In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field
There’s nothing wrong with having a league average shortstop. Over the last few years, that’s essentially what Jose Iglesias has been. He’s done it in slightly different ways, but he’s been right around that magic two win mark in all three of his full MLB seasons.
But those different ways are important because they demonstrate a path to something more than just an average player. In 2013, he had a 102 wRC+ and in 2015 it was 97. Last year it was 73. Iglesias was able to make up that lost offensive value in 2016 by getting the defensive metrics to like him quite a bit more. I don’t want to litigate exactly how accurate those ratings are at the moment, but the improved defense last year was something I talked about quite a bit as it was happening. Iglesias has always been gifted in the field, but in his previous seasons he had made some mistakes that stunted his value. Last year he was better in those respects and the metrics rewarded him. How much exactly should the needle move is anyone’s guess, but generally the data tracks with the eye test.
If Iglesias had hit like he had in 2015 with 2016’s defense, you’re talking about a 3-4 win player instead of a 2 win player. That’s a big deal, especially for a team on the edge like the Tigers. Step 1 is that Iglesias needs to keep the defensive improvements going, which I suspect he will. He has the arm, hands, and quickness, he was just screwing up the footwork and occasionally losing focus.
Step 2 is getting himself back into that 95 wRC+ range. His strikeout and walk rates have been quite consistent. You can count on him for a 5-6% walk rate and a 10% strikeout rate. He’s aggressive and makes lots of contact, and there’s no reason to think either of those skills are in jeopardy. His power also wasn’t really an issues last year. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have a lot of it, but his extra base hit rate was perfectly in line with what we might expect from him.
His problem, of course, was a big drop in BABIP. It was .356 in 2013, .330 in 2015, and .276 in 2016. A .330 BABIP last year adds about 23 hits. Even a .300 BABIP would have added 10. Let’s just split the difference and say 16. That would bring his wOBA up to about .310 from .283. That’s basically a win of value. In other words, if he had a .315 BABIP he would have been a much more valuable player, and .315 would have been a career worst.
I’m not explaining away the BABIP as complete luck, just pointing out that the difference between last year’s Iglesias and a much more compelling Iglesias is a dozen or so outs falling for singles. And while his contact rate was normal last year, Iglesias put the ball in the air a bit more than you’d like to see:
While fly balls are the new trend in baseball, guys who don’t hit the ball that hard like Iglesias need to avoid them as much as possible. Iglesias is going to make his money with ground balls and line drives and he needs to get back to that approach. If he’s able to do that, it seems totally plausible that he could give the Tigers a 1+ win boost at shortstop, helping them make up those few games they needed a year ago.
Certainly his health could falter or his swing could continue to produce too many balls in the air, but if Iglesias can get his bat back to 2015 with his glove staying in 2016, he’ll help the club stay relevant down the stretch.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez
Presumably, when the Tigers take the field on April 3, someone will listed as the starter in center field. The White Sox will probably be throwing Jose Quintana, so it makes sense to go with a righty, although basically everything is up in the air as it relates to the position. We’ll probably see some Tyler Collins, some JaCoby Jones, and some Mikie Mahtook. Maybe some Andrew Romine? Steven Moya? The Tigers have a lot people who might play center field but no obvious plan for how those plate appearances will be allocated. It’s an open question as I write this two and a half weeks from Opening Day.
So naturally, what happens in center field will have a big impact on the Tigers season. Anywhere there is uncertainty, there is a big potential swing. If one of these players, or a combination of these players, take the reins and give the Tigers reasonable defense and a useful bat, that would go a long way toward getting them into one of the wild card slots.
You can sort of see a world in which any of the three likely options has a good year. Tyler Collins feels like Andy Dirks. He could provide a little power and hold his own in the field. You’re not expecting anything great, but it wouldn’t shock you if he put up a 100 wRC+ or so. JaCoby Jones has raw talent, and if he delivers the power he showed in Double-A and mixes in some athleticism in the outfield, he might surprise you. Mikie Mahtook had plenty of success in the minors and had a great showing in limited MLB action in 2015 before struggling quite a bit in 2016. Can he really hit MLB pitching? I don’t know, but he has the speed necessary to fake his way through hitting 9th in a good lineup if he can make some contact.
I don’t have a lot of wise thoughts to offer here. If one of these players breaks through and has even a remotely strong year – something like 2 WAR – the Tigers would be in tremendous shape. The bar is pretty low, but as I’ve been saying all along the Tigers need a lot of little things to go right in order for the one big thing to swing their way. None of these players have significant track records and all of them definitely have the potential to be a league average player. It comes down to this: I find it very hard to believe the Tigers are out of it in September if they get a good collective season from the people playing center field. It might not be enough to push them over the top, but if they get something from this potential black hole, things are going right in Motown.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. | #9: James McCann and Alex Avila
I didn’t write that many words about the Tigers this offseason in part because I was often distracted by other things, but also in part because the Tigers didn’t really change very much. Most of the roster going into 2017 is the same as it was going into 2016. You don’t need offseason deep dives into players we all watched and analyzed during the season. No one needed another “something isn’t working right for Anibal Sanchez” article in November. I wrote them throughout the year and they didn’t help.
One exception to this trend was Victor Martinez, a player I explored at some length in December. In that piece I made two main points which I will reiterate here. If you want to see the graphics and such that support these points, follow the preceding link.
The first point is that your view of 2017 Victor Martinez is largely based on what you make of his 2015 season. Two years ago, he had a 78 wRC+ and was one of the least valuable players in baseball. In my piece, I argued that Martinez was probably so bad in 2015 because he had not fully healed from his knee surgery and was essentially one-legged player for most of that year. I think that point is largely defensible. If that’s the case, I wondered if it would make more sense to view Martinez as having simply missed 2015 entirely. My argument is that 2015 Martinez is not a reflection of Martinez’s abilities except for the fact that it tells you something about his injury risk. Yes, it’s quite possible Martinez has a serious leg injury. But if he doesn’t, his 2013, 2014, and 2016 numbers seem more instructive for 2017.
For that reason, I think we can be optimistic about Martinez and could count on his bat for a 120 wRC+ or so. However, I also noted in the piece that Martinez got into a bad habit in 2015 of swinging more often at pitches in the zone while also making less contact. That added to his strikeout rate and while his ability to strike the ball with authority came back in 2016, this bad habit remained, blunting some of his impact.
So going into 2017, we have to ask if Martinez will be healthy and if he will jettison his new found aggression in the zone. If he’s healthy and patient, he will hit. A productive Martinez would be a big boon for the Tigers, but without him in that capacity the club will suffer. There are plenty of good bats in the middle of the order, but the Tigers need to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and any steps back will cause problems.
It’s obvious that the club’s most fragile player is a bellwether, but he’s also a bellwether because his previous injury may have messed with his approach a bit and as he ages normally he will need every ounce of that patience in order to remain valuable.
I’m going to wind up saying it with every one of these posts, but the Tigers can be a relevant team if things go wrong but I don’t think they can be a real contend if anything substantial breaks in the other direction. Martinez’s knees foremost among them.
In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy.
I know this series is only seven words old, but I’m already breaking with the premise. The ninth spot on this year’s list belongs to James McCann and Alex Avila. The site has a math literate audience and I know including ten players on a nine player list is wrong, but I have a reasonable defense that will become clear as we proceed.
In 2016, the Tigers had one of the worst catching units in baseball. That probably sounds a little extreme because McCann and Saltalamacchia combined for 20 HR from behind the plate, but the rest of their offensive output (and four PA from Bobby Wilson) was basically a disaster. Collectively, the group had a 66 wRC+, which was fourth worst in baseball last year. All catchers combined for a 97 wRC+.
But it wasn’t just the offense that was a problem. Baseball Prospectus ranked Tigers catchers 10th worst in framing, and while they scored better in blocking and throwing, there just aren’t a ton of runs to be saved in those aspects of the game. Even the best blocking and throwing catcher in the league probably can’t add much more than a win or so to his team’s total.
It should certainly be noted that James McCann took statistically and visually noticeable steps forward in terms of receiving. Saying the Tigers catchers were bad in 2016 isn’t an indictment on their overall potential, just simply that in order for the team to squeak out the necessary four or five additional wins they need to make the playoffs this year, they have to get better somewhere and catcher is the lowest hanging fruit.
McCann and Avila are ranked jointly here because it doesn’t really matter which one steps up, just that one or both of them need to perform in order for the Tigers to be a competitive team in 2017. McCann is younger and has room to grow, while Avila has already had success in the majors that he could replicate.
McCann obviously needs to replicate his framing progress. If he’s a competent framer and maintains his strong arm, the defense will work if he’s able to hit. Unfortunately, he’s a career .244/.284/.373 hitter (76 wRC+) hitter in 810 PA. I’m not burying a guy after less than two full seasons of reps, but a 5 BB%, 25 K%, and .130 ISO is not a promising start. He needs to hit for a lot more power or he has to make more contact. He’s entering his age 27 season, which is quite young developmentally for a catcher’s offensive profile, but this needs to be a point of focus in 2017. I was more than willing to give McCann a break over the last two plus seasons as he learned how to perform behind the plate in the majors and dealt with the grind of a full season of catching. Catchers develop late at the plate, but McCann needs to start showing that ability this year or the Tigers need to find another catcher of the future.
On the other hand, Avila just turned 30 and has a long career already behind him. While Avila’s defensive skills have seemed less impressive over the last couple of years, his control of the game makes him at least a wash behind the plate if not still a positive contributor. The key will also be his bat. Avila continues to walk his way to a great OBP, but his strikeout rate up near 30% cuts down on some of his potential. Except for a dreadful 2015, Avila’s generally been able to hit for an average number of extra bases. You’re never going to see 2011 Avila again, but he’s been between 92 and 104 wRC+ in four of the last five seasons. If he runs a 95 wRC+ and performs ably behind the plate, that’s a huge improvement for the team.
And only one of them needs to deliver. The Tigers don’t need to get Posey-level production from their catcher, they just can’t carry a black hole for another year. If one or both catchers hit, the team will be poised to keep the pressure on Cleveland into the final month.
Mike Ilitch was an institution. That’s the highest praise I can possibly offer to a man I never met. I can’t tell you first hand if Mike Ilitch was a good person or a great boss. I can’t share an anecdote about some time he wandered into the press box or made Jim Leyland cry. I can’t offer any sort of eulogy for Mike Ilitch, the individual. I didn’t know him. As is the case when anyone famous passes, there is a distance between the grief felt by those he touched as regular person and those he touched as a public figure.
I won’t venture to cover the breadth of Mr. I’s remarkable life. He was born in the months leading up to the Great Depression and grew up during a war that claimed the lives of 60 million. He served in the Marine Corps. He played minor league baseball. And that was just his first 27 years. It would be a story worth telling even if he hadn’t become a pizza mogul and the owner of two iconic franchises.
Ilitch was beloved in Detroit and in Michigan. If you’re reading this from afar, it might be hard to grasp the idea that Tigers and Red Wings fans adored their owner. Owners are often the bad guys. The ones who put the bottom line ahead of winning and jack up ticket prices simply because they can. Make no mistake, Mike Ilitch was a businessman and a good one, but he stood outside the mold of the modern tycoon.
What we loved about Ilitch was that he owned the Wings and Tigers the way we imagine we would own them if we had been in his shoes. Fans don’t see teams as investments. We wouldn’t pinch pennies and worry about making money. It wouldn’t matter if the club ended the year in the black or the red as long as there was a good product and a real chance to win. Ilitch ran the Tigers like a fan. He opened up his bank account when they needed a little extra and he took care of the team’s veterans. Over the last decade, Ilitch was thinking about the moment at the end of the season when the commissioner hands you the trophy. There was no owner who wanted to win for the sake of winning more than Mr. I.
At times, Ilitch was almost too aggressive in his pursuit of glory. The Tigers became famous for mortgaging the future to prepare for the present because Ilitch wanted to win before he died. Every year we knew that the Tigers wouldn’t rebuild because the owner was old and determined. He was running out of chances and taking a year or two off to restock for some blurry future made little sense. Certainly that strategy had its downside but the mistakes he made were made for the right reasons.
There are two stories that represent Ilitch’s legacy for me. After the Tigers clinched the division in 2014, Ilitch sat next to Victor Martinez in Brad Ausmus’ office. He put his arm around him and, as the story goes, said “I’m going to take care of you next year.” Martinez was a free agent to be coming off an incredible year at the plate. The basic math told you that Martinez was going to get a larger contract than he was worth that winter, but Ilitch wouldn’t hear of it. He paid the going rate – maybe even a little more – before Martinez even had a chance to test the market.
Ilitch was known for having that kind of attitude toward his players. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera got similar treatment. Ilitch cared about winning and wanted to win with the players who had worked so hard for him. A few million here or there didn’t matter. His approach made things feel less like a corporation and more like a family business.
However, the defining moment will always be the beginning of the 2009 season. The Great Recession had rocked the auto industry and two of the city’s Big Three automakers had to be bailed out by the federal government to survive. General Motors had previously sponsored the center field fountain at Comerica Park but were in no position to spend a couple million dollars on advertising. Rather than selling the space to another company in some other industry, Ilitch put all three logos on the fountain with the message “The Detroit Tigers support our automakers.”
Things were dire around the country but especially in Detroit. The Tigers themselves were feeling squeezed due to decreased ticket sales and surely could have used the capital. In fact, that offseason they traded Curtis Granderson in part because they needed to trim payroll. A city that was once the engine of the American Century was teetering on the brink, but in that moment, Ilitch wasn’t thinking about the ad space. He was thinking about the organization’s role in the community. It’s responsibility to the community, even.
That season ended painfully, after 12 innings in Minneapolis. It was unquestionably the most crushing moment I’ve had as a sports fan. Game 163 left scars on most of us. That season had been such a welcome distraction from the daily turmoil happening in the real world and a deep playoff run was exactly what everyone needed. In one final blow, the Twins took that away and the longest year in the longest decade of Detroit got a little longer.
I have no idea if the free space actually helped the industry recover, but symbolism mattered. Mike Ilitch did right by his city not just when it was easy and when it made him wealthy, but also when things were tough.
With the benefit of hindsight, we know the automakers survived and Detroit and Michigan are back on the rise. At the city’s lowest point, Mike Ilitch gave the Big Three free space on the fountain because Detroit wouldn’t have been Detroit without them.
I don’t know what’s next for the Wings or the Tigers without Ilitch at the helm. He hasn’t been involved on a day-to-day basis for sometime but it was still his vision that led the way. Our teams and their city benefited greatly from his stewardship, not just because he was savvy, but because he cared about the right things and was willing to take risks. May his example light the way for those who follow.
Alex Avila will always carry two curses. The first is that his father was a high level executive with the team that drafted and developed him. Even though Alex clearly rose to the majors on his own merits, there will always be people who see his career through the lens of nepotism.
His second curse is 2011. Avila was incredible that season. It was a career year. All players have a best season but Avila’s came at 24 during his first full year as an MLB starter. This hurt him so much because 1) Leyland ran him into the ground down the stretch because VMart couldn’t catch and 2) fans were routinely disappointed that Alex didn’t hit to his potential in the following campaigns. He hit 140 wRC+ and when he settled in as a slightly better than average hitting catcher from 2012-2015, he looked like he had failed.
But if you take a step back and look at Avila through objective eyes, he’s had a fine career and is a terrific signing at $2 million for his age 30 season. The Tigers have a big question mark at catcher and some stability from a veteran like Avila makes all the sense in the world if they weren’t going to go out and make a trade for a legitimate upgrade at the position. James McCann is a great thrower and his receiving has improved, but the development of his offense is still a work in progress. At this point, he’s a below average player at the position.
Avila brings with him a respectable bat that can handle work against the RHP than give McCann the most trouble. Avila walks a ton and can hit for extra bases. He won’t set the world on fire but a 95-100 wRC+ is probably in the cards. After being well-regarded statistically for his receiving in his youth, Avila’s numbers have dropped off over the last two or three years. It’s hard to parse the specifics of year to year changes to know exactly what’s up but in watching Avila he still possess some of the skills necessary to steal strikes even if he’s not quite as consistent as he once was. On the other hand, Avila has always been a good game manager and smartly shepherds pitchers through lineups. That’s the kind of thing that only gets better with age.
If you want Avila to be some kind of star 3 WAR catcher you’re asking too much. But he’s not being paid to be that kind of player. He signed for next to nothing. The minimum salary is just south of $600,000 and he’s going to provide the Tigers with maybe 1 WAR for just $1.4 million more. There aren’t a lot of better ways to spend such a small amount of baseball dollars. If you could acquire Lucroy or Posey or some distant Molina cousin that would be one thing, but the market was very thin and getting Avila at this price is a no-brainer.
Separate from the dollars and cents, I’m pleased to see Avila coming back. I’m personally fond of Avila’s style and enjoy his even-keel demeanor. He seems like a genuinely good person and I’d rather root for someone like that than someone who’s a little better but kind of a jerk. Also the beard.
Please allow me to trick you for a moment. From 2010 to 2013, Victor Martinez posted a 121 wRC+ in 1801 PA. From 2014 to 2016, he posted a 126 wRC+ in 1736 PA. At the plate, Martinez was just as good from from 31-34 as he was from 35-37. Granted, he’s a designated hitter and a terrible base runner, so being 20 percent better than average at the plate is essentially a requirement, but Martinez has been the same consistent hitter he’s always been. Did you know his career wRC+ is 122.
(looks around sheepishly)
Okay, so I warned you I was tricking you and you’re also probably a person with a memory so you know I’m playing fast and loose with the word consistent. To the graph!
The 2010 to 2013 Martinez was quite consistent except for the part about not having an ACL there for a minute. If you take the sum total of that era and compare it to his last three years, it seems consistent but we’ve actually seen three different Martinezes since. In 2014 he was one of the best hitters in the league. In 2015, he was one of the worst. In 2016, he was the normal Martinez again. What should we expect from the 2017 version?
If you ask the statistical projections, you get an answer somewhere between 100 and 110. This makes sense, given that he’s been a career 120 wRC+ kind of guy and he’s going to be 38 and two years removed from an awful season. It makes sense that you’d forecast a little decline if all you had were the numbers. So that’s one answer.
But let’s try to add some outside wisdom to that. Martinez had knee surgery before 2015 and was clearly not himself for most of that season. We shouldn’t ignore that information – the fact that he had knee surgery two seasons ago is super important – but we also shouldn’t necessary treat performance during injury as the same as performance when healthy. After all, we don’t treat his missed 2012 season as a 0 wRC+. We treat it like he didn’t exist. He got a year older but we have no information about how well he would have played. Imagine if he had tried to play while his knee was healing then, he probably would have sucked!
Perhaps 2015 Martinez should simply have sat out most of the season instead of just 40 games. Would you remember his last few seasons differently if instead of watching him play horribly you pined over him while Tyler Collins? I might.
If you look at 2013, 2014, and 2016 as his last three seasons you wind up with a projection closer to 135 before adjusting for age and health. Maybe that brings you down to 120-125, which again, is right around the VMart average. It’s a question of whether we want to treat 2015 as valid performance or if we just want to eliminate it and say “second knee surgery penalty.” The odds of Martinez’s knee exploding between now and next October is quite high relative to average, but if his knee does not explode, I think I like the odds of his performance being more in line with his other healthy years.
But there’s another thing. I’m also worried about a slightly bad habit he got into when he was hurt in 2015 that carried over to 2016.
He’s always been well below average in terms of strikeout rate but the last two years that number has ticked up considerably. I wouldn’t think much of it in 2015 but it got worse in 2016 even as his production came back.
He’s started to swing more often at pitches in the zone, essentially at the rate of the rest of the league.
This is troubling because it’s been paired with less contact in the zone.
He’s swinging at more pitches in the zone but he’s not really making contact with those pitches. Maybe in 2015 when he had no bat speed he needed to be more aggressive, but now that he’s healthy again he should have reverted back to the old Martinez way of never swinging at anything he didn’t like. This is something to watch in 2017. Is Martinez able to be as selective as he was during his peak or is he still chasing those not-very-hittable-strikes?
I think it’s plausible we get an injury-hampered Martinez, that we get a 120 wRC+ Martinez, or that we get a really good near-2014esque Martinez in 2017. I’m not qualified to put a number on his health, so just adjust these percentages based on your own expectation. I think I’d wager we get something like 80/20 in favor of the 120 wRC+ Martinez. Even with less plate discipline in 2016 he was still a good hitter. But if he is able to work that out, he showed plenty of power last year to push him into the 140 wRC+ range. The question is if last year’s power is conditional on his hacking ways – I’ll bet that it wasn’t.
The Tigers were very close to postseason baseball in 2016, if everyone pushes a little bit in the right direction they can make it there in 2017, and Martinez is one of the guys with more room to push that most. Hopefully his knee can bear it.
As is tradition this time of year, this post will lay out my plan for the 2017 Tigers. It’s entirely possible that by the time you read this, the entire premise will have been undercut. I say that because I’m going to lay out a strategy of modest improvement, but the club is presently considering a strategy of total rebuilding. And because Mike Ilitich is still at the helm, it’s totally plausible they pull a 180 and wind up as big buyers. We won’t know until it happens.
At the present moment, the Tigers have a starting lineup featuring McCann, Cabrera, Kinsler, Castellanos, Iglesias, Upton, Collins, Martinez, and Martinez. They have Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer, Norris, Boyd, and Sanchez for the rotation. They have K-Rod, Wilson(s), Lowe, Rondon, Greene, Ryan, Hardy, et all for the pen. Assuming average health, that roster is probably an 82-84 win team. The kind of team that would be within 5-6 games of the division lead all year and may or may not have a chance down the stretch. If that sounds familiar it’s because they are returning almost exactly the same team as they had in 2016, save for Maybin and some bench stuff. The Tigers came within two games of making the postseason and will have the same roster again.
I understand the reasons to rebuild, but as I noted here, I don’t think the Tigers should do it unless the offers are particularly favorable. With arbitration salaries factored in, they’re going to spend around $190 million in 2017 if they do nothing.
I would do two small things and then one maybe larger thing. The first thing would be to acquire another mid-level reliever. There are a lot of names, but someone like Travis Wood/Brad Ziegler/Trevor Cahill/JP Howell. A trade would also be fine, the way they nabbed Justin Wilson last year. The Jansen/Melancon/Blanton tier is probably out of reach financially. Really, just get another arm or two who you can feed into the system so that you don’t have to rely on the farm quite as much.
The second small thing is backup catcher. It’s not a thrilling group, but I’d be more than happy to bring Avila back or add someone like Dioner Navarro. Granted, the Tigers might need to improve at catcher above McCann/backup, but that isn’t happening this year unless they get super creative.
The larger thing I would do relates to center field. Collins/Jones/Gose is not a good option for a team that isn’t otherwise great. You can carry that tandem if you’re a likely playoff team and maxing out your payroll, but the Tigers don’t have that luxury. The Tigers could buy low on Carlos Gomez and hope he’s healthy, or make a play for someone like Dexter Fowler, although the cost of that mixed with the draft pick probably won’t fly.
So if I’m the Tigers and I’ve decided to go for it, I would look toward Ender Inciarte in Atlanta. Inciarte is a solid hitter with good on-base ability, speed, and great defense. He’d be a huge upgrade on defense and could potentially slot in at the top of the order with Kinsler. Depending on what the Braves are after, the Tigers could dangle one of their young pitchers, either a Boyd-caliber arm or one with less polish and more flash like Burrows or Manning. Inciarte is only 26, so while he doesn’t have the prospect status, he’s definitely the kind of player who could contribute for several more years and potentially on a good Tigers team in 2019 or beyond.
I recognize this isn’t the exciting type of plan I normally pitch, but there just isn’t much out there on the market and the Tigers aren’t that far from reasonable contention. Something like this where they add a couple small pieces and one good center fielder is probably the best way to go unless they want to rebuild. If they want to rebuild, there are all sorts of ways to go, it just depends on how long they’re willing to let it hurt.
Earlier this week, Al Avila met the press and signaled the organization will be taking a long hard look in the mirror this offseason. Avila indicated payroll likely won’t go up in 2017 and that the club is looking to get younger, likely through the trade market. Both comments send a message, but there was nothing definitive in his statement. You could easily interpret it as a prelude to a tear down or as an indication that the club might try to flip JD Martinez for someone a little worse but a little younger.
Obviously, Avila is right not to overly telegraph his plans. He should wait to see what the market does after the World Series and adjust his plans according to the actions of the rest of the league. No reason to commit to anything before you have information, but this is essentially the first time since 2009 that the club has even hinted at a potential rebuilding offseason.
As usual, when the World Series ends, I’ll lay out my recommendation for the offseason, but now I want to explore if the concept of a rebuild makes sense for the Tigers.
Let’s start with the basics. The club spent $198 million in 2016 and Avila said he doesn’t expect that number to rise. While that has led some people to forecast a big payroll cut, I think it’s more likely we’ll see the club spend $190ish million or so. Even if the Tigers want to get leaner, the luxury tax threshold is going up this winter (potentially by a lot) and there is a lot of new money flowing into the game. The Tigers might not keep pace with everyone else this winter, but I don’t think they’re planning to go down to $140 million simply for financial reasons. They could end up there for rebuilding reasons, but that’s a different question.
Aside from Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ longest commitment runs through 2021, but that’s Justin Upton who could easily opt out after 2017. Verlander has an option for 2020 but that requires a top 5 Cy Young finish in 2019. Realistically, You have Cabrera forever, Zimmermann until 2020, and Verlander through 2019. Everyone else with financial commitments are done after 2018. Essentially, this means that the Tigers have to decide if they want to contend in 2017 and 2018, or set their sights on 2019. These aren’t mutually exclusive options, but there’s no reason to shoot for a rebuild to complete any later than 2019 if that’s the plan.
So the options are work to contend for 2017, start a full rebuild for 2019+, or doing something in between that keeps you relevant but acknowledges it might be a slow two years.
If the Tigers want to go for it, they’ll look to make a trade or two to bolster catcher and center field, and then probably also do some combination of things to help the pen. The free agent market is very weak, so there aren’t any big splashes coming. Making some tweaks around the edges will easily bring the club to another 85-88 win season. The downside of this approach is that the longer you wait before rebuilding, the less valuable your trade chips become. The Tigers will get more this winter for Martinez, Cabrera, Kinsler, etc than they will in a year or two.
The rebuild option is some combination of deals involving Martinez, Kinsler, Cabrera, Verlander, Upton, etc. The Tigers have lots of good veteran players who would be attractive in a weak free agent market. If you make these trades, you’re punting the next two seasons because the odds of getting back that much major league ready talent is quite low. Even if you make good trades, you’re probably unlikely to get players who are ready to step in on day one.
The middle path involves dealing JD Martinez, or maybe Martinez and Kinsler. You could probably get enough in return that you could stay competitive in 2017, but also with an eye on the 2019+ timeline. Losing several wins would hurt, but you can probably find league average players to replace them and be a .500 or better team.
This is all hypothetical and the Tigers shouldn’t decide until they know the going rate for these players, but I think the Tigers should go for it in 2017. The idea of a rebuild is interesting, but they have already assembled a championship caliber core. They have an impressive middle of the order, a frontline ace, a solid #2 in Zimmermann, and three young pitchers who could all easily be 2/3 starters as soon as 2017. If they had been a little healthier in 2016 and not lost lots of time from Castellanos, Martinez, and Zimmermann, they would have made the playoffs.
Certainly, key players are aging and you don’t want to kid yourselves into holding on too long, but there’s a very real chance the Tigers make a run in 2017 without significant acquisitions. If the club wanted to rebuild, last offseason would have made more sense. They could have avoided the Upton/Zimmermann deals and traded Kinsler, Martinez, Cabrera to line them up for a big rebuilding project. With those deals being signed and Verlander proving he is back, it doesn’t quite make sense to punt on 2017.
Again, you want to read the market. You do what’s best for the long term success of the organization, but the Tigers are too close, in my opinion, to give up on 2017. The club has been chasing a title for a decade and they are absolutely still in striking distance. If they wait until 2019+, they won’t have prime Cabrera and Verlander and the odds that they acquire two Hall of Fame caliber players in this rebuild is remote. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think the situation is dire enough yet to warrant that kind of gamble.
For this year’s season preview series, I decided to explore the nine “bellwethers” for the Tigers 2016 campaign. The idea wasn’t to write about the club’s most important players, but rather the players who were most likely to tip the balance in one direction of the other. Now that the season is over and we have some distance between us and Game 161 (?!), I thought it might be interesting to see how the bellwethers compared to what I wrote about them in March.
That’s essentially the question we’ll be looking to answer in 2016. Can Daniel Norris strike out more hitters without sacrificing command? He’s a fly ball pitcher with a solid enough group of outfielders and has a pair of great defenders up the middle in the field. Norris was victimized surprisingly by lefties in 2015, who hit for a ton of power (.293 ISO in 64 PA), but that probably won’t continue once he gets a chance to pitch a full season.
In 2015, hitters were very patient against Norris, which is something he’ll need to combat with a higher number of first pitch strikes. He needs to get ahead early and let his arsenal of secondary pitches force hitters to chase for swinging strikes and weak contact. This is all very much within his grasp given the tools at his disposal. He’s physically gifted, intellectually capable, and works hard.
Norris has the potential to become a #2 starter someday, but it’s probably not a good bet to predict he reaches that zenith in his first full season in the majors. More likely, Norris will have his ups and downs, getting hit hard from time to time before making adjustments to get back in control. Realistically, a 90 ERA-/FIP- is probably the best case scenario, which would make him about a 3 WAR pitcher over 180 innings. That’s better than he was in 2015, but it’s not all the way to his ceiling.
But it’s also not out of the question to imagine Norris struggles with his command in April and the club decides he isn’t quite ready for prime time, especially because they need to watch his innings anyway. In this scenario, maybe he’s in the 110 ERA-/FIP- range, or worse, and the Tigers have to rely on Boyd, Fulmer, etc before they are fully ready. Given that the club doesn’t have a ton of depth, Norris is a crucial component of a successful season. There are always ways for teams to surprise you, but it seems relatively unlikely that the Tigers will win the division without a productive Daniel Norris.
So the big question was if Norris could increase his strikeout rate without losing any command. Verdict? Nearly a 6% increase in K% and a virtually unchanged walk rate. I pegged him around ten percent better than league average and his park-adjust FIP came in 8% better than league average (his ERA was even better). His WAR/180 IP was 2.9, just under the 3.0 mark I set as the best case scenario. On a per inning basis, Norris hit his mark. The big issue was that he battled injury and inconsistency over the first part of the season and only gave the Tigers about 70 innings. Had he been this good and healthy all year, the Tigers season probably goes differently, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that when he was in uniform he was as good as we could have expected.
It’s no secret that the Tigers need better innings from their bullpen if they want to compete and Wilson is going to be an important piece of that puzzle. He’s probably not 30-40% better than league average when it comes to ERA or FIP, but if he’s good enough to be in the 20-30% better than average window, that’s a big step forward for the Tigers. If Wilson can put together a 25 K%, 8 BB%, 0.50 HR/9 kind of season, all of which are very much in line with his 2015 season plus a little negative regression, the Tigers will have a really good LHP1 that will allow them to move Blaine Hardy into a LHP2.
Wilson finished the year with a 74 FIP-, 25.9 K%, 6.8 BB%, and 0.92 HR/9. The home run increase was really the only thing that kept him from totally hitting the mark, but even with that issue he was still a nice upgrade over what the Tigers had previous. Wilson was incredible early in the season but regressed a bit later in the summer, so fans probably have a sour taste in their mouths. Wilson was a very solid reliever for the club this year and while he flashed elite level performance at one point, the sum of his work was right around what we expected.
It’s likely that health is a key factor for Lowe, but even in the seasons in which he seemed to be healthy, he was never as good as he was in 2015. Last year was clearly his best year, and how the Tigers perform in 2016 will be partially dependent on how much of that was a real shift toward greatness and how much was a blip.
Is Mark Lowe really a great reliever, or is he simply a solid arm who had a good year? Even if he’s just a solid bullpen piece, but stays healthy, he’ll make the team better. But the team was awful in 2015, so a little better isn’t a terribly exciting move. If his slider-heavy approach and high velocity fastball are here to stay, the Tigers have themselves a late-inning reliever who can prevent leads from slipping away. If he can’t stay healthy or his 2015 success was mostly noise, it will be much harder for the team to keep up with Kansas City, Cleveland, and perhaps Chicago.
So listen, just everything about this went to hell. Lowe didn’t have the same stuff he showed in 2015 and got creamed when he was out there for the Tigers. He had moments where he looked serviceable, but overall it was not a good season.
So part of Iglesias’ 2016 will be about avoiding miscues on those easier and mid-range plays. He’s going to blow you away with some great defense, but saving a run by making a great play only goes so far if you boot a routine play the next day. Few are better than Iglesias from a talent perspective, but he need to take a step forward defensively so that the Tigers can get the most out of that ability. He’s probably played like a +5 shortstop recently, even though he has +10 to +15 talent. Getting those extra five or ten runs is going to be huge for the Tigers as they chase Cleveland and Kansas City.
I obviously don’t know who’s right, but the fans do have a pretty strong case given that Iglesias’ career BABIP is .328 when the projection systems are forecasting it to be around .310. He’s a ground ball/ line drive hitter who gets plenty of infield hits, so a BABIP above .300 is to be expected, it’s just a question of how much higher it will be.
But that’s the question. Iglesias is going to hit a couple dingers, knock 20 doubles, and have a low walk rate. That’s his game. But last year he cut down on his strikeouts by a lot (under 10% after being in the 15-20% range for his career) and has always put up a quality BABIP. If he can rack up plenty of singles, he can be an average MLB hitter.
The two big questions for Iglesias were making sure his defensive performance matched his talent and figuring out if he had a high BABIP skill that he could count on for lots of singles. On the glove side, the metrics gave him a nice bump over 2015 and what I saw from him squares with that assessment. Iglesias improved going to his right and kicked fewer easy plays, allowing his ability to make highlight catches carry him to a nice defensive season.
At the plate, however, his walk and strikeout rates were identical to 2015, his power was essentially the same, and his BABIP dropped more than 50 points. Now the .276 BABIP he ran in 2016 probably sits below his true talent level, but the fact that he was a 73 wRC+ hitter instead of 95-100 wRC+ was a big reason why the Tigers missed the postseason. In order for Iglesias to be a really valuable player, he needs to hit a lot of singles. He didn’t in 2016.
There’s isn’t one particular thing Rodriguez needs to keep doing, as we’ve noted with some other players during this series, it’s really just that he needs to hold off that inevitable decline a little bit longer.
This is the central question for McCann’s bat in 2016. Is he an unimpressive hitting catcher with a vulnerability to righties or did he just appear that way last season because the weight of his first season as a major league catcher simply took its toll late in the season? Time will tell.
So another huge question for McCann this year will be if he can improve his receiving. We know he’s got a strong throwing arm and can manage the running game, but getting strikes for the pitching staff is his most important job and failing to come through in this department will wash away his positive contributions elsewhere.
Fortunately, while Brad Ausmus often causes more problems than he solves, this one is right up his alley. In fact, Ausmus was probably one of the better pitch framers in baseball history. If the front office was able to communicate to Ausmus that McCann needed help and Ausmus is an able teacher, there’s reason to be hopeful. We’ve seen in other cases that framing is a teachable skill.
Okay, so this one pulls in both directions. McCann’s bat was terrible in 2016 and all of the problems you feared he might have manifested in a 66 wRC+. However, as I suggested this winter, McCann was more than capable of improving his framing and he did exactly that. McCann didn’t turn himself into a great framer but he went from one of the worst receivers in baseball in 2015 to a roughly average one in 2016. Mix that with his great catch and throw abilities and you have yourself a very solid defender. Unfortunately, great defense doesn’t get you all the way there if you are hitting 35% worse than league average.
Was that a smaller sample size aberration? We’ll soon find out. The power absolutely looked real to the naked eye, as Castellanos drove the ball with much more authority when he squared up a pitch, but the BABIP remains to be seen. His style of hitting lends itself to a higher than average BABIP, but there’s a big gulf between a .315 BABIP and a .340 BABIP that we’ll need to litigate over time.
Castellanos has a swing you can dream on and he definitely bulked up between 2014 and 2015. His approach leaves something to be desired but it really might be as simple as learning to lay off the breaking ball low and away. He can’t hit that pitch and once he stopped trying, his numbers perked up. There’s loads of offensive potential in his bat, he just needs to hone his approach now that he’s added enough strength to hit for power.
A 120 wRC+ Castellanos is a totally plausible thing. And if he hits like that with a below average, but not embarrassing glove, the team has themselves a quality big leaguer.
A downer would tell you that Castellanos shined early in the season and was starting to fade before he got hurt, but if you take a step back and evaluate his season as a whole, he checked exactly the boxes he need to. Increased power, above average BABIP. He finished with a 119 wRC+. While his glove remained below average, it’s nothing like what it was in 2014, and as I said, a 120 wRC+ hitter with a below average but serviceable glove is a player you can work with. The injury cost the Tigers, but Nick did his part living up to what they needed.
It seems entirely possible that Sanchez muddles through 2016 as a below average starter and gives the Tigers 130 or 140 mediocre innings. But it’s also very possible that he’s healthy and gives them 180 great innings. Normally I roll my eyes when people talk about ceilings and floors because anyone can suck and most anyone can have one great season, but I think Sanchez’s probabilities for each are quite high. Maybe call it a 25% chance of disaster, 25% change of greatness, and 50% chance of average. For most players, I would personally predict a much narrower distribution.
I will leave it to you to decide if you consider his season a disaster, or just something kind of close to that. But clearly, Sanchez coming in at the bottom of his potential was one of the significant daggers in the Tigers 2016 title hopes.
Yet if he’s healthy and stays that way, and if his health was what killed him during the dark years, maybe he has another year left in the College of Aces. If Verlander is Verlander and finds something close to the form he found in late 2015, the Tigers can win the AL Central. If Verlander is a 5, 6, or 7 win pitcher in 2016, the Tigers will almost certainly make the playoffs.
This is both comforting and heartbreaking. Verlander absolutely carried forward his late-2016 form and was exactly the kind of pitcher the Tigers needed at the front of the rotation. He did absolutely everything he could to get his team across the finish line, the rest of the club just happened to come up short.
But there’s a counterfactual here worth discussing, just for the sake of this series. Had Verlander gone the other direction, there’s no doubt the Tigers would have missed the playoffs. He really was the truest bellwether of the season, it’s just that 2, 4, 6, and 7 collectively broke far enough in the wrong direction to stifle the club’s hopes. That combined with injuries to JD Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann kept the Tigers from postseason baseball.