In a very basic sense, not much happened this winter for the Tigers. The club parted ways with Maybin, Saltalamacchia, Pelfrey, and Lowe, and they welcomed Avila the Younger back, but the roster they will use in 2017 looks a lot like the roster they had in 2016. There will be Mikie Mahtook and more JaCoby Jones, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd, but this team is going to look very familiar if you were around last year. They missed the playoffs by 2.5 games and rather than spend a bunch of money or blow it up, Avila the Elder gripped the wheel and kept driving. The 2016 Tigers are back to pursue a title in 2017.
But in another sense, things are very different. Detroit institution and Tigers owner, Mike Ilitch, died in February and while his family remains in charge of the organization, we can’t pretend that his heirs share his win-now attitude. There haven’t been any immediate signs of retreat, but as I noted in this post last year, Ilitch knew he was on the clock and his desire to win before it was too late shaped this era of Tigers baseball. That clock no longer ticks.
I would typically spend a few paragraphs summarizing the offseason moves, but the Tigers did very little of substance. There is no Justin Upton or Jordan Zimmermann contract to consider or Justin Wilson trade to ponder. The decision to stand pat made sense. The club is talented enough to contend in a league of parity, but there were also few free agent options who made much sense for the team. Trades were certainly an option, but the Tigers desired by other clubs are Tigers who are vital for 2017 and beyond. The Tigers could have decided to rebuild, but they will only have Verlander and Cabrera at their peak for a short while longer. They could have made different choices, but the path they took was a logical one. Surely, they could have signed Joe Blanton for nothing or grabbed Dexter Fowler at a reasonable price, but there was no obvious move that they failed to make. The die was cast last offseason.
Looking at this roster and at the other teams in the division and league, I see the 2017 Tigers as a wild card contender. I would set the range at 83-85 wins, likely too few to truly challenge Cleveland for the title, but more than enough to be within range of the wild card for the entire season. If the rotation is reasonably healthy, I think it will be the third best in the AL behind Cleveland and Boston. And if David Price is going to miss significant time, you could argue that the Tigers have the second best rotation in the AL.
The bullpen isn’t a strength, but there is enough talent there for you to envision a world in which the relief corps gives the team an above-average year. I’m not counting on it, but relief pitching is volatile and the Tigers are close enough to the middle to imagine luck carrying them a bit.
The Tigers may not have the league’s best offense, but Cabrera-Martinez-Martinez-Upton-Kinsler is a strong top five, a good year from Castellanos gives them a strong top six. JD is going to start the year on the DL and you can’t be sure what’s lurking for VMart’s legs, but the offense will score runs. Defense isn’t the team’s strong point, but they have won more games with a worse defense in recent seasons.
There is a path to 90 wins for this team, one that I will discuss tomorrow, but realistically the Tigers are a slightly above average team. They were a slightly above average team last season as well and finished the year right in this same window. Above .500, but just short of the wild card. That’s what I would expect again.
There is a common belief among the wider baseball world that the Tigers are buried in bad contracts waiting to detonate. While the Tigers are certainly going to have a couple underwater deals in the coming seasons, they actually aren’t locked in to that much beyond 2018. Only Verlander, Cabrera, Upton, and Zimmermann are on the books for 2019+, and Upton could opt-out after this year. Verlander is only signed through 2019, with a vesting option that requires him to be good in that year to get paid in 2020. In other words, while the Tigers will be paying Cabrera until the heat death of the universe, if they decided to pack it in after this year, they could easily manage a 2-3 year rebuild and be back in action for 2020 or 2021 without much money tied up.
We’ve been afraid of the dark for a long time in Detroit, wondering when the bill for Ilitch’s spending was going to come due. At some point, things were going to catch up with the Tigers and the music was going to stop and they would be left holding big contracts for players who were no longer contributing like stars. But that darkness hasn’t come and it might never come. Cabrera remains great. Verlander sidestepped what appeared to be early decline. Martinez hit last year. Kinsler had one of his best seasons. If they do it again in 2017 and again in 2018, they will essentially have escaped the end of days.
I don’t know what that proves, exactly. But I think it’s a good reminder that in baseball you can’t look too far down the road. We can spend lots of time talking about what is supposed to happen, but baseball is a hopelessly random game. Normally I would say that all you can count on is getting to spend the summer watching 162 games, but even that wasn’t true last year.
I’m past the point in my life where I need the Tigers to win in order to enjoy myself. I want to watch interesting baseball to relax and take my mind off things. The Tigers are certainly capable of providing us with that this year, and if we’re lucky, they will treat us to a little more. I don’t think this is the year, but I also care about sports with less urgency than I once did. The Tigers will win a championship eventually, and as long as they’re showing up between now and then, I’m content.