How The Tigers Could Rebuild

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Last week, we rolled out the official New English D endorsed plan for the Tigers offseason and it was a plan predicated on the fact that the Tigers want to contend again in 2015 without completely mortgaging hope for some success later in the decade. It wasn’t the sexiest plan, but I think it made the team better and was a realistic path to a quality roster that cost a reasonable sum of cash. But the assumption that they should try to contend in 2015 is debatable in the first place, so let’s try something else.

Let’s consider the alternative. What if the Tigers sat down, looked at the payroll, and decided there’s no room to go up and there’s no way to make it work at the current level for this year? There’s an opportunity to think about 2016 rather than 2015. What might that look like?

There are few obvious steps. First, you extend a qualifying offer to Victor Martinez and let him walk for anything more than a steal. Then you offer up Rick Porcello and David Price to the highest bidder. Price nabbed the Rays a solid return on July 31 and while there’s two fewer months of him to trade, the Tigers can also shop him to 20 clubs instead of 5. Porcello remains young and cheap as far as available starters go and it wouldn’t be that hard for a team to trade for him with the plan to extend him. He wouldn’t fetch Byron Buxton or anything, but a good team would deal a player with a quality MLB projection to pick up a mid rotation starter making ~$12 million at age 26.

Right there, you’re talking about a draft pick and three to four useful prospects that would arrive for the simple cost of punting on 2015. The Tigers could still sign Price or Porcello after next year if they really wanted to and they’d restock their system in a meaningful way. Again, we’re not expecting elite prospects, but getting 75% of Smyly-Franklin-Adames for Price would go a long way toward helping the future of the club.

Next, the Tigers should pick up Joakim Soria’s option and flip him to a team in need of relief help. Soria wasn’t great for the Tigers down the stretch but he has a good track record and it’s hard to find potentially ace relievers on one year deals. He won’t bring back a Thompson-Knebel combo, but if the Tigers ate a few million, he might get them half that.

While Joe Nathan didn’t really enhance his value in 2014, if the Tigers sit on the 2015 salary, they’ll find someone who will part with a talented prospect who needs a lot of work. Rajai Davis comes next. He’s not a star, but for $5 million he’s worth having and the Tigers could get something useful in return.

There aren’t any obvious pieces to sell off beyond those, but JD Martinez would present an interesting case. Certainly he won’t hit like Miguel Cabrera for the next three years, but if you can find a buyer who thinks he’ll be more like a .360 wOBA guy than a .340 wOBA guy, you might decide it’s a deal worth making. People are obsessed with right handed power and he has that in spades. It’s not a market I can read very well, but it’s one you have to explore.

So combine the unmentioned QO to Scherzer, QO to VMart, trade of Price, Porcello, Soria, Nathan, Davis, and JD Martinez and you could wind up with 5-6 actual prospects and a couple of potentially useful spare pieces. The Tigers could afford to eat some salary in exchange for better players and might wind up revamping their system in the span of a year. You aren’t going to net great players in any trades, but it only takes one or two good gambles to turn things around.

If given the choice, I’d prefer the smart approach to improving for 2015, but the team could be an interesting position to sell on 2015 if they wanted to take things in that direction. The fans would be upset, but Dombrowski (Fister aside) typically makes good trades and the team needs to start thinking about the long term at some point in the next couple of seasons.

This won’t happen, I suspect, because the owner won’t go for it and the fans wouldn’t like it. But there’s a decent case to be made that the Tigers could rebuild pretty quickly if they wanted to. It would hurt for a season, but it might also make sense in the long run.

Tigers Offensive Projections, 2014 and 2015

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

An important thing to do in the aftermath of a season is to take stock of how our prior beliefs lined up with expectations and how our expectations have changed as a result of one season of baseball. In other words, how smart were we before the season and what did we learn?

To take a peak at this, we’re going to look at the Steamer Projection system’s preseason (2014) projections for the Tigers hitters and their very early preseason projections for 2015. Let’s see who beat their projection, how the team did as a whole, and who we expect to get better or worse for next year.

A couple of notes are important up front. First, Steamer didn’t project every single person who got an at bat in 2014 and they haven’t projected everyone who will get one in 2015. If a player isn’t here, it’s because they don’t check one of the necessary boxes. First, let’s start with the 2014 preseason wOBA and actual 2014 wOBA of each projected player. And also the difference for easy comparisons:

Player Proj 2014 wOBA 2014 wOBA Diff
Victor Martinez 0.339 0.411 0.072
J.D. Martinez 0.311 0.391 0.080
Miguel Cabrera 0.418 0.384 -0.034
Torii Hunter 0.342 0.335 -0.007
Steven Moya 0.000 0.334 0.334
Austin Jackson 0.343 0.322 -0.021
Ian Kinsler 0.338 0.319 -0.019
Rajai Davis 0.308 0.319 0.011
Alex Avila 0.333 0.311 -0.022
Nick Castellanos 0.319 0.307 -0.012
Eugenio Suarez 0.288 0.295 0.007
Tyler Collins 0.000 0.291 0.291
Don Kelly 0.305 0.285 -0.020
Ezequiel Carrera 0.287 0.284 -0.003
Hernan Perez 0.280 0.263 -0.017
James McCann 0.000 0.255 0.255
Andrew Romine 0.283 0.253 -0.030
Bryan Holaday 0.287 0.243 -0.044
Andy Dirks 0.320 0.000 -0.320
Jose Iglesias 0.292 0.000 -0.292
Daniel Fields 0.000 0.000 0.000

Anyone with a .000 didn’t get a projection or didn’t play. You’ll notice that of the players who actually receive real playing time, JD Martinez and Victor Martinez were the only major over-performers. Rajai Davis came in next at +.011. A good portion of the club undershot their projections with Kinsler, Jackson, Avila, and Cabrera doing so by the largest amount.

However, this is a slightly confusing set of results. JD Martinez’s huge success outweighs a number of small under-performances. Instead of looking at each player individually, we’re now going to take the projected wOBA of each player who actually got a real number of PA (50) and their actual wOBA, all weighted by their PA. This isn’t quite team wOBA, because we’re dropping people who didn’t get a projection, but we’re going to assume that Steamer can’t really forecast playing time and instead we’re going to say, “if we told Steamer the playing time, what would it have projected the wOBA be?”

Of the 15 players in the sample, the pro-rated team wOBA projection was .330. The actual combined wOBA of those 15 players? .331. The Tigers hit exactly as well as the projections thought they would, even if some players did better and some did worse than our expectations. This isn’t very different from what I found during the month of August when I looked at the same thing.

Alright, so we’ve seen the Tigers’ individual  comparisons to our preseason expectations and how the team did on the whole. Now let’s look ahead for a moment.

I’m going to show each player’s 2014 preseason projection and their 2015 preseason projection. You can think of the difference as how much better we think this player is as a result of their 2014 season. These are only players who have a 2014 and a 2015 projection as a Tiger.

Player Proj 2014 wOBA Proj 2015 wOBA Diff
Victor Martinez 0.339 0.371 0.032
J.D. Martinez 0.311 0.342 0.031
Ezequiel Carrera 0.287 0.300 0.013
Hernan Perez 0.280 0.293 0.013
Eugenio Suarez 0.288 0.297 0.009
Nick Castellanos 0.319 0.323 0.004
Jose Iglesias 0.292 0.294 0.002
Andy Dirks 0.320 0.319 -0.001
Rajai Davis 0.308 0.306 -0.002
Bryan Holaday 0.287 0.281 -0.006
Torii Hunter 0.342 0.333 -0.009
Andrew Romine 0.283 0.273 -0.010
Miguel Cabrera 0.418 0.407 -0.011
Don Kelly 0.305 0.291 -0.014
Ian Kinsler 0.338 0.323 -0.015
Alex Avila 0.333 0.317 -0.016

Both Martinezes are looking great as the projection system believes that they did both improve during the 2014 season, even if it wasn’t completely sustainable. The kids (Carrera, Perez, Suarezm Castellanos, Iglesias) all get a little bump as their growing into their skills, but no one is making a huge leap. Hunter is expected to lose a little more with the bat, Cabrera will too. Although Cabrera has a very high talent level, so we still expect him to perform better than he did in 2014. Both Kinsler and Avila took a bit of a slide, but both are also expected to be a touch better than their 2014 numbers.

All in all, the team performed as expected at the plate in 2014 once you factor out who missed time due to injury. Some did better and some did worse, but it was the overall outcome you would have expected. Going into 2015, the boost from the Martinezes should counter act any declines elsewhere, but that’s assuming Victor is back and they figure out RF.

A Plan For The 2015 Tigers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In less than a month, there won’t be any baseball left and teams will start actively building their 2015 incarnations. Essentially every club has met to discuss their futures, but until the World Series is over, nothing can happen outside of extensions and some basic paper moves. Last week, we covered what the Tigers should do with their free agents and arbitration cases, but now’s the time to put it all together. Here’s how New English D would attack the 2015 offseason.

Let’s start with what we know is already in place.

We know that Justin Verlander, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello will be in the starting rotation barring any sort of injury of crazy change of organizational direction. We know that Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler will hold down the right side of the infield. We know that Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Rajai Davis, Andy Dirks, JD Martinez, and Alex Avila are in line for some role with the organization, depending on health status and other moves.

We also know the Tigers have Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria (if they want him), Al Alburquerque, and a bunch of various kids out in the pen. And when know how the various young players and prospects fit in.

These are the assets the Tigers currently have. Here are the players they should target and how they should fit into the roster.

Starting Rotation

Unless something crazy happens, the Tigers have four starters locked in for 2015 and while Verlander isn’t what he used to be, it’s still a four-headed unit that should rival pretty much any other team for rotation supremacy. They obviously need one more arm to round it out. In house, they have Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Drew VerHagen, and Buck Farmer. Lobstein was the only one who demonstrated some ability at the MLB level, but really there’s no one in that group who has a high probability of 2015 success. There is potential with this group, but you would feel much better with them fighting for rotation spot #6 than #5. I don’t want to give 30 starts to this group, but I wouldn’t mind giving them 8-10.

To that end, the Tigers need to acquire one additional starting pitcher via free agency or trade.

The Tigers need arm that will be effective, but not horribly expensive. Lester and Shields would be nice upgrades but if they can afford another $100 million it could be better spent.

Two free agent starters come to mind: Brandon McCarthy and Justin Masterson. McCarthy is an average to slightly above average starter and the only reason he won’t make $50-$60 million this offseason is because he’s had injury issues throughout his career. He’d be an ideal fit because he’s a solid arm who the Tigers can grab on a two or three year deal for less than $40 million. Steamer projects him to be a 2 win pitcher in only 140 innings in 2015, so the dropoff from Scherzer will be felt, but you can’t simply find a Scherzer at these prices.

Alternatively, Masterson is a bit of a gamble because he looked a little worn down down the stretch in 2014. Obviously, the team would need to be assured of the structural integrity of his right arm, but otherwise he’s a good buy low risk. He has trouble with lefties, but he’s good enough against righties to make a one year deal work the risk. He was on the verge of a nice deal before his 2014 slide, but he’s going to want to rebuild his value on short deal, so dangling an extra million or two could really make  a difference.

Also, it’s important to note that even if Masterson can’t hack it as a starter anymore, he could become a terrific weapon against RHP out of the pen. He’s capable of a 3-4 win season, but at the very least you’re getting a solid reliever. He’s exactly the kind of player the Tigers don’t target often enough: Good players coming off down years.

The trade market is probably going to be thin on targets for the Tigers. Cueto would obviously be nice, but it’s hard to imagine that a team wouldn’t be able to top the offer of an meh starting pitching prospect and a generic middle infielder. I’d give Suarez/Travis and Ray for Cueto in a flash, but the Tigers don’t have a lot else to deal to contend with more desperate clubs.

Rotation: Verlander, Sanchez, Price, Porcello, McCarthy/Masterson

SP Depth: Lobstein, Ryan, Ray, Famer, VerHagen

Relief Pitching

The Tigers need relievers in the worst way. They’ll enter 2015 with Nathan, Al-Al, potentially Soria, and a cast of characters. The first thing they need to do is pick up Soria’s option. He’s a good reliever, even if he had a bad run with the Tigers. You can’t find pitchers of his caliber very easily and the Tigers can’t afford to get picky. They don’t just need one or two guys, they need like 6.

So with Nathan, Al-Al, and Soria in the fold, the Tigers are looking at three reasonable right-handed options. If used right and with enough luck, they’re going to be big contributors. But you shouldn’t assume anything like that when it comes to bullpens. The team needs at least two or three more RHP out of the pen. If Bruce Rondon is healthy, that cuts the number, but it’s probably better to assume he won’t be ready and plan for the worst.

If healthy, Luke Putkonen is a good option for the last RHP slot. There are some other guys in the organization who could emerge, but no one really worth planning around. Basically, the Tigers need to sign at least one RHP, but probably two. We’ll get to who in a moment.

On the LHP side, the Tigers have Hardy, Lobstein, Ryan, and Ray as potential options. If you’re expecting to carry two lefties, the four of those guys can probably wind up covering one slot. Heck, maybe Ian Krol could give you a few useful innings. Each of the four listed showed some real potential as reliever and the Tigers should focus on catering their preparations for that role. Maybe Lobstein and Ryan end up starting in Toledo, but the Tigers need relief help and they shouldn’t wait around for it when they could convert Ray this offseason.

So that means the Tigers need at least one LHP, but two would be better.

David Robertson is a great RH target, but he’s also a “closer” and will be more expensive than he’s worth. Instead, the Tigers should target Luke Gregerson, Jason Frasor and Pat Neshek. Gregerson is a perfect choice because he won’t attract closer attention despite being a very consistent performer over the last several seasons. He’s better against RHH, given that he relies on his slider, but he has a career .285 wOBA vs LHH, so he won’t have to come out against anything less than the top LHH. He should only fetch a one or two year deal for reasonable money. He’s not a ace or a name, but the Tigers are a team that needs good relievers, not votes for student council.

Frasor is a guy I’ve wanted the Tigers to get pretty much forever. He’s not a great reliever, but he’s been very solid for years. He doesn’t have a big platoon split and he’s consistent. He signed for under $2 million in 2014 and shouldn’t cost a ton more this year.

Neshek was awesome this year after years of mostly being meh, but his weird delivery and big platoon split will keep big money away. You don’t need Neshek to be one of your shutdown guys, you want him to matchup against RHH and provide depth if one of the big dogs goes down.

On the left side, the Tigers need one really good lefty and one guy who isn’t terrible. It’s a shallow list, with Andrew Miller standing out. Andrew Miller is probably going to get many millions of dollars, so that might be off the table. Neal Cotts reinvented himself as a quality reliever two years ago and would work well. So would Zach Duke, who completely reinvented himself as a strikeout guy during 2014. The Tigers should sign both before anyone catches on.

The key here is that a bunch of relievers will suck. You can’t barely have seven competent relievers, you need like 11 so that you have a good unit when the invariable problems emerge. This plan offers the Tigers this bullpen:

Relief Ace: Soria

RHP1: Luke Gregerson

RHP2: Al Alburquerque

RHP3: Joe Nathan

RHP4: Jason Frasor

RHP Depth: Pat Neshek, Bruce Rondon, Luke Putkonen, etc

LHP1: Neal Cotts

LHP2: Zach Duke

LHP Depth: Blaine Hardy, Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan

That’s an actual bullpen, rather than a “what’s the worst that could happen pen.”

Position Players

First and second base are locked down, and Avila is going to be the catcher if he’s healthy. I would recommend that Avila think about retirement, but I’m not going to assume that’s happening for the purposes of this plan. That means the Tigers need to decide on the left side, the outfield, DH, and the bench.

If Iglesias is healthy, he’s the guy at SS. The glove is too valuable to keep it anywhere else. If they’re concerned about his health, they should look at Jed Lowrie or Clint Barmes as a stop gap, but if Iggy can handle most of the reps, having Romine or Suarez on the bench behind him would work just fine. I’d probably favor Romine because he’s a better option for late game defensive work at 3B and is a useful pinch runner.

Castellanos looks very promising with the bat, but his defense was awful in 2014. I’m optimistic that it can get better, but how much better is an open question. The Tigers should stick with Nick at 3B for 2015, unless they can find a really good option on the market. Give him a chance to make the adjustments, but don’t hold your breath.

James McCann should compliment Avila behind the plate because he’s a better hitter and defender than Holaday and could run a real platoon rather than only making hay with bunt hits. Holaday is nice depth, but that’s depth that can work in Toledo as well.

At DH, the Tigers ought to retain Victor Martinez. It will cost them, but he’s a good hitter who won’t have to adjust to a new paradigm where he doesn’t play the field. He seems to be a positive voice in the clubhouse and he hits very well from both sides. You worry about the age, but he’s gifted enough to decline slowly.

In the outfield, the Tigers have Davis, Dirks, Martinez, Moya, and Collins to work with. Two of those four could hook up for a platoon (Davis and Dirks?) and then let Martinez, Moya, and Collins work out the other spot, but I’d bring in an outside veteran at a corner as well, while the team also grabs a bona fide CF. JD Martinez is probably good enough now to win a job, but I wouldn’t just assume it’s going to happen. You want to plan for the worst.

For the RF veteran, Melky Cabrera will probably be out of the Tigers’ price range, but it would be a good fit to grab him for LF or RF if the cost is low enough. Otherwise, signing Nate Shierholtz, Alex Rios, Nick Markakis, or Chris Denorfia to play the other corner make sense. Either that player will stick and give Moya and Collins another year to wait for Davis to skip town or the kids will force their way onto the roster and leave the organization with a good problem. Markakis would get my vote.

The best case scenario is that Martinez, Dirks, Davis, and Markakis all perform well and you’re using Davis and Dirks off the bench really effectively for defense, running, and rest. That’s a really nice set of corner outfielders and reserves.

For CF, the direction in my mind is clear. Defense. Don’t sweat the fact that you don’t have a big bat out there. Don’t look for a superstar. Get a player who will play excellent defense out there and make life easier on the corner guys and especially the pitchers. There are two clear options, with one being more likely than the other.

Peter Bourjos and Craig Gentry. They’re very similar players. Both are outstanding defenders in CF and both are terrific base runners. The Tigers need both in a big way. Both are probably no better than average at the plate and probably a touch worse and both have some history getting dinged up. But the defense is amazing and the Tigers need it so badly.

Bourjos is the easier target because the Cardinals have like 112 outfielders and Bourjos fell out of favor down the stretch. With Taveras, Grichuk, Jay, Holliday, etc all on the roster, Bourjos is less useful there than he would be to the Tigers. The Tigers can and should offer the Cardinals pretty much whatever they want out of the farm system short of Derek Hill. The Tigers need a great defender out there. Gentry fits the same mold, but the A’s are more clever with their platoons and have more PAs to burn in the OF, so it might be a trickier deal.

If we assume Bourjos, Markakis, and Martinez get most of the reps with time for Davis and Dirks mixed in if healthy, that just leaves a roster spot for Don Kelly (or someone else who can back up at a few places) if one of the outfielders flames out. I’ll do a piece later about depth and minor league guys they should target to fill out the spots after +25.

Catchers: Avila, McCann

First Base: Cabrera

Second Base: Kinsler

Shortstop: Iglesias

Third Base: Castellanos

Left Field: JD Martinez

Center Field: Bourjos

Right Field: Markakis

DH: Victor Martinez

Bench: Rajai Davis, Andy Dirks, Andrew Romine

Overall Plan

In sum, the Tigers should target McCarthy, Gregerson, Frasor, Neshek, Cotts, Duke, Markakis, and Bourjos in an effort to revamp the team and work toward a title in 2015. If JD Martinez pans out and Dirks remains healthy, you’re crowded on the roster. But what are the odds that those things both happen and that VMart re-signs? And that no major piece gets hurt.

Start with a crowded roster and problems won’t kill you. It’s better to have Dirks upset about his role than have Ezequiel Carrera getting very important at bats in September.

The philosophy here is acquiring a high number of good players rather than a couple of great ones. The Tigers have star power but they lack depth. Improving the outfield and bullpen should be imperatives and this plan achieves that without a huge commitment financially or in terms of years. Bad stuff will happen and this will insulate the team. It’s probably going to push closer to $185 million or so, which means this plan without Markakis is the proposal if we’re running into a hard ceiling.

Finally, this isn’t happening, but I would absolutely fire the manager. Ausmus had a horrible showing in year one and has made no public indication that he’s grown as a result of the experience. Could he get better? Sure. Would a great manager have taken them to the series in 2014? Unlikely. But that doesn’t mean he should be back. He did almost nothing well and only did a few things with average skill. They should fire him and bring in someone like Dave Martinez from TB (to fill the Martinez quota!). They won’t, but that’s just my plea. (I’ll do a full breakdown of the Ausmus season after the WS).

That’s the plan. All 2,500 words of it. Outfield depth. Bullpen depth. Defense. Get a little lucky.

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A Quick Look At The Tigers Arbitration Cases

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Yesterday, we took a look at what the Tigers should do with their seven free agents and today we’ll take a peak into their arbitration situation. Obviously, the Tigers aren’t going to arbitration. Dombrowski doesn’t do that. But it’s important to look at what we expect each player to make so that we have a sense of the likely payroll going into the signing/trading part of the season and who could be trade bait and where the holes are.

The Tigers have six cases: David Price, Rick Porcello, Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, Al Alburquerque, and JD Martinez

David Price – SP

So Price is obviously getting tendered a contract and it will build from $14 million, which was his 2014 settling figure. I think we’re probably looking at something in the $18-$20 million range and it’s very likely that the team will approach Price about a long term deal with the money that they aren’t paying to Max Scherzer.

Price is in a position of strength because he’s already made plenty of money, has more than $15 million guaranteed for 2015 via arbitration, and can dictate his price to the Tigers. If he wants to stay in Detroit long term, then he’ll shoot for a deal before Opening Day, but if not, it’s an easy call to play the field.

Recommendation: Settle around $19 million, offer a five or six year extension. Don’t overpay, explore trade market interest with an eye on legitimate future upgrades.

Rick Porcello – SP

Porcello will probably wind up making $12 million or so in arbitration, give or take, and will then be up for free agency at year’s end. The Tigers need to work to lock him up long term and need to do it now. Porcello doesn’t have much reason to sign an extension because he’s already made plenty of money and doesn’t have to worry much about the financial future of his future kids. The next contract is going to be a big one, but it’s not life changing money. That ship has sailed.

For the Tigers, they can’t let Porcello and Price walk, but Porcello will be younger and cheaper and has long roots in the organization. Offering him an extra four to five years at something like $17-$18 million a year sounds like a smart move. If he’ll take anything less, the Tigers need to jump at the offer.

Recommendation: Settle around $12 million, offer a four or five year extension. Extend at virtually anything below market value.

Andy Dirks – OF

Dirks’ question is his health. He’s established himself as something between a fourth outfielder and a very solid major league regular. With an entire year off, Dirks won’t get the kind of raise he might have been approaching, and keeping it under $4 million is pretty likely.

Dirks should get a chance to get healthy and earn a job on the 2015 club. You probably don’t want to count on him for 400 PA or more, but there’s no virtue in cutting him or dealing him right now.

Recommendation: Settle around $3 million. Hope for 2015 Opening Day.

Don Kelly – EVERYTHING

Kelly’s easy because he’s so cheap. Pay him $2 million and worry about the rest later. He’s a nice, versatile option to have on the bench that allows you to overload one position with quality pinch hitters (if they actually recognize the need) and doesn’t cause any problems. If there’s no roster spot in March, put him on waivers and store him in AAA if he’s up for it. It’s a small financial risk, but if you non-tender him, you’re just going to wind up signing him in February for $1.2 million.

Recommendation: Settle for $2 million.

Al Alburquerque – RP

Al-Al’s price is going to stay low enough because he’s not a closer and he’s actual one of the team’s reasonably useful relievers. He made $840K in 2014. Less than $3 million? Easy.

Recommendation: Settle for $2.5 million.

JD Martinez – OF

So this one’s going to be interesting because of how much his platform season differs from the rest of his career. Martinez is going to have some fun in arbitration because he slugged the ball, but he’s also only looking at one year of payable performance. I don’t really have a sense of how the process looks at those guys, but I would expect something like $3-$5 million. He’s obviously earned a spot in the team for 2014 even if you think he’s not a completely reformed player.

Do the research, figure out exactly what they surprise breakouts earn and make a fair offer.

Recommendation: $4 million?

***

In total, the Tigers will bring back Price, Porcello, Dirks, Al-Al, and Martinez without a doubt. Maybe they non-tender Kelly, but it’s not a hugely important question in terms of offseason planning. Given the cost, Price could be a player worth dangling in a trade, but otherwise, the club will retain the group and work for roster upgrades around them.

The Seven Tigers Free Agents And Their Futures

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

It took a few days to complete the stages of baseball offseason grief, and New English D is back to look forward (and back) to the 2015 Detroit Tigers. We’ll be sure to analyze some of the key contributors from the 2014 iteration, but it’s time to start considering what comes next. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll present my suggestions for how the team can set it self up best for the upcoming year. Today, we’ll take a look at the players who are set to be free agents when the clock ticks down on the World Series.

The Tigers are looking at seven players whose pacts are up next month: Max Scherzer, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, Jim Johnson, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, and Joel Hanrahan. Some of these are key pieces, some aren’t. Let’s go through it.

Joel Hanrahan – RP

Hanrahan is the easiest one because there’s virtually no real chance he signs a major league deal, or if he does, it will be for $1 million with some incentives. A big injury and a setback? Sure he has a couple of quality seasons on his resume, but where he pitches in 2015 is going to depend on what organization he likes and who is willing to take a flyer.

Recommendation: Offer a minor league deal, let him walk if he doesn’t want it.

Jim Johnson – RP

I actually loved the idea of signing Johnson mid-season because it was the perfect kind of low risk, reliever deal that the Tigers don’t do enough. It didn’t work out. It happens. He walked basically everyone in the world. He walked so many batters he got endorsement deals from professional dog walkers. It was a lot.

I think it’s entirely plausible that he’ll be a fine relief pitcher but a 32 year old who couldn’t find the zone all year? Not exactly someone you spend much money on. If he’s willing to sign for cheap to rebuild the value, he’s a guy I’d absolutely let compete for a job.

Recommendation: Offer a minor league deal, or very small guaranteed contract. 

Joba Chamberlain – RP

Joba’s a bit tougher because he was quite good for a few month before coming back to Earth down the stretch. The ending was bad, but you have to judge the thing as a whole, and on the whole, it was a good, productive season. Entering his age 29 season and far enough removed from two serious injuries, I’m on board with Joba serving as a team’s 3rd or 4th RHP. If he wants to come back in a slightly less prominent role, that totally works for me. He’s earned himself a one year deal worth a few million or a year and an option conditional on health.

I know many soured on Joba, but he’s the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind if he wasn’t getting high leverage innings quite so often.

Recommendation: Offer a one year, $4.5 million deal. Sweeten the pot with an option.

Phil Coke – RP

Coke isn’t a good reliever, but he’s decent enough against lefties and he’s kind of fun to have around. I have no idea what kind of market he’ll have, but there’s not a lot left for him to do in Detroit. If he’ll take a small deal and no guarantee of a roster spot, that’s great. But if he’s looking for a long-term relationship, it’s probably time for an amicable split.

Recommendation: Offer a small, good-will deal.

Torii Hunter – OF

Now that we’re out of the relief pitcher nexus, it’s time to make some tough decisions. As much as people seem to like Torii, there’s just no place on this roster for him. He’s had a very nice career and he’s had a fun little late career run, but the defense is totally gone and you have to hit better than he does to play a corner OF spot that poorly. If you figure he’s a -10 defender at best, you’re looking for a .350-.360 wOBA just to get yourself an average player. And that might be generous defensively. He could work nicely as a pinch hitter/DH/5th OF, but a guy like Torii won’t go out like that. There’s just no place for him on a club desperate for defense.

Recommendation: Approach him about a bench role, wish him well when he says no thanks.

Victor Martinez – DH/1B

Martinez had his best offensive season at 35 thanks to an amazing power surge and if you believe the projections, enough of it is here to stay to want him back in 2015. You worry about an aging hitter with no position, but VMart has maxed out his negative value on defense and on the bases. He’s going to be a -25 runner/defender, so to get to 3 WAR or so, you need 35 batting runs. That’s about a .380 wOBA. He’s projected for .371.

Basically, if he comes back to Earth as you expect, a 2-3 win player is what you’ll get. But if the power is sustainable for a year or two, you might get another run at 4 WAR. Plus, there definitely appears to be something to his leadership skills and the way his approach sets a model for young players. I’m also fine paying a premium for how gloriously fun it is to watch him hit. You don’t want to go crazy, but the Tigers should match any offer that’s pretty close to theirs. It’s not so much that he’s going to be a bargain, but replacing his production is going to be tough.

Recommendation: Qualifying offer. Shoot for 3 years, $45 million. Try to keep it reasonable. Don’t pay $75 million. Maybe $55M?

Max Scherzer – SP

The only way Max stays in Detroit is if the team can trade Verlander, or something else super crazy happens. He’s going to be expensive. He turned himself into an ace and he’s going to get paid like one. You’ll be buying age 30-35/36 and that’s going to include some decline years, but decline from a 5-6 WAR peak.

Scherzer will beat the 6/$144M offer he got this offseason and I think 6/$180M is probably the lowest amount he’d accept. Practically speaking, you need 25 WAR over those six years to make that work, so you’re betting on a very slow decline. That’s just not a wager you can make with so much money tied up in old players. Max has been terrific for the Tigers, but he’s simply too expensive to be worth the cost. If they hadn’t extended Verlander, you might think about the risk, but you can’t lock up $75 million in three players on the wrong side of 30.

Max is going to be good for another couple seasons, but there’s just no way to make it work.

Recommendation: Qualifying offer. Lots of hugs.

The End Of The 2014 Tigers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

When the end came, it was Hernan Perez at the plate, grounding into a double play. That might say it all. The Tigers won 90 games and the AL Central, but when the now or never moment arrived, it was Hernan Perez at the plate. It wasn’t Miguel Cabrera getting toasted by Sergio Romo or Brandon Inge whiffing on an Adam Wainwright curveball. It was Hernan Perez hitting a routine ground ball to the third baseman and failing to beat the relay to first. The Tigers season ended on Sunday evening. It didn’t end terribly early or inexplicably. They died as they lived. At the hands of a bad bullpen, poor defense, and reckless base running. On balance, a good baseball team, but in sum, not the best. The team was unlucky and a few confusing decisions were made, but 90 wins and a division title isn’t a disaster.

A year ago, the Tigers underwent a rather significant overhaul. Fielder, Benoit, and Fister were shuffled for Kinsler, Nathan, Joba, Davis, and well, those guys from the Nationals. It was a different roster, and then Dirks and Iglesias and Rondon all got hurt and anything resembling depth was gone. Plus you’ve got injuries to Verlander, Cabrera, and Sanchez in some capacity.

There was found gold in the Martinezes and a nice little boost from Kinsler. Price came but it cost Jackson and Smyly, and Soria did as well, but hardly played a role and didn’t pitch well when he was finally asked to hold the season together.

What’s the story of the 2014 Tigers? What did we learn? What matters? What should we take from the experience we all just shared?

I think there are a few simple things. You can’t ignore defense, you can’t give away outs, and when you have a bad bullpen, you have to be willing to adapt. You can hit and pitch your way through almost anything, but when we’re playing at the margins in October, you can only avoid so many mistakes.

I was hard on Brad Ausmus in his first year. I don’t regret that. He was overmatched, inflexible, and downright stubborn. But that doesn’t mean Ausmus couldn’t have won with a better club or that a good manager with this team would have won those eleven important October games. Being a bad manager and being the reason your team lost aren’t always the same thing. All else equal, they’re better off with someone else, but the team that wins the title is almost always the team that had good fortune and with a good enough roster. That wasn’t the Tigers this year.

There were some exciting moments and some fun individual seasons this year. It wasn’t as fun as the 2013 squad, but that’s going to happen.

There will be significant changes again this offseason. Max Scherzer is likely moving on in free agency. Victor Martinez will be sought after as well. Torii Hunter might hang it up. Bullpen decisions, potential extensions for Porcello and Price will be on the table and there’s a glaring hole in CF waiting to be filled. Will Iglesias be healthy? Can Nick improve at 3B? At what point does Avila decide he’s been struck in the head one too many times? Does Moya or McCann play a role?

There are questions. The Tigers brass will huddle and consider their options. They’ll kick around creative ideas and they’ll decide on a course of action. It could go a lot of different ways. There’s a case to be made for going for it in a big way, before the Cabrera/Verlander contracts go south, but now might also be a time to reinvent the wheel a bit too.

I’ll give it some thought and decide what I think is best. The rest of the fan base will do the same. And then Dombrowski will do something none of us predicted and we’ll argue about it until February.

I had fun, even if it wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had with the team and I hope you did too, even if it ended with a whimper rather than champagne, or at least a deep run.

The Tigers were talented enough to win this season, but talent is only part of the equation. There’s a lot of luck and timing and a lot of that’s out of your control. Sometimes, no matter how good the team was for however many games, you end up with Hernan Perez taking your team’s final swing. Could the Tigers have avoid this? Sure. But it was a bunch of little things that went wrong and you can’t plug 20 pinhole leaks no matter how hard you try. (Note: I don’t know much about boats, this might be easy)

It’s the end of the line. It’s going to be an interesting winter. It sucks, but it builds character. The day is going to come where the Tigers win the last game of the season and all this suffering will have been worth it.

How Was The Game? (October 5, 2014)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The end of the line.

Orioles 2, Tigers 1

David Price (1 GS, 8 IP, 2.25 ERA, 4.38 FIP) gave it his all in his first playoff start in Detroit, allowing just two runs a Cruz bomb that barely cleared the wall, but it wasn’t enough for a Tigers offense that failed to deliver. They gave it one hell of an effort in the 9th with back to back doubles from the Martinezes, but they could not push across run number two. The team wasn’t built perfectly and there were many flaws, but it’s still sad to see them go. It wasn’t a good series or a good game, but they gave us meaningful October games for a fourth straight season and there’s only so much you can complain about that. There will be changes coming. Scherzer is likely gone. Hunter too. Maybe Martinez. It will be a different club the next time we see them. Six, long dark months from now. Perhaps it will again be Justin Verlander on Opening Day.

The Moment: VMart and JD double to start the 9th and make this a game.

How Was The Game? (October 3, 2014)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

A bigger meltdown.

Orioles 7, Tigers 6

The Tigers offense did what they had to do to even this series, responding to a two run homer allowed by Justin Verlander (1 GS, 5 IP, 5.40 ERA, 4.73 FIP) in the 3rd with a five run attack of their own in the 4th. Hunter, Cabrera, and Martinez reached and then JD and Nick homered to turn the tables very quickly. Verlander got them through two more innings and then we got six glorious outs from Anibal Sanchez before the Tigers added an insurance run (and cost themselves one with bad base running) and headed to the Joba-Nathan innings. Joba struggled, hitting a batter and allowing two hits, so Soria came in and piled it on, culminating in a Delmon Young bases clearing double that put the Tigers behind. They couldn’t rally and will be on the ropes Sunday with hired gun David Price (First Start of Postseason) on the hill.

The Moment: The Tigers jump all over the Orioles with 5 in the 4th.

How Was The Game? (October 2, 2014)

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

A meltdown.

Orioles 12, Tigers 3

The Tigers were never in the driver’s seat of this game, but boy did they take a back seat late. Max Scherzer (1 GS, 7.1 IP, 4.91 ERA, 5.86 FIP) was shaky early, missing badly and allowing two runs in the first and a run in the second before settling down and cruising for a couple of innings. The Martinez boys struck back with bombs in the 2nd and everyone settled down for a bit. The O’s got a solo shot in the 7th and the Tigers had something brewing in the 8th with Kinsler on and Torii at the plate, when the Tigers called for steal that resulted in a line out double play. Cabrera homered a batter later and this thing looked close. Then, um, the entire team melted down in the bottom of the 8th inning as they surrendered 8 runs on bad pitching and bad defense. Let’s not even talk about it. It was awful. No need to relive it. We’ll do it again in about 15 hours. Justin Verlander (First Postseason Start) will see if he can recapture the 2013 postseason magic.

The Moment: Victor and JD go back to back in the second.

What The Tigers Need To Do In October

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I love playoff baseball, but writing real analysis about playoff baseball that hasn’t happened yet is impossible. I could write retrospective analysis about what both of these teams have done so far this season or I could highlight a particular player who I find interesting, but we’re at the point where the market is saturated with content and we’re about to care a whole lot about a small sample size which is nearly unpredictable.

The Diamondbacks could beat the Tigers in a 5 games series and it wouldn’t be that weird. It doesn’t actually matter who the better teams is during a sprint like this. You just need to play better for a week and we all know that both teams are capable of this. So it’s not super productive to look at the rosters and compare the positions or worry a whole lot about their season records or whatever. If both clubs play to their potential, it’s a tossup. A lot of postseason success is about getting lucky, but the other big factor is avoiding costly mistakes.

You can’t control when you’re going to hit that big home run, but you can avoid using Phil Coke against a RHH with the bases loaded. So let’s look at the what the Tigers need to do to maximize their odds of winning. So much will come down to dumb luck, but you can influence those fortunes a bit.

Be conservative on the bases

The Tigers weren’t the worst base running team in the league during 2014, but they made 60 outs on the bases, including 20 at the plate. Overall, they were pretty much a break even club, but their particular mistakes were avoidable. They have a couple of very good base runners in Davis and Kinsler, but they also took too many chances with their slower runners. The value of an out on the bases is twice as high as the value of advancing one extra base. In a short series, you can’t give away those outs.

The concern is that Ausmus will try to make more happen in the postseason because the value of a single run is higher, but the Tigers simply aren’t built to take the extra base the way the Royals are, for instances. The Tigers will score runs by getting on base and getting knocked in. They do not and should not force the issue because they have demonstrated their inability to do the job successfully. They have sluggers, they don’t need to play small ball.

Plan ahead

One of the things Ausmus struggled with during the regular season was knowing when to use his bench. He was willing to use them, he just didn’t always find the best spot for each of his weapons. The roster isn’t out just yet, but chances are we’re going to be using a light hitting SS and CF and a catcher who struggles against lefties. That offers up at least three potential PH spots.

You need to be ready to attack them. Know which relievers you want to avoid and in what situations you want to use your hitters. Specifically, under what conditions will you pull Romine in the 7th? The 4th? There needs to be a predetermined answer. You make mistakes when you try to think on the fly. Decide which matchups you want and then find them. If you have a chance to break it open in the 3rd, don’t hold back because you might need someone in the 9th.

The same is true for defensive replacements. Don’t get caught in one of those situations where you’re taking JD Martinez out of the game because you didn’t think ahead.

Set the flowchart on fire

We’re all aware of Ausmus’ bullpen game plan and how it drives us crazy. To get the most out of your team in October, you have to be willing to break the rules. Soria and Sanchez need to pitch in relief during every game in which they’re available. After that you can pick and choose who is reliever #3 or #4, but those are the two best guys and they need to come out of the pen as soon as the situation warrants.

If the game is on the line in the 6th, it’s time for one of the aces. If it’s the 8th and they haven’t pitched, go to them instead of Joba. Sanchez is not a long reliever, he’s the guy you use to win the game. Same with Soria, he’s not a 7th inning guy. He’s a guy you use.

Also, pull the starters earlier than normal. On average, the Tigers should use their starters longer than the Orioles or Royals or Angels, but they still shouldn’t run them into the ground because starters lose effectiveness each time they see the lineup. I’d let Scherzer go longer than Tillman, but I wouldn’t use Scherzer like I would in July. When he starts to tire at all, it’s time for Sanchez and Soria. I know we lionize guys who “want the ball,” but that’s not actually productive when you don’t have to worry about resting the bullpen.

The game will dictate when you need a reliever and who that reliever should be. Roles are out the window. Roles are for when you need to get through a season and make sure guys are fresh and comfortable for six months. In October, you’re pedal to the metal.

Don’t over-manage

Above all, you’re trying to avoid mistakes. Don’t try to make things happen. Put the best players in the game and adjust them based on the situation. You don’t need to steal or bunt or get crazy just because you’re dying to score. Let the players do their thing. Know what they’re good at and where they struggle and have a plan for how you’re going to deploy them.

Most of what’s going to happen this week is going to depend on things you can’t control. If Tillman’s stuff is on, it’s going to be tough. That’s going to occur a certain percentage of the time. But to tip the balance in your favor, you need to avoid mistakes. Don’t give away outs. Plan ahead. Ditch the flowchart.

This is a good team, don’t tie their hands.

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