Al Kaline was the rare athlete whose influence stretched across generations. He wore the Old English D for the first time in 1953. My father had just turned four years old and my mother hadn’t quite yet been born. Even though he retired a full 15 plus years before I debuted on planet Earth, he was unquestionably the most famous baseball player of my childhood.
Al Kaline was above suspicion. Archetype of a professional. Gentleman. Signed a deal fresh out of high school and worked for one company his entire life. Not only was Kaline a no doubt Hall of Fame player, he was the greatest Tiger of his era without competition. His career essentially ran parallel with Detroit’s time as the engine of the American Dream, and it’s just hard to separate the two. Al Kaline was baseball in the third quarter of the 20th century, especially in Detroit, and his long shadow lingered over baseball in Detroit in the five decades that have come since.
Al Kaline was the kind of a ball player and person that everyone could appreciate. Old school, new school, flashy, understated? Something for everyone. I said on Twitter earlier that only Ernie Harwell stands as Kaline’s equal in terms of adoration among Tigers fans. Trammell, Verlander, and Cabrera will all certainly have flags flying on the Comerica flag pole with their initials when they pass, but Kaline’s death will ring loudest among them because of how long and how permanently he’s been a Tiger.
Yet today, at this benchmark moment in Tigers history, there was no on-field ceremony. No tribute on FSD. No Dickerson-Price remembrance. There is no baseball because there is nothing but despair. As I write this, more than 700 Michiganders have died from the novel coronavirus and hundreds, maybe thousands, more will join them. In the long line of horrible things we are living through and will continue to live though over these months, one of them is that Al Kaline will not get the curtain call he earned.
But it’s not just Kaline. We all know that. People are dying separated from their families. Families are coping with loss without the normal ceremonies and togetherness that typically comes with this kind of heartache. It’s a particular kind of cruelty to take loved ones away without the chance to grieve among friends.
Kaline’s loss is a poignant reminder, not only of the world we’ve lost but also of the hell we currently occupy. All men must die, and few have made better use of their 85 years than Kaline, but to lose someone this beloved by the entire community with no opportunity to be among that community is cruel in a way that gets to the heart of where we are.
We are surrounded by loss and unable to grieve. Some day this will be over. Some day they’ll raise a flag with “AK” above Comerica Park and a parade of former teammates and friends will eulogize Kaline. The stadium will probably be full, although it’s hard to imagine it now. The stories they’ll tell will speak to his greatness on and off the field. People will be comforted by the shared experience of having watched Kaline or grown up hearing about what it was like to watch him unleash throws from right field at Tiger Stadium.
Some day we’ll be able to think about that. Some day there will be time. Some day we’ll go to funerals.
When the 2019 regular season ends tomorrow, the Tigers will find themselves with the worst record in baseball for the second time in three seasons. They arrived at that mark deliberately and purposefully. They did not have the second worst season in franchise history because of bad fortune between the lines or poorly timed injuries. The Tigers chose to provide an atrocious 2019 season, ostensibly in the name of future success.
The Tigers’ decision to sell the way they did in 2017 was absolutely justified and correct. They needed to restock their depleted system and they traded away talented veterans to do so. Given that choice, it was clear the Tigers would not compete in 2018 and they didn’t. No one could really blame them for that, given how hard it would have been that offseason to assemble a reasonably competitive bunch. But going into 2019, the Tigers absolutely could have improved the roster and made this year’s team watchable. Would they have won enough games to take the division? Probably not. But they could have put together a team that would have been watchable and unembarrasing, while sacrificing nothing from the future. There were tons of available free agents this winter who signed below-market deals and some who didn’t get offers until much too late in the process. A few of those names in the lineup this year would have made the team much more interesting, only at the expense of Chris Ilitch’s portfolio.
No one would have asked the team to trade Casey Mize for a shot at winning 75 games, but the Tigers could have spent some money and made this a team worth paying attention to without removing anyone from the farm.
This is all to say that the Tigers didn’t just choose to carry out a much needed rebuild; they chose to completely and utterly tank. They made no effort to compete and slashed payroll to an unacceptable level given the financial health of the organization and the sport. And based on Ilitch’s comments recently, it is clear the team intends to do something similar in 2020. That means the Tigers will spend at least four seasons being unbearably awful.
Now don’t get me wrong, they are not the first team to tank. And more than one team has tanked their way to a World Series. It’s not necessarily a foolish strategy in the long run, but that’s exactly what it must be: a strategy. And it has to work.
The Tigers have to make these four years count. They must draft well and they must develop their prospects in a more successful way than they have over the last two decades. The great teams of the Verlander Era were mostly dotted with players drafted and developed elsewhere. If the Tigers want to tank their way to glory, they will have to learn how to teach players like the Astros, Dodgers, and Cardinals.
If the point of this half decade of misery is to reset the organization for sustainable success, the team needs to be investing in the kinds of development that have become commonplace among the elite teams. It can’t just be Mize and Manning blossoming into stars. Anyone can take top of the draft talent and get them to the majors. The Tigers need to turn borderline prospects into real contributors. If they don’t, the entire purpose of this endeavor is flawed. The point of tanking is to gather and hoard talent—through high draft picks and not trading away prospects at the deadline—so that you have a higher chance of hitting on multiple guys. If that doesn’t happen, this was just a waste of time.
Tigers fans face the unpleasant reality of watching our erstwhile franchise icon flourish in his late 30s in Houston. The Tigers gave up on Verlander’s twilight years for the hopes of finding one or more new Verlander’s during the rebuild. But if the rebuild is not executed properly—a matter on which the jury is out—then it will have been pointless. The Tigers could have held their stars in 2017 and worked the free agent market each offseason and definitely been in contention this year and next. The purpose of the tank was to come out the other side as a powerhouse, better than they otherwise could have been.
We can’t lose sight of that goal. The Tigers didn’t have to tank. They didn’t have to lose over 110 games this year. They’re doing it because they believe it will have a positive long term outcome. But you shouldn’t accept an outcome that just returns the Tigers to the playoff race, it must return them to the echelon of elite teams. You spend five years in the wilderness to come out the other side looking like the Astros. That is the goal and that is what the fans must demand.
If Chris Ilitch will be satisfied simply with a profitable 85-win team with a middle-tier payroll in 2021-2024, he could have gotten that without the misery of 2017-2020. We cannot accept tanking as a means to save on payroll. It must only be accepted a pathway to greatness.
It was brutal watching the 2019 Tigers and we’ve been told it will be this way again next year. The only justification for putting us through this is a truly roaring 20s.
The Tigers opened Spring Training last week in Lakeland without having done much to improve on their 2018 campaign. This offseason they signed Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Jordy Mercer, and the standard contingent of minor league free agents. Moore, Ross, and Mercer were all solid signings, as they all have the potential to reclaim some past glory and provide the Tigers with a nice little return on their investment. But the 2018 Tigers were not a team that needed tweaks to contend in 2019, they needed big upgrades.
The 2018 Tigers won 64 games, which is the same number of games they won during the 2017 season in which had the worst record in baseball. Now of course there is no way to guarantee a great season, or even a contending season, but the Tigers haven’t done anything this winter to even make an attempt at getting into the wild card or divisional race. That is especially odd given how little most of the other teams are doing to truly improve themselves.
What is going on?
Obviously the Tigers were in bad place in 2017 and trading away their good, aging veterans made tons of baseball sense. They were unlikely to win with the core they had assembled and rather than stumble through the next couple of years, they blew up the roster and turned Verlander, Martinez, Upton, et all into players who would help them win in the future. Trading now talent for future talent was a wise baseball move. The financial savings from getting Verlander off the books was relatively unimportant from a baseball perspective, but the long term talent wasn’t.
Going into 2018, there really wasn’t a way to build a winner through free agency given the roster they had. There were too many holes and not enough available players to make it a great short term move, and it certainly wouldn’t have made sense long term.
But 2019 is different. The current Tigers roster is probably assembled to win around 70 games, give or take. That’s not a great team at all, but there is a lot of room for growth and there are a lot of good players still available in February. Bryce Harper. Manny Machado. Dallas Keuchel. Craig Kimbrel. Marwin Gonzalez. These are potentially large upgrades for the Tigers this year, with many of them having the potential to be good for the next several seasons. This is to say nothing of the many players the team could pick up on one- or two-year deals to help bridge the gap (e.g. Adam Jones).
Why aren’t the Tigers making serious plays for at least some of these players?
It’s reasonable for the team to look at their current roster and think they probably can’t win the division in 2019 even with some major upgrades. But they can certainly sniff the wild card, and more importantly, the players they sign in 2019 will be on their team in 2020 and 2021 when their prospects start graduating. The Tigers shouldn’t sign a 34-year-old 1B/DH to five-year deal right now, but Harper and Machado are in their mid-20s. They will still be in their peak years in 2020, 2021, and 2022. And it’s not like the Tigers can pass on Harper this year, save the $35 million and then sign him next year. That’s not how it works.
The Tigers are also not in any kind of financial crunch. In 2018, they had the 20th highest payroll in the league at around $125 million. This was a stark contrast to the 10 previous seasons in which their payroll was in the top 10, including nine seasons in the top six. They had payrolls in the high $190M range in 2016 and 2017.
Clearly, a major difference is that Mike Ilitch died and his son is now running the team. Chris Ilitch isn’t trying to win a World Series as urgently, which makes sense given that he’s not in his 80s hoping for one last taste of glory. I get that Chris Ilitch isn’t going to push Avila to mortgage the future and spend like there is no tomorrow, but he’s used that cover, the cover of the 2017 rebuild, and the fact that the rest of the league is pretending they can’t afford free agents to completely avoid investing in the team. The Tigers payroll in 2019 might end up being less than it was in 2018, and even if it’s higher it will be roughly in the same place.
There is no justification for that. The Tigers were financially capable of handling payrolls near $200 million a couple of years ago. The fact that they aren’t even close to that is indefensible. The league as a whole is making tons of money, the Tigers are closing in on a new TV deal (either with Fox or their own RSN), and the Ilitch family shows no signs of being in a difficult financial situation. The Tigers aren’t spending money right now because they don’t want to, and the only reason they don’t want to is because the ownership group would prefer to have higher profits.
Put another way, there is no baseball reason why the Tigers shouldn’t be out there trying to sign some of these marquee free agents. It would be one thing if every player had a bidding war going and the Tigers decided they didn’t want to overpay for Harper or Machado given that they probably aren’t going to get a ton of value out of the 2019 version, so a team like the Yankees might be able to spend more. But that’s not even the case. The Tigers could get these guys for less than they’re actually worth and they don’t appear to be trying.
They have room on the balance sheet, they need big upgrades, and they are in the market for a new generation of stars to carry the marketing side of the organization. Harper could be with the organization for a decade, selling merchandise and earning a spot on the brick wall, but the Tigers appear content to give that up so that the Ilitches can…have more money?
The Tigers could be a lot better in 2019 if they went out and signed free agents, but much more importantly, they could set themselves up for real greatness in 2020 to 2022 if they acquire building block players right now who will be there when Mize, Manning, Paredes, and Perez coming knocking.
There is still time. We are in the midst of a league-wide cheapskate crisis, meaning that there are great players still available on the market in mid-February. If the Tigers want to build a winner now and into the near future, the path to return to the top of the Central is wide open. All it will take is spending money that they have. It will cost them nothing in prospect talent. Going into 2019 spending less than $130 million on the big league roster is a joke for an organization with the history and resources of the Tigers. The fans in Detroit want a winner and the leadership of the team isn’t even pretending like they care.
Mike Ilitch sometimes overspent on big name veterans, occasionally to his detriment. But you can bet if he had a change to sign generational talents at age 26, he wouldn’t be sitting on his hands talking about payroll flexibility and rebuilding. Mike Ilitch would have spent the money because Mike Ilitch wanted to win as desperately as any owner in recent memory. There is still time his successor to follow that example.
Every year, Ernie used to read this quotation from the Song of Solomon on Opening Day. Four years ago, I heard a priest recite this in Ernie’s name in reference to the rebirth of baseball, Spring, and Easter.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
We made it.
In years past, I’ve previewed the upcoming season with a countdown of the nine bellwether players whose fortunes will dictate the Tigers’ performance. That doesn’t make a lot of sense this year, neither does my annual piece explaining the path the team could take to a World Series win. The Tigers aren’t going to win the World Series and it would be a massive surprise if they earned a wild card berth. For these reasons, I want to take a slightly different approach to the preview. I’m going to run through the players whose 2018 performance will shape what happens for the Tigers in 2019 and beyond.
Miguel Cabrera: Cabrera had his worst season as a professional in 2017, and while it’s easy to point to injuries (and significant turmoil in his personal life) as contributing factors, it’s not clear that we can count on those to abate going forward. At Cabrera’s age, his body may be breaking down rather than dealing with individual acute injuries. At his best, he’s one of the most gifted hitters of his generation, but superstars don’t say superstars forever. If Cabrera bounces back and has a good 2018, we’ll take it as a sign that he’s capable of being an elite hitter for the immediate future. And that matters a lot because starting from a place where Cabrera is a 5-win player is much different than starting from a place where he is a 2.5-win player. It’s hard to imagine building a contender in 2019 if Cabrera’s days as a star are over.
Daniel Norris: Norris was the centerpiece of Phase 1 of the rebuild, but after a solid showing in 2016, he took some steps back last year. His strikeout rate went down, his walk rate went up, and he allowed a lot of runs despite keeping the ball in the park a little better. He turns 25 next month and has plenty of time left to develop, but it will be important for him to show signs of growth this year. Whether Norris turns into a #2 or a #4 will say a lot about the Tigers over the next few years.
Matt Boyd: The story for Boyd is pretty similar to Norris, except that he’s two years older. He’s shown flashes of great potential, but has also struggled mightily at times. Boyd doesn’t have the same prospect pedigree as Norris, but he’s had a ton of success in the minors and has shown more velocity in recent years than he was expected to have. I’ve been driving the Boyd bandwagon for the last two years and don’t intend to de-wagon any time soon, but it will be important for him to put some good results on the board this year as the club figures out what to do this offseason.
Jeimer Candelario: Candelario came back in the Avila/Wilson deal last July and proceeded to have a very solid 38-game run for the Tigers down the stretch, hitting 111 wRC+. The scouting reports like what he can do at the plate, and if he’s good enough to stick at third, the Tigers might have themselves an above-average regular for the next six years. But there are still plenty of questions for Candelario who is less than 160 PA into his MLB career. He’ll have every chance to establish himself this year, but figuring out if he’s more likely to be a 1.5-win player or a 3-win player is going to be a big part of 2018.
Joe Jimenez: Jimenez has dominated in the minors but was truly terrible in his 19 MLB innings last year. One reliever isn’t going to make or break a rebuilding team, but Jimenez is hopefully going to be given a chance to get acclimated to the majors in 2018 and we’ll see whether he is equal to the competition. The raw talent is there, but there is a reason relief prospects are relief prospects — some aspect of their game is limited. Jimenez certainly looked over-matched last year, but he’s young and was facing hitters that could handle his heat for the first time. If Jimenez is a relief ace or top tier right-handed reliever, the Tigers will be in good shape.
Nick Castellanos/Jose Iglesias/Victor Martinez: Barring something very unlikely, Castellanos, Iglesias, and Martinez won’t be Tigers on Opening Day 2019. The big question is whether they will be Tigers on August 1, 2018, and if not, what kind of return the Tigers will have gotten for them. Each player could earn the Tigers a mint with the right season. Castellanos’ power has developed nicely, but he still struggles to control the zone. He’s a good player, but he’s limited defensively so a couple months of Rentallanos isn’t going to bring back much unless he has a breakout. Iglesias is a good defensive shortstop, who looks great at times, but he really isn’t a very good hitter. A career year at the plate would help. Finally, Martinez has had a remarkable career that looks like it’s coming to an end. If he can recover from health problems that plagued him all last year and hit like it’s 2016, he’ll be in demand at the deadline. If he can find the magic and hit like it’s 2014, teams will be falling all over themselves to grab him at the deadline.
I’ll put the Tigers at 73-89 for the year. We’ll get to obsesses about the first overall draft pick in June and there will be some interesting young players to follow. I’m confident that if the Tigers want to, they can put themselves back into contention next winter. It’s going to be a rough season at Comerica, but hopefully we’ll find sun among the clouds.
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.
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.
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.