The Tigers of the Future Aren’t Totally Screwed

The Detroit Tigers are in an unusual position. There’s nothing unusual about a team trying to win now, but there’s something unusual about the Tigers’ particular sense of urgency. We can acknowledge it has something to do with Mike Ilitch, and his age, and that’s a little weird to talk about, but it’s out there. Ilitch wants to see a winner and people don’t live forever, so this is the current line of thinking: the Tigers will do anything to try to win right away, no matter what it means for the future, because what if there isn’t a tomorrow?

It’s pretty obvious where the Tigers’ priorities are. They just gave four more expensive years to a soon-to-be 36-year-old Victor Martinez, and that contract’s been identified as one that’ll look mighty bad pretty soon. But I think people might’ve gotten too far ahead of themselves in declaring that the future will be a mess, myself included. It’s easy to observe some of the parallels between the Tigers and the Phillies, but the future Tigers aren’t sure to be screwed. There’s a way to survive, such that the window doesn’t have to slam shut.

It’s time to start making assumptions. I’m going to choose to focus on 2018: though that’s only one season, it’s the future season thought to be the ugliest. Already on the Tigers’ books for that year:

So that’s $75 million, guaranteed, for three players who’ll be a combined 109 years old. That’s not the whole of it, either. The Tigers are also contributing $6 million a year to the Rangers’ Prince Fielder fund. They’ll probably be on the hook for a $5 million Anibal Sanchez buyout, since it’s doubtful the Tigers will want to pay him $16 million when he’s 34. Now, there’s one more thing: Ian Kinsler will have a $5 million buyout, and a $10 million club option. Let’s assume the Tigers pick that option up, since it’s really only a matter of $5 million and Kinsler should still be a contributor.

Put that together and you’ve got $96 million in combined commitments. And, of course, it projects to be spent inefficiently. Let’s take the 2015 Steamer projections as gospel. Now, across the board, let’s dock each player half a win a season, for aging. We’re left with a projected combined 8.5 WAR for 2018, for Verlander, Cabrera, Martinez, and Kinsler. Cabrera still projects to be good, and Kinsler still projects to be something like average, but you’re looking at more than $10 million per win. This is the Tigers’ future disadvantage.

Yet there’s a difference between no flexibility and limited flexibility. Where is the Tigers’ payroll going to be in 2018? More guesses. On the one hand, it’s said that the Tigers have long been operating at a loss. On the other hand, they’ve routinely increased opening-day payroll by at least 10% season over season. Let’s be conservative and figure the Tigers will increase spending by 2.5% each year. This is a lower rate than the projected league-wide inflation. That would give the 2018 Tigers a $181 million payroll. They’d have a $199 million payroll, if they kept increasing spending by 5% each year instead.

Stick with $181 million for now. Subtract out the $96 million and you’re left with $85 million. That’s an estimate of the Tigers’ remaining space. And remember, it could be about $100 million if the Tigers spend just a little more. Already, we have them projected for 8.5 WAR. Let’s set a target of, say, 35. It’s low, but it’s above .500, putting the Tigers within reach of the wild card. The 2012 Orioles made the playoffs with 29 WAR. The 2013 Indians got in at 37, while the 2012 A’s got in at 38.

So you have $85 million, to spend on roughly 26 – 27 WAR. That’s $85 million down the road, so in present-day money, you have a rough equivalent of the Rays’ 2014 opening-day payroll. With that amount of money, you’re trying to match the WAR of the 2013 Cubs, or the 2012 Mets. The closest 2014 comparison would be the Mets, again. It’s incredibly hard to build a contender with Rays money, but the Tigers wouldn’t have exactly the same task, since they already would have eight or nine wins locked in. They’d need to have other talent, but at least Cabrera should be good, Kinsler should be average, and Martinez should be okay. It’s not the same as starting from nothing.

What’s problematic, of course, is that at the moment, the Tigers don’t have a very good farm system. In order to stay competitive, the future roster is going to need some injections of cheap young talent, and while I don’t blame the Tigers too much for the current state of things, this is often what happens when you’re routinely successful. You’re drafting late, and you’re trading long-term pieces for shorter-term pieces. The Tigers, at the moment, have a bottom-five system. They just the other day traded arguably their top prospect, in Devon Travis.

But they did trade Travis for a young player. In 2018, Anthony Gose will be in his penultimate year of team control, and being defense-first might keep his costs down. Ditto Jose Iglesias, who would be in his last year of team control. Nick Castellanos would be in his penultimate year, like Gose, and he’s very recently been a top prospect. There’s no reason to give up on his development, so he could be vital for the Tigers down the road.

And you can think about a guy like Steven Moya. The odds are against Moya, but as a boom-or-bust type of prospect, the upside’s enormous, and if he develops he’d be cheap when the other guys are old and expensive. There aren’t other prospects like Moya, really, in the Tigers’ system. Moya might lead them all in ceiling.

One thing the Tigers might consider is signing J.D. Martinez to a long-term extension. Though he still has three years of control, and though his breakout spanned just 480 plate appearances, this could represent an opportunity for a future bargain. There’s the risk that Martinez declines again in 2015, but he’s just 27 now, and he might be willing to sign away a free-agent year or two, maybe with some options. Martinez would get his security; the Tigers would get, maybe, a high-quality slugger through his prime.

This is getting into specifics, where, really, 2018 is a ways away. What’s very much clear is that, down the road, the Tigers are going to be limited by all the spending they’ve already done. What’s not at all clear is that the future Tigers will be hopeless. The system right now isn’t poised to be of much help, with mostly low-ceiling position players and mostly low-ceiling starters and relievers, but there are also international avenues for finding youth, and systems and players can improve quickly. You hesitate to think anyone could follow in the footsteps of the Cardinals, but the Cardinals have stayed competitive while their Baseball America organization talent ranking has gone up from 29th in 2010 to 24th to 10th to 1st. The Tigers need to be good about their talent evaluation and their player development, but it’s not set in stone that they’ll be a mess. They’ll have to be efficient, but efficiency is possible, and the Tigers understand what lies ahead.

Dave Dombrowski deserves the benefit of the doubt. Even after the Doug Fister trade. Same guy also made the Prince Fielder trade. I don’t exactly love where the Tigers are headed, but where the Phillies have gotten to is something of a special circumstance, and I’ll trust Dombrowski over Ruben Amaro with the whole of my being.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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the fume
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the fume

I think the key to how good the Tigers are 3+ years from now largely depends on Verlander. If he can bounce back to be a guy that gives 200IP with a 3.50 ERA they should still be very competitive.

If the core/shoulder/velocity issues linger on from here out, they will be in trouble, perhaps as soon as 2016 if Price leaves.