Tigers See the A’s Jon Lester, Raise Them David Price

The last two years, the Tigers have beaten the A’s in the American League Division Series. In both years, it went the full five games, with the A’s falling just short. The A’s have spent the last month trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again, loading up their rotation with Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and now Jon Lester.

Maybe the Tigers would have done this anyway. We’ll never know, of course, but what we do know is that the Tigers acquired David Price this afternoon, bolstering their own rotation to make a pitching staff that is unlike anything we’ve seen in a while.

This is what their current starting five has done over the last calendar year.

David Price 254.0 3% 25% 41% 9% 73% 0.305 83 74 74 6.7 4.8
Max Scherzer 216.2 8% 28% 35% 7% 77% 0.296 76 73 86 5.7 5.7
Anibal Sanchez 191.1 6% 22% 47% 4% 70% 0.280 77 68 88 5.7 4.7
Justin Verlander 223.1 8% 20% 39% 8% 70% 0.306 103 93 105 4.2 2.3
Rick Porcello 198.0 6% 17% 50% 12% 74% 0.288 87 93 91 3.3 4.1

So you have a guy who has pitched at a +7 WAR level, two +6 WAR guys, a +4 WAR guy who has a Cy Young and an MVP in his trophy case, and a +3 WAR guy who is having the best season of his career. This is ridiculous. Even the mid-1990s Braves weren’t this deep.

Of course, as has been noted many times, pitching depth doesn’t actually help you that much in the postseason. The #5 starter is going to the bullpen — that’s probably Porcello, but it would be fun if it ended up being Verlander — and the #4 starter is only going to pitch once per series. So, in a sense, most everything I said about why the Dodgers didn’t need to push in for Price or Lester applies here too. The Tigers got a great pitcher, certainly, but he’s going to take postseason innings from a good starter. The upgrade is smaller than David Price’s name value would imply.

There’s an unless here, though. Because while Justin Verlander’s numbers over the last year look fine, his numbers this year look less fine. His velocity is down. His strikeouts have gone away. He’s giving up hits on balls in play. This isn’t just an ERA-blip; his xFIP- is 115, which puts him in the same range as Tom Koheler and Eric Stults. There is a non-zero chance that Justin Verlander is injured, and shouldn’t be counted on to be a significant impact starter in the postseason.

We can’t know that from the outside. The Tigers might not even know that with the information they have available. When it comes to pitcher health, all anyone can really do is guess, though a team’s guesses are far more educated than ours. That the Tigers pushed in on David Price seems to suggest that perhaps they aren’t 100% counting on Justin Verlander this October. At least, not as a starter.

Because there’s some precedent for taking formerly great starters with missing velocity and putting them in the bullpen for the postseason, to great success. In 2012, after a poor regular season, Tim Lincecum threw 18 really nasty innings for the Giants, most of them coming in relief, and was one of the reasons the Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series. In that series, Lincecum threw 4 2/3 innings, didn’t allow a hit, and led the team in strikeouts despite not making a start.

I don’t know that this is the plan for Verlander, but their bullpen is pretty mediocre even with Joakim Soria in the fold, and turning Verlander into a six-out, max effort bullpen ace might be a pretty nice side benefit of acquiring Price. Maybe he wouldn’t be interested in doing it. Maybe he won’t need to do it. This is all highly speculative, of course, but it’s certainly one possible outcome that could make the Tigers really difficult to match-up with in the postseason. If their bullpen goes Verlander-Soria in high leverage situations, with Nathan around for the low-leverage three-run saves, then Detroit won’t have to clench their fists every time a starter is removed from the game.

Of course, you don’t get David Price without giving up some real value, and the Tigers certainly did that here. Drew Smyly isn’t the highest upside guy around, but he’s been a league average starter as a 25 year old, and comes with four more years of team control. League average starters get something like $10 to $12 million per year on the free agent market, and even as a Super Two, Smyly will make a fraction of that next year, and remain underpaid for several years afterwards. There’s a reason that the Red Sox and Rays went after cheap average big league pitchers today, rather than focusing on higher upside prospects who are years away from contending; guys who can give you quality innings at the big league level without costing much in salary are extremely valuable assets.

The deal also cost the Tigers center fielder Austin Jackson, who is an above average player having a below average season. The emergence of J.D. Martinez gave the Tigers some outfield depth that allowed them to make a deal like this, but make no mistake, going from Jackson to Rajai Davis in center field is a downgrade. Davis is a nice role player who has outplayed Jackson in 2014, but we shouldn’t expect that to continue, and at the very least, this deal takes away some depth from the Tigers offense. And Jackson was under control for 2015 at what should be a reasonable enough price, so there’s some lost future value there as well.

And they also threw in an 18 year old shortstop prospect, Willy Adames, who might have some future value. But the Tigers aren’t playing for the future. Miguel Cabrera is only getting older, Max Scherzer won’t be back next year, and their window is closing. Price should help keep it open for both this year and next season, giving the Tigers two final good runs at a World Series title before they probably need to rebuild. Not having Drew Smyly around for that rebuilding process will make things a little bit tougher, but it’s not the kind of loss that can’t be overcome.

Like the A’s, the Tigers are in win-now mode, and this is a trade that makes them better for 2014. Especially if Justin Verlander ends up as a lights-out reliever in October.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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9 years ago

I like this for the Tigers, too, but even if Porcello goes to the bullpen Ausmus might be able to use him to get some ground ball outs when they really need them.

9 years ago
Reply to  novaether

I’d rather bring in a strike-out guy with guys on base.

9 years ago
Reply to  bobmarleydied

Verlander’s K% is 16.8 vs Porcello’s 14.8 this year, so it’s barely a difference. In any event, it’s likely Verlander gets the rotation spot if he’s healthy and Porcello backs him up if he struggles.

9 years ago
Reply to  novaether

My head guesses that with the BABIP luck dragons around you’d rather have Verlander’s flyball tendencies than hope a Porcello ground ball doesn’t get through. The argument is rational for either.

It comes down to how the players feel about their roles, though the Lincecum 2012 performance makes us all drool hoping Verlander tries to do the same, but Porcello fails to make me secrete extra saliva.