What Do The Tigers Have In James McCann?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It’s a simple tool, but if you view every position player rookie by fWAR, James McCann comes in 14th with 1.3 so far in 257 plate appearances. There are all sorts of reasons why this isn’t a super useful accounting at the moment: rookies have wildly varying PA numbers, catcher defense isn’t measured terribly well in WAR, and everyone from about 8th to 25th on the list is close enough to McCann that WAR can’t really separate them very easily. The point isn’t that McCann is 14th best, but rather that McCann has been one of the more valuable rookies so far this year. That seems rather obvious to a Tigers fan, even if McCann isn’t among the Bryants, Duffys, and Pedersons of the world.

With Alex Avila set to hit free agency at year’s end, there’s plenty of rumination in Detroit about what will become of the catching situation. McCann is doing a fine job so far this year, but will it continue and what kind of catching partner does he need? While there are a few MLB catchers who are good enough on their own that it makes sense to basically ignore their backups, McCann certainly isn’t at that level. Even if he’s a starter, there’s still room for a quality backup.

Before we can answer that, we have to evaluate the James McCann we’ve seen so far. In 257 PA, McCann has hit .282/.315/.427, which is good for a 103 wRC+. In other words, McCann is just slightly above league average offensively per plate appearance. Keep in mind however that catcher is a depressed offensive spot and that the typical catcher averages an 88 wRC+ in 2015. Certainly, if this is who McCann is as a hitter, he will do just fine in the show.

To give you an idea, a catcher with McCann’s current batting line, extended out to cover 450 PA (assume for a moment average defense and base running) would be something like a 3 WAR player. That’s not a star, but it’s an above average big leaguer. McCann runs like a not-Alex-Avila-catcher, though, so we should probably shave about 5 runs or 0.5 wins off that total for a full season before we move onto defense.

Defense is where it gets interesting. McCann has been outstanding when it comes to preventing stolen bases. Using Baseball Prospectus’ Swipe Rate Above Average statistic, McCann ranks 8th among all catchers in SB prevention per opportunity. That lines up with what we’ve seen from McCann this year and his ability to release the ball very quickly while also delivering an accurate throw. We don’t have a full set of pop times for him, but we’ve seen 1.7 and 1.9 multiple times. He’s been great when it comes to nailing runners, and so far I haven’t seen any reason to think it’s dumb luck or sample size. McCann can’t throw you out if you steal off the pitcher, but basically no one can. When McCann is given a chance, he’s doing the job extremely well.

When it comes to blocking balls and preventing runner advancement, McCann’s been solid as well. BP’s stat has him slightly above average at this as well, and the FanGraphs version will update late in the year, but I wouldn’t expect the numbers to be much different. McCann has certainly not been perfect in this department, but he has shown an ability to get in front of the ball. He won’t wind up adding a ton of value this way, but he won’t cost much either.

So on defense, that leaves us with framing and game-calling. Framing-wise, the numbers suggest he’s been pretty rough. BP has him about 5 runs below average and Stat Corner has him about 10 runs below average this year. I wrote earlier in the year that I wouldn’t put much stock in the first few months of framing for a young catcher for various reasons, but this is obviously something to watch. From my observation, I do think he is worse than average at this point in time. Rather than quietly adjusting his glove position as he receives the ball, he does have a tendency to stab at it a little bit.

I think some of this is probably just due to the horrible staff he’s caught this year and a general inability for them to command their pitches. You can frame a bad pitch, but it’s probably pretty difficult to frame pitches that are so routinely missing their spots. Especially for a young catcher who is just learning the league. I wouldn’t argue he’s been a good framer, but I’m not ready to write him off as a bad framer going forward.

If we put the defense together, let’s call him something like +5 runs for the non-framing and -5 runs for the framing, with the acknowledgement that this could be way off or it could change. Game-calling is such a black box that it’s hard to judge what’s McCann’s doing, and what the pitcher and coach are doing. If I had to guess, I’d say he’s been a little worse than average in this department, and noticeably worse than Avila, but not in any sort of offensive way. Again, it could have a lot to do with the very poor staff he’s catching. Let’s call his defense a wash. We don’t know for sure, but I think we can say he’s probably around average with a bit of room to grow. Especially when it comes to game-calling, as he seems more than capable of working on this part of the game.

So that brings us back to his bat. At this offensive level, he’s about a 3 WAR catcher for a full year. That’s a great piece to have. Even if he’s a bit worse, you still have an average player at the position, and it’s not out of the question he could be better.

This season, he’s hitting .282/.315/.427. His walk rate is about 4% and his strikeout rate is about 20%. He has an ISO of .145 and a BABIP of .342. These numbers aren’t terribly out of line with what we saw from him in AA and AAA in 2013 and 2014. He’s a below average walk guy with a strikeout rate around league average and a respectable amount of extra base pop. Minor league BABIP is usually higher than in the show, but he was a guy who ran higher BABIPs in the minors, so we probably don’t have to assume he’ll come all the way back to .300.

Before the season started, ZiPS/Steamer combined to forecast a .243/.279/.345 line from McCann (.277 wOBA). That projection has increased to .253/.288/.367 (.287 wOBA) after his 250 quality PA so far. In other words, the projections thing McCann’s true talent is about 5% higher now that they did in March.

I will be the first to tell you that projections for players with little MLB experience are far from precise estimates. On average, they’ll be about right, but any one player could vary pretty significantly. So let’s unpack this. To start, the projections have been right about his BB and K mix. But the projections have not properly forecasted his BABIP and ISO.

He hits a lot of line drives and ground balls relatively to fly balls, which could easily explain the higher BABIP. Line drive rate isn’t the kind of thing that stabilizes quickly for a young hitter, but based on what we’ve seen, I do think it’s fair to say that he does tend to have a swing that favors that kind of thing. Meaning: He will have a higher BABIP than league average. Will it stay at .340? Probably not. But let’s call it .320.

The ISO is where it gets interesting, because this is the most extra base power we’ve seen from McCann to date. His best season in the minors was .132 and the projections see him in the .115 range. Right now, it’s .145. This is interesting because you look at McCann and actually think there’s more power in the swing that he’s shown. He’s hit some really solid homers and doubles and it doesn’t seem out of the question that he could be a 10-15 HR guy in a full season, especially once he gets comfortable. It’s widely accepted that catcher offense comes later that offense for most other positions.

Now of course, 250 PA of a .145 ISO doesn’t mean much in the context of what normally happens to catchers with his career development to date. What I think is interesting is that McCann was such a bad hitter in 2011-12 that we might be measuring a player who had a rough transition to pro-ball but found his footing after a year or two. This is true of the scouts and the stats. McCann came out of college as an underwhelming, high-floor type guy. He’s the kind of player a lot of scouts undervalue, and then he came out an stunk in the low minors, leaving the stats to do the same. If McCann had hit well in the low minors, the forecasts might be different. There was a lot of confirmation in the early days of his pro-career, so perhaps we’ve all been a little slow to acknowledge his hit average or better in each of his last three stops.

All in all, I think it’s safe to consider McCann’s walk and strikeout rates pretty well established. We’ll say he’s going to be a decent BABIP guy with some extra base power. That doesn’t make you a star, but that could easily wind up in the 95-105 wRC+ range for the next few years. And that’s discounting the possibility of any type of breakout.

Put that all together with the glove and you have yourself a pretty solid 2-3 WAR catcher with some potential for more. And the downside for McCann is probably a really strong platoon backup, because he hits right handed and is definitely fine on defense.

The Tigers have something here. He probably won’t be a star, but he can certainly be part of the answer. I think he pairs very well with Avila, if Avila doesn’t want to go out and search for a starting job. Avila’s a good OBP guy from the left side with really good defense and pitcher-leading abilities. Pairing him with the younger, higher upside of McCann could be a nice mix, especially if the lower work load helps Avila stay healthy and more productive.

McCann has don some really exciting things in his early days as a Tiger, and while I don’t think we should overdo the expectations, he does appear to be ready for a sizable big league role. My sincere apologies to AL base stealers.

Where The 2016 Tigers Stand

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers spent the last week trading away the rest of 2015 for something resembling a future. If you’re just catching up, I had plenty of good things to say about the strategy. Not only did they restock the farm system, they added players who are relatively close to the majors, giving them a shot to contend in the near future.

It is absolutely too early to really figure out how good the 2016 team will be or what players they will have a chance to acquire, but I wanted to look at where the roster stands as it is right now. Players will get hurt, guys will get better and worse, and all kinds of things will happen. This is a snapshot to give us an idea of where the team needs to go. That’s all.

Below, I’ve gone through the roster and identified players who I would consider safe bets to make the roster, along with their 2016 salary and my rough estimate of their 2016 WAR.

Screenshot 2015-08-01 at 9.48.19 AM

So the Tigers need a new left fielder, they need to decide if Anthony Gose is going to be their CF or if they need a new one, and then the bench needs to be sorted out. They have candidates for all of those jobs, but no one is safe. They have four starters who are reasonably safe bets and then maybe Alex Wilson as the only reliever with a secure job. Realistically, Rondon, Alburquerque, and the others will have roles, but I wanted to outline the players who would definitely make the team if 2016 was starting next month.

Obviously, the Tigers could trade any of these players, people could get hurt, etc, but this is where the roster stands. We can safely assume a payroll of around $170M, so that’s $50 million to use to acquire something like 10-12 wins (Note: Tigers owe Fielder $6M in 2016 as well). A replacement level team (all zero WAR players) would still win about 48 games, and that leaves a 32 WAR team around 80 wins. Getting to the 90-92 range requires some additions, but there are lots of ways to go. Let’s say you can get a total of 2 WAR from the bullpen outside of Wilson, that means you need a 4 WAR starter, a 3 WAR outfielder, a 2 WAR outfielders, and then 1 WAR from the bench.

These are all just rough estimates, but those are relatively workable acquisitions. The Tigers need to acquire one good starter, a quality outfielder, and then some players who can fill various roles. The hardest part will be the bullpen because the Tigers don’t have a great history and because you need to acquire an excess of relievers at the start to get a good product at the end. As we approach the winter, I’ll identify specific players I’d target, but this gives us a good idea of where the team stands. Guys like Moya, Collins, and Romine can contribute, but you probably don’t want to plan your season around high expectations for them.

I estimated the specific numbers, but I think they are fair estimates. Everyone is talking about the window closing, but the Tigers have the resources to stay competitive at least into 2016 as long as they don’t wind up getting overly tagged by injuries. Picking up two close to MLB ready starters this week went a long way to keeping this club competitive into the future.

The Tigers Have Themselves A Deadline

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Officially, the Tigers sale started on Wednesday when Dave Dombrowski told the media that the team was going to look to “reboot” for 2016. In reality, I think it started much earlier. The team got off to a great start over the first few weeks of the season, but they haven’t played well since and their epic loss on the Friday before the break, followed by two more ugly games clearly signaled to the front office they might not have a shot this year. This is not, and was not, a championship caliber team.

According to the official story, they didn’t get ownership’s approval to pull the trigger until early this week, but this was always the path they were going to take. This was an okay team, playing bad baseball. It wasn’t so much that they were really far out of it, it’s that they were so far removed from fielding a quality roster that pushing all in wouldn’t have been wise. The cost would have been high and they still would have faced an uphill batt.e

And so Dombrowski and his staff went to work. I won’t make you wait for the conclusion, they nailed it. The Tigers haven’t really had a chance to execute this type of rebuild since the renaissance, but they didn’t show their inexperience. The Tigers got it started by trading Price to the Jays Thursday morning. They added Soria to the list Thursday night, sending him to Pittsburgh. And then they finished with Cespedes to the Mets on Friday afternoon.

All three of those players are free agents after 2015. Cespedes couldn’t get a qualifying offer. It would have made no sense to give one to Soria. So the Tigers could have kept the team together and earned a draft pick for Price while taking a 10% chance on the season, or they could have traded off the free agents with an eye on the future. They chose the latter course.

Once that decision was made, the task shifted to identifying the right trade partners and the right players on each roster. For Soria, there wasn’t a ton you could do. He’s a rental reliever in the middle of a rough season, so while I’m sure they called around to other teams, it’s hard to imagine there was a huge market. I said in the analysis of that deal that I’d prefer to have gone with a higher floor/lower ceiling guy compared to JaCoby Jones, but Jones was the right quality of player for Soria.

When it came time to trade Price, the Tigers had plenty of dates to the dance. It’s hard to say who was offering what, but the Blue Jays were certainly a team with a lot of prospects and were quite desperate to add talent to their 2015 roster. The Dodgers and Giants were involved, but the Blue Jays seemed like a clear match once they indicated they were going for it with the acquisition of Tulo.

Daniel Norris was the obvious target because he’s an upper tier prospect and checks all of Dombrowski’s boxes, but grabbing Matt Boyd was the part that really caught my eye. Anyone would have asked for Norris. If Stroman was off the table (and I’m sure he was), Norris is the guy you’d ask for in the Jays system. Not to take anything away from the Tigers here, but any idiot could get Norris back when trading Price to Toronto. So the deal starts there for anyone’s rebuild, but Boyd is exactly the kind of prospect the Tigers should be targeting as they shift toward the next couple of seasons. Boyd’s velocity has ticked up this year, but he’s also a much more polished pitcher than Norris even if all of the prospect hounds haven’t quite caught up.

Jairo Labourt is fine third piece, but the deal hinged on Boyd for me. Price wasn’t going to return someone like Julio Urias or Corey Seager, but the fact that the Tigers were savvy enough to pick up a name-prospect like Norris and an under-the-radar-basically-as-good-Norris Boyd with their second slot signals to me that they did their homework. Anybody can get the right guy at the top of the deal, but getting the right guy at every point in the process is the separator. It’s not so much that I think Boyd is going to be an amazing pitcher, it’s that I think his failure rate is very low.

The Cespedes deal took longer. The Mets had their Gomez deal fall through, and then couldn’t finalize something with the Reds for Jay Bruce, so Cespedes became their best option. Michael Fulmer was the arm Dombrowski wanted, and realistically, with Cespedes as the only piece going to the Mets, he was the best arm they were going to get. The Mets have better prospects, but they don’t have better prospects to trade for Cespedes alone. Cessa is a nice piece, but he’s more like Labourt than Boyd.

If there was a failure at all here, it’s that the Tigers didn’t try to shoot higher than Fulmer by sweetening the pot. The Mets probably would have enjoyed Dixon Machado and they certainly wouldn’t have minded shedding Michael Cuddyer’s contract, so a Cespedes-Machado-salary relief package to the Mets might have pushed the offer into the Wheeler + range rather than the Fulmer + range.

It wasn’t a bad outcome. Maybe the Tigers tried it and the Mets didn’t bite, or perhaps Dombrowski preferred Fulmer outright. Either way, the still have Machado and the money they could have spent on Cuddyer, so it’s not like they’re out of options.

The Tigers traded away three players with basically no value to them for the rest of 2015 and they got back three very legitimate prospects and three guys could very easily have some future in the majors despite some limitations. Norris and Boyd will likely slot into the 2016 rotation, and could stay there through 2021. Fulmer is probably more likely coming for 2017, and anything that shows up along the way from Cessa, Labourt, and Jones is gravy. Not every prospect will pan out, but the three main additions are knocking on the door of the show already. Maybe one turns into a reliever, one winds up a #5, and one becomes a #2/#3. That might seem like a disappointing outcome, but it’s actually pretty outstanding. And there’s a decent shot things go a little better.

The Tigers gave up on 2015, but they are now positioned much better for 2016 and into the later years of the decade. People might quibble with my exact rankings, but there’s a pretty legitimate case to be made that from draft day to Friday at 4pm (46 days), the Tigers acquired their four best prospects. And Labourt, Cessa, and Jones are all top 15 guys in the system.

At the expense of punting on an already doomed year, the Tigers became an organization with a farm system, and it’s a farm system that will start churning out players over the next twelve months. The future of the organization got a lot better in the last 48 hours. I’ll have something on their path forward in the next few days, but for now, we can appreciate what has just occurred.

The Tigers went into the week as disappointing as any team we’ve seen in the city since 2008 and came out with the wind at their backs. There is work left to do, but a ton of groundwork was laid.

Don’t get me wrong, pitching prospects break your heart. A very long line of pitching prospects have broken our hearts. The point isn’t that the Tigers acquired a bunch of can’t miss prospects, it’s that they acquired a large collection of pitchers with a realistic potential to contribute in the MLB rotation. Some of them will bust, but you have to have 5 good prospects to get 1.5 good players. The Tigers now have some depth and quality in their system.

It’s hard to give up on a season, but it’s also liberating. This is a hard team to fall in love with because they just can’t prevent runs, but now that hope is gone, we can cheer for the individuals and be content with a draft pick. We can’t predict the future, but after a productive week, the cavalry is finally coming.

Tigers Deal Cespedes To Mets

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The Tigers got Cespedes (plus Wilson and Speier) for New English D golden boy Rick Porcello. It made sense at the time based on the needs of both teams, and it wound up working out better than the Tigers probably expected. Porcello went on to struggle in Boston, Cespedes had his best year, and then they flipped him at the deadline to the Mets for Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa.

Trading Cespedes was a no-brainer, given that his contract did not allow the Tigers to extend him a qualifying offer this winter. As a result, once the Tigers decided it was over for 2015, he became the most obvious player to move. They did just that on Friday.

The package is Michael Fulmer and Luis Cessa, a pair of right handed pitching prospects with varying degrees of potential. Fulmer is clearly the prize of the deal, as he features a hard fastball and some quality breaking stuff. The changeup seems to be a work in progress according to the reports that were filed on him earlier this year. The delivery is a little worrisome and there’s a bit of an injury history, but he definitely has the potential to be a mid rotation starter. His numbers have been very good in the minors, and one person from a non-involved team put him right around Norris and Boyd in terms of total value.

Cessa is a lesser piece, but one like Labourt, who is worth watching. From what I’ve read, he’s probably more of a reliever in the long run, but it’s not out of the question that he could wind up as a starter if some of his secondary stuff pans out. The same person backed up that belief. If you want a richer picture of the prospects, I encourage you to visit the usual places like TigsTown (I haven’t seen either guy myself, so I can’t speak to some of their finer points).

I think the Tigers got a good package for Cespedes here. Fulmer is catching on and Cessa is more than a throw in, but I am a little disappointed they didn’t try to go bigger with this deal. Someone like Dixon Machado could have sweetened the Tigers side and they could have offered to pick up a dead weight contract like Cuddyer’s in order to get an even bigger return. Value for value, this one works, but I’m not sure it was the perfect strategy.

At any rate, the Tigers added another guy to their top five prospects in Fulmer and filled out another spot in the top 15 with Cessa. They went into the week with a real opportunity to improve the long term health of the organization, and it certainly looks like that was the case.

Pitching prospects are notoriously fickle, and any one guy could totally flame out, but at the very least, the Tigers acquired the right tiers of players for the two big name rentals. We’ll break down the entire deadline later tonight or tomorrow, but for now, Tigers fans can rest easy. Dombrowski and company had a fine 48 hours.

Tigers Trade Joakim Soria

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Tigers paid a lot to get Joakim Soria last July, losing Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel to the Rangers, but it was a deal they needed to make. They were desperate for big relievers and they were in a position where going all in made sense. Over the last year, Soria gave the Tigers 52 innings with a 3.29 ERA and 4.89 FIP (3.24 RE24). The overall numbers weren’t great, largely because of some awfulness lately, but the memories will always feature Ausmus using him poorly rather than him failing to perform, even if both were true.

It didn’t go as planned, but few things do. In exchange for Soria, the Tigers add JaCoby Jones from Pittsburgh, who’s a SS or a CF, depending on whom you ask. He’s a toolsy type, with some good raw power, but the report I got on him today was that there’s “little chance he hits” and probably more of a utility profile.

That’s not a bad piece, considering the Tigers were dealing a reliever rental during a bad season. You weren’t going to get very much for Soria, so getting a player with some small chance of blossoming is a win. My guess is that the Tigers could have shopped him around and gotten a higher floor player, but I understand their impulse to pick up a guy who could be coached into something.

There’s a bias in my evaluation I’m sure, as I’m always in favor of polish over ability, but the reality is that most guys like Jones don’t wind up turning into anything of note. That doesn’t make it a bad deal. Jones becomes one of the best dozen prospects in the Tigers system easily and Soria had zero value to them going forward.

It’s a trade that works just fine, even if it isn’t one that blows you away.  When you’re trading expiring contracts, you’re not going to get a whole lot unless it’s an elite player. The Tigers added to the system with the Soria deal and the value seems right. I might have chosen a different type of player, but Jones is the right quality of player to get back.

Tigers Trade David Price

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Three hundred and sixty four days after acquiring him minutes before the 2014 trading deadline, the Tigers are sending David Price to the Blue Jays. In return, they picked up Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Jairo Labourt

Trading Price was an obvious call, and the two or so wins he’ll be worth down the stretch are extremely valuable to any team that fancies themselves playoff contenders. He’s a short term rental, so the Tigers weren’t going to get a top flight prospect back in any deal for the ace, but at first blush it appears like they did very well.

The key with this trade, as opposed to almost every other Tigers deal since the advent of this website, is that the Tigers had to make it. Price is a free agent after the season and the Tigers aren’t going to re-sign him. Their 2015 season is over. It’s the qualifying offer or a trade, and so it comes down to getting the highest offer for him before Friday at 4pm. This offer looks an awful lot like the best one they’d get.

But it being a good offer doesn’t mean it’s a sure thing, and that’s important. Price is a great pitcher, but the quantity of Price the Tigers are offering is limited. You only get a dozen or so of his starts, even if he is a top ten starter in baseball. Julio Urias wasn’t on the table. Corey Seager wasn’t either. The Tigers picked up players who will slot right in at the top of their system, but it’s a weak system and pitching prospects are scary.

Daniel Norris immediately becomes their most promising young starter, and I would imagine he’ll slot right into the MLB rotation. He’s a good prospect, but he’s had a problem issuing walks at just about every level. Purely going off the numbers, Chris Mitchell’s KATOH system only expects about 5 WAR through age 28. That’s just an estimate of course, but it’s an indication his minor league performance predicts less success than his prospect bona fides. He has the stuff to be an above average starter in the majors, but his delivery does create some command issues. The difference between a #2 and #5 starter is in the details, but it’s a worthwhile gamble for sure.

While Norris is about the stuff, Boyd is a more advanced pitcher with better command. I talked with a friend who works for a non-involved club who actually thinks Boyd is almost as good as Norris overall. He’s been great in the minors and is one of Carson Cistulli’s favorite guys, so that helps in a surprising way. I imagine he’ll be a New English D favorite before too long.

Labourt is more of the wild card. He gets up to 96 on the gun and has some seasoning left to do, but he’s still considered a prospect by Tigers standards. Don’t expect much, but keep an eye on him.

Put it together, and the Tigers did a nice job today. Not only did they just acquire their two best prospects, but they probably can move them to the rotation almost immediately, counting on them to be real contributors for 2016. When the dust settles, it’s Smyly-Jackson-Adames for a 6 WAR season of Price, and then Norris, Boyd, and Labourt. The Tigers might not have acquired more talent than they gave up a year ago, but they certainly acquired enough to make it totally worth it by every definition.

The Tigers aren’t close to done, but they’re off to a great start. We’ll obviously circle back on the full deadline once it’s over, but the Dombrowski and company just made one of the better trades of their tenure. It’s not Miguel Cabrera or Doug Fister, but it looks like a great move. Exciting times.

The First David Price Trade, In Retrospect

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

You can’t push back he hands of the clock. What’s done is done. The Tigers traded Drew Smyly, Austin Jackson, and Willy Adames for David Price on July 31, 2014. In the 361 days between now and then, David Price threw 223.2 regular season innings, producing a 2.90 ERA, 2.81 FIP, and roughly 5.5 to 6.0 WAR.

David Price was an ace for the calendar year he spent in Detroit, which is exactly what the Tigers wanted him to be. They paid him something like $20 million for the privilege and it cost them Smyly, Jackson, and Adames. Barring something surprising, he won’t make another start for the Tigers.

At the time, I thought it was a gamble worth taking. With the benefit of hindsight, that belief remains. Austin Jackson has been somewhere between replacement level and backup quality in Seattle. Adames is still years away from seriously contributing. Smyly was great in his brief time in Tampa, but then he hurt his shoulder, and who knows how he’ll respond when he’s back in action. There are three more years of Smyly and six of Adames. Jackson hardly moves the needle.

Was it worth it? We can’t possibly know what would have happened, but the Tigers got 4-5 wins from Price above Smyly’s performance, and they’re going to get a chance to recoup some of Price’s value by trading him away at the deadline. So they spent some millions, gave up Smyly’s 2016-2018, and whatever Adames becomes offset by whatever they get for Price this week. You assume the return will wash out Adames, although I recognize we’re painting in broad strokes.

The Tigers gave up ’16-’18 Smyly for the 4-5 wins Price delivered over the last year if you let the rest cancel out. Can we say for sure the Tigers are better off for having made the trade? Of course not. But the Tigers might have only been a wild card last year without Price and they’d have had even less of a shot in 2015 without him. It’s easy to say the failure to win a title, or go deep into the postseason, means the short term cost isn’t worth the long term price they paid. I disagree.

The Tigers window with this particular team is closing and they had to go for it. It didn’t work out for a lot of reasons, but Price was outstanding as a Tiger and they won more games because they made the deal. Smyly may wind up pitching well for the next few seasons, but the Tigers probably aren’t going to be great for a couple of those years anyway, so the argument goes both ways.

It’s easy to look back and say the trade didn’t work because the team didn’t win the last game of the season, but this specific trade worked exactly how the Tigers wanted it to. Price was amazing, Smyly only threw 60 innings, and Jackson didn’t rebound. The context went south, but the trade went right. The Tigers nailed this one, even if they didn’t nail the whole darn thing.

We’ll see what the Tigers get back for Price, but if it’s something close to what the Reds got for Cueto, the Tigers will wind up having given up three years of Smyly and some cash for a great David Price season and a net prospect upgrade over Adames. I think you do that deal again and again, even if there’s no flag flying forever high atop the center field fountain.

How The Tigers Could Buy

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Never put much stock into anything during trade rumor season unless you hear a word like “close” or “nearing a deal.” If the media person putting the rumor out there isn’t talking about something that is about to happen, chances are someone gave them the info because they wanted the message out there for strategic purposes or some type of PR. Ignore 95% of everything. It’s a safe rule.

But today, Jason Stark dropped this nugget. I don’t know how true it is, but it did strike me as something worth considering:

The Padres should be sellers and selling these two players would make some sense. Shields is making a lot of money and Cashner is a year away from free agency. They would be wise to abandon their 2015 plan and reload. Trading these two is logical.

And oddly, combining the two would look an awful lot like what the Tigers need. The Tigers have a great offense but their pitching is very bad. The problem the team faces, and the reason I’ve argued for selling, is that they would need both quantity and quality in order to make a run. Enter Shields and Cashner. You might be able to squeeze three wins out of the pair in 2015, and thanks to the salaries involved, you could do so without paying Johnny Cueto prices.

This move also makes a lot of sense for the Tigers because while it is short term focused, it also helps them for the 2016 season. And while the Tigers will lose some key free agents this winter, they still have a good enough roster to make things happen next year. Shields and Cashner can’t be a rotation on their own, but with Sanchez and something from Verlander and Greene, it’s more palatable.

Obviously, there’s a cost question. What would it take to get these two players. Shields had to wait all winter to get a 4/$80M deal, so the sense in the industry is likely that this contract is not a huge steal. Cashner is underpaid for his per game talent, but his health history provides good reason. I don’t know if the Tigers should pay the asking price, whatever that may be, but I feel confident they can scrape together a collection of players to satisfy the Padres. Again, this is an all in kind of move, so it would further tax the already barren system. It’s an option, though, if they want it to be.

Which brings me to the kicker. The Padres wouldn’t mind shedding Craig Kimbrel’s contract. This is a widely circulated rumor, but one that makes sense. The Tigers would have to strip the system further, but Kimbrel is controlled for a few more years and could contribute beyond 2015 and man do they need him. 

To buy correctly, the Tigers can’t rent. They shouldn’t go all in for 2015 if the benefits don’t carry over. However, if you get Shields, Cashner, and maybe Kimbrel, you have done some of the offseason work.

Another angle, why don’t you offer to take Melvin Upton’s stupid contract to save some prospect cost? He’s bad but you might as well take a financial hit over a talent one.

I’m not sure this is the right move, but if you’re going to buy, this might be the path for the club. Putting all your eggs in the 2015 basket is foolish given the circumstance, but if you buy with an eye on 2016, it might work out. The Tigers need to decide what the long term plan is, but if that includes a 2015 push, AJ Preller should expect a call from Dave Dombrowski.

Victor Martinez Is Probably Healthy!

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Victor Martinez was a dangerous man in 2014. He had a 166 wRC+ as he combined a .230 ISO and a 6.6 K%. That’s a crazy power/contact combination and it worked beautifully. He parlayed that into a big $70 million extension for the Tigers this winter and subsequently went and tore up his knee.

The risk of injury was always present when the deal was signed, but Tigers fans probably hoped it wouldn’t happen before he stepped into the box on the new four year deal. But things looked up as he made it back in time for Opening Day. The problem, however, was that he was very bad to start the season.

Over his first 130 PA, he hit .216/.308/.270. That’s good for a 50 wRC+. That’s not pitcher hitting levels, but there’s virtually no way  (pinch runner?) to be a position player in the majors with that hitting line. He walking and strikeout out at acceptable rates (about 10% each), but the power and authoritative contact was absent. He did not look right and he went on the DL.

Martinez took a month off and has put together 120 PA since returning in mid June. Since then, he’s hit .319/.358/.531, which is good for a 148 wRC+. This is also happening with a 3.8 BB% (which should increase), and a very normal .323 BABIP. VMart came off the DL and started hitting a lot like the VMart we saw in 2014. He’s not totally the same guy because that would be outrageous, but after getting some time to get healthy, he’s hitting very well.

The whole question regarding his new contract was about his big power spike in 2014.We knew it wasn’t totally going to last, but if it was a new leap forward to some extent, the $70 million over 4 years made a lot more sense than if it was an aberration. I think we all understood he was hurt in the opening months of the season, but the concern was more that VMart with a weak leg was clearly not a $17.5 million player and this might be a recurring thing.

No one doubted his ability to be an above average hitter at full strength, but if he wasn’t going to be at full strength very often, his value was non existent. He provides nothing in the field or on the bases, so if he can’t hit, he can’t play. Presumably, the Tigers were fine paying a little more to Martinez thanks to his clubhouse value and his history with the club, but $70 million doesn’t work for a DH who can’t hit at all.

Thankfully, he’s passed the first test. Not only did he recover enough from the injury to return to the field, he’s recovered enough to rake over a small sample of PA. 120 PA doesn’t make a season, but it’s a very good sign that he’s back on track. You can luck into all sorts of stuff, but having watched him play, this isn’t a guy who is getting a bunch of cheap hits or turning singles into doubles with his legs (LOL).

It’s small sample again, but it does appear as if he was struggling to make contact with those borderline pitches before the DL stint and now he’s able to foul pitches off and take the outside pitch the other way a bit more. We’ll have to watch it, but it might have been the cases that it wasn’t just his power that was affected, but also his ability to get the bat to certain pitches.

The two other indicators are a big jump in his pull percentage and a big increase line drives (at the expense of grounders). That’s fewer ground balls the other way in exchange for more line drives to the pull field. That’s a big swing in production even if you ignore the fly balls that are likely going farther.

This isn’t to say VMart won’t break down again or that he’s definitely a top ten hitter in the game for years to come, but it is comforting to see VMart come back from a serious injury and put up very solid power numbers once again. He’s very close to crossing the league average hitter threshold for the full 2015 season and he’ll wind up above replacement level not long after. The first two months were bad, but the more important thing here is that it looks like the 2014 VMart wasn’t a product of randomness. We might not get to keep him forever, but at least we have him for now.

What Do We Know About the 2015 Tigers?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing ToothThe 2015 Tigers just lost three of four to the Twins to end the first half, including a devastating 9th inning collapse on Friday that could only be described as “not technically the worst inning ever.” They are 44-44 after 88 baseball games and need to play like a 96 win team for the next 74 games in order to get to 88 wins (the number generally needed to reach the postseason). It is a tall order, but not an impossible one by any means.

We’ve talked about the looming buy/sell decision, but I think it might be useful to reflect on the baseball we’ve seen so far. What do we know about this collection of players and coaches that we didn’t know in March?

They Can’t Pitch

Not literally of course. They’ve thrown more than 12,000 pitches this year, in fact. But going into the season we had some expectation that this would be a competent staff. David Price is and continues to be an ace. Anibal Sanchez is clearly still capable of pitching at that level, but his inconsistency has been an impediment. Verlander missed a bunch of time, and wasn’t good until his most recent start. We had high hopes for Greene, which appear to be misplaced. Simon has lived up to his reputation of not being very good.

But maybe most importantly, Lobstein, Ryan, Farmer, and company didn’t deliver any depth. Not only did the main rotation show their flaws, but the flaws we suspected in the cavalry showed through. The days of the rotation leading the team are over. In 2013, they had one of the best rotations of all time. 2014 was worse, but still strong. Halfway into 2015, we know it’s over.

And then bullpen, LOL. We knew they were going to be bad, but they are extra bad and seem to be getting worse.

The Bats Are There

You can count me among the people who didn’t quite expect the offense to handle things quite so well. I expected good things from JD, but not like this. I expected a solid Cabrera, but he is at his best. Cespedes has stepped up. We knew the offense was going to be good, but it’s been very good. The run scoring (4.5 R/G) is a little below the overall production (112 wRC+) because of the double plays, but those will probably decline in the second half (They are scoring runs like a roughly 106 wRC+ team, FYI).

The Defense is a Real Thing

They got Iglesias back, added Cespedes, and Gose. They cut out Torii. Castellanos couldn’t be worse, right? After being a horrible defensive team last year, they’re about +5 runs above average going into the break (might change with final week update). That’s not an elite club, but they’re above average. Last year, they were -35 to -70 depending on who you believe (over a full year).

Iglesias is obviously tremendous. Cespedes is the Tigers best corner outfielder I’ve seen in forever. Gose gets to plenty of baseballs, although his arm does tend to mis-calibrate the direction of his throws. Castellanos isn’t going to be a good defender, but he’s no longer a statute. JD Martinez’s arm has done great work. McCann has destroyed base runners.

The defense works.

It Wasn’t Just Inexperience For Ausmus

There are two important facets of this comment. 1) Ausmus isn’t the reason the Tigers aren’t a great team. 2) Ausmus is a horrible tactical manager.

There’s a decent chance he had a tangible effect on breaking Castellanos out of his slump based on what I’ve heard and read about what he said to him before giving him a few days off recently. That might wind up having a nice impact on the team. Stuff like that matters, but we can’t really judge managers on that kind of thing because we have no information about it on the outside. Maybe Ausmus is excellent at instruction and when it comes to players’ mental well-being. But there’s no way to know. Anyone who doesn’t work for the team who pretends to know if he’s good or not is just lying to you and to themselves.

But on the other hand, he’s bad at the on-field part of the job. Some of his highlights include very bad bullpen management (although, there’s only so much you can do with brussel sprouts), calling for and supporting reckless base running, bad bunting, super weird pinch hitting decisions, and of course, his 100% rejection of ever hitting Cabrera second. Also, the dude cannot seem to get pinch running for sluggers right.

Those are just some general manifestations, but there are two fundamental problems with Ausmus as a manager that leads to these decisions. First, Ausmus thinks his thought process is better than it is. He has an answer for every question. He sits on the bench and thinks through his decisions and simply arrives at the wrong answers. That’s not a flaw in and of itself. There’s nothing wrong with working on a problem and getting it wrong. The problem is that Ausmus routinely comes down on the wrong side and when he’s questioned about it, explains why he thought it was a good idea with no recognition that he might have gotten the wrong answer.

Let me use myself as an example. I thought Shane Greene was going to be pretty good this year. Clearly he is not. It’s possible that I got unlucky, but it’s probably more likely that I fell victim to a positivity bias and relied less on his minor league numbers that I would normally. For that reason, I got it wrong. I understand where my process failed and I learned from it. Ausmus has never shown a willingness to accept a mistake as his mistake. I don’t care about “accountability” in this case, but from an intellectual perspective, he never seems to believe his failures are bad process. That’s dangerous.

The other problem is that Ausmus manages the team he wishes he had rather than the one he does. He hit Gose leadoff a bunch because he wanted Gose to be a classic leadoff guy, even though Gose is not a good enough hitter for the role. He used Joba as a setup man because he wanted guys to have roles and at one time, Joba had excelled in that role. These little things add up. Ausmus is constantly betting the over on everything. It’s one thing to support your players and have their backs in public, but you can’t manage a team without understanding what your players can’t do well.

*****

Overall, I thought the Tigers were an 86 win team. I think they still probably are about that good. Maybe a little worse, but generally they’re about that good. I expected a little less from the bats and a little more from the pitchers, but this is overall about the quality we’d see.

I think the way the organization responds to the next three weeks is going to define the next five years in Detroit. There is a real opportunity to sell some pieces and counter balance the aging contracts, but if they convince themselves they have to go for it hard, they’re going to have to continue to play the one-year-at-a-time game. It’s dangerous, but it can work. The club has a chance to stabilize their foundation, or they could simply decide to push all the chips in again and again until it all falls down.

I don’t think one is right and one is wrong. It’s clear which I would do, but the other strategy could be a path to a title and that’s the goal. Re-signing Price and Cespedes, and adding Cueto or something would make them a good team for 2016. It would probably increase the odds of a 2018 disaster, but who cares, right?

I understand why people are frustrated with the half of baseball we just watched, but I do think things will be better in the second half. There are good players on this team and the luck usually evens out. There’s still plenty of baseball left and there isn’t a lot of bottom left to fall out.

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