The Tigers season ended Sunday as Efren Navarro flew out to left, but of course the writing was on the wall much sooner. The Tigers last led the division on April 26th. They were last .500 on June 4th. They were last within three games of the division lead on June 16th. They were last within 10 games of the division lead on August 10th. The club went 6-25 in September and finished 64-98. In 2017, they tied for the worst record in baseball and will pick first in the 2018 draft.
Unlike in previous years, this requiem need not consider the randomness of baseball. Unlike in previous years, a few lucky bounces or one fewer injury would not have made a difference. The 2017 Tigers started the season looking like a team built well enough to contend for a wild card, but by the All-Star Break it was clear this team would fail.
Jordan Zimmermann did not pitch well for most of the year. Anibal Sanchez provided little. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris had good performances and bad. Michael Fulmer was good, but got hurt. Justin Verlander was solid, and was traded. Like most years, the bullpen had a couple of good arms and then a collection of unsuccessful performances. The Tigers pitching was probably not the worst in baseball in 2017 but combined with an unremarkable defense, the club allowed more runs than any other team.
The offense was a little better, but by the end JD Martinez, Justin Upton, and Alex Avila had been traded, pulling most of the good performance off the field for the final couple of months. Nick Castellanos, Mikie Mahtook, and James McCann had solid seasons given expectations, but Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Jose Iglesias all underperformed to varying degrees. It was the first time the Tigers collectively produced a below average offensive output since 2009.
When a team fails this completely, there is not one primary cause. Miguel Cabrera was obviously the biggest single problem, but even if he was a 6 WAR player instead of replacement level, the team still wouldn’t have made the playoffs. If Cabrera had hit well, if Kinsler or Victor Martinez had provided more offense, and if one of the mediocre starters stepped up, you could imagine a world in which the Tigers hold JD Martinez and Justin Upton and find themselves chasing the Twins for the second wild card. The final results look really bad, but the club traded two critical offensive players, their ace, and their closer along the way. The Tigers nearly lost 100 games, but this team had the character of a 90-loss team that was blown up to make way for the future.
And it is in the future that we may remember 2017 fondly. While we were living it, we were miserable. The Tigers didn’t provide a particularly compelling brand of baseball this year. There were some good performances and great moments — every baseball season has them — but the season slipped away early and the most enjoyable components of the team now wear other uniforms.
But those trades brought back a lot of players who will be a part of the next competitive Tigers team. Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, Jose King, Jeimer Candelario, Issac Paredes, Grayson Long, Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rodgers have fortified the Tigers farm system. They won’t all make it to the show and the ones who do won’t all shine, but suddenly the Tigers only have two big contracts that you’d like to get out from under and a nice bunch of young players who will be able to make an impact in 2019, 2020, and beyond. Years of throwing caution to the wind and going for it finally caught up with the Tigers and they recognized it, pulled the rip cord, and started fresh. The 2017 season will be remembered as a hinge. The next Tigers contender will look nothing like the 2014 team that won the division.
The trades will forever define this season. That’s all we’re going to remember. It will be the year Ilitch died, Verlander was traded, and Ausmus was fired. The hundreds of hours we spent watching frustrating baseball will fade from memory. Whether the season is remembered fondly will depend on the careers of the prospects the team acquired. The legacy of 2017 depends on what happens in the future, ironically.
I attended one game this year. As far as I can remember, it was the first Tigers game I attended since 2010 that carried no postseason implications. That’s a bit deceptive, because I didn’t go to any late season games in 2015, but even during the course of the last decade, we’ve watched a relatively small share of meaningless baseball. The Tigers were in the race for all or most of the year except for 2008, 2010, and 2015 prior to 2017. We’ve fallen out of practice at caring about games that carry little meaning. Fortunately Matt Boyd reminded me how to care two Sundays ago as he completed the first 26 outs of a no-hitter. Last night, Andrew Romine gave us another reminder when he became the fifth person to play all nine positions in one game. It’s been a long year, but even in long years there are things to hold onto.
There are 179 days until Opening Day.
Baseball is a game of great ironies. One such irony occurred today when the Tigers announced they were parting ways with manager Brad Ausmus. Regular readers of this site and particularly my Twitter feed know that I’ve been one of Ausmus’ harshest critics. I don’t mourn Ausmus’ firing because Ausmus wasn’t a good manager, but I do find it ironic, and maybe even a little bit unfortunate that he’s taking the fall for this.
The Tigers are 62-91 this year, heading for a rebuild, and Ausmus’ contract is up. It’s hard to imagine any manager surviving those circumstances. The Tigers won the division in his first season despite his mistakes, but have had two losing seasons in the three years since. After a decade of prominence the organization is going to shift direction and Ausmus isn’t going to be part of that.
Someone had to take the fall, and given that the general manager has been on the job for only two years, it was always going to be the manager who went first. So Brad Ausmus took the fall, even though this wasn’t his doing.
Certainly, Ausmus has made mistakes this year and in each of his seasons, but the best manager in the league couldn’t have stopped this. Ausmus managed himself out games, but every manager goofs a few times per season and missing the playoffs in 2015, 2016, and 2017 was not Ausmus’ doing. You can’t manage your way out of scoring 4.6 runs per game and allowing 5.5.
Ausmus, however, made all sorts of mistakes during his tenure in Detroit. He left his starters in too long. He relied too much on bullpen roles and was a slave to the save statistic. He preached a reckless brand of base running. He didn’t use his bench and reserves well. He made weird lineup choices. And above all, he frequently seemed at a loss when something happened that he didn’t expect.
I won’t take the time to re-litigate all of his mistakes. I’ve chronicled them extensively and tweeted about them probably too much. Ausmus was a very bad manager from a tactical standpoint. He seemed to have the respect of his players and didn’t do anything that created a clubhouse mutiny. It’s impossible to know how well he performed behind closed doors, but the parts of his job we could observe didn’t cast him in a good light.
That’s okay. Not everyone is cut out for managing, and the ones who are don’t always get it right on their first try. Ausmus sounded like he would be open to modernity when he was hired, but those of us who had those hopes probably should have spent more time listening to his words rather than trying to read between the lines. Ausmus told us he wasn’t a sabermetrician. I thought that was a ploy, but it was the simple truth. He managed like an old school guy, which is exactly what he is.
At some point, bad managing turns into bad general managing. Ausmus showed himself to be a flawed manager and the Tigers, through two different regimes, chose not to replace him until now. When Avila took over, he had the perfect chance to replace Ausmus, but stuck with him for reasons I still don’t fully understand. My theory is that Avila didn’t want the organization to experience too much change at once, but we probably won’t ever know.
But over the last couple months, as things have gone south in South Detroit, the crowd has directed a lot of ire at Ausmus, which I don’t think he entirely deserves. Yes, Ausmus was a bad manager, but he wasn’t responsible for the thing that’s got everyone upset. Ausmus should have been fired after 2014 and 2015 and 2016, but firing him now is just an admission that everything is changing. It’s too late to save the 2017 season, and replacing him won’t undo what is already done. I’m pleased that the Tigers are going to (hopefully) go get a better manager, but I am a little disappointed that Ausmus is going down for something he didn’t really cause.
This is how the business works, I understand. When a team plays like crap for this long, the manager gets fired. And Ausmus deserved to be fired, just for something else. It’s ironic is what it is.
I had higher hopes for 2017, but this isn’t something that should have caught us off guard. The Tigers were a decent team that played poorly. And decent teams that play poorly rarely get a chance to redeem themselves. And managers for decent teams with big payrolls that play poorly get fired.
It would be better if you got fired for being a bad manager than for managing a bad team, but that’s not the way the world works. As I’ve said many times, the city’s motto lights the way. We hope for better things; It shall rise from the ashes. I mean, hopefully.
Twelve years ago I watched Jason Johnson get shelled in Cleveland on the Fourth of July. Scott Elarton threw a complete game. Our tickets were good for the second game of the doubleheader, but had only planned to go to one game and my father was eager to get back on the road. He did not grasp the importance of staying. It’s hard to blame him, as this was before everything, but it will always hang over me. We had tickets to Justin Verlander’s MLB debut but instead listened to the game on I-80. I was 15.
In the intervening years, the Tigers have been to the playoffs five times, the World Series twice, sported eight winning records, three MVPs, and two Cy Youngs. I graduated high school, met my wife, graduated college and graduate school. I’ve lived in three states and written for more than a half dozen publications. I’ve voted in three presidential elections and said goodbye to childhood pets. In the dozen years since I didn’t get to watch Verlander’s debut in person most everything has changed. Nearly every important moment in my life has happened between his debut and his final outing in the Old English D.
It’s probably worth recounting Verlander’s career in Detroit in a detached and analytic fashion. He’s been a near-Hall of Famer and has as many signature moments as any other pitcher of his era. But I’m not quite there yet. Where he fits in Tigers history is a question for later.
What’s important now is where he fits in our history. The history of what I now think we can safely call the Verlander Era. Ilitch bought the team in ’92 so that’s no good. Dombrowski was there from 2002-2015. Leyland from 2006-2013. Cabrera from 2008 to forever. Magglio and Pudge were gone much too early.
But Verlander covers the era perfectly, from the first season of the renaissance to the deadline when they decided it was really all over. The Tigers were Verlander and Verlander was the Tigers.
Tonight, the Tigers brought the Verlander era to a close by trading him to Houston, reportedly one minute before midnight after the deal had nearly fallen through.
For Verlander, the Tigers got Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron, and Jake Rogers. Perez is a good pitching prospect, but he’s a couple years away. I’ve seen scouting folks put him in the #3 category with a rival source saying he sees him as a #2 or #3. Cameron has had growing pains but could be the center fielder of the future. His bat is far from a sure thing, but there’s room to dream there. Rogers is reportedly an excellent defensive catcher, but is he going to hit like a backup or a starter? These are questions we can answer going foreword because we have all the time in the world. The club is heading for a rebuild and the prospects will have time to sort themselves out.
The main question to ask analytically is whether trading Verlander tonight made sense relative to trading him this winter. It’s a tough call because the Astros were anxious to add a starter for October, potentially leading them to drive up the price. But on the other hand more teams would be in on Verlander this winter, potentially driving it up more. There’s no way to know, and with the Tigers only chipping in about $16 million, it seems unlikely they were going to get a much better return than they got tonight. Verlander is still a good pitcher but with such a large contract you weren’t going to get the world. The Tigers seemed to do well give the circumstances.
I think it hasn’t really sunk in and it won’t until I see Verlander suit up for another team and take the mound in the postseason. It’s going to be jarring. It was a joy to watch Verlander pitch for my favorite team all these years and I am glad he’s going to get a chance to win the ring he didn’t win here in Detroit. I hope I’m not asked to choose between cheering for him or Scherzer in the World Series.
I’ll probably have more to say but for now I’ll crib from my piece earlier this year about the decision to rebuild:
One hundred and twelve years ago a fire destroyed much of Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard took that moment to declare the city’s motto to be “Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.” Translated, it means “We hope for better things; It will arise from the ashes.”
Well, Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus.
On the last real day that teams could acquire players who would be eligible for the postseason, the Tigers accelerated their rebuild. Justin Upton is heading to the Angels in exchange for pitcher Grayson Long and what sounds like a PTBNL. Reports indicate the unknown player is not a substantial addition to the deal.
Trading Upton made plenty of sense once the Tigers decided it was time to rebuild. He was very likely going to opt out and handing him off to another club a month early gives the Tigers a chance to get something in return.
The Tigers got 23-year-old Grayson Long, a starter currently having a strong year in AA. He only threw 65 innings across three levels last year due to injury, but he does have the appearance of an innings eater if you buy into the archetype scouting. Based on the public scouting views and one source I spoke with this afternoon, Long’s fastball is solid in the low 90s but his secondary stuff is a bit questionable with opinions ranging from fringe to flashes of above average. He has a change and slider but it’s not clear they will play at the major league level to the point at which he could be a successful starter. That might lead him to a bullpen role, but he has pitched well so far in the minors and I’m a big believer in letting a player keep going until the performance tells you to stop. There’s definitely potential for something really exciting but even the floor seems perfectly fine given the cost.
There’s not a lot to unpack here. The Tigers grabbed an interesting prospect who seems like to at least provide some MLB value, even if he doesn’t cut it as a starter. With Upton sure to opt out and the club looking to rebuild, the only question is whether someone else would have offered more. Given that the Tigers have been open for business for six weeks, it’s hard to imagine there was a better offer available.
The question now shifts to whether the club will make more deals tonight or wait until the winter. Upton was the only urgent issues, but teams might start calling now that the gates have opened.
I was eleven days shy of my seventh birthday when my family brought home a dog for the first time. Boomer was smart and awkward and the best friend you could imagine. Along with Kelly, who we adopted a year later, he grew up with me in our suburban Toledo home. Boomer died very young. He was just eight and half when my mom called me while my dad and I were in Chicago to tell us Boomer was fading fast. We made it home for his final hour but, as anyone will tell you, losing your first dog rips a hole inside you that can never quite be repaired. Even with Kelly by our side, the days after Boomer died were empty.
In typical Weinberg fashion, we made the fateful decision to “just go look” at a litter of golden retriever puppies four days later. Because you can’t do anything else when you meet a golden retriever puppy, we fell in love. We named him Duke. It was July 23, 2005.
Dogs are theraputic, but there was something especially restorative about being the one who was responsible for most of his care during those early weeks. I was on summer vacation and both my parents worked full-time, so I potty-trained him and we bonded as he grew from a pup into a massive ball of golden energy. There is still a Boomer-shaped hole in me, but there is also Duke-shaped duct tape.
To say he was spirited would be an understatement. He was smart and full of love and was a troublemaker of the highest order. He chewed cell phones. He tore up my Tigers hat. He grabbed mail off the counter. If it wasn’t load-bearing, he was probably going to mess with it.
He stole food off the table. He even ate an entire plate of brownies, earning one of his famous trips to the vet. For years there were bungee cords everywhere because he could open cabinets and rummage through the treasures that lay within. If you’re trying to picture it, think Marley with long hair and less of an appetite for walks on the beach.
But it was hard to stay mad when he pulled off one of his trademark heists. For all the trouble he caused, he was always there to greet you and show you what he had recently stolen.
I left for college when he was about three and moved away for good four years later. He never held it against me and was thrilled to see me whenever I came home. He took to Becky just like you’d expect and their naps together became pretty frequent when were in town. In fact, last year when we visited over Christmas he climbed into bed with her before I was done brushing my teeth and I spent the night on the floor while my wife snuggled with my golden brother. When he was younger, I would have told him to move, but he played his age well and I couldn’t. I’m glad I didn’t.
Over the last few years, he’s slowed down. He couldn’t jump on the counters the same way or bust out of the house and run free the way he could as a pup. Just a few weeks ago he got loose and I was able to catch him in just a few steps. His hips weakened. He lost his booming bark. Going to the park in the heat was out of the question.
But he kept his happy-go-lucky outlook. He instigated wrestling matches with Violet, my folks’ newest doggo, and was more than happy to beg for scraps from the table. He knew how to have fun, a quality I’ve never been able to master. He didn’t have Boomer’s intelligence or Kelly’s fierce loyalty, but he could liven up a room in a way that will stay with me forever.
In many ways, Duke was the last remaining bridge to my youth. He came to us before I could drive a car and has been around for every major life event I’ve had over the last thirteen summers. He was there when I got into college. He got to meet Becky shortly after we started dating and I gave him a nice head scratch the afternoon I walked into the house after buying an engagement ring. He helped me craft my senior thesis and pack up everything I owned into a U-Haul. He was there when we mourned Kelly, and when I decided to move home, he was sitting under the table as I prepared for job interviews. He greeted us when we drove through Toledo on the way to Lansing.
He’s been present in my life, even if he was physically far away, for nearly every important moment. Sadly, even dogs who live long, happy lives aren’t with us for long enough. Duke, the dog with an iron stomach and hidden thumbs, left us tonight two months after his twelfth birthday. It happened suddenly, so I wasn’t able to be with him, but he was surrounded by family and didn’t suffer long.
I’m not a religious person and don’t really believe in an afterlife, but if heaven is real, it’s full of dogs. And now that Duke is among them, heaven is also full of people chasing a giant golden retriever who has stolen a bag of chips or a towel that was supposed to go in the washer.
With the non-waiver trade deadline behind us, the Tigers face a two-month slog toward the offseason. We’ll get a chance to test the waters with a few new relievers and the organization will take a long, hard look in the mirror as it prepares for what is sure to be an important winter. I wrote in June that it was time for the Tigers to tear things down and rebuild. While the club correctly assessed that the 2017 season was over, they held back on making any moves related to their long-term future. The Tigers traded JD Martinez and Alex Avila, free agents at the end of 2017, and Justin Wilson, a free agent after 2018, but did not make deals involving Verlander, Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, Upton, or Cabrera.
In other words, the Tigers made the trades that they absolutely had to make at the 2017 non-waiver trade deadline. Holding Martinez or Avila would have been nonsensical and Justin Wilson’s value would certainly have been much lower this winter when teams were under less pressure to upgrade their bullpens. If they had failed to trade any of those three players, it would have been a failed deadline. Everyone else is either tradeable in August, this winter, or later, so the fact that the Tigers didn’t go further isn’t yet evidence of anything.
Before we take a broader view, let’s start with the deals they made. Many people panned the Martinez deal for an apparently light prospect return, but now that the deadline has passed it’s quite clear that the demand for corner outfielders was low and that teams were not motivated enough to acquire rental hitters to part with big prospects. Lugo, Alcantara, and King aren’t a murderer’s row infield, but the Tigers had to trade Martinez and looking around the league at the deadline indicates there wasn’t some team lurking and waiting to pay a lot more for JD. Lucas Duda, Melky Cabrera, and Todd Frazier were the only other notable corner bats to move and the Sox only got more for Frazier because he came with two good relievers.
Wilson and Avila brought back a more crowd-pleasing pair in Candelario and Paredes, one of whom is close to the majors and one of whom is not. They will probably both move down the defensive spectrum but they could both provide plenty of offense as well.
Neither trade blows you away in the way that the Price or Cespedes deals did two years ago, but the Tigers were dealing players who were either slightly worse or in lower demand at the time. It’s hard to knock the execution. The system is deeper today that it was a couple of weeks ago and it doesn’t appear like another team would have ponied up a lot more for either set.
But our focus now has to turn to the broader vision. The tactical execution of the deadline went well, but the strategic approach to the organization remains a question. The Tigers knew they were licked in 2017, but are they still considering holding things together for 2018 or did they simply not like the offers they heard on other players and are ready to try again in August and December? There’s no harm in holding Verlander if you expect to get a better return later, but if they are holding the core together because they haven’t decided to blow it up, that’s more troubling.
As I wrote in June, the Tigers have to make a big decision and their recent pattern has been to delay that decision as long as possible. If they’re not willing to run a very high payroll, they should begin a rebuild immediately. You don’t get extra credit for winning games with homegrown talent, it’s just a cheaper way to play. If you draft and trade well, you can acquire players and get their peak performance before they hit free agency. That saves money, but it’s not the only way to win. If the Tigers are willing to spend, they can keep playing the free agent market indefinitely. Ownership seems unwilling to push their payroll much higher than it currently sits. If that’s the mandate, the team needs to rebuild because they won’t be able to be successful if they don’t.
If they decide to rebuild, they need to be willing to trade everyone (except Fulmer) and eat a portion of their contracts. It’s hard to know what was rumor and what was fact, but the Tigers seemed unwilling to absorb a large portion of Verlander’s contract in a deadline deal. That’s absolutely the wrong approach. Most teams aren’t going to be interested in Verlander for $28 million a year. If they have $28 million to spend they can use it to sign a younger, better player on the market this winter. What the Tigers can offer other teams is Verlander at a salary well below market value. Doing so creates value and increases the prospect return. And that prospect return is how you rebuild.
The same is true for guys like Kinsler, Iglesias, Castellanos, and Upton if he doesn’t opt out. Those players don’t have the same size contracts, but the Tigers should be willing to absorb money to get back better players. Miguel Cabrera is a special case because he’s performing so poorly at the moment, but they should absolutely try to trade him using the same contract absorption method once he looks healthy.
The Tigers have good players who are paid like good players. Other teams wants good players, but they can get good players who are paid well on the free agent market. In order to create trade value, you have to offer good players at low salaries. That’s the decision the Tigers have to be willing to make as they approach rebuild.
If the plan is to simply offload salary, the only justification is that they would turn around and sign new players on the free agent market. That’s also a fine approach. If you want to dump salary to chase Harper in two years, that’s okay. If you want to dump salary so the Ilitch balance sheet looks better during down years, that’s not.
Al Avila completed a successful deadline but the real work is waiting. The Tigers have to chart a course. Either tear it down or spend a lot of money. I’m agnostic about the direction, but they have to pick a direction and start executing. Trying to hold this team together and improve around the edges is a recipe for failure.
It’s the trade deadline. The Tigers are out of the race. They have a good reliever with one plus season of team control left. It’s pretty easy to figure out where this is going. Everyone needs relief pitching at the deadline and the Tigers had a darn good one to trade, so that’s exactly what they did today, sending Justin Wilson and Alex Avila to the Cubs for Jeimer Candelario, Isaac Paredes, and either a PTBNL or cash.
Wilson came to the Tigers prior to the 2016 season in a deal with the Yankees and he’s performed as well as anyone could have expected. His fielding independent numbers have been terrific, roughly 25 percent better than league average during his year and a half with the club. This year, he’s been a strikeout machine (35 K%) and has been fortunate enough to run a .210 BABIP to balance out his unseemly .340 mark from a year ago. Wilson is a good left-handed reliever and it’s July so that made Al Avila a very popular man.
Avila the younger has been slumping as of late, but still takes his 134 wRC+ with him to the North Side as insurance behind Willson Contreras. Avila has had a great year for the Tigers and given that he was signed to a one-year deal for $2 million this winter, getting anything of value back is a great outcome. We’ll have to watch Avila leave Detroit for a Chicago team for the second time in two years, but there was no reason to hang on to him for the remainder of this dreadful season.
With the club looking unlikely to compete again in the near future, dealing Wilson and Avila was an obvious move. The only question was which team, for whom, and whether to deal them separately or as a package. Plenty of teams were in on Wilson, but it was the Cubs who made the offer the Tigers liked best and they were also interested in a catcher. For Wilson and Avila, the Tigers received Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes. Candelario is a 23-year-old third baseman whose already had a cup of coffee in the majors and had success in the high minors as a switch hitter. The public scouting folks have complimented Candelario’s swing and approach, but there definitely appears to be some question as to whether he has the defensive ability to stay at third base or if his destiny is across the diamond. He’s received good marks for his arm, but the folks at BP and FanGraphs both raised questions about his glove.
Paredes is an 18-year-old infielder with a lower floor and higher ceiling than Candelario given how much further he is from the show. The word on him is that he’s a good hitter for his age, but probably isn’t a shortstop long-term. I saw a few Cubs watchers suggest he’s on his way up and might soon receive more national recognition. I spoke with a contact in a different organization who said while Paredes isn’t terribly toolsy, his skills make him a good player with a chance to stay up the middle at second.
Candelario is the kind of prospect you’d find at the back end of most Top-100 lists and Isaac Paredes, while much further from the majors, has the talent to be there in relatively short order. That’s a pretty nice return for a year and half of a pretty good reliever. Wilson isn’t Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman caliber, which is why he didn’t match their returns from a year ago, but he’s a solid arm with a below market salary. Candelario isn’t anyone’s idea of a top prospect, but he’s seasoned and on the cusp of the majors. Unlike the players the Tigers got back in the Martinez deal, Candelario could theoretically break camp with the team next April. Paredes is probably four or more years from the majors, but is definitely a real prospect rather than organizational filler to round out a deal.
It’s impossible to know what else was available, but for two months of Avila and a year and two months of Wilson, the Tigers got back two players who could get near a Top-100 list next spring. Rankings are a bit of a crapshoot, but the opinion of the industry is definitely that both players have a real chance to be MLB regulars. This is a deal that makes the Tigers farm system better and improves the team’s odds of a shorter rebuild. Candelario and Paredes might not pan out, but given that they picked them up with no harm to their 2019 roster, it’s hard to say anything bad about the move.
Al Avila has begun his first deadline as a seller, delivering JD Martinez to the Diamondbacks for Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. With the Tigers six games back of Cleveland and underwater in both wins and runs, selling makes sense and JD Martinez was the best rental on the roster.
During his time as a Tiger, JD was the 9th best hitter in baseball, posting a 146 wRC+ in 1886 PA. Cabrera was barely better over that period and all the names above Martinez on the list are bona fife offensive stars. The Tigers got him for a song before the 2014 season and he mashed he way out of AAA and onto the big league roster. He was an anchor, he delivered in big moments, and was a joy to watch at the plate. Martinez was a late bloomer but he made up for lost time.
With a huge payday coming this winter and a franchise seemingly on the verge of rebuilding, a trade made all the sense in the world. Another team will surely offer him nine-figures this offseason and he will have earned it. It’s sad to seem him leave, but an acceleration in that departure brings back players who will likely wear the Old English D before long.
For Martinez, the Tigers acquired Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King, infielders all. Lugo has shown some power and has good arm, but his approach is going to be the big question. He hasn’t struck out much in the minors but his walk rate is quite low. Alcantara runs well and can really play defense. I’ve seen some public scouting reports that were unimpressed with his bat but I heard from a source in another organization tonight that he thinks there’s a chance he hits enough to avoid a utility role. King is young and has struggled in rookie ball this year, but his wheels certainly make him interesting.
The sense I get from public prospect folks and conversations I’ve had with people in the game is that the Tigers didn’t exactly get the package you’d like to see for someone like Martinez. It’s not clear if the Tigers have a really good report on one of these guys or if the industry was down on Martinez for some reason. My sense from talking to folks is that the Tigers are higher on more than one of the prospects than the industry and that the market was relatively small for Martinez given the lack of buyers looking for corner outfielders. I’ll withhold judgment on exactly how the Tigers did until after the deadline wraps and we can see the going rate for other players. It feels light but the Tigers had to move JD this month and we won’t know if this was the best they could do until we see what else happens.
Call the grade Pending and the farewell bittersweet.
Tigers fans find themselves in one of those periods where we’re all starting to think of Michael Fulmer as the Tigers ace, but he hasn’t really been around long enough to have certainly wrestled that title from Justin Verlander. The pitchers appear to be trending in opposite directions, but over the last calendar year they are essentially dead even in fWAR. If you had to bet on the next 365 days, Fulmer probably comes out ahead, but we haven’t lived in this world long enough to be sure. That’s a long and convoluted way of saying Fulmer is emerging as one of the best pitchers in the game — certainly one of the best young pitchers in the game.
Yet despite Fulmer’s success and obvious talent, he doesn’t really collect strikeouts the way you might expect an ace-level pitcher to do so. Since the start of 2016 (min. 200 IP), Fulmer ranks 54th out of 88 in strikeout rate (19.7%).
This hasn’t impeded Fulmer’s success. On this site we talk a lot about fielding independent numbers which rely on strikeouts as one of the main inputs, but Fulmer is 8th in FIP- (81)over the same period. In other words, this isn’t a routine sabermetric story of a guy whose ERA is much better than his FIP and we’re predicting regression. Yes, Fulmer’s ERA- (72) is better than his FIP-, but both metrics suggest he’s pitched extremely well over the last two years. His walk rate (6.2%) is 21st out of 88 and his home run rate (0.74 HR/9) is second best. His .272 BABIP is also among the 20 lowest in the sample.
If you just look at his numbers, you would think he’s a command and control guy who works away from the barrel, getting weak ground balls and harmless fly outs. In other words, his stats suggest something like Kyle Hendricks. Crafty.
Fulmer’s average fastball velocity during his career has been 95.9 mph. He also has two other very good pitches, not to mention the emergence of a curveball during recent starts. Yet he gets an ordinary amount of swings on pitches outside the zone and is middle of the pack in terms of contact rate allowed. He’s sort of developed a Gerrit Cole or Marcus Stroman vibe. He gets good results with good stuff, but doesn’t generate a lot of swings and misses or strikeouts. Stroman’s trick is a huge number of ground balls, but Cole might be a better comp. Cole throws hard, has other pitches, and (until this year) has succeeded in large part due to home run prevention.
You can take the Cole comparison as a positive or a negative depending on your perspective. Prior to this year, it would be a very flattering situation, but this year provides solid evidence that if you don’t get a ton of strikeouts, your fortune can turn on a dime if all of a sudden your home run skill vanishes.
Fulmer gets quite a few pop ups and generally weaker contact than average, but there’s some reason to worry that there is nowhere to go but down if he doesn’t add more strikeouts to the mix. I don’t say that to suggest his basic approach is unsustainable, just that given the amount of balls he allows to be put in play, if batters start squaring them up even a little better, he’s going to start allowing a lot more runs.
Truth be told, my suspicion is that this approach is largely a conscious one by Fulmer. He’s generally been efficient with his pitches, averaging more than six innings per start during his first season and a half of work. This is likely due to his willingness to be in the strikezone rather than nibbling around the edges. For example, when Fulmer gets to an 0-2 count this year, he ends up getting a strikeout about 48% of the time, which is average give or take. But his overall wOBA allowed after getting to an 0-2 count is well above average. Based on his results, we know he’s not letting hitters back into plate appearances, he’s just choosing to try to end them a different way.
And that’s totally fine as long as it’s working. There’s no inherent reason to chase strikeouts. But strikeouts after safer than balls in play and there is a breakeven point for ever pitcher between chasing whiffs and chasing weak contact. Fulmer is much closer to the weak contact side than other pitches, especially given his raw stuff. Hitters will eventually make some adjustments against him and he will need to counter those adjustments with a strikeout-friendly approach. My worry is that he may not have spent enough time honing that skill and there will be a rougher adjustment period. This is essentially equivalent to a player whose fastball is too good for anyone in the minors and so he never works on his breaking ball until he needs it in the show.
I don’t doubt Fulmer’s ability to handle such an adjustment at all, but it might be the kind of thing the Tigers should focus on as the game get meaningless down the stretch and they begin to plan for the long run. Fulmer is a tremendous arm and making sure he has all the tools he needs is one of the most important things the team will do during the rebuilding phase.
Amid a disappointing season, one of the commanding bright spots for the Tigers has been Alex Avila. After letting the homegrown catcher walk after the 2015 season, the Tigers brought him back for 2017 at $2 million and have been rewarded with 174 wRC+ in 186 PA. Avila has 10 HR and a .441 OBP. Granted, he’s served mostly against right-handed pitching but that’s one heck of a strong side of a platoon for next to nothing.
Avila isn’t necessarily known for his receiving, but he controls the running game well and is generally considered one of the better game-callers in the sport. The picture on catcher defense can be a little hazy given how much of their role is strategic rather than performative, but other than on matters of framing he seems to be quite good.
In fact, 2017 Avila — at age 30 — reminds me quite a bit of 24-year-old 2011 Avila. He’s striking out more, walking more, and hitting for more power, but the game is moving in that direction as a whole. What we’re seeing this year is essentially the kind of player we saw in 2011. He hits for power, he gets on base, but he does strikeout more than you’d prefer in a perfect world. We’re seeing the best of Avila now, for a second time.
There’s no secret. He’s hitting more fly balls and he’s using left field more. It’s easy to draw that line because that’s exactly what he did during his excellent 2011 campaign.
It’s hard to say exactly why 2017 Avila is reviving the summer of 2011. It might be health or it might be approach. We can’t really say without getting inside his head, and it’s not like we think that he is a true-talent 170 wRC+ hitter, but getting three months of good Avila again is a good reminder that the skills are there when things are properly aligned.
Living through this period has led me to reflect on two Avila-related points about which I’ve long-wondered. The first is that Avila’s 2011 season was something of a curse. He was a 24-year-old catcher playing in his first full season and he was amazing. While the All-Star trip, silver slugger, and deep playoff run were awesome, it set unrealistic expectations for the rest of his career. If you have your career year in your first year, everything after that will always disappoint people. Avila had a truly dreadful 2015, but from 2012-2014 he was a solid major league regular behind the dish when he was out there. He was a league average hitter and being league average and also catching makes you pretty useful. But it never felt like that to a lot of people because he looked so much worse than he did in 2011.
Rather than people treating it like his one fluky great year, everyone looked at him like he had collapsed and that’s probably not fair.
The other big thing I’ve wondered about is whether Jim Leyland broke Avila when he rode him so hard down the stretch in 2011. If you recall, during the early part of that year, Victor Martinez served as the other catcher, but when Martinez suffered a minor injury he stayed in the lineup but wasn’t able to catch. Because of exactly how the roster was set up, the Tigers basically played with one catcher for an extended period of time. Avila was playing so well and the roster was tight so Avila didn’t get a real break until rosters expanded. Then when the playoff push came he obviously had to catch every inning.
By the end, he was in bad shape. I’ve always wondered if things would have been different if Avila had been used more cautiously in 2011. Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered and the bangs and bruises, and later concussions, would have gotten him anyway. It’s impossible to know, but maybe the lighter workload over the last two seasons has allowed him to recover and his 30-year-old body feels better than he did at 27 and 28.
It’s probably going to end with Avila traded to a contender, and I’ll be happy to see him get another shot at the title he didn’t win in Detroit. Avila’s always been a favorite of mine and his success, despite the team’s struggles, has been a nice development.