Monthly Archives: October, 2015

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.

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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
  • LOTS OF RELIEF PITCHERS
  • EVEN MORE RELIEF PITCHERS

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.

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