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.
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…
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.