Does Rebuilding Make Sense?
Earlier this week, Al Avila met the press and signaled the organization will be taking a long hard look in the mirror this offseason. Avila indicated payroll likely won’t go up in 2017 and that the club is looking to get younger, likely through the trade market. Both comments send a message, but there was nothing definitive in his statement. You could easily interpret it as a prelude to a tear down or as an indication that the club might try to flip JD Martinez for someone a little worse but a little younger.
Obviously, Avila is right not to overly telegraph his plans. He should wait to see what the market does after the World Series and adjust his plans according to the actions of the rest of the league. No reason to commit to anything before you have information, but this is essentially the first time since 2009 that the club has even hinted at a potential rebuilding offseason.
As usual, when the World Series ends, I’ll lay out my recommendation for the offseason, but now I want to explore if the concept of a rebuild makes sense for the Tigers.
Let’s start with the basics. The club spent $198 million in 2016 and Avila said he doesn’t expect that number to rise. While that has led some people to forecast a big payroll cut, I think it’s more likely we’ll see the club spend $190ish million or so. Even if the Tigers want to get leaner, the luxury tax threshold is going up this winter (potentially by a lot) and there is a lot of new money flowing into the game. The Tigers might not keep pace with everyone else this winter, but I don’t think they’re planning to go down to $140 million simply for financial reasons. They could end up there for rebuilding reasons, but that’s a different question.
Aside from Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers’ longest commitment runs through 2021, but that’s Justin Upton who could easily opt out after 2017. Verlander has an option for 2020 but that requires a top 5 Cy Young finish in 2019. Realistically, You have Cabrera forever, Zimmermann until 2020, and Verlander through 2019. Everyone else with financial commitments are done after 2018. Essentially, this means that the Tigers have to decide if they want to contend in 2017 and 2018, or set their sights on 2019. These aren’t mutually exclusive options, but there’s no reason to shoot for a rebuild to complete any later than 2019 if that’s the plan.
So the options are work to contend for 2017, start a full rebuild for 2019+, or doing something in between that keeps you relevant but acknowledges it might be a slow two years.
If the Tigers want to go for it, they’ll look to make a trade or two to bolster catcher and center field, and then probably also do some combination of things to help the pen. The free agent market is very weak, so there aren’t any big splashes coming. Making some tweaks around the edges will easily bring the club to another 85-88 win season. The downside of this approach is that the longer you wait before rebuilding, the less valuable your trade chips become. The Tigers will get more this winter for Martinez, Cabrera, Kinsler, etc than they will in a year or two.
The rebuild option is some combination of deals involving Martinez, Kinsler, Cabrera, Verlander, Upton, etc. The Tigers have lots of good veteran players who would be attractive in a weak free agent market. If you make these trades, you’re punting the next two seasons because the odds of getting back that much major league ready talent is quite low. Even if you make good trades, you’re probably unlikely to get players who are ready to step in on day one.
The middle path involves dealing JD Martinez, or maybe Martinez and Kinsler. You could probably get enough in return that you could stay competitive in 2017, but also with an eye on the 2019+ timeline. Losing several wins would hurt, but you can probably find league average players to replace them and be a .500 or better team.
This is all hypothetical and the Tigers shouldn’t decide until they know the going rate for these players, but I think the Tigers should go for it in 2017. The idea of a rebuild is interesting, but they have already assembled a championship caliber core. They have an impressive middle of the order, a frontline ace, a solid #2 in Zimmermann, and three young pitchers who could all easily be 2/3 starters as soon as 2017. If they had been a little healthier in 2016 and not lost lots of time from Castellanos, Martinez, and Zimmermann, they would have made the playoffs.
Certainly, key players are aging and you don’t want to kid yourselves into holding on too long, but there’s a very real chance the Tigers make a run in 2017 without significant acquisitions. If the club wanted to rebuild, last offseason would have made more sense. They could have avoided the Upton/Zimmermann deals and traded Kinsler, Martinez, Cabrera to line them up for a big rebuilding project. With those deals being signed and Verlander proving he is back, it doesn’t quite make sense to punt on 2017.
Again, you want to read the market. You do what’s best for the long term success of the organization, but the Tigers are too close, in my opinion, to give up on 2017. The club has been chasing a title for a decade and they are absolutely still in striking distance. If they wait until 2019+, they won’t have prime Cabrera and Verlander and the odds that they acquire two Hall of Fame caliber players in this rebuild is remote. It’s certainly possible, but I don’t think the situation is dire enough yet to warrant that kind of gamble.
Reviewing The Preseason Bellwethers
For this year’s season preview series, I decided to explore the nine “bellwethers” for the Tigers 2016 campaign. The idea wasn’t to write about the club’s most important players, but rather the players who were most likely to tip the balance in one direction of the other. Now that the season is over and we have some distance between us and Game 161 (?!), I thought it might be interesting to see how the bellwethers compared to what I wrote about them in March.
That’s essentially the question we’ll be looking to answer in 2016. Can Daniel Norris strike out more hitters without sacrificing command? He’s a fly ball pitcher with a solid enough group of outfielders and has a pair of great defenders up the middle in the field. Norris was victimized surprisingly by lefties in 2015, who hit for a ton of power (.293 ISO in 64 PA), but that probably won’t continue once he gets a chance to pitch a full season.
In 2015, hitters were very patient against Norris, which is something he’ll need to combat with a higher number of first pitch strikes. He needs to get ahead early and let his arsenal of secondary pitches force hitters to chase for swinging strikes and weak contact. This is all very much within his grasp given the tools at his disposal. He’s physically gifted, intellectually capable, and works hard.
Norris has the potential to become a #2 starter someday, but it’s probably not a good bet to predict he reaches that zenith in his first full season in the majors. More likely, Norris will have his ups and downs, getting hit hard from time to time before making adjustments to get back in control. Realistically, a 90 ERA-/FIP- is probably the best case scenario, which would make him about a 3 WAR pitcher over 180 innings. That’s better than he was in 2015, but it’s not all the way to his ceiling.
But it’s also not out of the question to imagine Norris struggles with his command in April and the club decides he isn’t quite ready for prime time, especially because they need to watch his innings anyway. In this scenario, maybe he’s in the 110 ERA-/FIP- range, or worse, and the Tigers have to rely on Boyd, Fulmer, etc before they are fully ready. Given that the club doesn’t have a ton of depth, Norris is a crucial component of a successful season. There are always ways for teams to surprise you, but it seems relatively unlikely that the Tigers will win the division without a productive Daniel Norris.
So the big question was if Norris could increase his strikeout rate without losing any command. Verdict? Nearly a 6% increase in K% and a virtually unchanged walk rate. I pegged him around ten percent better than league average and his park-adjust FIP came in 8% better than league average (his ERA was even better). His WAR/180 IP was 2.9, just under the 3.0 mark I set as the best case scenario. On a per inning basis, Norris hit his mark. The big issue was that he battled injury and inconsistency over the first part of the season and only gave the Tigers about 70 innings. Had he been this good and healthy all year, the Tigers season probably goes differently, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that when he was in uniform he was as good as we could have expected.
It’s no secret that the Tigers need better innings from their bullpen if they want to compete and Wilson is going to be an important piece of that puzzle. He’s probably not 30-40% better than league average when it comes to ERA or FIP, but if he’s good enough to be in the 20-30% better than average window, that’s a big step forward for the Tigers. If Wilson can put together a 25 K%, 8 BB%, 0.50 HR/9 kind of season, all of which are very much in line with his 2015 season plus a little negative regression, the Tigers will have a really good LHP1 that will allow them to move Blaine Hardy into a LHP2.
Wilson finished the year with a 74 FIP-, 25.9 K%, 6.8 BB%, and 0.92 HR/9. The home run increase was really the only thing that kept him from totally hitting the mark, but even with that issue he was still a nice upgrade over what the Tigers had previous. Wilson was incredible early in the season but regressed a bit later in the summer, so fans probably have a sour taste in their mouths. Wilson was a very solid reliever for the club this year and while he flashed elite level performance at one point, the sum of his work was right around what we expected.
It’s likely that health is a key factor for Lowe, but even in the seasons in which he seemed to be healthy, he was never as good as he was in 2015. Last year was clearly his best year, and how the Tigers perform in 2016 will be partially dependent on how much of that was a real shift toward greatness and how much was a blip.
Is Mark Lowe really a great reliever, or is he simply a solid arm who had a good year? Even if he’s just a solid bullpen piece, but stays healthy, he’ll make the team better. But the team was awful in 2015, so a little better isn’t a terribly exciting move. If his slider-heavy approach and high velocity fastball are here to stay, the Tigers have themselves a late-inning reliever who can prevent leads from slipping away. If he can’t stay healthy or his 2015 success was mostly noise, it will be much harder for the team to keep up with Kansas City, Cleveland, and perhaps Chicago.
So listen, just everything about this went to hell. Lowe didn’t have the same stuff he showed in 2015 and got creamed when he was out there for the Tigers. He had moments where he looked serviceable, but overall it was not a good season.
So part of Iglesias’ 2016 will be about avoiding miscues on those easier and mid-range plays. He’s going to blow you away with some great defense, but saving a run by making a great play only goes so far if you boot a routine play the next day. Few are better than Iglesias from a talent perspective, but he need to take a step forward defensively so that the Tigers can get the most out of that ability. He’s probably played like a +5 shortstop recently, even though he has +10 to +15 talent. Getting those extra five or ten runs is going to be huge for the Tigers as they chase Cleveland and Kansas City.
I obviously don’t know who’s right, but the fans do have a pretty strong case given that Iglesias’ career BABIP is .328 when the projection systems are forecasting it to be around .310. He’s a ground ball/ line drive hitter who gets plenty of infield hits, so a BABIP above .300 is to be expected, it’s just a question of how much higher it will be.
But that’s the question. Iglesias is going to hit a couple dingers, knock 20 doubles, and have a low walk rate. That’s his game. But last year he cut down on his strikeouts by a lot (under 10% after being in the 15-20% range for his career) and has always put up a quality BABIP. If he can rack up plenty of singles, he can be an average MLB hitter.
The two big questions for Iglesias were making sure his defensive performance matched his talent and figuring out if he had a high BABIP skill that he could count on for lots of singles. On the glove side, the metrics gave him a nice bump over 2015 and what I saw from him squares with that assessment. Iglesias improved going to his right and kicked fewer easy plays, allowing his ability to make highlight catches carry him to a nice defensive season.
At the plate, however, his walk and strikeout rates were identical to 2015, his power was essentially the same, and his BABIP dropped more than 50 points. Now the .276 BABIP he ran in 2016 probably sits below his true talent level, but the fact that he was a 73 wRC+ hitter instead of 95-100 wRC+ was a big reason why the Tigers missed the postseason. In order for Iglesias to be a really valuable player, he needs to hit a lot of singles. He didn’t in 2016.
There’s isn’t one particular thing Rodriguez needs to keep doing, as we’ve noted with some other players during this series, it’s really just that he needs to hold off that inevitable decline a little bit longer.
This is the central question for McCann’s bat in 2016. Is he an unimpressive hitting catcher with a vulnerability to righties or did he just appear that way last season because the weight of his first season as a major league catcher simply took its toll late in the season? Time will tell.
So another huge question for McCann this year will be if he can improve his receiving. We know he’s got a strong throwing arm and can manage the running game, but getting strikes for the pitching staff is his most important job and failing to come through in this department will wash away his positive contributions elsewhere.
Fortunately, while Brad Ausmus often causes more problems than he solves, this one is right up his alley. In fact, Ausmus was probably one of the better pitch framers in baseball history. If the front office was able to communicate to Ausmus that McCann needed help and Ausmus is an able teacher, there’s reason to be hopeful. We’ve seen in other cases that framing is a teachable skill.
Okay, so this one pulls in both directions. McCann’s bat was terrible in 2016 and all of the problems you feared he might have manifested in a 66 wRC+. However, as I suggested this winter, McCann was more than capable of improving his framing and he did exactly that. McCann didn’t turn himself into a great framer but he went from one of the worst receivers in baseball in 2015 to a roughly average one in 2016. Mix that with his great catch and throw abilities and you have yourself a very solid defender. Unfortunately, great defense doesn’t get you all the way there if you are hitting 35% worse than league average.
Was that a smaller sample size aberration? We’ll soon find out. The power absolutely looked real to the naked eye, as Castellanos drove the ball with much more authority when he squared up a pitch, but the BABIP remains to be seen. His style of hitting lends itself to a higher than average BABIP, but there’s a big gulf between a .315 BABIP and a .340 BABIP that we’ll need to litigate over time.
Castellanos has a swing you can dream on and he definitely bulked up between 2014 and 2015. His approach leaves something to be desired but it really might be as simple as learning to lay off the breaking ball low and away. He can’t hit that pitch and once he stopped trying, his numbers perked up. There’s loads of offensive potential in his bat, he just needs to hone his approach now that he’s added enough strength to hit for power.
A 120 wRC+ Castellanos is a totally plausible thing. And if he hits like that with a below average, but not embarrassing glove, the team has themselves a quality big leaguer.
A downer would tell you that Castellanos shined early in the season and was starting to fade before he got hurt, but if you take a step back and evaluate his season as a whole, he checked exactly the boxes he need to. Increased power, above average BABIP. He finished with a 119 wRC+. While his glove remained below average, it’s nothing like what it was in 2014, and as I said, a 120 wRC+ hitter with a below average but serviceable glove is a player you can work with. The injury cost the Tigers, but Nick did his part living up to what they needed.
It seems entirely possible that Sanchez muddles through 2016 as a below average starter and gives the Tigers 130 or 140 mediocre innings. But it’s also very possible that he’s healthy and gives them 180 great innings. Normally I roll my eyes when people talk about ceilings and floors because anyone can suck and most anyone can have one great season, but I think Sanchez’s probabilities for each are quite high. Maybe call it a 25% chance of disaster, 25% change of greatness, and 50% chance of average. For most players, I would personally predict a much narrower distribution.
I will leave it to you to decide if you consider his season a disaster, or just something kind of close to that. But clearly, Sanchez coming in at the bottom of his potential was one of the significant daggers in the Tigers 2016 title hopes.
Yet if he’s healthy and stays that way, and if his health was what killed him during the dark years, maybe he has another year left in the College of Aces. If Verlander is Verlander and finds something close to the form he found in late 2015, the Tigers can win the AL Central. If Verlander is a 5, 6, or 7 win pitcher in 2016, the Tigers will almost certainly make the playoffs.
This is both comforting and heartbreaking. Verlander absolutely carried forward his late-2016 form and was exactly the kind of pitcher the Tigers needed at the front of the rotation. He did absolutely everything he could to get his team across the finish line, the rest of the club just happened to come up short.
But there’s a counterfactual here worth discussing, just for the sake of this series. Had Verlander gone the other direction, there’s no doubt the Tigers would have missed the playoffs. He really was the truest bellwether of the season, it’s just that 2, 4, 6, and 7 collectively broke far enough in the wrong direction to stifle the club’s hopes. That combined with injuries to JD Martinez and Jordan Zimmermann kept the Tigers from postseason baseball.
The End Of The 2016 Tigers
The 2016 Tigers season ended Sunday afternoon when Justin Upton took a Jim Johnson called third strike with Andrew Romine at first. There’s a metaphor there, I think, but it’s also true that the Tigers season would have ended a few minutes later when the Blue Jays beat the Red Sox, clinching the last remaining wild card spot.
The Tigers finished 86-75, eight back of Cleveland and 2.5 back of Baltimore and Toronto. If you’re the kind of person who demands a postseason berth or a World Series each year, you’re obviously disappointed right now. The Tigers will miss the playoffs for a second consecutive season and haven’t won a playoff game since 2013. But if you’re the kind of person who watches baseball and roots for a team because you enjoy the rhythm of the summer, this Tigers team gave you plenty to enjoy.
The club was playoff eligible during all 161 games they played and the season didn’t officially slip away until the last inning of the last game. You could argue the season ended when Dansby Swanson started the double play on Saturday or when he started the other double play on Sunday, but the club was right in it until Upton took strike three.
And while the team came up a bit short, there were a number of tremendous individual performances worthy of celebration. Justin Verlander proved his great second half in 2015 was the sign of a real return, and while he might not have done enough to win the Cy Young, he’ll finish in the top five. His rotation-mate, Michael Fulmer, is going to finish first or second in rookie of the year and looks every bit like someone who can fill a key rotation spot for the next six years. Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd didn’t have the season Fulmer did, but they both showed why the Tigers wanted them and left you feeling like this team has a strong young core of pitchers around which to build.
Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler had great seasons despite staring Father Time in the face. JD Martinez and Nick Castellanos missed time with injuries but they crushed the ball when they were healthy. Justin Upton started so bad but by year’s end his late season surge brought him almost all the way back. Even James McCann, light-hitter that he may be, learned to frame much better. He might not be an MLB caliber starter, but he’s good enough to be the weak half of a platoon or a backup if that’s how it shakes out.
And other than Saltalamacchia, Aybar, and McGehee, this entire team is coming back if the Tigers want them. There is no giant hole to fill like there was a year ago when Price and Cespedes left gaping voids on the roster. The Tigers could upgrade at CF, C, the bench, and in the pen, but they have a core of position players and starters that would be the envy of a lot of teams. It might take some creativity to make a big upgrade, but even if they do nothing this is a wild card caliber roster in 2017.
Brad Ausmus will probably return, and while I don’t think much of him as a manager, the roster he had this year hid his flaws more effectively than the one he had a year ago. I’d rather they hire someone else, but I don’t think it will be Ausmus who torpedoes them in 2017.
There will be time shortly to decide who they should sign and acquire via trade, but for now, we can reflect on a good team that was just as good as they should have been. Despite big injuries to Martinez, Castellanos, and Zimmermann, they were the last team to be eliminated in the AL.
It’s easy to look at a season that ends without a parade as a failure. But I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotations given that it’s authored died this past week. I recognize the contexts are vastly different, but wisdom is transferable. Rather than thinking of 2016 as a failure, think of it as one step within a broader effort for the franchise toward a title. So I’ll leave you by paraphrasing the line:
The Tigers title run did not fail. It is just not yet finished.