The Detroit Tigers Should Be Better Than This By Now

The 2021 Detroit Tigers are terrible.

I don’t say this out of cruelty or to beat a dead horse, but to continue on with this piece, it’s important to understand that the team is very, very bad. It took them five weeks to notch their 10th win of the year. Future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera is hitting a mere .160/.259/.253. The incredible hot starts of Akil Baddoo and Wilson Ramos have cooled, and with the sole exception of Matthew Boyd, the team’s pitching staff seems to be struggling mightily against all comers.

For fans, it’s feels like a familiar story told year after year, only it seems to be getting worse over time. And it’s becoming a story that’s getting a lot harder to listen to without a mounting sense of frustration, because in terms of a rebuild, the Tigers appear to have been abandoned by their contractor with only a rough hewn foundation to show for it.

To truly get a sense of where the Tigers find themselves now, we must first understand just how bad this team is in a historical context. To do so, we have to compare the first months of 2021 to the Tigers’ two worst seasons historically: 2003 and 2019. In 2003, the Tigers came close to making history as the worst team in the modern era. They lost 119 games versus just 43 wins, coming within one loss of tying the 1962 Mets for most single season losses. For the franchise, it marked a turning point and a trend towards improvement. By 2006 they made it to the World Series, had a Rookie of the Year winner in pitcher Justin Verlander, and won 95 games.

From 2011 to 2014 the Tigers won four back-to-back Division titles and made another trip to the World Series. Cabrera won a Triple Crown, Verlander and Max Scherzer won Cy Young awards, and Verlander collected an AL MVP title. The team, which carried one of the highest payrolls in baseball through these years (they ranked fifth from 2012-14, and fourth in 2015 with $173,813,750), felt too big to fail but it was a win-now mentality built around owner Mike Ilitch’s desire to get a World Series title, and the biggest problem with a win-now mentality is that it doesn’t always create a plan for the future.

The collapse of the Tigers didn’t happen all at once, and as such, it’s difficult to pinpoint the “beginning” of the rebuild. Some will point to the 2015 season, when the team dropped from being first in the division the year before to last, with only 74 wins. That was also the year that saw the Tigers part ways with general manager Dave Dombrowski, who had been with the club since 2002 and had helped create the juggernaut that almost brought Ilitch his championship trophy. Almost, but not quite. Still, in 2016, under new general manager Al Avila, the Tigers were second in their division and barely missed clinching a Wild Card berth at the end of the year. So to call 2015 the start of the rebuild feels inaccurate. That season merely set the stage for what was to come. Dombrowski would go on to the Red Sox and help them win a World Series title in 2018. Al Avila would go on to trade several beloved Tigers players for scant rewards: J.D. Martinez, Verlander, and famously his own son, Alex Avila, were among them.

If we then consider 2017 to be the true start of the Tigers rebuild era, it puts the club five years into their teardown. That was also, sadly, the year that Mike Ilitch passed away and his son Chris took over ownership of the team. Gone with Mike was the enthusiastic desire to spend for wins, and pay to make the bold trades and free agent signings necessary to field a competitive team.

Since 2017, the Tigers have played a one-sided game of prospect collecting, in an attempt to build a winner from the ground up, but this is a club that has shown minimal success in their player development thanks to a rigid adherence to “the Tigers way” a system that was intended to create, according to Avila, “more continuity and consistency in base running, base stealing, defensive situations, philosophic views — everything will be uniformed and the transition from minor leagues to big leagues will be easier.” This system, which debuted in 2015, may have established some internal consistency, but it has also created a rigid framework that may have hindered the Tigers from doing any really outside-the-box development.

One place the team has begun to show a rejuvenated flexibility is in terms of pitch design with their young prospects, and even a new focus on analytics-forward pitching development at the major league level. Chris Fetter was hired over the offseason as the team’s new pitching coach, once a hot prospect in his own right. Between Fetter and the minor league developments, the team has seen young pitchers take strides in honing their old, and developing new, pitches. Tarik Skubal, for example, added a Casey Mize-inspired splitter over the offseason, which he is now featuring in 10.8% of his pitches. Matt Manning, another pitching prospect whose debut is hotly anticipated has also developed a breaking pitch over the last year, a little bit curveball, a little bit slider, but much more effective than his original forays into a slider. While the team hasn’t yet seen breakout success from their prospect starters, it is worth mentioning that they’re retooling the formula with these players, which might be a sign of brighter things to come.

Brighter than their recent past, at least. In 2019, year three of the rebuild, the Tigers once again flirted with their own dismal history, as they had their first 100-loss season since 2003. With 114 losses, the team was only five games shy of tying its own worst record. I think it’s important to recognize these milestones in terms of the 2021 season, because in 2003, the Tigers were 9-28 by May 14; in 2019, they were 18-22. As of May 13, the Tigers have a 13-24 record and have just celebrated their first back-to-back wins since April 14, following four consecutive wins against the Twins and Royals. They’ve also managed to climb out of last place in the AL Central.

Now we are beginning to see the players who were pieces in those major trades — not to mention the first round selections of a last-place team — making their debuts to largely lackluster results. Casey Mize, claimed in the 2018 amateur draft, posted a 6.99 ERA in his debut 2020 season, though his FIP of 6.47 indicates at least some of that bloated number was not entirely his fault. In 2021 so far the story is somewhat the opposite. His ERA is at 4.19 but his FIP is at 5.01. He did, however, collect his first career win in an outing against the Astros, and in a season remarkably thin on wins, it was a nice milestone to see him hit. Full essays could be written on Mize and whether or not it’s time for the Tigers to worry about him, but my only goal in pointing out his numbers is to demonstrate that one cannot construct a winning franchise solely on the reputation of prospects.

There are others who the team had high hopes for. The Verlander trade netted the return of outfielder Daz Cameron, catcher Jake Rogers (who the team all but banished to purgatory last season, as Rogers did not make a single major league appearance in 2020), and pitcher Franklin Perez who might be the saddest tale of them all.

Indeed, if the Tigers rebuild were to be embodied in a single player, it would be Franklin Perez. The 23-year-old right-handed pitcher had promising numbers as an Astro and was regularly starting games; his 3.02 ERA in 2017, posted across two levels, was a career-best. When the Tigers scooped him up, he was ranked third in the Astros’ system (Cameron and Rogers were 10th and 20th). What has happened with Perez since is heartbreaking. He has appeared in a mere nine games since moving to the Tigers minor league system in 2018, and has been mired with setback after setback. In 2018, he suffered from right lat strain, and then season-ending capsular inflammation. In 2019, it was a trapezius issue, then right shoulder tendinitis. In 2020, he threw bullpen sessions but due to the cancelled MiLB season did not see any play time, and now in 2021 he has been diagnosed with a right shoulder capsule defect, and will undergo surgery which will sideline him for an unknown period of time.

Perez is still young, and in spite of his myriad injuries may still bounce back, but he may not do it with the Tigers. As of May 12, he was placed on unconditional release waivers by the team to make room on their 40-man roster for backup catcher Eric Haase. With this most recent turn of the screw, Perez sums up the Tigers troubles nicely: promising talent that is unable to meet expectations.

Just look at the rest of the players who were part of big deal trades: the Tigers traded J.D. Martinez, a player who was then one of the hottest bats in baseball, to the Diamondbacks for Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. With the exception of Lugo, who saw regular play time in 2018 and 2019, have had more than the slightest sip of coffee, and Alcantara is no longer with the club. The Alex Avila/Justin Wilson trade to the Chicago Cubs might be the only one presently showing dividends. The return on that deal was Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Paredes has yet to make a substantial splash, but Candelario has found his role as the Tigers everyday third baseman, and at present is the only player on the team with more than 100 plate appearances hitting over .250, with a line of .290/.359/.405 as of May 13.

What brought the Tigers to this point seems to be that they have attempted to build a new house with only one type of material: prospects. Their free agent acquisitions over the past several years have all been single-season stopgaps, with the running joke among Tigers fans being that any free agent pick-up who does better than anticipated will be traded by mid-season (Mike Fiers is probably the best example of this, along with the aforementioned Alex Avila trade). The team’s reliance on prospects may still pan out, as we’re only beginning to see players slowly make their debuts, and hotly anticipated prospects like Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are still shy of major league readiness. It would be nice to see the Tigers make bolder, long-term offseason moves on the free agent market, though, rather than approaching free agency with a single-season mentality.

The Tigers have definitely spent money internationally, but at present most of their international prospects have yet to debut. Outfielder Roberto Campos was signed to a $2.85 million deal. Then last year the Tigers signed shortstop Christian Santana with a $2.95 million bonus, the biggest international bonus ever spent under Al Avila’s tenure. Since it’s generally a much longer wait to see how international signings pan out, the Tigers will be waiting a few more years to see if these larger investments pay off.

The one thing we can say with certainty right now is that the Tigers are approaching a point where something’s gotta give. Whether you view the rebuild as starting in 2015 or ’17, we’re far enough in that we should be seeing glimmers of hope for the future, but instead the Tigers seem to be on track for another historically bad season, in a line of dismal, disheartening seasons. Were the franchise still under Mike Ilitch, it would be a good bet that there would be a midseason leadership change. In 2017, Dave Dombrowski was fired in early August as the team struggled through the latter part of summer. Al Avila has been given ample opportunity to prove himself at this juncture, and his job seems the likeliest to be in jeopardy.

What makes it difficult to put a target on Avila’s back, though, is the general sense of indifference from the team’s ownership. Chris Ilitch, for all his statements about wanting to win, has also been very much the opposite of his father in terms of how he approaches the franchise. Last year he said of the rebuild, “I know we are building this the right way. I know that because I lived it through the Red Wings years and I lived it at the beginning of this century with the Tigers. Now we are trying to do it again and I know we will do it again. We’re going to keep working away. Be patient, be disciplined and we’re going to get there.”

But the Tigers fans, and indeed its players, have been patient. They have waited, hoping to see something that might indicate a shift towards improvement and better days ahead. Instead what they’re seeing is a team with a .333 win percentage, at the bottom of their division yet again, and stumbling towards another worst-case scenario year. R.J. Anderson wrote about the fumbling rebuild this week as well, highlighting that it might be time for the team and its fans to start worrying. He’s not wrong. There’s only so much comfort fans can take from knowing there will be another first-round draft pick in it for the team.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece contained reference to the terms of manager A.J. Hinch’s contract that subsequent clarification has revealed were inaccurate. FanGraphs regrets the error.

Ashley has spent the last several years writing for various SB Nation sites, including Bless You Boys, DRaysBay, and Bleed Cubbie Blue. Her bylines have appeared here at Fangraphs; Hardball Times; BPro Short Relief and more. She hosts a baseball YouTube channel called 90 Feet From Home, and co-hosts the baseball podcast Who's On Worst.

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2 years ago

This made me sad, but I do not disagree with any of the points made. Also, very interesting about the Hinch escape clause, something I had not realized. When the manager who is actively trying to rehabilitate his image is like “yeah, this place might not be good enough for me,” it might be time for a GM change!