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.