In less than a month, there won’t be any baseball left and teams will start actively building their 2015 incarnations. Essentially every club has met to discuss their futures, but until the World Series is over, nothing can happen outside of extensions and some basic paper moves. Last week, we covered what the Tigers should do with their free agents and arbitration cases, but now’s the time to put it all together. Here’s how New English D would attack the 2015 offseason.
Let’s start with what we know is already in place.
We know that Justin Verlander, David Price, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello will be in the starting rotation barring any sort of injury of crazy change of organizational direction. We know that Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler will hold down the right side of the infield. We know that Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Rajai Davis, Andy Dirks, JD Martinez, and Alex Avila are in line for some role with the organization, depending on health status and other moves.
We also know the Tigers have Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria (if they want him), Al Alburquerque, and a bunch of various kids out in the pen. And when know how the various young players and prospects fit in.
These are the assets the Tigers currently have. Here are the players they should target and how they should fit into the roster.
Unless something crazy happens, the Tigers have four starters locked in for 2015 and while Verlander isn’t what he used to be, it’s still a four-headed unit that should rival pretty much any other team for rotation supremacy. They obviously need one more arm to round it out. In house, they have Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan, Drew VerHagen, and Buck Farmer. Lobstein was the only one who demonstrated some ability at the MLB level, but really there’s no one in that group who has a high probability of 2015 success. There is potential with this group, but you would feel much better with them fighting for rotation spot #6 than #5. I don’t want to give 30 starts to this group, but I wouldn’t mind giving them 8-10.
To that end, the Tigers need to acquire one additional starting pitcher via free agency or trade.
The Tigers need arm that will be effective, but not horribly expensive. Lester and Shields would be nice upgrades but if they can afford another $100 million it could be better spent.
Two free agent starters come to mind: Brandon McCarthy and Justin Masterson. McCarthy is an average to slightly above average starter and the only reason he won’t make $50-$60 million this offseason is because he’s had injury issues throughout his career. He’d be an ideal fit because he’s a solid arm who the Tigers can grab on a two or three year deal for less than $40 million. Steamer projects him to be a 2 win pitcher in only 140 innings in 2015, so the dropoff from Scherzer will be felt, but you can’t simply find a Scherzer at these prices.
Alternatively, Masterson is a bit of a gamble because he looked a little worn down down the stretch in 2014. Obviously, the team would need to be assured of the structural integrity of his right arm, but otherwise he’s a good buy low risk. He has trouble with lefties, but he’s good enough against righties to make a one year deal work the risk. He was on the verge of a nice deal before his 2014 slide, but he’s going to want to rebuild his value on short deal, so dangling an extra million or two could really make a difference.
Also, it’s important to note that even if Masterson can’t hack it as a starter anymore, he could become a terrific weapon against RHP out of the pen. He’s capable of a 3-4 win season, but at the very least you’re getting a solid reliever. He’s exactly the kind of player the Tigers don’t target often enough: Good players coming off down years.
The trade market is probably going to be thin on targets for the Tigers. Cueto would obviously be nice, but it’s hard to imagine that a team wouldn’t be able to top the offer of an meh starting pitching prospect and a generic middle infielder. I’d give Suarez/Travis and Ray for Cueto in a flash, but the Tigers don’t have a lot else to deal to contend with more desperate clubs.
Rotation: Verlander, Sanchez, Price, Porcello, McCarthy/Masterson
SP Depth: Lobstein, Ryan, Ray, Famer, VerHagen
The Tigers need relievers in the worst way. They’ll enter 2015 with Nathan, Al-Al, potentially Soria, and a cast of characters. The first thing they need to do is pick up Soria’s option. He’s a good reliever, even if he had a bad run with the Tigers. You can’t find pitchers of his caliber very easily and the Tigers can’t afford to get picky. They don’t just need one or two guys, they need like 6.
So with Nathan, Al-Al, and Soria in the fold, the Tigers are looking at three reasonable right-handed options. If used right and with enough luck, they’re going to be big contributors. But you shouldn’t assume anything like that when it comes to bullpens. The team needs at least two or three more RHP out of the pen. If Bruce Rondon is healthy, that cuts the number, but it’s probably better to assume he won’t be ready and plan for the worst.
If healthy, Luke Putkonen is a good option for the last RHP slot. There are some other guys in the organization who could emerge, but no one really worth planning around. Basically, the Tigers need to sign at least one RHP, but probably two. We’ll get to who in a moment.
On the LHP side, the Tigers have Hardy, Lobstein, Ryan, and Ray as potential options. If you’re expecting to carry two lefties, the four of those guys can probably wind up covering one slot. Heck, maybe Ian Krol could give you a few useful innings. Each of the four listed showed some real potential as reliever and the Tigers should focus on catering their preparations for that role. Maybe Lobstein and Ryan end up starting in Toledo, but the Tigers need relief help and they shouldn’t wait around for it when they could convert Ray this offseason.
So that means the Tigers need at least one LHP, but two would be better.
David Robertson is a great RH target, but he’s also a “closer” and will be more expensive than he’s worth. Instead, the Tigers should target Luke Gregerson, Jason Frasor and Pat Neshek. Gregerson is a perfect choice because he won’t attract closer attention despite being a very consistent performer over the last several seasons. He’s better against RHH, given that he relies on his slider, but he has a career .285 wOBA vs LHH, so he won’t have to come out against anything less than the top LHH. He should only fetch a one or two year deal for reasonable money. He’s not a ace or a name, but the Tigers are a team that needs good relievers, not votes for student council.
Frasor is a guy I’ve wanted the Tigers to get pretty much forever. He’s not a great reliever, but he’s been very solid for years. He doesn’t have a big platoon split and he’s consistent. He signed for under $2 million in 2014 and shouldn’t cost a ton more this year.
Neshek was awesome this year after years of mostly being meh, but his weird delivery and big platoon split will keep big money away. You don’t need Neshek to be one of your shutdown guys, you want him to matchup against RHH and provide depth if one of the big dogs goes down.
On the left side, the Tigers need one really good lefty and one guy who isn’t terrible. It’s a shallow list, with Andrew Miller standing out. Andrew Miller is probably going to get many millions of dollars, so that might be off the table. Neal Cotts reinvented himself as a quality reliever two years ago and would work well. So would Zach Duke, who completely reinvented himself as a strikeout guy during 2014. The Tigers should sign both before anyone catches on.
The key here is that a bunch of relievers will suck. You can’t barely have seven competent relievers, you need like 11 so that you have a good unit when the invariable problems emerge. This plan offers the Tigers this bullpen:
Relief Ace: Soria
RHP1: Luke Gregerson
RHP2: Al Alburquerque
RHP3: Joe Nathan
RHP4: Jason Frasor
RHP Depth: Pat Neshek, Bruce Rondon, Luke Putkonen, etc
LHP1: Neal Cotts
LHP2: Zach Duke
LHP Depth: Blaine Hardy, Robbie Ray, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Ryan
That’s an actual bullpen, rather than a “what’s the worst that could happen pen.”
First and second base are locked down, and Avila is going to be the catcher if he’s healthy. I would recommend that Avila think about retirement, but I’m not going to assume that’s happening for the purposes of this plan. That means the Tigers need to decide on the left side, the outfield, DH, and the bench.
If Iglesias is healthy, he’s the guy at SS. The glove is too valuable to keep it anywhere else. If they’re concerned about his health, they should look at Jed Lowrie or Clint Barmes as a stop gap, but if Iggy can handle most of the reps, having Romine or Suarez on the bench behind him would work just fine. I’d probably favor Romine because he’s a better option for late game defensive work at 3B and is a useful pinch runner.
Castellanos looks very promising with the bat, but his defense was awful in 2014. I’m optimistic that it can get better, but how much better is an open question. The Tigers should stick with Nick at 3B for 2015, unless they can find a really good option on the market. Give him a chance to make the adjustments, but don’t hold your breath.
James McCann should compliment Avila behind the plate because he’s a better hitter and defender than Holaday and could run a real platoon rather than only making hay with bunt hits. Holaday is nice depth, but that’s depth that can work in Toledo as well.
At DH, the Tigers ought to retain Victor Martinez. It will cost them, but he’s a good hitter who won’t have to adjust to a new paradigm where he doesn’t play the field. He seems to be a positive voice in the clubhouse and he hits very well from both sides. You worry about the age, but he’s gifted enough to decline slowly.
In the outfield, the Tigers have Davis, Dirks, Martinez, Moya, and Collins to work with. Two of those four could hook up for a platoon (Davis and Dirks?) and then let Martinez, Moya, and Collins work out the other spot, but I’d bring in an outside veteran at a corner as well, while the team also grabs a bona fide CF. JD Martinez is probably good enough now to win a job, but I wouldn’t just assume it’s going to happen. You want to plan for the worst.
For the RF veteran, Melky Cabrera will probably be out of the Tigers’ price range, but it would be a good fit to grab him for LF or RF if the cost is low enough. Otherwise, signing Nate Shierholtz, Alex Rios, Nick Markakis, or Chris Denorfia to play the other corner make sense. Either that player will stick and give Moya and Collins another year to wait for Davis to skip town or the kids will force their way onto the roster and leave the organization with a good problem. Markakis would get my vote.
The best case scenario is that Martinez, Dirks, Davis, and Markakis all perform well and you’re using Davis and Dirks off the bench really effectively for defense, running, and rest. That’s a really nice set of corner outfielders and reserves.
For CF, the direction in my mind is clear. Defense. Don’t sweat the fact that you don’t have a big bat out there. Don’t look for a superstar. Get a player who will play excellent defense out there and make life easier on the corner guys and especially the pitchers. There are two clear options, with one being more likely than the other.
Peter Bourjos and Craig Gentry. They’re very similar players. Both are outstanding defenders in CF and both are terrific base runners. The Tigers need both in a big way. Both are probably no better than average at the plate and probably a touch worse and both have some history getting dinged up. But the defense is amazing and the Tigers need it so badly.
Bourjos is the easier target because the Cardinals have like 112 outfielders and Bourjos fell out of favor down the stretch. With Taveras, Grichuk, Jay, Holliday, etc all on the roster, Bourjos is less useful there than he would be to the Tigers. The Tigers can and should offer the Cardinals pretty much whatever they want out of the farm system short of Derek Hill. The Tigers need a great defender out there. Gentry fits the same mold, but the A’s are more clever with their platoons and have more PAs to burn in the OF, so it might be a trickier deal.
If we assume Bourjos, Markakis, and Martinez get most of the reps with time for Davis and Dirks mixed in if healthy, that just leaves a roster spot for Don Kelly (or someone else who can back up at a few places) if one of the outfielders flames out. I’ll do a piece later about depth and minor league guys they should target to fill out the spots after +25.
Catchers: Avila, McCann
First Base: Cabrera
Second Base: Kinsler
Third Base: Castellanos
Left Field: JD Martinez
Center Field: Bourjos
Right Field: Markakis
DH: Victor Martinez
Bench: Rajai Davis, Andy Dirks, Andrew Romine
In sum, the Tigers should target McCarthy, Gregerson, Frasor, Neshek, Cotts, Duke, Markakis, and Bourjos in an effort to revamp the team and work toward a title in 2015. If JD Martinez pans out and Dirks remains healthy, you’re crowded on the roster. But what are the odds that those things both happen and that VMart re-signs? And that no major piece gets hurt.
Start with a crowded roster and problems won’t kill you. It’s better to have Dirks upset about his role than have Ezequiel Carrera getting very important at bats in September.
The philosophy here is acquiring a high number of good players rather than a couple of great ones. The Tigers have star power but they lack depth. Improving the outfield and bullpen should be imperatives and this plan achieves that without a huge commitment financially or in terms of years. Bad stuff will happen and this will insulate the team. It’s probably going to push closer to $185 million or so, which means this plan without Markakis is the proposal if we’re running into a hard ceiling.
Finally, this isn’t happening, but I would absolutely fire the manager. Ausmus had a horrible showing in year one and has made no public indication that he’s grown as a result of the experience. Could he get better? Sure. Would a great manager have taken them to the series in 2014? Unlikely. But that doesn’t mean he should be back. He did almost nothing well and only did a few things with average skill. They should fire him and bring in someone like Dave Martinez from TB (to fill the Martinez quota!). They won’t, but that’s just my plea. (I’ll do a full breakdown of the Ausmus season after the WS).
That’s the plan. All 2,500 words of it. Outfield depth. Bullpen depth. Defense. Get a little lucky.