The Tigers Aren’t The Phillies Just Yet

We often hear the Cardinals being described as one of the best organizations in baseball for their ability to consistently put a winning product on the field, and that’s a reputation that they’ve earned though consistent excellence. It never seems that the Tigers get talked about in quite the same way, but perhaps that’s unfair. In the nine seasons since and including 2006, when the two met in the World Series, the Tigers have won 790 games. The Cardinals have won 789. The Tigers have made five playoff trips and suffered one losing season; the Cardinals have made six playoff trips and suffered one losing season.

If there’s a difference, maybe it’s that the Cardinals have two rings in that span while the Tigers haven’t yet made it to the top, or maybe we just perceive them differently because the Tigers were absolutely dreadful for most of the two decades preceding their recent run. But the real difference is that the Cardinals seem to continually reinforce themselves from a deep and talented farm system, while the Tigers have continually made win-now moves to add more talent around their iconic duo of Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.

Needless to say, that’s a considerable difference in team-building philosophies, and it’s not a cycle that can last forever. We’re already seeing cracks in the core due to injuries and aging, and we haven’t seen a lot of coming from within to help support that. That’s not to say the Tigers are done, of course; they’ve won four division titles in a row, and they may very well win a fifth in 2015, even though their offseason was more than a little uneven (more on that in a minute). But more and more you start to wonder how long the window remains open, and while that’s not an unfair question — I asked this same question back in late 2013, after the Tigers lost to the Red Sox in the ALCS — what I want to know is, what happens here when the window closes?

Here’s what I mean by that: In Jeff’s chat the other day, a reader made a very unflattering comparison regarding the future of the Tigers:

Ryan Brain: How many more seasons is it before the Tigers collapse into what Philadelphia is now?

Jeff Sullivan: 3?

Which rang a bell for me, because here’s one of the first comments I received on that 2013 article:

Do they not look an awful lot like the Phillies? Maybe better equipped, but with guys on the fringe of their prime, massive contracts, no farm. I can see something similar happening.

Remember what “being the Phillies” means now, and you already know it’s not complimentary. It’s being a franchise that wasn’t honest with itself about how well-positioned it was to compete, compounding that with some crippling decisions that looked bad from the moment they were completed (yes, this is referring to Ryan Howard), not getting much from the farm system, and finding themselves far behind the curve by the time they were finally ready to admit it was time to start over.

Clearly, that’s not a comparison anyone wants to have applied to their team, but you understand why it’s brought up when thinking about the future of the Tigers. As noted above, there’s some big contracts that run far into the future for aging players who are closer to the end of their primes than the start of it, and just last month, Keith Law rated their farm system as baseball’s worst. Last year, it was No. 28. That’s not entirely an indictment of their scouting department — after all, you don’t get David Price if you don’t have Drew Smyly and Willy Adames available, or Joakim Soria if you don’t have Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel, and Nick Castellanos graduated off it — but it is an indicator that there’s not a lot of immediate help coming.

The Tigers are entering what they hope is year five of their playoff run, and still look like contenders, but aren’t the easy favorites in the division any longer. They’ve made decisions that looked either questionable (the Doug Fister trade) or plain awful (the Cabrera extension), and when they get to 2017 and still owe $107 million to six players who will be 33 or older (Cabrera, Verlander, Victor MartinezAnibal Sanchez, Ian Kinsler, Prince Fielder), it may be difficult or impossible to  rebuild. (They owe the same six $92 million in 2018, too.)

That’s not dissimilar to what happened to the Phillies at the end of their five-year run of playoff appearances, when they also had big contracts for aging players and a farm system that produced more trade chips than it did big leaguers. You first started seeing calls for the Phillies to try something new after 2012, when they were an aging .500 team. You could maybe understand why they wanted to give it another shot in 2013, but when the rebuild didn’t come in July, or after the season, or in July of 2014, and even now has barely gotten underway — Cole Hamels, Carlos Ruiz, Jonathan Papelbon, Cliff Lee, Howard, and Chase Utley all remain with the team — you see just how much time has been lost. The Phillies could have been good again by now, or at least competitive. Instead, they’re years away.

But despite the similarities, it’s premature to look ahead and think this is going to end the same way for Detroit. While I know a sizable portion of you simply want to say “this is a lot of words to point out that Dave Dombrowski is a better GM than Ruben Amaro, Jr.,” there’s a bit more to it. There’s the simple fact that Detroit’s likely-regrettable massive contract to a first baseman was given to one of the best hitters of his generation, not to a one-tool player who became an anchor after losing that tool. Cabrera won’t be worth all of that money, and it never made sense to give him the extension so far in advance, but it’s also difficult to see him becoming the absolute zero that Howard has become over the next few years, either.

We’ve also seen Dombrowski be a little more willing to make the important moves that Amaro hasn’t. Getting two good years out of Fielder before dumping him off on Texas for Kinsler looked good at the time, and looks like a complete steal now. Selling Curtis Granderson (and Edwin Jackson) at the right time to get Max Scherzer, Phil Coke, and Austin Jackson could hardly have worked out better. If they’re struggling in 2015, it’s easy to imagine Price on the move in July. And, fairly or not, they hit on a lottery ticket in J.D. Martinez, the kind of thing the Phillies have been just unable to do.

There’s also the fact that the Tigers haven’t quite reached the “time to be honest” point, either. The big mistake the Phillies made was not seeing what so many others saw after 2012, that there wasn’t another run in the team. The Tigers aren’t there. Right now, we have them projected as the ninth-best overall team by WAR. We see them as being neck-and-neck with Cleveland in an AL Central that’s probably not as good as many seem to think it is. It’s still a good team, if perhaps a more exposed one.

All that being said, however, it was still something of an odd offseason for a team that should be as “win-now” as anyone else in baseball, as much for the way their roster is constructed as for the well-known idea that the aging Mike Ilitch wants to see a title:

In

Out

Not included on that list is Victor Martinez, who remained with the team for four years and $68 million, a deal that’s technically not an extension since he was a free agent for a few days, but basically was because he’s been clear he had no intention to leave. Also not included is Martinez’ knee, which gave out earlier this month and required surgery, though he may still be ready for Opening Day.

That’s a team that’s unquestionably weaker in the rotation, with much depending on Verlander’s attempts to rebound from a tough season, though still an above-average group pending Price’s inevitable free agency departure. It’s a team that should be better on defense, particularly in the outfield, but did very little to reinforce a bullpen that was already a big problem last year. It’s a team that may or may not have a catcher, since Alex Avila has to prove he can play through repeated concussion issues, and may or may not have a shortstop, since Suarez’ departure leaves little safety net for Jose Iglesias after a full missed season, and may or may not have a center fielder, since Gose has shown little indication he can hit enough to carry his glove.

In a year, Price, Simon, Soria, Cespedes, and Rajai Davis will all likely be gone. Avila might be as well. The core will be a little bit older, a little more expensive. The farm system, barring an unexpected leap forward, won’t be there to add new life. It seems fair to say the window is closing, though not yet closed. It might also be fair to say that the good times for Detroit baseball are more in the past than they are in the future, especially with the likelihood of unmovable dead money to aging players for years to come. Considering the extended run of success this team has had, fans might accept a few down years to reload. They might not have to worry about a total collapse like the Phillies are seeing, however. You can see the bottom part of the success cycle without being a complete embarrassment.





Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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Meme expired
7 years ago

Are we going to have to wait until Detroit (or some other organization)collapses before we can stop flogging the tired simile that is the “being the Phillies” meme?

Shingo's Cheeseburgers
7 years ago
Reply to  Meme expired

The Phillies have to stop being the Phillies in order to retire “being the Phillies”

Phillies113
7 years ago

This^

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

Exactly. It used to be the Astros, and before that the Nationals. Everybody gets a turn being the team everybody makes fun of.

vennardk
7 years ago

Me = Detroit Homer

Just look at the Lions… We’re still made fun of for the 0-16 season despite making the playoffs twice recently.

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago

Funny, I’m far more likely to make fun of the New England Patriots for losing that Super Bowl.

Deelron
7 years ago

No kidding, look how long it was the Clippers.

Mark
7 years ago

How many wins were the Phillies projected for after their 102 win 2011 season. I’d be surprised if any projection system had them at .500.

Obviously the Phillies made a ton of mistakes, but should they have expected Roy Halladay to retire less than 2 years coming off an 8 win season?

Catoblepas
7 years ago
Reply to  Meme expired

Perhaps, but Mike’s comment above is relevant — it won’t take a “normal” collapse, with a team transitioning from a focus on the present to a focus on the future, or even stalling with its focus on the future for a looong time (cough Minnesota cough). It’ll take another team blatantly ignoring its position on the win curve, financial flexibility, and common sense. So yes, but it might be a while.

Matt
7 years ago
Reply to  Meme expired

Isn’t “being the Phillies” a metaphor, not a simile?

Ron Thompson
7 years ago
Reply to  Meme expired

In a year or two, it’ll be “being the Brewers”.

Brad Johnsonmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Meme expired

Before it was “being the Phillies” it was “being the Astros.” It will pass.