Martin, the fourth, was traded. While one can ding the Tigers for not aggressively shopping Iglesias earlier, the shortstop market was not an especially lively one. (The fact that Iglesias could only land a minor-league contract in 2019 suggests the offers Detroit received probably weren’t very interesting.)

Where you can fault the Tigers is in entering the 2019 season with Nicholas Castellanos still on the roster. I suspect this was due, at least in part, to the folklore surrounding the J.D. Martinez trade, which tells a tale of the Tigers getting robbed, trading an elite slugger for three non-elite prospects. But more realistically, this was about the going rate for a player who, for all intents and purposes, was “just” an excellent DH-type. Castellanos’s three-WAR, .298/.354/.500 campaign in 2018 was the best season of his career and it was always likely that last winter would represent the peak of his trade value. Combine that with Detroit’s tendency to hang on to players too long (Martinez, Michael Fulmer, Ian Kinsler, arguably Justin Verlander) and you had a perfect storm of inaction.

The other key feature of Detroit’s offseason was the team’s desire to add veteran, short-term fixes, largely in the hope of flipping them later. Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, and Jordy Mercer signed one-year contracts with the team, and Josh Harrison was added via a minor-league deal as a reclamation project. I’m not sure the idea that any of these players would accumulate trade interest was well-founded, but for the most part, they did not block prospects of value. Triple-A Toledo was also largely devoid of guys who might even be considered interesting gambles and would have obviously been better ideas on the roster.

The Tigers entered 2019 mostly waiting out the minor league development of their top prospects, which works better as a strategy than an advertisement for ticket sales.

The Projection

ZiPS essentially decided to throw the AL Central rebuilders into the same bucket, projecting the same 68-94 record for the Tigers as it did for the Royals and White Sox. The computer gave the Tigers a marginally worse chance at the playoffs than their divisional compatriots, with odds of about one-in-1100 entering the season. It seems almost outlandish at this point, but you could at least squint and see what a Detroit wild card run would look like: the veteran pitchers cranking out 1.5-to-2.5 WAR seasons, Miguel Cabrera having one last rage against the dying of the light, Casey Mize blowing through the minors, and breakouts from players like Christin Stewart and Candelario. Add in a bifurcated American League without much of a middle class, which could possibly reduce the Wild Card competitors, and you could imagine a lot of the elements of an unlikely Tigers playoff run. Now, having all of those things happen at the same time was extremely unlikely, but we weren’t talking lottery odds here.

On an individual basis, ZiPS was decidedly less-than-enthralled by the Tigers’ roster. That ZiPS projected two Double-A players, KATOH-favorite Jake Rogers and Isaac Paredes, as third and fourth in the position player rankings reflects the weaknesses in the team’s lineup. Only two players on the entire roster received two-WAR projections: Candelario and Fulmer.

The Results

The Tigers got off to a hot(ish) start, winning eight of their first 12 games, including a series win against the Yankees, and hanging onto first place through the morning of April 11. I say “ish” because even with that early record, the Tigers still scored fewer than four runs a game, averaging 3.5 over the first dozen contests. Expecting Ross and Moore to continue to combine for a 1.23 ERA seemed slightly on the optimistic side.

What surprised me about the Tigers wasn’t how far they fell after their start, but how long they managed to stay within shouting distance of a .500 record. Detroit was within a game of .500 as late as May 9, despite ranking 29th in baseball in runs scored behind only the Miami Marlins, a team I strongly suspect of filling out the back of their 25-man roster through some kind of fan raffle.

The offense stayed ugly and there were no Herculean defensive contributions to make up for it. As it stands, the 2019 Tigers have locked up their spot in the annals of woe.

Worst Teams by Position Player WAR, 1901-2019
Season Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
1920 Athletics .252 .304 .337 67 -10.3
1979 Athletics .239 .302 .346 79 -9.7
1977 Braves .254 .320 .376 79 -6.6
1950 Browns .246 .337 .370 76 -5.3
1963 Mets .219 .285 .315 69 -4.6
1998 Twins .266 .328 .389 83 -4.5
1955 Pirates .244 .308 .361 76 -2.8
1919 Athletics .244 .300 .334 76 -2.6
1954 Athletics .236 .305 .342 73 -2.5
1909 Doves .223 .285 .274 70 -2.3
1975 Braves .244 .313 .346 76 -2.3
1935 Phillies .269 .322 .378 74 -2.2
1981 Cubs .236 .303 .340 77 -2.2
1923 Red Sox .262 .318 .351 75 -2.1
1951 Browns .247 .317 .357 76 -2.0
1981 Blue Jays .226 .286 .330 72 -1.9
2019 Tigers .238 .293 .389 77 -1.9
1949 Browns .254 .339 .377 83 -1.8
1943 Athletics .232 .294 .297 72 -1.6
1952 Pirates .231 .300 .331 70 -1.4
1932 Red Sox .251 .314 .351 73 -1.4
1970 Phillies .238 .305 .356 77 -1.4
1945 Phillies .246 .307 .326 77 -1.4
1981 Twins .240 .293 .338 77 -1.3
2003 Tigers .240 .300 .375 80 -1.2

The 2003 Tigers went 43-119 in their quest to dethrone the 1962 Mets. This group is arguably worse, and it doesn’t look like any kind of regression toward the mean will bail them out of infamy. The FanGraphs depth charts only project 0.5 WAR over the last month of the season for this group, not enough to save them from the top (or bottom?) 25.

I may sound all doomy and gloomy, but there are actually a couple of important silver linings to be salvaged from the 2019 season. The woeful offense has largely accelerated the sorting process from the team’s normal lackadaisical pace. Every member of the starting lineup, save Cabrera, is under 30. Would players like Rogers, Dawel Lugo, Willi Castro, Harold Castro, Victor Reyes, or the recently acquired Travis Demeritte have gotten such long looks if the offense had been able to be just a skosh better than abysmal?

Speaking of Cabrera, his 2019 is one of the oddest superstar decline years that I can remember. If you told me back when Cabrera signed his contract extension that he’d be a terrible major leaguer in 2019, I would have believed you (as did the projections). But I wasn’t quite prepared for the shape of the decline; I did not see Cabrera’s decline phase being “really, really slow Vince Coleman.” I expected Cabrera to look more like Albert Pujols does now, maintaining his power but eventually losing everything else. Instead, Miggy has retained his ability to hit singles but has only hit 10 homers in a run environment where records are being shattered left and right. Just for a quick comp list for 2019, I looked up every season within five points of Cabrera’s in BA, OBP, and wRC+, within 10 points of OBP, and with at least 80 strikeouts.

The Miguel Cabrera List
Season Name HR BB SO SB CS AVG OBP SLG WAR wRC+
2008 Michael Young 12 55 109 10 0 .284 .339 .402 2.4 95
2019 Miguel Cabrera 10 40 98 0 0 .283 .344 .398 -0.3 97
1962 Andre Rodgers 5 44 93 5 6 .278 .343 .388 2.3 93
1996 Mike Lansing 11 44 85 23 8 .285 .341 .406 2.1 100
1995 Vince Coleman 5 37 80 42 15 .288 .343 .398 0.2 93

The other silver lining is that the starting pitching performed adequately. The 5.35 ERA for starting pitchers is ugly, but the 4.71 FIP is enough to rank the Tigers’ rotation 15th in baseball by WAR. It’s not a quirk of FIP either, and a lot can be pinned on the Tigers defense being fairly lousy, in the bottom five by both DRS and UZR. The Tigers have, in typical fashion, likely missed their opportunity to trade Boyd at the top of his value, but he’s a legitimate No. 2 or 3 starter, still has some upside remaining, and is under contract for three more seasons. ZiPS believes that Boyd’s recent home run spike (14 home runs in six August starts) is largely an outlier. At the All-Star break, ZiPS believed that, based on his hit data, Boyd should have given up 18 homers, one fewer than his 19 actual home runs allowed. Over the second half, Boyd’s 17 homers allowed is alarming when compared to his zHR of eight.

Spencer Turnbull has established himself as another decent mid-rotation talent. There’s a lot more on the way here, but that’s for the next section!

What Comes Next?

The good news is that the Tigers have five pitchers with a 45 FV or higher on THE BOARD: Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Tarik Skubal, Franklin Perez, and Joey Wentz. All but Perez have hit at least Double-A, which means they’ve already largely survived the brutal gauntlet the mid-minors can be for pitching prospects. I’m also more optimistic than most about Alex Faedo, who I still see as a fairly high-floor option (ZiPS agrees), the type of prospect I like better than most do. Add the survivors to Boyd and Turnbull, and the rotation might be in the top 10 in surprisingly quick fashion.

The problem is that the organization doesn’t have the offensive talent to match. Riley Greene is an excellent prospect, but any recent draftee is going to come with some risk, and what other impact bats the team has are mostly far off.

My other concern is about the team’s front office. While I don’t see the Tigers’ brain trust in the Rockies-Royals-Marlins tier, I also don’t see it as a particularly dynamic, aggressive group. Attempts to trade players like Fulmer or Boyd in a timely fashion have seemingly been derailed by a desire to be blown away by a package. (I felt that way even before the recent rumors that the Tigers turned down Alex Bregman and Javier Baez offers for Fulmer percolated.) Fans may hate tanking, but fans also hate losing, whether or not you keep the fan favorites around; keeping Fulmer or Castellanos too long hasn’t prevented attendance from cratering.

The Absitively, Posilutely, Way-Too-Early ZiPS Projection – Isaac Paredes

ZiPS hearts Isaac Paredes. Coming into 2018, ZiPS projected Paredes with a mean career remaining of 19.4 WAR, putting him just outside the top 50 among position players, and hitting .282/.368/.416 for Double-A Erie at age 20 isn’t doing anything to derail that projection.

ZiPS Projection – Isaac Paredes
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO SB OPS+ DR (3B) WAR
2020 .252 .326 .411 504 66 127 25 2 17 69 50 75 4 95 1 1.6
2021 .255 .332 .422 483 66 123 26 2 17 69 51 71 4 99 2 1.9
2022 .261 .341 .448 487 69 127 27 2 20 75 54 69 4 108 2 2.6
2023 .262 .345 .457 488 71 128 28 2 21 77 57 72 5 111 2 2.9
2024 .261 .346 .457 486 72 127 28 2 21 77 58 72 4 111 2 2.9
2025 .261 .349 .463 479 72 125 27 2 22 77 60 72 5 114 2 3.0
2026 .258 .347 .455 473 71 122 26 2 21 76 60 72 5 111 2 2.8

His projection looks a lot like Eugenio Suarez’s at the time of the Alfredo Simon trade. Back in early 2016, I wrote that ZiPS projected a one-in-four chance that Suarez would end up with more career WAR than everyone the Reds acquired for Todd Frazier and Aroldis Chapman combined. That doesn’t sound so crazy in 2019, and that probability is up to 68%. 2019 bumps Paredes’ career WAR projection, at least preliminarily, up to 26.0 WAR, which ought to get him into the top 50 that he just missed last year.

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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.

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“really, really slow Vince Coleman”

a metaphor for our lackluster, feeble times