Jordan Zimmermann Joins The Rotation

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

In a move that will frustrate copy editors across Michigan, the Tigers have reportedly agreed to terms with starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann. The deal isn’t yet official, but assuming the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed, the Tigers will spend $110 million over the next five seasons to bring the righty to Detroit.

To catch you up on Zimmermann, he’s entering his age 30 season and is coming off five straights seasons of 3 fWAR or better. He’s made 32+ starts and has thrown 195+ innings in each of the last four years. Zimmermann is a reliable and talented right-hander who will immediately improve the Tigers rotation. But any analysis requires more interesting questions. It’s inarguable that Zimmermann has been a good pitcher over the last five seasons, but we don’t really care about that directly. We only care about how well Zimmermann is likely to pitch over the next five years and if that justifies the investment the Tigers are about to make.

Let’s start with the first question. How good is Zimmermann going to be in 2016 and beyond? To answer that, we need to start with how good we think he is right now and then apply some type of basic aging expectation. From 2011-2015, Zimmermann has generally been in the above average but not great class of pitchers. The exception was his great 2014 campaign in which he had a 72 ERA- and 73 FIP- in 199.2 innings. But overall since 2011, his first full year back from Tommy John, Zimmermann has thrown 971.2 innings with an 82 ERA- and 87 FIP-.

He’s a low walk, average strikeout guy who pounds the zone. He seems to have a bit of a home run suppression skill, but nothing so extreme that you’d hang your hat on it with nothing else. This is basically the player we saw in 2015, although the home runs were higher and looked more like league average. The earliest projection from Steamer expects another 3 WAR type year in 2016 with the same basic shape. If you’re using his past history to look forward, you would expect something like one or two more 3 win seasons, a couple 2 win seasons, and a 1.5 win season over the five years in the deal. That’s about 11 wins, which using some rough math is worth about $90 million on the free agent market.

By that accounting, the deal for Zimmermann looks to be a little more than he’s worth, but not egregiously so. If there’s more inflation this winter than we expect it might look just fine. So essentially, you have to ask yourself if you’re bullish on Zimmermann aging well or not. Aging curves are averages of all players, so some guys are like Bonds and some guys are like Griffey.

There are reasons to like Zimmermann and reasons to be concerned. On the positive side, Zimmermann has exceptional command and should be the kind of pitcher who can continue to get hitters out even as his stuff fades. 90 mph on the corner is worse than 93 on the corner, but 90 mph on the corner is better than 90 mph over the plate. A guy whose success is built more heavily on command than stuff should survive aging better than a guy who leans more on stufff. It’s not an exact science, but it’s a positive.

On the other hand, Zimmermann lost about a full mile per hour off his fastball in 2015 compared to 2012-14. Granted, he was sitting 94 and now sits 93, but any sudden drop like that is a red flag. You expect pitchers to lose velocity as they get older, but you want to see a steady and gradual decline rather than a steep fall. He can certainly be effective at 93, but it’s a question of the velocity drop being a precursor to injury.

Which brings us to the other major problem. Zimmermann is about six years removed from Tommy John surgery and while he’s certainly past the first danger zone that occurs during the initial rehab, we’re into the window where it wouldn’t be surprising to see another TJS for Zimmermann. There’s a lot we don’t know about pitcher injuries, but coming back from the second TJS is a bigger challenge than coming back from the first. If he hadn’t had the surgery, you would feel confident than a UCL tear would keep him out for one year, but a second tear could be career threatening, and if it happens early in the deal the Tigers are out of luck.

Zimmermann is a good, consistent pitcher who fills up the zone and has stayed healthy and on the mound over the last several seasons. The Tigers are buying his ages 30-34 seasons for $110 million. If he ages normally or better, it’s a good investment. If he ages poorly, there will be a loss for the club. That’s all pretty boring and easy to understand. In the aggregate, the Tigers paid a fine price for former Nationals’ righty.

So now let’s put him into the Tigers’ context. The club absolutely needed a quality starting pitcher if they wanted to contend in 2016. Going into the year with Verlander, Sanchez, and the kids wouldn’t get them anywhere close to a competitive rotation. Verlander had a great second half of 2015 but has struggled with injuries for several years and pitchers don’t often get healthier with age. Sanchez was great in his first few years with the team but struggled mightily with injuries and poor performance in 2015.

Even if you buy the bounceback, the Tigers would be lucky to have a pair of 3-4 win arms and then a parade of rookies and sophomores still in need of seasoning. Adding Zimmermann helps out on the front end. The Tigers probably could have gone with a true ace, or with a solid starter and then an innings eater. Zimmermann takes them on the latter path in an effective way. He’s not Price or Greinke, but he’s good enough to make a real difference.

The larger question is how his $22 million salary affects the overall ability to spend. With Zimmermann they’re probably up to $160M for 2016 and they still need another starter, an outfielder, and couple of relievers. If they don’t have a mandate to increase the payroll, that’s going to be tough to achieve.

In a vacuum, paying Zimmermann $110 million over 5 years seems like a solid bet given the price of free agent pitching these days. There are some reasons to worry the deal could go south, but that’s why the Tigers only had to give him five years instead of a six or seven. The risk is already priced in and Zimmermann figures to be a solid enough return on investment. A team that needed a starter should be happy with signing Zimmermann to this deal.

But we have to judge the Tigers moves in the context of their overall strategy. So far, they’ve added a good reliever, outfield depth, and a #2 starter in a series of perfectly acceptable moves. From a baseball standpoint, each one looks wise. Bu also from a baseball standpoint, the Tigers have a lot more work to do and have talked like they don’t have a ton more money to spend to do it. If that’s the case, Zimmermann is a more difficult signing to understand. You shouldn’t make a $110 million investment in a pitcher like Zimmermann if 2016 is more of a holding pattern year.

Ultimately, like the moves before it, this is a good one if they made it with the idea that they’re really going for it. Maxing out the payroll to build an 80-win team isn’t a good long terms strategy because it’s wasteful and creates risk before risk is needed. If the club, however, intends to really invest in the pieces they need to be an 87-90 win team, getting Zimmermann is a nice move.

Cameron Maybin Comes Home

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Last night, Al Avila pulled the trigger on trade number two, sending Ian Krol and Gabe Speier to Atlanta for Cameron Maybin and a couple million dollars. You might remember Maybin as a former Tigers prospect who was involved in the Cabrera trade in late 2007.

Maybin is a right handed outfielder with one year left on his contract plus a team option for 2017. He had one big season back in 2011 and a solid one in 2012. In his younger days he was an elite base runner, but while he stole 23 bags in 2015, his ability to take the extra base isn’t what it once was. 

He’s been up and down defensively if you believe the metrics, but a roughly average career center fielder is a perfectly fine addition if you want someone who can handle center while spending time in left. The real issue will be his bat. 

Maybin has had one above average offensive season and has hovered below average for the remaining seasons. Maybin strikes out less than average and takes his walks, but his failing as a hitter is the lack of pop. From 2009-2011, Maybin was a perfectly fine .130ish ISO guy, but he’s been below .110 ISO since. Of course some of that is Petco and Turner, but you can’t be a below average on-base and power guy unless you stand out on defense. While Maybin isn’t horrible with the glove, he hasn’t been a star. 

So don’t get the wrong idea about Maybin. He’s a fourth outfielder by history while some upside due to his tools. He could absolutely hit his 90% outcome and be a 3-4 win player, but odds are he’s a 400 PA, 1 WAR guy. 

And that’s perfectly fine! Maybin will cost the Tigers about $5.5M in 2016 and Ian Krol and Gabe Speier. Monetarily, $5.5M for one year buys you a well below average player, especially if you want a 29-year old version. Ian Krol is not only a bad and replaceable reliever, taking him off the roster also takes him away from Ausmus who seemed to think he was cut out for leverage roles because he throws hard. Addition by subtraction. 

Speier was part of the Porcello deal and is a much more interesting piece. I got to see him once last year and the general reports have been good. He’s an intriguing arm but he’s probably two years away and relievers are relievers. It’s a cost, but it’s a small one. 

All told, the Tigers got a nice depth piece for a very low cost. The trade was a good one, but again the question is how much the Tigers think he figures into the plans for 2016. If they understand that he is a supplemental piece and not a major outfield upgrade, great! End of article. 

If the Tigers think Maybin-Gose-Martinez is a winning outfield, they are taking a giant leap of faith. They still need another bat, but Maybin does fill a role they needed to fill. Now to reunite him with Andrew Miller…

Tigers Get Guy With Saves, But Pay Reasonable Price

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The Al Avila era is very much picking up where his predecessor left off. The Tigers went into the offseason with a bad bullpen and the first move they made was to acquire someone with a long history of earning “saves.” Granted, getting a guy who’s been a successful closer isn’t inherently a bad thing – it’s just a sign that the Tigers might be the same as they ever were, in more ways than one.

The particulars are this: the Tigers sent infield prospect Javier Betancourt and a PTBNL to the Brewers for Francisco Rodriguez (aka K-Rod) and a PTBNL. K-Rod will enter his age 34 season with one year and an option left on his current deal. He’ll get paid $5.5 million in 2016 with $2 million deferred and has a $6 million option/$2 million buyout waiting for 2017. It’s unclear exactly how that will all shake out and if any money is changing hands. Betancourt will be 21 in 2016 and had 531 PA in High-A in 2015. We’ll assume the PTBNLs aren’t substantial names.

Really, the move comes down to how much you think K-Rod has left. Presumably, the Tigers are counting on paying him about $13 million over two seasons, which is probably a bit less than someone like him would make on the free agent market this winter. In other words, the Tigers will save a couple million at the expense of losing Betancourt. Your opinion of Betancourt depends on your opinion of his future offensive profile. He grades out as a solid but unspectacular defender at second base, so if you buy him as someone who can hang in a major league lineup, he has a nifty future. If you think of him as someone who is probably not going to provide slightly below average offense or better, he’s probably nothing more than a fungible utility guy.

In assessing this particular exchange, you have to also consider the time horizons. Betancourt likely won’t be sniffing the big leagues until at least late 2017 and even if he winds up being a worthwhile contributor, that’s probably not until 2018-2019. This requires that you discount his potential value because the future matters less than the present, and as a result, it doesn’t require much more than a “meh” view of his bat to lead you to be comfortable with this deal.

Realistically, while Betancourt might someday be a useful big league infielder, combining the odds of that with how far away that day would be makes it a pretty low cost move. Remember of course that acquiring K-Rod improves the team, but you aren’t comparing him to the current relievers, you’re comparing him to what you could have bought this winter with the money that’s now been allocated to his salary. So this trade saves the Tigers a few million and costs them a prospect who might be a fringe-average player in three years. A fine swap if you’re into grading the exchange.

But more broadly, we should now consider exactly whom the Tigers acquired. We’ve agreed that the cost is fine, but how did picking up K-Rod move the needle for the 2016 team?

There was a time when he was among the best relievers in baseball. From 2004-2007, he was outstanding. He was very good in 2008, meh in 2009, very good again in 2010 and 2011, meh in 2012, and then pretty good in 2013. He was solid enough in 2014 and then good again in 2015. In other words, he has a track record of success with some off years mixed in. But seasons eight and ten years ago mean very little in the life of a reliever. We only care about K-Rod today.

He still gets lots of strikeouts, but while his walk rate has improved in recent years, he’s also become more vulnerable to the long ball. He still limits contact and he’s had better control as of late. In other words, he’s not the star he once was, but still pitches like the kind of guy you’d want in your bullpen. He’s still a good reliever. He doesn’t throw mid-90s anymore, but shifting from a fastball dominant approach to a changeup heavy offering in 2015 is interesting:

Brooksbaseball-Chart (4)

K-Rod was very good in his younger days and has maintained a solid level of performance as he’s transitioned to a guy with a low 90s fastball. As long as he’s healthy, and his track record on that is good, he should be a nice addition to the bullpen.

So in summation: cost fine, addition good. But there is the 800 Tiger-shaped elephant in the room.

This. Can’t. Be. All. 

The Tigers have historically been obsessed with acquiring single, elite relievers who can solidify their entire bullpen. Yes, K-Rod is a nice addition, and yes, he has 386 career “saves,” but neither of those facts mean that one quality reliever is a game changer. The Tigers need to do more, either in free agency or on the trade market. Having a good reliever pitch the 9th inning when the lead is three runs or fewer doesn’t make other relievers pitch better, it just bumps the worst guy from the bullpen and moves everyone down a slot. The Tigers needed to add three pretty good relievers when the winter began, now that number is down to two. The fact that he has been a “closer” in his career does not change that calculation.

The cost was fair and the player was needed. As long as the front office is clear on the degree to which Rodriguez can impact the team, the baseball side of this is good.

Of course, there is another dimension to Rodriguez. He’s known for being a bit of a hot-head and has had run-ins with teammates over the years. Those are the kinds of things you can brush aside in most cases, but he’s also been arrested for assaulting the father of his girlfriend and charged in a separate incident for assaulting the mother of his child. Those are not the kind of issues you want to brush aside. The details of the second incident are somewhat limited and it is possible that Rodriguez has made efforts to change over the last few years. It should not immediately disqualify him from employment with the team to have had these incidents in his past, but you don’t feel good about it either.

The Tigers are no strangers to putting allegedly violent and dangerous people in uniform, including Miguel Cabrera, Evan Reed, and Alfredo Simon in recent years. The reports about Rodriguez sound less egregious than those the Tigers have already embraced, but that doesn’t mean Rodriguez doesn’t have a shameful past which the Tigers should be worried about. At the very least, it won’t be easy to cheer for his personal success. Most of the world doesn’t care about athletes who get into fights and beat women. If you’re a good athlete, people will make excuses for your behavior because they care about winning more than they care about what is morally right. I’m not interested in doing that, but I understand that many of your are.

I wouldn’t have traded for K-Rod without evidence that he’s sought counseling for his personal flaws, shown remorse, and changed his ways. But in a baseball only vacuum, the trade does help the team.


The Tigers Need A Good Outfielder, Not A Complementary One

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

Last week I published my yearly offseason plan for the Tigers and, among other things, I called for the Tigers to sign Ben Zobrist and acquire one of Chris Young/Austin Jackson/Peter Bourjos. The idea was to install Zobrist (or a player of similar quality) in a corner opposite JD Martinez and use the right-handed hitter to compliment Anthony Gose. I haven’ been secretive about viewing Gose as more of a bench player, but the Tigers seem to like him so I didn’t go as far as to totally discount him.

Yet something Al Avila said recently concerned me a little bit. Now of course, Avila might just be saying words to reporters that don’t mean anything. His predecessor did that pretty often and it’s totally reasonable that Avila doesn’t believe what he said. Here’s a quote from a Jason Beck summary of Avila’s comments:

The Tigers also are looking at the outfield market, Avila confirmed, either for a full-time left fielder or a right-handed hitter to platoon. How the search for pitching goes is likely to affect how they approach that.

I’ll call your attention to the “or” in that statement. The Tigers want to get a full time left fielder or a right-handed hitter to platoon. The assumption here is that the Tigers are going with Martinez-Gose-UNDECIDED for the outfield. That undecided spot either belongs to a full time guy or a guy who they can platoon with Tyler Collins, or perhaps Steven Moya.

If Avila’s comments can be taken at face value we should be a touch worried. Of course, wins are fungible. If you have five Clayton Kershaws, you don’t need much of an offense and if you are world beaters at the plate, you don’t need great pitching, but we have a strong sense of what the Tigers roster will look like. Given what we know about their 2016 roster already, it concerns me that the Tigers think they could go to battle with a Collins/some guy platoon while also having Gose as a full-time player.

All of this is predicated on the team not making some insane trade to upgrade their infield dramatically, but if we assume they go out and get a good starter and an okay starter to supplement the rotation and some relief help (not as much as I suggested though), then we can expect the team to sit in he low to mid 80s in terms of expected wins. It’s a fine club, but there is a significant gap between that and a playoff team.

If the Tigers go out and sign a legitimate outfielder like Zobrist (or Gordon, Heyward, Cespedes, Upton, etc), then they are in a much better position certainly. If the outfield is Zobrist-Gose-Martinez, it’s a very different thing that Collins/platoon-Gose-Martinez. That’s kind of self-evident, but that’s the line Avila is walking in that comment. Either they get a left fielder, or they’re going to platoon Collins with a low-key righty. That’s a huge difference.

If you pile that onto his comments about being more restrictive about free agent spending than in the past, you have to assume the Tigers aren’t going to add significant payroll. They were at $170M or so last year, and maybe you can imagine $180M or so, but if the world according to Avila is true, it starts to look difficult for the Tigers to build a winner.

It sounds like, at least, that the Tigers are either going to sign a good starter or a good outfielder, and they’ll go fringy with whichever doesn’t shake out. I have no problem investing in one part of the roster over the other. Wins are wins. But if you break down the comments, it sounds like the Tigers are limited financially and there’s a chance they won’t acquire a quality bat for the outfield and might enter the season relying on Gose for a full time spot and a weak platoon in left. And that’s just not going to get the job done.

You can support one kind of iffy outfield spot, but supporting two iffy spots when you’re already unsure about the bats at third base and catcher (not to mention the health of your DH), means that you’re counting on your team to prevent runs very well. That would be fine except for the fact that requires adding at least a really good starter and an okay one in addition to like three relievers just to get yourself into the conversation.

Hopefully, this is just Avila keeping things noncommittal. You can get by with signing a high quality outfielder and ignoring a platoon mate for Gose, but you can’t get buy with only finding a platoon partner for Collins. That leaves the offense too weak and very exposed to injuries. And that’s to say nothing of the only left handed bats being Collins, Gose, and VMart. If the Tigers don’t acquire a quality bat in the outfield, they better intend to invest heavily in pitching. And this isn’t a Iwakuma and Latos kind of investment, but a Price/Iwakuma kind of investment.

It’s okay to go with pitching or offense, but if the Tigers take the low offense play, they need to understand how much pitching it would truly require to make them competitive. And they also need to keep in mind that next year’s free agent class is very thin, so a two-year shopping effort isn’t really a wise move.

You can’t put too much stock into a few GM comments, but if the Tigers are going to compete, they need to add two really good players, three okay players, and to bolster the bullpen. They can choose to do that in many different ways, but if they think they can ignore the outfield and get away with acquiring only one top level pitcher, it’s going to be another October of watching other teams spray champagne.

A Plan For The 2016 Tigers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

So, hey, remember the Tigers? I know they haven’t played baseball in a month, but free agency gets started this week and the club is going to have to do some work under new general manager Al Avila if they want to compete in 2016. And to some extent, that is a question they do have to ponder. Do the Tigers want to go for it in 2016 or do they want to take a step back and rebuild?

I think there’s a decent case to be made for sitting 2016 out, but it also seems pretty clear that the Tigers plan to compete. They have Cabrera, both Martinezes, Verlander, Kinsler, and Sanchez. That core isn’t getting on in years and so is the owner. And while Avila decides who, what, and where, Ilitch decides when. I could offer a rebuilding plan, but that would be more of a campaign manifesto than a governing document.

Earlier in the offseason, I suggested that based on the current roster, the Tigers need a center fielder, corner outfielder, backup catcher, bench stuff, a really good starter, and lots of relief pitching. Ideally, one of those outfielders would be close to a star level player. I’m working under the assumption that the team intends to ride it out with Nick Castellanos, but I wouldn’t be opposed to buying some third base insurance either.

Let’s take this position by position.

Corner Outfielder and Center Fielder

If you’re looking at the free agent market, there are plenty of excellent corner outfielders out there. It seems easy enough to pick one of them. There’s Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Ben Zobrist, Justin Upton, and Jason Heyward. The worst of the group is probably a 3 WAR player and the best could be in the 6-7 WAR range for 2016. All of these guys are very good, with plenty of potential for greatness. Of course, you’re going to pay for that kind of production, but it’s out there for the taking and it’s only money.

The other free agent options are guys like Chris Young, Gerardo Parra, Dexter Fowler, Denard Span, and Colby Rasmus. That’s not as impressive of a list, but they are guys you can add without giving up anything but cash (and maybe a second round pick).

But keep in mind that trades are also possible. You don’t have to find your new players on the free agent market. A name you might hear is Yasiel Puig. Carlos Gonzalez could be on the block. Ryan Braun might be on the move given the Brewers interest in rebuilding. In other words, there are a lot of very good outfielders available to the Tigers. Importantly, very few of the difference makers can play center field with regularity. You can find someone to play center, but there aren’t borderline starts in center to be had.

So that should lead the Tigers to look for a big upgrade in left (or right, JD can shift back) and add a less flashy option in center. I know the Tigers coaches and front office have had nice things to say about Gose, but he doesn’t look like a a starter on a competitive team. He’s a below average hitter, and despite his good speed, hasn’t played well defensively. Could they correct the defensive flaws, perhaps? Could the bat tick up, sure. But counting on him to take a real step forward is foolish if you’re really committed to winning in 2016.

I don’t think there’s any question that Heyward is the best player of the free agent group, but that also comes with a massive price tag considering his youth. He’s going to command more than $150 million and $200 million seems entirely within his grasp. It’s not a terrible bet given that you’re buying his late twenties rather than trading exclusively in his thirties, but it’s probably not a move the club can realistically afford. In the short term, his salary is manageable, but it might not be the right fit given the available options.

Upton and Cespedes are similar, with a nod to Cespedes for the better defense and a nod to Upton for the youth and OBP. I think Cespedes is a better player at the moment, but Upton might provide more total value over his entire contract. It’s a small consideration, but Upton will cost a second round pick and Cespedes won’t, plus the Tigers are comfortable with Cespedes while Upton would be new. So Cespedes is probably the better choice. Yet he will cost the team between $120 million and $150 million to reacquire. A step down from Heyward, but expensive.

Which brings us into the Gordon and Zobrist former-Royal pairing. Gordon will be 32 next season and has been one of the better players in baseball for the last five years. Zobrist will be 35 next season and has been one of the better players in baseball for the last five seasons. Gordon probably gets six years and $110 million to $120 million, a bit cheaper than Cespedes. He’s a good hitter, probably starting the deal in the 120 wRC+ range with elite corner defense. That’s a great player and one the Tigers really need. And he provides left-handed on-base skills that do not really exist outside of a healthy V-Mart.

Zobrist is older but he will cost much less as a result. I’d expect him to get something just north of the Martinez/Cruz contracts from last year, coming in around 4/$80 million. Zobrist’s bat has been aging very well, and while his defensive metrics weren’t good in 2015, he has been very good defensively at multiple positions in every year prior. Zobrist adds the the switch hitting element and gives the Tigers defensive insurance in the infield as well.

So if you’re picking from the group of very good corner outfielders, there are four options depending on the amount of risk to which you want to expose yourself. Heyward is young and amazing, but pricey. Cespedes is a known quantity, but his lack of discipline at the plate could leave him open to a steeper decline phase. Gordon and Zobrist are older and closer to the ends of their careers, but they are cheaper.

I’m not sure you can go wrong. I’d be happy with any of the options, but for me it’s Gordon or Zobrist with a tip toward Zobrist because he can play 2B/SS/3B in addition to corner outfield. Now, you are probably thinking that Kinsler and Iglesias have two of those spots locked down. While that’s true, Iglesias seems to be slightly injury prone and having Zobrist on the roster means you can free up a bench spot because you don’t need a second backup infielder. And if Castellanos can’t get it together, you have Zobrist to slide to third and you can replace Nick with an outfielder. That gives the team an ability to carry a bench player who is more useful as a PH than you would otherwise expect if you needed someone who could handle the dirt.

So I’ll recommend Zobrist at about 4/$80M. There’s no draft pick cost, he’s versatile, and he’s a tremendous player for two thirds of the cost of Gordon. That comes with age-based risk, but the Tigers are already carrying that in spades. What’s one more?

So now that we’ve pegged Zobrist for one of the slots, our attention turns to center field. You wouldn’t mind grabbing a really solid player, but you have to pay attention to the payroll. Factoring in commitments ($110M), expected arbitration salaries ($12M), and Zobrist ($20M), the Tigers are already at $142 million for 2016. I’m assuming $180ish million is the target.

So we have to leave room for relievers and a starter, so we can’t really commit a huge amount to a center fielder. One option would be to go to someone like Peter Bourjos, who could be had in a trade cheaply, who could mix with Gose as a below average hitter and great defender in center. It’s a good fallback option, but for it to work well, you’re counting on a bit of an offensive upside and he hasn’t had regular at bats in a while. To go the other way, you could try someone like Chris Young on a 1-year deal. He’s going to provide a bit more offense and he was a good defender in his younger days. He’d be cheap and hits right handed. Denard Span is interesting, but his health is probably a big obstacle.

And then there’s a possible reunion with Austin Jackson, who will probably be looking for a 1-year deal to build up some free agent value. Perhaps he’ll draw more interest than I think, but if you can snag him for a year, it might make sense.

So let’s split the difference. The Tigers should add one of the Bourjos-Young-Jackson contingent to provide support for Gose in center. None will cost much and all have decide upside. Call it $8 million, which brings us to $150 million.

Backup Catcher and Bench

So if the Tigers follow my lead, they would currently have three bench spots available. One of the four goes to one of the center fielders, so we have to allocate a spot for a middle infielder and backup catcher, and then someone else. The middle infielder can be Andrew Romine or Dixon Machado. Both play quality defense and it’s hard to find a good hitting option for that role. You might find a better hitter if you worked at it, but the cost seems unneeded.

So that leaves backup catcher. Bryan Holaday is an option, but he’s a very replaceable player. I would be all over Avila as a backup, but that sounds unlikely. The free agent ranks are thin and trading for a solid catcher is tough. McCann figures to get most of the reps, but someone like Dioner Navarro should be on the radar depending on how much Marco Estrada really needs him. The Tigers could probably find a team willing to trade a good catcher (Lucroy?) but a solid backup would be tough to snag. Maybe Holaday is the right choice. It would be very bad if McCann went down with a serious injury, but unless the Tigers wanted to downgrade McCann to a backup role, the options are limited because other than Avila, there isn’t an obvious solution. Put a pin in this.

So that leaves one bench spot left. Collins, Moya, and company will try to earn it. But that gives me a bit of an idea. John Jaso.

I know it’s not a sexy name, but he can mash RHP and while he’s not a good defensive catcher (and given concussion history, probably not a permanent one) he could absolutely provide the Tigers with a bench bat who also serves as a backup catching option. This gives the Tigers the ability to go north with Holaday if they want, but if Collins or Moya force their way onto the roster, you can take Holaday’s spot if you need to. Jaso can probably be had for a 1-2 year deal, let’s say for $7 million a season? Brings us to $157 million with a bench of Gose/other CF, Romine/Machado, Jaso, Collins/Moya/Holaday.

Now for the pitching.

Starting Pitcher

So the Tigers have two very obvious rotation pieces in place. Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez will be in the rotation unless they wind up hurt, and as they currently stand, they are probably #2-#3 starters. So the Tigers need an ace, at least.

They also have Daniel Norris. While his prognosis is good, you also don’t want to invest too much in the idea that he’ll be in top form from Opening Day. Even if everything is great and he’s cancer free, it seems probable that his offseason regiment will be affected. There’s also Matt Boyd, Michael Fulmer, and Shane Greene. Ideally, this calls for a veteran innings eater and a frontline ace. What are the options?

Among the aces on the free agent market are Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, David Price, and Jordan Zimmermann. And behind them there is plenty of mid-level and back end pitching. It’s a good year to need pitching, if there ever is such a thing. So let’s start with the ace. Those are four expensive pitchers, with Cueto, Zimmermann, and Greinke probably in the $150 million range and Price in the $200 million range. If you sign one of these guys, you’re at your limit for 2016 and you’ve committed to another 30-something pitcher who might explode because pitchers are flammable.

It’s tricky to know who will be on the block and what the Tigers could afford to trade. The Indians are likely to make one of their starters available, but the Tigers don’t really have an obvious young hitter to swap. Sonny Gray plays in Oakland, so he might move, but Billy Beane isn’t going to want to have a Donaldson repeat, so the price tag will be justifiably high. Which brings me back to a pretty interesting name: Tyson Ross.

Ross has two seasons of team control left, but he’s a super two player who will probably wind up making $10 million in 2016 and maybe $13-$15 million in 2017. While that’s still a bargain for the Padres, the Padres need to try to undo some one the damage of last year’s spending spree. The Tigers could go a couple of ways. They could could dangle someone like Iglesias, something like Machado and Hill, or maybe even one of the young arms they acquired last July. It will depends on how things shake out, but Ross is a worthwhile target. Heck, maybe Castellanos is Preller’s kind of player given his desire to add every right handed hitter who can’t play defense to his roster. Ross is a bit below “ace” territory, but he’s very good and would be the right kind of investment for a team that still has work to do.

Let’s assume they fork over talent, which means they need to add another one of the free agent pitcher for depth. An interesting option would be Mat Latos on a 1-year deal. Latos was cruising toward a nice contract but his ERA was awful and he bounced around a lot in 2015. The underlying numbers aren’t too bad and he seems like a good bet to want to rebuild his value before trying for a big deal next winter.

The same could be said for old friend Doug Fister. Fister was great from 2011-2013, was okay in 2014, and then really struggled in 2015. He’s not the borderline ace we used to know, but he would make an interesting buy-low option who could wind up being a fun righty reliever if things went south. There are other options, but you’re probably looking at multi-year commitments, and while that’s not out of the question, it would set the Tigers up for issues if the young arms started to emerge.

Let’s trade for Tyson Ross and sign Latos/Fister. Let’s call it $15 million total (with incentives), moving us to $172 million.

Relief Pitching

Uh oh! We’re down to $8 million, so we’re going to be pushing our budget. Although it probably wouldn’t be hard to backload the Zobrist deal, so we can go over by a bit without much worry.

The Tigers have Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy in hand as two of their seven relievers. There are also some other guys like Rondon and Alburquerque who might be good enough to play a role. Then you have VerHagen, Farmer, Lobstein, Ryan, and whichever guys don’t make the rotation. That could be Greene and Fulmer, or Latos and Boyd, it doesn’t matter. Let’s say the Tigers can fill two spots with the other in house options, leaving three open slots to fill.

Realistically, that means you probably want to acquire five new relievers to make sure three make it through the line, but I’m going to figure the current Tigers have the insurance covered. That was always Dombrowski’s big weakness. He planned for everyone in the bullpen to pitch well and stay healthy, which doesn’t happen. I’ve listed more than seven pitchers already, but the key is to make sure you start with more than seven because some of them won’t work out. I’ve listed 12 names so far and one will make the rotation, so that’s 11 guys for 7 spots. I would like three more.

So we need a real lefty and two righties in addition to what’s already in front of us.

Target one, if you can believe it, is Joe Blanton. He dropped his arm slot and became a slider happy reliever in Pittsburgh last year. Next up is Darren O’Day, who is very good but he’s 33 and doesn’t throw hard, so people will shy away from big money. You get him with a nice AAV, but mostly by going longer than anyone else. Throw in Oliver Perez, who has been consistently solid as a lefty out of the pen over the last four seasons.

I recognize this is a weird collection of arms and that it’s a little less open and shut than my plan for 2015, but I actually think it’s a good direction. O’Day-Wilson-Blanton-Rondon-VerHagen from the right side and Hardy-Perez from the left side with some other current Tigers filling in around them. It’s not the Royals bullpen, but you can’t just pull the Royals pen out of nowhere. I like VerHagen’s potential out of the pen, and Farmer/Ryan/Lobstein should probably turn into one good reliever. Maybe you get lucky and Greene or Fulmer plays up in the pen for part of the year. The idea with these signings is to create depth. The stupid thing would be to acquire one elite reliever and assume you can fill the rest of the slots internally. You need to add quantity more than top end quality.

It’s much smarter to acquire 150 good innings than 65 great innings, especially when you don’t have a lot of good relievers already in palce.

Let’s say O’Day, Blanton, and Perez run the Tigers $11 million in 2016. We’re at $183 million or so, and probably have to add a few more in minimum salaries. So that’s somewhere in the $180M-$190M range for 2016.

In doing so, the Tigers added Zobrist, a platoon CF, Jaso, Ross, Latos/Fister, and three quality relievers. It was expensive and tricky, but it got the job done. That’s a mid to upper 80s win team in my estimation. If things break well enough, they win the division and play in the LDS. If things break wrong, they can offload whichever pitchers are useful.

Granted, I don’t think this makes them a dominant force with which to be reckoned. A Ross-Verlander-Sanchez-Norris-someone else rotation is good. A bullpen with O’Day-Wilson-Blanton-VerHagen-Hardy-Perez is okay. An offense that swaps out Cespedes for Zobrist and counts on something from VMart is solid. This isn’t the 2013 team, but it’s a team that is competitive without investing too much money and tying the team’s hands. Zobrist is the only new player that drags on the payroll into the future.

I’ll leave it here, and will revisit some of the individual aspects in future posts because somehow I’ve held your attention for 3,000 words and I don’t want to get greedy.

Should The Tigers Extend JD Martinez?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

While eight other fan bases are still enjoying themselves, the Tigers are planning for 2016 and beyond. They have a lot of work to do if they are planning to contend next year, but it’s not an insurmountable task. One of the issues the Tigers will confront this winter that is a little less urgent is the matter of JD Martinez’s contract situation.

Martinez has two years of team control remaining, both of which are currently slated for arbitration. He will likely earn about $8 million in 2016 and something like $12-14 million in 2017. For ease of presentation, let’s say the Tigers will be able to keep Martinez for the next two seasons for $20 million. That’s Martinez’s age 28 and 29 season for $20 million, with him set for free agency at 30. Should the Tigers look to buy out any of those free agent seasons this winter?

The first thing we need to do is estimate what it would take to extend Martinez. We’ll start with the 2/$20M we know he has coming. Only very young or extremely good players get deals longer than 7 years, so let’s say the Martinez deal would max out at 7 years, or 5 free agent years. For argument’s sake, call it 3-5 free agent seasons depending on the average annual value of the deal.

Martinez has been worth 4 WAR and 5 WAR in his two seasons with the Tigers, and it’s probably safe to say he’s had his best seasons. That’s not to say he’s going to get a lot worse over the next couple seasons, but it’s not likely he’s going to get better. Let’s presume his true talent is a 4 WAR player for 2016. If that’s the case, and we factor in the way players normally age, something like 17.5 WAR would be expected over his next seven seasons. On the free agent market, you’d probably expect to pay $140 million for that kind of player.

But of course the Tigers have some leverage, in the sense that Martinez is locked up for the next two years. So what we really care about is what we expect in years 3-7, which might be something like 10 WAR. So that would be about $80 million if you were buying that level of player on the free agent market. Keep in mind we are talking about 2018-2022. Martinez is a better player than that right now, but you don’t sign players for long term deals based on their current quality.

So if you add 2/$20M and 5/$80, you wind up with a 7 year, $100 million extension for Martinez. If you only want to go the 5 year route, you can probably get away with a 5 year, $80 million deal. In my head, I was kind of expecting 5/$75M, so I’m happy to see the math worked out so nicely.

I would argue that Martinez is probably an easier player to sign than most players of his quality because his success is rather new and that will lead him to be risk averse. I don’t know that for a fact, it’s just an inference. Martinez has only made about $5 million in his career and even after this year’s arbitration award, he hasn’t made the kind of money that sets up one’s grandchildren for life. Given how close he was to never getting the big paycheck, it seems reasonable that he would be more risk averse.

So let’s focus on the 5/$80M version of the offer. Presumably 7-year version wouldn’t be that much more interesting to either side because it’s not a lot more money for Martinez and it’s very far in the future, so the Tigers won’t really care a lot. It’s easier to analyze a single scenario, so let’s call it 5/$80M (but keep the 7/$100M in your mind).

Given that we have some framework for what the deal would be, the question we need to ask now is if the Tigers should do it?

Can the Tigers expected to get $60 million of value from Martinez’s age 30-32 seasons? On the face of it, that seems like an obvious proposition given the season he just had, but players age. If you could guarantee a repeat of 2015 for the next five years, life would be very different indeed.

I would argue that while Martinez’s lack of success prior to 2014 is a bit of concern, watching two years of Martinez as a bona fide slugger has been enough to assure me it wasn’t a fluke. It’s very possible that he ages poorly, but I’m beyond the point of worrying his success has been a mirage.

So let’s try to figure out how Martinez will age. To do so, let’s look at the players who were somewhat similar to him during their age 26-27 seasons from 2000-2010. There were 134 qualifying 26-27 seasons during that window. Martinez had a 144 wRC+ during his two seasons, so let’s look only at hitters who were between 135 and 155. That leaves us with 12 players. That’s a good number for this analysis, but it’s also worth cutting out one additional player – Alex Rodriguez – who played premium defense during those years. Even if you like JD’s glove in RF (I do), a solid corner man is not the same as a very good shortstop.

So that leaves us with 11 players who had their ages 26-27 seasons between 2000 and 2010. None of them are perfect comparisons for JD, but they are the guys who hit about as well as he did for those seasons and did so without being a great glove man as well. How did the same group do in their ages 28-29 seasons and then 30-32 seasons?

Screenshot 2015-10-12 at 9.35.48 PM

There’s plenty happening in this table, but allow me to summarize. The group averages about 10 WAR during ages 26-27 with the range being 6.6 to 12.7. JD sits around 9 WAR and has a wRC+ in the middle at 144. The same group averages 7.2 WAR from ages 28-29 with a range of 0.9 WAR to 11.3 WAR. On average, the bats decline by about 8-10 points of wRC+.

Then in the 30-32 window, we find an average WAR of 9.1, ranging from 1.6 to 16.6. Again the average wRC+ declines, but only about 5-7 points from this step down. In other words, it would be a reasonable expectation to say that Martinez will be worth around 9 wins from age 30 to 32. And given that we’re only looking for about 7.5 WAR of value for those seasons, this seems like a solid bet.

But it is a little more complicated. First, you might wind up with Nick Johnson or Ryan Howard. You can’t simply look at the mean and median, you want to look at the range of possible outcomes. If Martinez were to hit the low value, you’re down about $50 million. If he hits the high mark you’re up about $70 million. The degree to which you like those odds depends entirely on your risk aversion.

There’s one more factor that I always implore teams to consider. It’s why I advocated strongly against the Cabrera extension. It’s not about whether it’s a good deal today, it’s about whether you could get a better deal later. The thing you really want to consider is how much Martinez would cost you if he has the best case scenario over the next two years.

So let’s play that out. The highwater mark is about 11 WAR, and that makes sense. It’s basically back to back 5.5 WAR years. If Martinez does this, the Tigers will be super happy because they’re going to get about $90 million in value for $20 million, but it will also add to his price come free agency. Let’s say he does that and is coming off four very good seasons and hits the market at age 30. For argument’s sake, let’s call it a 5-year deal. That’s probably going to cost you $160 million plus inflation.

So you have three options. First, you can do nothing and not re-sign him. you pay $20 million for two years and walk away with plenty of bang for your buck. Second, you extend him now for 5/$80M or 7/$100M. Third, you pay $20 million and then sign him as a free agent for 5/$160M (i.e. 7/$180M). This is all assuming JD hits his best case scenario. If he hits that scenario, you’re risking something like $80M to $100M. That’s a lot!

But what if you sign the deal and he hits the worst case scenario? What if he’s only worth 2 WAR and you’ve paid him $60M or $80M? That’s a loss of $50M to $70M.

Your decision to offer an extension to Martinez comes down to a very simple thing; how good do you think JD will be over the next two seasons? If you think he’s a 5 WAR player in each of the next two years, you definitely want to sign him not. If you think he’s crashing and burning, obviously you don’t. So what’s the breakeven point? That is the single most important piece of information.

In essence, what performance over the next two years would yield a 5/$80M deal from 2018 forward? Essentially, you have to think he’s going to be a 3.5 WAR guy over each of the next couple of years. The odds say that is pretty likely. There’s a good chance that Martinez will be good enough for the next two years to warrant a contract that will exceed what you could get him for this winter.

But I’m not sure it’s a slam dunk case. If JD Martinez came to the Tigers and said he’d sign a 5/$80M or 7/$100M extension, I would still balk. I think that’s the highest I want to go. Martinez is a very good player but they already have two seasons of team control in hand and players can change a lot over the next two seasons. And they can especially change a lot over five and seven seasons. Personally, I would rather risk him getting even more expensive in two years than commit to a huge extension right now.

Miguel Cabrera is locked up long term, which means there is no DH spot to transition to if JD loses a step in the outfield, and his high strikeout rate and unimpressive walk rate suggest that if he loses a bit of bat speed, he could really crater. I’m not suggesting he’s due for a collapse, but I’m not so sure he’s a safe bet to keep being great for this long. I have a hard time believing that Martinez is going to put together two more huge seasons. A couple of 3 win seasons seem more likely, and then you can make the decision with more information without any of the risk in two years.

Again, this is a risk aversion question. I’m very risk averse so it informs my thinking here. I think signing Martinez to an extension will probably be fine. Even if he ages a little worse than average, you’re not going to lose much money. But I also don’t think there’s a ton of savings coming if you sign the deal today and it comes with plenty of risk.

I’m thrilled to see Martinez on the Tigers for the next two seasons, but the way I read the market, the deal he would accept today is not team friendly enough to warrant the risk for the club. So I would recommend against it, but this is a 60/40 kind of thing. I’m not strongly against it, but the last two mega-deals the Tigers signed have been mistakes. Not because Verlander and Cabrera are useless, but because the Tigers could have signed them for less if they had waited. It’s rare for players of this age and caliber to get better, and if you wait for them to have a slightly worse year, you can save some cash and you still haven’t lost them for good. You also retain the option of trading the player for prospects if you’re terrible.

So I’ll come down against a contract extension and recommend they spend their time and resources on improving the club with outside players. They have two great years of Martinez for next to nothing. The Tigers should benefit from those and revisit the relationship when Martinez is reaching free agency.

The 2016 Tigers, As They Stand Now

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The 2015 Tigers officially ended their campaign on Sunday. The season was over long ago, but it didn’t go in the books until around 6pm last night. It’s over and done. They can’t hurt you anymore.

For the first time since 2010, the Tigers don’t have any games after #162 so we can get to work early on planning for next season. There is plenty up in the air and plenty that will be decided based on the actions of the other 29 teams, 10 of whom are still focusing on 2015. For our sake, let’s spend this post looking internally. Who are the current Tigers who will serve on the 2016 roster and what will their roles be?

The Sure Things

Only injuries or massive shakeups can prevent the following players for having a big role on the 2016 team:

  • Miguel Cabrera (1B)
  • JD Martinez (COF)
  • Victor Martinez (DH)
  • Ian Kinsler (2B)
  • Justin Verlander (SP)
  • Anibal Sanchez (SP)

Will Make Team

These guys will make the MLB roster unless they are hurt or traded, it’s just a question of how they’re used.

  • Daniel Norris (SP)
  • James McCann (C)
  • Nick Castellanos (3B)
  • Jose Iglesias (SS)

A Role

These guys will be contributors in some form or fashion, but have less job security than those above.

  • Alex Wilson (RP)
  • Blaine Hardy (RP)
  • Tyler Collins (COF)
  • Anthony Gose (OF)
  • Andrew Romine (INF)
  • Matt Boyd (SP)

Other Guys

There are certainly other players in the organization who have and will see MLB time in 2016. The relief corps, Bryan Holaday, Dixon Machado, and Steven Moya, in particular. Expect to see Michael Fulmer as well.


So how does this shake out? Where does that leave the 2016 Tigers before making offseason moves? Here’s my general expectation.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 at 11.56.07 AM

This isn’t exactly what I would do if I was in charge or exactly how I think the roster will look, but it’s a general guide based on both. I expect McCann has established himself to the point where the club won’t look for a primary catcher during the offseason. Cabrera, Kinsler, JD, and Victor are safe, with the possibility that JD might wind up in left. Verlander and Sanchez have rotation spots if healthy.

Iglesias will play short, but I hesitate only because it is possible they wind up trading him to fill a need elsewhere given Dixon Machado’s defensive ability. Nick Castellanos probably isn’t as good as the team wants him to be, but his offense in the second half is enough for me to think the team won’t move on this offseason.

Norris has probably locked up a spot in the rotation, and I expect either Boyd or Fulmer will win another. The bullpen will be a big question mark, but Wilson and Hardy have done enough. As for the bench, a lot depends on how the starting spots shake out, but Romine and Collins seem like safe bets for two of those spots.

That means, the Tigers have the following shopping list:

  • Center Fielder
  • Corner Outfielder
  • Backup Catcher
  • Various Bench
  • Front Line Starter

This is a long list, but there are only two or three critical needs. The Tigers absolutely need a top tier starter. Maybe not Price or Greinke, but they need a very good starting pitcher. Someone who can be in the 4-6 WAR range.

They also need one of their new outfielders to be a top tier player. Cespedes would fit, but so would Heyward or Gordon. Or someone on the trading block come December. They will also need another outfielder, and even if they want to give Gose another shot, having no real alternative is a bad idea. Gose is likely a backup at the MLB level and the Tigers shouldn’t plan to have the job be his to lose.

They need a catcher and some bench stuff, but those are easily attainable. The key is actually caring about the spots, which Dombrowski often didn’t.

Finally, the bullpen. We’ll see what Avila’s philosophy is, but Dombrowski would famously sign one Proven Closer and then magically assume all of the in house options would hit their best possible outcomes. How many times can you really believe Alburquerque is going to be a shut down reliever? The Tigers realistically, and I’m not kidding, need to sign about six legitimate relievers this winter. One or two should be very good.

So that’s it. Really good outfielder and pitcher, decent outfielder, bench help, and relievers. It’s a long list but a doable one if they are trying to contend in 2016. I’ll have follow up posts advocating for particular targets, but now we have a sense what they need to find once the hot stove heats up.


The End Of The 2015 Tigers

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

The first post on this website came prior to Game 3 of the 2012 ALCS. The Tigers were about to win two at home against the Yankees before being roasted in the World Series by the Giants. That’s a slightly elongated way of saying that this is fourth time I’ve written a eulogy for a baseball team.

In each of the three prior cases, there was no guarantee the season would end on any particular day. The 2012 Tigers could have won Game 4 and played on. The 2013 Tigers could have won Game 6 and played on. The 2014 Tigers could have won Game 3 and played on. The 2015 Tigers have no such option. They were officially eliminated last week and effectively eliminated in July. This is the first time since I began writing about the team in 2012 that the end came with no possible hope.

There are good and bad aspects to that. The miserable baseball we watched this season was trying, but there was something peaceful about not playing any games during the final two months of the season that dialed up your blood pressure. I wouldn’t recommend that the Tigers try to lose every year, but if they were going to miss the playoffs decisively, I’m happy they lost in July rather than on September 15th, if only for our health.

It was a weird and depressing season. They started 6-0 and 11-2. They went 65-83 the rest of the way and gave up runs like it was going out of style. The final record belies the quality of the team they started the season with, however, as they dealt David Price and Yoenis Cespedes, both of whom had tremendous seasons before and after the trades. The Tigers also lost two and half months of Verlander and had some combination of broken/missing Anibal Sanchez.

Dave Dombrowski built a better team than the one that Al Avila will finish with, but it was never a team that could rival the great 2011-2013 squads. The starting pitching was worse off even when Price was still on the team. Calling the bullpen a dumpster fire would be an insult to dumpster fires. And while the offense was solid and the defense was better, there were still weak points around the diamond, primarily in center field, third base, and (sadly) designated hitter. And that’s before acknowledging the six weeks Miguel Cabrera missed during a crucial juncture of the season.

In part, this was a failed design and dumb luck. These Tigers weren’t build to steamroll the American League and they really weren’t build to overcome adversity, but losing Cabrera, Verlander, and Sanchez for big chunks of time while also getting nothing from a recovering Victor Martinez was always going to be too much to overcome.

Even with a tremendous follow-up campaign from JD Martinez and four great months from Price and Cespedes, this just wan’t going to work. James McCann was a revelation against the running game, but his bat slowed as the year wore on. Jose Iglesias made dazzling plays and definitely hit at or above his projections, but he botched more routine plays than you’d like and wound up missing time with various injuries.

Nick Castellanos played better defense than he did a year ago, but it was still extremely poor. His bat definitely picked up after a few days off in June, but his second half performance is the minimum he has to do in order to make his defense tenable at the hot corner.

Ian Kinsler was great again, highlighting one of Dombrowski’s great moves. Miguel Cabrera was terrific when healthy until the final month of the season, when he was unable to really drive the ball. A long offseason should help there. Anthony Gose showed some raw ability, but did nothing to make a claim on a 2016 starting job. Rajai Davis had a nice season, as did Andrew Romine’s glove. Alex Avila remained an on-base machine, but a complete lack of extra base power is going to force him to find employment as something lesser than a front-line catcher.

On the pitching side, Verlander’s late season resurgence will be the story. You shouldn’t let it blind you to the coming effects of aging, but getting healthy and having success will bode will for the near term. Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson had solid seasons in the bullpen, but everyone else who touched the mound basically turned to mush. Time will tell whether Sanchez can be Sanchez when he’s healthy, and fully rested and acclimated versions of Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd are compelling, but if the Tigers are going to be great again, they need a lot of new relievers and at least one starter.

The story of this season will, however, always be what happened in the first days of August. After a disappointing season, the Tigers were sellers for the first time since 2010 and despite a universally lauded deadline, owner Mike Ilitch showed Dave Dombrowski the door in favor of Al Avila. I wrote extensively about the move and what it means, but the biggest head-scratcher is that Dombrowski was the only casualty of the failure. The rest of the front office survived, as did Brad Ausmus and the entire coaching staff. The blame fell at the feet of one man. A man who happened to do more to revive the franchise in the preceding week than anyone really thought possible.

The Tigers farm system is in much better shape going into 2016, and they’ll have a protected first round pick next June as well. Yet despite all the success and the firm footing for the future, the architect was relieved of command.

Avila is well-prepared for the task ahead after a lifetime of experience, but the mind-boggling decision to retain Ausmus and his staff rings as a very bad omen for what’s to come. We don’t really know what Avila will do now that he’s the guy but his history of finding good talent to sign is at least somewhat shadowed by his inability to see the colossal embarrassment his own manager has been.

This was a transition year for the Tigers. A transition that started back in November of 2013, I suppose. There’s plenty of blame to go around for the club’s failure to win a title over the last five years and their inability to make the postseason this year. It was a shaky roster, managed poorly, and oft injured. It was what it was.

Yet there’s a very odd feeling I have at the end. Objectively and subjectively, this was the hardest Tigers team to watch since the Renaissance. They wound up finishing about on par with the 2008 club, but the horrible fundamentals and inept leadership made it much less fun. But the feeling I have transcends that a bit.

This was the worst Tigers team since the turnaround, yet the day after the official surrender was the most optimistic I’ve been about their long term future in quite some time. Adding Norris, Boyd, Fulmer, et al to the stable made the organization look healthy. And then three days later Dombrowski was gone. At first, it seemed mutual but it slowly turned into a clear dismissal with an unclear origin. Dombrowski was not perfect in that chair, but a split had clearly occurred at the highest levels, and the person I trusted most of the group was the one that wound up elsewhere.

Ilitch and Avila are both good overall, so the future still looked bright, even if it wasn’t quite as rosy a transition as you’d like. And then it happened last week. Avila made the determination that Ausmus was coming back, and all of the signals he was sending about modernizing the organization started to look like cheap talk. Avila spoke about elevating analytics in their decision making, but outside of the bullpen, Dombrowski rarely seemed to make decisions that flew in the face of analytics. The Tigers could certainly modernize a bit, but the first and only real decision we have to evaluate Avila was retaining a horrible manager with no idea about how the game is played. It does make you worry.

There will be an entire offseason to evaluate what happens next, but the seeds were planted in the ashes of the 2015 club. There were injuries of concern and some very good seasons to appreciate. The overall on field product was rough, but all of the flaws there are correctable. Replacing the bad starters is within their grasp. If they learn their lessons, the bullpen is fixable. Patching the position player side is manageable.

It is very easy to imagine the 2016 team being a real contender. It’s not a particularly tall task to get them there, in fact. The question is the overall direction. We don’t have much data on Avila as the leader, but the one data point we have is bad. We used to think of Ilitch as the ideal owner, but that image has fractured as well.

There were things to like about this team, but after those early days, it was not a team that was easy to love. The roster isn’t a disaster zone and things could be great in one year’s time. The problem, as we arrive at the end of this version of the franchise, is not that they were bad this year, it’s that we don’t know if their next step is going to be in the right direction.

The Year The Tigers Stopped Pitching

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I put it out on Twitter last night that the Tigers pitchers have combined for 7.8 fWAR in 2015. That’s not good, and what’s worse is that 6.2 of that mark belongs to David Price and Justin Verlander. That’s 80% of their WAR coming from 20% of their innings. As a club, they’re one of the three worst run prevention teams this season.

This is particularly devastating to watch because pitching was the club’s strength for the last few years. We knew Verlander was a question mark and that failure would mean a Price deal, but the big blows were losing Scherzer and Porcello while dealing with an injured and homer-happy Sanchez. We were optimistic about Greene, but having Greene and Simon in place of Scherzer and Porcello is a downgrade, clearly. So we expected worse and it turned out to be awful.

It happened by trading away the last two months of Price, having a broken or missing Sanchez, and counting on Greene and Simon at all. Turns out, once Verlander got healthy he was good, so that was nice of him. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris are promising, but they haven’t lit the world on fire post deadline and guys like Farmer, Ryan, and Lobstein have occupied a number of innings. And we won’t even talk about the bullpen because this is a family website.

But let’s put the year in context a bit. The story of the 2015 Tigers pitchers in four graphs:

image (2)

2008 was the last bad year, and the Tigers have been average (100) or much better (lower) as a staff every year since. This year, not so much. You can explain the faltering quite easily. Fewer strikeouts, more fly balls, and more dingers.

image (3)

Keep in mind that strikeout rate is going up across the league, so the Tigers decline over the last two seasons is actually even more pronounced than it looks. And fewer punch outs means for balls in play, which in conjunction with graph number three, means lots more fly balls. And in conjunction with graph four, way more dingers.

image (4)

Miss you, Rick.

image (5)

It’s not really very complicated. This isn’t some horrible failure of coaching or game-calling, the Tigers just used worse pitchers. Only Sanchez did something really outrageous, and now it seems like that may have been linked to a shoulder injury he says he felt for a “couple of months.” Price was great, Verlander was better than expected, Sanchez was hurt/something’d, and everyone else hit at or below their expectations in a very normal way.

The Tigers were one of the best pitching staffs of all time in 2013, regressed to the mean a bit in 2014, and then became very bad in 2015. It was a steep fall, but not one that was unexpected. With a new GM in place, it’s not clear what the Tigers intend to emphasize in 2016, but they will need to acquire at least one top flight arm in order to urn their pitching into a strength.

Sanchez should be more useful if healthy, Verlander should be useful if healthy. Some combination of Norris, Boyd, and Fulmer should offer two quality backend arms. That leaves one big void, with some interesting enough depth options in Greene, Ryan, and Lobstein to fill in for injuries. And there are options if the Tigers want to go out and acquire that ace. It was a bad year, but try to let it ruin your winter [note: New English D does not expect you to live up to that].

Al Avila Fails His First Test

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

I want to share a secret about writing. Sometimes, I prepare things in advance and wait for the news to break. For example, I wrote last year’s post about the division clincher two days ahead of time and then added in the specific details the day it happened. So…here’s a paragraph I drafted literally yesterday, prepared for two weeks from Monday:

Today, the Tigers fired manager Brad Ausmus two years into the three year deal he signed prior to the 2014 season. This firing was expected. Ausmus’ poor performance as a manager made his situation tenuous as the team faltered in June and July, but when Dave Dombrowski was fired and Al Avila took over in August, it was clear that Ausmus’ days were numbered. That was readily apparent when Avila decline to give Ausmus a vote of confidence, saying simply that he would remain the manager through the end of the year. Not a ringing endorsement when your contract extends through 2016.

I don’t think I need to tell you how surprised I was by today’s news that Brad Ausmus and his entire staff will be back for 2016. I am shocked. I’m floored. I can’t believe it. If you had to pick characteristics of manager firings, new GM/underperforming team/being unpopular with the media is the trifecta. Ausmus has been a dead man walking for two months. And the governor called at the eleventh hour. What in the world?

Regular readers or “people within earshot of me during Tigers games” know that I’ve been clamoring for the end of the Ausmus Era since late in the 2014 season.  While his initial performance with the media after being hired, in conjunction with the hiring of Matt Martin and retention of Jeff Jones gave me a lot of hope for the direction Ausmus would take as manager, that eroded over the course of 2014.

Last April, he looked good because the team was rolling and he wasn’t calling bunts or doing anything particularly meddlesome. The clubhouse was relaxed and things were fine. I didn’t argue that he had shown himself to be a good manager, but he had not done anything to worry me and that’s all you can ask in month number one.

But when the Tigers ran into problems scoring runs last year at times, he started mashing all of the buttons on his keyboard like a child who doesn’t know how to ask for help. I won’t take the time to run down examples of each grievance, and I’ll get to the broad complaints momentarily, but the moment he really lost me was a late summer night in Cleveland when he used Ezequiel Carrera as a pinch hitter over Moya and Collins because “If Carrera gets on he can steal a base.” I don’t need to tell you why that’s stupid, but I will anyway. Carrera is a very bad hitter. The odds of him reaching base are lower than anyone on the team. Setting aside the fact that a stolen base was not totally necessary at the time, the logical approach would be to use a good (better) hitter to get on base and then utilize Carrera as a pinch runner.

It’s possible that Ausmus didn’t actually believe what he was saying, but given that it was entirely nonsense, it’s hard to imagine how saying that would be a good public relations move after a mind boggling failure. And Ausmus never won me back.

He is deeply flawed as a manager for many reasons, which I’ll summarize here.

He had no idea how to manage a bullpen. This manifested itself in two ways. First, he has no understanding of leverage and when it is appropriate to use his best relievers. He wanted to get pitchers into roles, rather than using pitchers when they are needed most. Now of course, many managers fail to do this to my liking, but Ausmus is particularly flawed and it showed up big time considering that he had a lot of bad relievers to work around. If you’re given bad ingredients, you have to be very talented to make them work. Ausmus is not.

Second, he didn’t really have a good understanding of which relievers were good at which things. He never wanted to use Soria (even before Soria struggled) and he insisted on Joba and Nathan even when both were pitching very poorly.

He preached/allowed horrible base running. When Ausmus first got to Detroit, there was a sense he was going to make the club more aggressive on the bases. Some of that was roster-based, but a lot of it was his tendency to push the envelope. That’s acceptable to a point, but the Tigers were really bad at it. Horrible, even. They made bone-headed play after bone-headed play, costing themselves countless outs (you could count them, actually, I was just too lazy to actually do it when writing that sentence and now I’ve taken longer to write this explanation that it would have taken me to look it up).

Now, Ausmus can’t use mind control and prevent his players from making bad decisions all the time. But at a certain point, it was his job to tell them to knock it off. Fewer steal signs? More red lights? Coaching about when to run? All of the above were needed, even if we don’t know how much was active mistakes by Ausmus or mere negligence.

He didn’t know his players. There’s really no greater flaw than putting your players in position to fail. Ausmus did this all the time. The Carrera example stands out, but he ran multiple relievers out to face bad matchups. He used Gose at leadoff constantly. He asked Alex Avila to bunt!

More concretely, he often made comments that reflected this ignorance. I understand his motivation to protect certain guys, but his descriptions of Nick Castellanos’ defensive struggles in 2014 were incorrect. He somehow thought Carrera was a good defender. He frequently spoke of a pitcher having “good stuff” on a day in which he didn’t. He brought up batter-pitcher matchup stats that were based on useless data.

I don’t require a manager to be painfully honest, but I prefer the lies, if they are lies, to show some recognition that the manager actually knows the truth.

He refused to learn and he never planned ahead properly. My biggest complaint about Ausmus over the last two years is that he doesn’t change his mind when his decisions predictably fail. He would make stupid moves, get criticized for them, and then he would defend himself by walking the media through his thought process. That’s all well and good, but he wound up giving the same explanations about the same mistakes over and over. He didn’t appear to ever stop and think that his views on the strategies could be flawed.

I get that it’s human nature to avoid acknowledging when you were wrong about something. I don’t need Ausmus to apologize for being stupid three months ago, but I would like some indication that he has internally reflected and changed his internal decision making. That never happened. He dug in his heels and kept doing it his way. Contrast that with Ned Yost’s evolution over the last year, or Clint Hurdle’s over the last five.

Which leads me to the meta-criticism of Ausmus that really should have become his downfall. He is horrible at planning ahead and it caused him to fail spectacularly. The basic flaw in everything Ausmus does is that he manages the game based on how he expects the game to play out, not based on how the events actually unfold. He gets to the 7th inning and gets Alburquerque, for example, warming in the pen because the other team had three righties due up.

The problem, however, is that if Alburquerque doesn’t get the first two guys out, it would be clear that two lefties would be up in the inning. By the time Ausmus realized it, there wouldn’t be time to get Hardy or someone loose to face them. He doesn’t plan for his first move to go wrong and so he has no backup plan.

This happens with pinch hitters too, as he holds a guy back from a good spot because it was too early in the game and he didn’t want to be without a pinch hitter for a spot he envisioned later.

The flaw here is that he traded away the present for the future. That can often make sense, but he fails to factor in the fact that the event in front of you is definitely happening and the event in the future is probabilistic. He is horrible at understanding the odds in front of him. He often thinks a player is better than they are because of some meaningless data point and he then applies that data point to a situation erroneously.

And this is particularly scary because Ausmus is a well spoken and intellectual person. And by that I mean that he has the tools of intelligence (pun accidental). He does think things through and he does explain them in clear terms. The problem is that the things he believes are incorrect. He’s a smart person with bad ideas. That’s dangerous because it prevents him from seeing the error of his ways.

And this all resulted in terrible managing. I don’t think the Tigers would have gone farther in 2014 with an average manager, and I don’t think they would have made the playoffs this year with one, but that isn’t a defense of Ausmus as the manager. He is, unequivocally, terrible at managing a major league baseball team.

People who wish to defend Ausmus will point to the flawed teams he received as explanation for his failure, and will then suggest he will succeed when given a better team in the future. Do not believe it. My opinion of Ausmus has nothing to do with the win/loss columns and everything to do with watching him manage every day for two years. Maybe he will learn to get better, but at the present moment is he very bad and the Tigers should have fired him.

It is an incorrect defense to suggest that the team would have failed no matter who was in charge. That isn’t the point at all. Ausmus should be judged based on his actions, independent of the roster he received. I don’t fault him, for example, for the poor starting pitching he had this year. He doesn’t make the roster. He used the guys he had. A  great manager probably wouldn’t have gotten much from them. But the fact that someone else wouldn’t have won 90 games does not mean that Ausmus’ performance was somehow not flawed. It was.

I won’t put too fine a point on things, but would feel confident saying he is one of the worst 5 in-game managers in the league in 2015. You could argue for 6th or whatever, but he is very bad. And he hasn’t show signs of growth or any other qualities you desire in a manager, like Leyland did with his ability to make players feel comfortable.

The idea of Ausmus was probably a wrong one, but I don’t begrudge the Tigers for trying it in the first place. People thought of him as smart and progressive, and he was known for his leadership as a player. Obviously, those things were proven wrong or failed to translate to this context. It’s hard to judge someone’s managerial skills without ever seeing them manage. But I was fooled at the time. I will fully admit that. Ausmus seemed like a positive departure from the old guard, but turned out to be its greatest advocate.

Ausmus has been a terrible manager in his two years in Detroit. Does that mean he will never have success? Of course not. But does it mean that the Tigers should have gone in another direction? Absolutely. Al Avila had his first big chance to chart his own course, and he botched it big time.

Granted, a bad manager can’t ruin a good team. If you have a 95 win team, it’s hard to manage them into the ground. But most clubs find themselves near the bubble and every single win is extremely valuable. Having a bad manager just because you value continuity or don’t want to remove him is nonsense. If an outfielder is making $1 million and isn’t performing well, you don’t just keep playing him because he’s on the roster. The same should be true for the manager.

This Avila quote is one that’s very troubling. If Avila has spent time evaluating the team and thinks he can’t find a better manager than Ausmus, I am very concerned about his judgement. Now, if Avila disagrees with my view of Ausmus as one of the five worst managers in the game, it’s entirely possible that he knows things about the team and Ausmus that I don’t. But the idea that Avila could think Ausmus is the best guy he can find to run this clubhouse is scary.

Does it mean Avila isn’t a good evaluator of his employees and has a hard time seeing Ausmus’ flaws? Does it mean he doesn’t understand the game? Does it mean Ausmus is really good at advocating for his job behind closed doors?

This line is also scary, because the Tigers absolutely fell apart when the shit hit the fan this year. Don’t get me wrong, the lack of talent was the problem, but they phoned in plenty of baseball and Ausmus was extremely testy when the media pushed him prior to the out and out collapse.

I don’t get the desire to bring Ausmus back, and I really don’t understand Avila’s argument for keeping him. Now perhaps Avila has other motivations and he’s just taking nonsense as a cover. That’s possible, so I will give Avila the benefit of the doubt and will not write him off immediately. You are the sum of your actions, not any single one.

But I’m worried. I was worried when Ilitch acted out of character in August and I’m worried now that the Tigers are talking like the only problem was Dombrowski. I absolutely do not blame Ausmus for missing the playoffs, but I do absolutely think he has cost the Tigers plenty of games this year. The Tigers are going to lose the division by 20 and they’ll miss the Wild Card by about 10. I don’t think Ausmus cost the team 20 games this year, but if he cost them six games (and I think that’s a reasonable estimate), that’s a huge negative.

If you brought in an average manager who could get those six wins back, that’s the equivalent of adding a superstar player  to your roster. And you could do this for single-digit millions of dollars instead of hundreds of millions.

I don’t want to give the impression that the manager is the only problem or that most of our focus should be on the manager, but Brad Ausmus has been a bad manager for two years and Avila had a great chance to improve the team by replacing him. He decided not to, leaving me to wonder about the competency of the new GM. I don’t know what’s happening on the inside and won’t pretend to, but based on what we can observe, I’m very much starting to worry about the direction of the franchise.

There is a long way to go before grading Avila, but he had his first test and failed. Could he wind up proving me wrong? Of course. But as someone who desperately wants the Tigers to win a championship, I’m not hopeful about the future.

Can you overcome Ausmus? Yes. Should Avila be asking the 2016 Tigers to overcome Ausmus after what we’ve seen for the last two years? No way.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,359 other followers

%d bloggers like this: