With the latest of our off-season previews, it’s Ben Carter
What was the story last season?
The Tigers made some serious splashes in the 2015 off-season, signing Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann and Mike Pelfrey as well as swinging a trade for closer Francisco Rodriguez. With some of the team’s cornerstone players (Cabrera, Verlander, Martinez) beginning to enter their twilight years, the front office clearly felt that the time was now. It was not. The Tigers were never really in the division race and although they stuck around in the wildcard hunt they fell 2.5 games short at 86-75.
Any impending free agents?
Jarrod Saltalamacchia: The man affectionately nicknamed ‘Salty’ is past his best at this point of his career although he remains a serviceable back-up. The Tigers seem committed to James McCann as the man atop the catcher depth chart, but they will be looking for a veteran to fill the back-up role.
Erick Aybar: Since putting up a four-win season in 2014, Aybar has suffered a precipitous drop in form. No longer a reliable option with bat or glove, the Tigers will have no qualms allowing him to walk.
Casey McGehee: You probably don’t remember it now, but in 2010 Casey McGehee hit .285 with 23 home runs. Last season, McGehee hit .228 with 0 home runs. He yearns for 2010 almost as much as Nick Clegg.
Where does the team need improving?
Justin Verlander is back to his Cy Young candidate best (for more see Upton, Kate), Michael Fulmer just won the Rookie of the Year award and Jordan Zimmermann will be better than his 2016 iteration, if not quite as good as the 2014 model. Daniel Norris hasn’t dominated like some expected in his first couple of Major League stints, but he strikes me as a sneaky low-profile sleeper for this season now that the hype train has left the station. For some reason Mike Pelfrey is still under contract, but whatever, he’s the fifth starter. What I’m trying to say is that this rotation actually looks pretty good on paper.
Ian Kinsler has been nothing short of fantastic since joining Detroit, and alongside Miguel Cabrera the Tigers have arguably one of the better right-sides of the infield in the American League. Iglesias and Castellanos will round out a solid infield, whilst Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez appear likely to occupy the corner outfield spots.
Now we start to find a couple of line-up holes. The departure of Cameron Maybin (more about that later) opened a hole in center field and Victor Martinez hasn’t logged a particularly productive season since 2014. The bullpen, even with Frankie Rodriguez, is not a good one and the bench certainly needs some bolstering.
So… what’s the plan?
Well the strange thing is, this Tigers team – when all healthy – is pretty good on paper. They have solid, if old, starters across the board and the couple of holes that the team has are fillable. That being said, there is a lot of dead money being spent on this team. The Verlander and Cabrera contracts burn a huge hole in the Tigers payroll, whilst V-Mart, Zimmermann and Upton are all on deals that look at best optimistic and at worst like dead-weight for the next few seasons.
What the Cameron Maybin deal told us was that this Tigers team is not interested in patching up holes and competing for a wildcard spot. Al Avila wants to deal the value he has on this team right now, rebuild and presumably make a stronger bid in 2018. J.D. Martinez feels like a guarantee to be traded at some point between now and the August 2017 trade deadline – indeed, many reports suggested that the San Francisco Giants were in fairly deep trade talks for the outfielder this week.
Ian Kinsler and Francisco Rodriguez represent two other ‘valuable-but-out-of-contract-soon’ players that Avila may look to cash in on this winter, but he really cannot afford to go ‘full rebuild’ given the Tigers have nearly $100m committed to four players through 2020. Al Avila very strongly hinted in some October comments that the Tigers were going to rein in their free-spending ways. I don’t see them aggressively pursuing any of the top free agents so… where does that leave them?
It leaves them in a strange transition period, where they’re too good to lose 90 games but not good enough to win 90. In Cabrera, Verlander, Kinsler, Martinez, Fulmer and Norris they have a solid and productive core but they also have huge contractual commitments and some impending free agents whose departure will make this team worse. Avila’s solution, seemingly, is a half-baked rebuild with an eye on 2018 but will this core be productive by then? Will they still be members of the Tigers?
Detroit is in line for a busy if not exciting winter, and their next move will be fascinating. They can’t be ruled out for a blockbuster trade, but in all likelihood it’ll be a transitional off-season for a team that is stuck in the middle (with you).
Best case scenario: The Tigers deal one of (or both) J.D. Martinez and Ian Kinsler, both of whom are out of contract in 2018, and receive some genuine prospect value in return. They sign a few high-upside FA’s to one-year deals to plug holes and hope that maybe one of them generates enough value to be dealt for some upside by July.
Worst case scenario: Avila somehow convinces Mike Ilitch to cough up another $20m per season and makes a silly bid for Aroldis Chapman, convinced that a strong bullpen is all that is holding the Tigers back from an AL pennant.
Likely scenario: The Tigers bark but do not bite. They’ll likely be involved in a lot of ‘trade discussions’ but unless an offer blows them out of the water I think at least two of Kinsler/Martinez/Rodriguez starts 2017 in Tiger colours, if not all three. Peter Bourjos is the opening day center fielder. Kate Upton’s twitter is the most watchable part of this Tigers team come May (I joke Tigers fans, I joke…)