This is the latest installment of our Offseason in Review series. You can see a full index of the series here.
After a very brief retooling effort at last year’s trade deadline, the Tigers, led by new GM Al Avila, entered the offseason with a characteristic win-now approach and spent heavily.
Major League Signings
- Justin Upton, OF: Six years, $132.75MM (opt-out clause after second season)
- Jordan Zimmermann, SP: Five years, $110MM
- Mike Pelfrey, SP: Two years, $16MM
- Mark Lowe, RP: Two years, $11MM
- Mike Aviles, 2B/3B/SS: One year, $2MM
- Jarrod Saltalamacchia, C: One year, $507,500 (Marlins paying the remainder of Salatlamacchia’s salary)
- Total spend: $272.26MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Preston Guilmet, Nate Schierholtz, John Mayberry Jr., Bobby Parnell, Casey McGehee, Lucas Harrell, Jordany Valdespin, Lendy Castillo
Trades and Claims
- Acquired LHP Justin Wilson from Yankees in exchange for RHP Luis Cessa, RHP Chad Green
- Acquired RHP Francisco Rodriguez from Brewers in exchange for 2B Javier Betancourt, C Manny Pina
- Acquired CF Cameron Maybin from Braves in exchange for LHP Ian Krol, LHP Gabe Speier
- Acquired minor league 2B Kody Eaves from Angels in exchange for 3B Jefry Marte
- J.D. Martinez, OF: Two years, $18.5MM
- Rajai Davis, Alfredo Simon, Al Alburquerque, Alex Avila, Tom Gorzelanny, Kyle Lobstein, Joe Nathan, Randy Wolf (retired)
Though the Tigers entered the offseason with a new GM, the club’s M.O. was as familiar as ever; the words “lengthy rebuild” aren’t in the Detroit vernacular, and former GM Dave Dombrowski’s trades of David Price, Yoenis Cespedes and Joakim Soria are probably the closest thing we’ll see to a rebuilding process under owner Mike Ilitch. Ilitch is one of the most aggressive owners in baseball, and another quarter-billion dollars spent on player salary this offseason speaks to that point. Ilitch candidly noted at a press conference this offseason that he “doesn’t care” about spending money. His goal is to put a winner on the field, and Avila acted aggressively in an effort to make that dream a reality.
Price, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene were all trade acquisitions made to help bolster the pitching staff in the final 13 months of Dombrowski’s tenure, but Price was traded, Simon struggled prior to hitting the open market, and injuries cut Greene’s season short. The Tigers clearly needed rotation help despite having landed a pair of MLB-ready starters for Price in Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, and Avila made his first free-agent signing a significant one in the form of a five-year, $110MM contract for Jordan Zimmermann. The 2015 season came with some red flags for Zimmermann — notably, a diminished strikeout rate and slightly increased walk rate — but he’s averaged 203 high quality innings per season across the past four years, and the Tigers will be counting on more of the same for the foreseeable future.
That track record of quality innings isn’t there for Mike Pelfrey, but the Tigers clearly believe he’s capable of delivering, as they inked him to a two-year, $16MM contract to serve as the club’s fourth starter, falling in line behind Justin Verlander, Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez. (Norris is the favorite to hold down the final spot.) The Pelfrey contract was inexpensive compared to many of the other deals for starting pitchers that we saw this offseason, but it still raised some eyebrows; Pelfrey is a former top pick that settled in as a durable innings eater for the 2008-11 Mets, but he has a 4.94 ERA with largely uninspiring peripherals since returning from 2012 Tommy John surgery. As a ground-ball pitcher, he’ll benefit from Jose Iglesias and Ian Kinsler, but a more patient approach to that second rotation spot might’ve better served the club.
Cespedes’ departure created a need for the Tigers in the outfield, and the club initially looked to address the option somewhat on the cheap. While Braves GM John Coppolella indicated that he wasn’t interested in trading Cameron Maybin to clear salary, that seems to have been one of the more significant factors in the trade that sent Maybin from Atlanta back to the Tigers (his original organization), as Avila parted with a fairly modest price of lefty relievers Ian Krol and Gabe Speier to land him. The Maybin deal, at the time, was said by Avila to likely signal the end of the club’s outfield pursuits, but over the holidays, Ilitch became convinced that the club needed another big bat, and Justin Upton was signed to a six-year deal shortly thereafter. He’ll give the club a bat comparable to the one they lost in Cespedes, pushing Maybin into a platoon with Anthony Gose in center field.
Upton’s deal comes with an opt-out clause after the second season, and while he’s stated that he signed the deal to come to Detroit for six years, it’s difficult to imagine him playing well for a couple of seasons and neglecting to exercise the clause. Upton will play the coming season at age 28, so there’s no reason to expect a decline in his bat, which has been about 25 percent better than the league average across the past seven seasons.
Revamping the bullpen — a perennial Achilles heel for otherwise strong Tigers clubs — was a goal for Avila in his first winter in control as well. To that end, he acquired an experienced and still-highly-effective late-inning arm in Francisco Rodriguez, pairing him with an excellent left-handed setup option in Justin Wilson and a resurgent right-handed option in Mark Lowe. K-Rod and Wilson were acquired without sacrificing any of the organization’s top 15 or so prospects — a nice value for Avila & Co., especially considering the fact that Wilson has three years of control remaining. Lowe’s two-year deal will be addressed at greater length below.
The Tigers will be paying $70MM for their top four starting pitchers this season, but outside of Zimmermann, none of the four has a strong track record in recent seasons. Verlander looked sharp late in the 2015 campaign, logging a 2.27 ERA over his final 99 1/3 innings, but his velocity remained in the 92-93 mph range, and it seems unlikely that it will ever reach its previous heights. Sanchez has battled injuries over the past two seasons and has yet to appear in a Grapefruit League game, in part due to triceps inflammation. Pelfrey, of course, struggled throughout the majority of his Twins tenure, as previously noted.
Detroit’s infield is mostly set, but third base remains a question. Nick Castellanos improved in the field and showed a bit more power in his second season last year, but he still graded out below average overall with the glove (-9 DRS, -10 UZR) and at the plate (98 OPS+, 94 wRC+). Castellanos’ slugging percentage was about league average for a third baseman, but his OBP was below both the league average and the average third baseman. Detroit is still committed to its former top prospect, but a poor first half could lead Avila to seek an upgrade on the trade market this summer.
In Upton and J.D. Martinez, the Tigers have one of the more powerful corner-outfield duos in all of Major League Baseball, but the center field platoon of Maybin and Gose comes with some question marks. Both players have the speed to cover plenty of ground but rate poorly in the eyes of defensive metrics (which Gose bizarrely called a “scam” designed to “make money” this spring rather than examine his game for areas of potential improvement). There are offensive questions about the pair, as well; Gose fanned at a 27 percent clip in each of the past two seasons, and neither player has particularly strong career marks with the bat, even when holding the platoon advantage. In fact, Maybin’s career numbers versus lefties are worse than his numbers against right-handed pitching (though that trend reversed last year in Atlanta).
From a longer-term perspective, the larger question in the outfield may be whether the team is able to retain Martinez beyond his remaining two years of control. The extension for Martinez, who has quickly risen to stardom in Detroit, didn’t extend club control and rather only locked in the price tags on his remaining arbitration seasons. As I examined at the time Martinez acknowledged ongoing extension talks, the Tigers already have more than $122MM committed to the 2018 payroll, $105MM committed in 2019 and $78MM committed in 2020. Those numbers, of course, would decline if Upton were to exercise the opt-out provision in his contract, but there’s no firm way of knowing he’ll do so. A healthy Upton almost certainly will, but injuries or an unexpected decline in performance could alter the outcome.
Tacking on an extra $18-20MM per season for a Martinez extension (and that’s estimating on the conservative end of a theoretical AAV for an extension) to each of those seasons significantly limits the maneuverability to fill out a competitive roster with useful pieces. Were Upton’s deal guaranteed to be coming off the books, a Martinez extension wouldn’t be quite so treacherous. However, this is this is one situation that highlights the fact that opt-outs carry risk not only in the form of a declining or injured player opting in (and thus becoming overpaid) but also in the form of making the waters of long-term planning difficult to navigate.
Deal of Note
Mark Lowe’s dominant numbers with the Mariners made the minor league deal he signed last offseason into one of the most notable bargain pickups of the year and ultimately turned him into a trade chip for the M’s in July. The Tigers rewarded Lowe’s age-32 renaissance with a two-year, $11MM contract, demonstrating that they were undeterred by his lesser numbers with the Blue Jays and convinced that he could serve as a quality ’pen piece through 2017.
While there’s certainly reason to believe that’s the case — Lowe’s velocity was back at its 2009-11 levels and he showed excellent control — we saw similar resurgences rewarded with markedly smaller contracts later in the offseason. Players that sign early, especially relievers, will almost always come out better than those who wait to sign into the new year, but the fact that rebounds from Joe Blanton and the much younger Trevor Cahill resulted in one-year deals worth less than $5MM raises the question of whether the Tigers would’ve been better served to wait out the relief market a bit. Of course, there was also at least one far more lavish expenditure on a revitalized bullpen arm (tip of the cap to Ryan Madson), and if Lowe continues his excellence, the Tigers won’t mind having paid at a higher rate.
Avila’s first offseason at the helm looked fairly similar to some of the recent offseasons under the Dombrowski-led Tigers: a number of high-priced, long-term expenditures designed to win in the present despite a considerable amount of long-term risk. Eventually, the Tigers are going to be faced with an aged roster of overpaid former stars, as it’s just not likely that Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Jordan Zimmermann, etc. will continue to be productive into their mid-to-late 30s. That could be compounded if the club ultimately inks Martinez to a lengthier extension.
It’s been written for years (including here) that that long-term ledger could lead to dark days in Detroit, but those days haven’t yet arrived. Though they have question marks in the rotation and at a few spots on the diamond, the Tigers have what looks to be an improved bullpen as well as a strong lineup capable of compensating for some of the questions that permeate the starting staff. And, of course, if the Tigers feel they need rotation reinforcement come summer, Ilitch will almost certainly green-light a win-now approach for Avila and his staff in July. I wouldn’t call Detroit the division favorite, but the AL Central should be a tightly contested bunch this year, and the Tigers look poised to return to the midst of the fray after a rare sell-off last July.
Let’s turn this one over to the audience with a poll (link to poll for mobile app users)…
Photos courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.
The Tigers have a definite need for pitching ! They need to address this via their farm system ! Good luck with that !
I don’t understand how Mike Pelfrey lands a major league contract with any MLB team.
I agree with you @roadapple! Were there no other options for Detroit? If Pelfrey gets 8 wins this season it’ll be a miracle.
I think the Tigers like his increased velo, veteren presence, and potential to eat some innings. Plus, he’s got the best doubleplay combo in the bigs behind him. It’s also a short contract that avoids a trade, keeping Norris, Boyd, Greene, and Fulmer as useful pitching pieces.
Pelfrey’s a valid #5, which is where he’ll be by June if Norris comes around, and he’ll be long relief and way over-paid by August if Boyd is even moderately-effective. One year makes sense, but certainly not two, especially at $8Mill/yr.
Well, Ilitch is 86 years old, so by the time those huge contracts backfire on the Tigers, he very well could be dead. He wants a World Series Championship before he goes, and he’s smart and practical enough to know that he can’t take his money with him, so why not spend it now?
… But on Mike Pelfrey?
Hadn’t realized that Gose had gone “bizarrely” in commenting on defensive statistics, but I watch a lot of baseball and have to agree that defensive statistics are so off base that they have become a running joke with people that follow baseball.
One of my favorite activities on a slow day is to read the comments here over a players fielding ability. Inevitably a poster will come on and quote 3 or 4 “defensive metrics” (sounds authoritative and unquestionable) then state emphatically that the fielder is therefore sensational or awful. Those are then followed by posters from the players city that states that he’s seen 140-150 of the teams games that year and the players defensive work was the opposite of what had been written. I’ve sent links from those arguments to friends that also watch a lot of MLB games, and they get a kick out of them.
If you look at this team objectively, you can’t say that they are better than the team that started the 2015 season. Zimmerman is close but not as good as Price. Upton and Cespedes are equal skill-wise. So are Davis and Maybin. Exchanging Simon and Pelfrey is not a huge upgrade (what were they thinking giving a number 5/reserve starter $8 million a year?) The only significant improvement with respect to last years spring training is the bullpen, which should be solid. Just like last year, the Tigers will heavily depend on health (and form) from Verlander, Cabrera and Vmart..
You’re mostly right, but a big difference is that the tigers have more depth this year than last. If Sanchez gets hurt, last year you’re looking at buck farmer or Kyle Ryan, but this year you’re looking at boyd/fulmer/Greene.
After reviewing some comparables the Pelfrey deal is a good deal for the Tigers.Two similar pitchers(Jason Hammel and Scott Feldman) have $9MM and $8MM deals in 2016. Hammel has a $10MM option for 2017 .Fister, who I see as a big gamble health wise, got $7MM and it could be as much as $11MM.
Pitchers who I see as an upgrade (Ian Kennedy and Scott Kazmir) got $14MM and $16MM per year in 5 and 3 year deals. They are not twice as good as Pelfrey. Tigers only have 2 years invested in Pelfrey at close to half the price. Even a 35 year old reliever,Ryan Madson, got a $15MM 2yr deal.
While this contract is certainly no burden , I don’t think the deal is even ok. I rate the pitchers you mentioned (Jason Hammel and Scotte Feldman) much higher than Mike Pelfrey. (certainly Hammel.). Their strikeout and walk rates are much better and they give up fare less base hits. Furthermore, they had something of a track record and were signed in a much thinner market.. (Props to baseball reference for this btw).
Most of the guys that I rate at the same (ok, a bit lower) level such as Vogelsong, Gee, Kyle Kendrick etc. got minor league deals. Similar pitchers were/are available on the trade market (Mike Bolsinger, De La Rosa, etc.)
Took the comparables off of the list at Baseball Reference on the Pelfrey page… A lot of the interest for Pelfrey came from the Asst. GM ( Chadd) who also grew up in Wichita, like Pelfrey.
Verlander, especially the way he pitched in Sep
The Tigers bullen has been what’s killed them for the last 3-4 years. Finally they addressed it. How can you not say the team is improved?
I’d agree with you ….. IF pens were predictable.
The only lock over the past two decades was Mo. That’s the look of MLB in the 21st Century; it’s all about shortening the game to 6-7 innings and the teams that can do it will win a lot of games. You can field a great team with a lousy pen and finish dead last, a mediocre team with a great pen and win the WS.
I gave the Tigers an A. Not only did the Tigers make improvements across the board this summer, but they gave up relatively little in order to do it. Jordan Zimmerman signed for significantly under market value (beginning of the season projections were at 140 M), and they acquired maybin and k-rod for virtually nothing, The Tigers should be much improved from last year due to their increased depth (which is key for an aging team) and their revitalized bullpen (which may only have one member from last year’s bullpen on it). Only thing I would have liked was one more starter, but I think they’re betting on boyd/Greene/fulmer if any injuries arise.
Like last year, Verlander is the key to their season. If he’s good, the Tigs have a real shot at the division. If not, you’re looking at an 82-82 win team
The under the radar move that will be huge for the Tigers is trading Cessa and Green for Wilson. A fireballer lefty acquired for basically nothing.
The season will hinge on their health. If they stay healthy, these were very good pick-ups. If not, it could very well be a long year, followed by a complete overhaul….. I’ll choose to be positive, until I see the later happen. Go Tigers !
I gave an A to the Tigers because they actually addressed every need going into the offseason. They needed to get more innings from their starters, so they added Zimmermann and Pelfrey. Their bullpen was bad, They added K-Rod, and two set up men in Lowe and Justin. Then they added Parnell on a minor league deal. They replaced Avila with Salty behind the dish. They replaced Cedeno with Upton, Davis with Maybin, in the OF. They added versatility by adding Aviles.
While I don’t agree with every choice they made, I realize that they may know something I don’t. I would have been fine without Aviles. Machado could have served as the extra IF, but Iglesias has not lived up to the hype (though he has been solid) and they may see Dixon as his eventual replacement and want him playing every day. I would have been fine with Holaday being the backup catcher, but Salty is lefty and Miami is paying most of his contract. I did not like the Pelfrey signing. I do realize the Tigers have been interested in him in the past, so they must like something about him that I just don’t see, but why two years? Was there competition for him that that second year was required to close the deal? With Boyd and Greene both available, and Fulmer and Ziomek close, it looks like the 2nd year may become unneeded
Still, Chicago didn’t address its rotation or OF. Cleveland has a questionable offense and OF. Minnesota didn’t address its bullpen, or improve at SS. KC never addressed RF. The Tigers did address all their concerns, and even hedged their bet on Castellanos by signing McGee. Hopefully they will contend if things fall right, but that’s true of every team in their division.
Aviles is a veteran that knows what to do to help the team win, and will help a lot. Iggy may be the best all-around SS in the AL next to Correa – he’s my favorite – and when he’s in the game the Tigers are an entirely different team. Sort of like the 1968 WS team when the manager said that with all the big-name players, the most valuable to him was little Eddie Brinkman that played a terrific SS and did what needed to be done in critical at-bats (be it a hit, a bunt, a hit and run, or moving a runner over by hitting to the right side),
You are vastly over rating iglesias. He makes highlight reel plays but thats what sticks in minds but in reality he is just an average defender there. Correa, lindor, bogaerts, tulo, simmons all are better than him right now with marte, semien, and tim anderson all have the potential to be better than him moving forward.
Little Eddie Brinkman didn’t play for the Tigers in ’68. If I remember correctly, he was a Washington Senator in 1968. So I doubt anyone from the Tigers thought he was the MVP of that team.
Iglesias NOT lived up to the hype? You must be thinking of the singer, not the SS.
No, he hasn’t. He was supposed to be the best fielding SS in the division if not all of the AL. He has been average, with some highlight reel plays. While he has hit for average, he hasn’t learned to take a walk, or how to drive in a run. Its a hollow average. Because of his injuries, its possible he will live up to his potential this year, but currently, I don’t see the Tigers looking to lock him up long term. He may very well become trade bait if Dixon Machado progresses at AAA this year.
You missed my point by a mile and a quarter. If you’re going to get your player evaluations from the Detroit News, well yes, he was hyped, but I never saw a projection OR a performance from Iglesias that was anything more than what he is. DD needed a SS when Peralta was going to get suspended and Jose was the best available. Pre-season projections for the year he was injured had him at average or even slightly below, and NO ONE thought he would hit for power or average, so yes, he’s lived up to the hype, if your “hype” comes from reliable sources. As for Machado, he’s possibly a AAAA player: average fielder and a worse hitter than Iglesias, and at 23, I wouldn’t count on much “progress” from him.
Took the comparables off of the list at Baseball Reference on the Pelfrey page… A lot of the interest for Pelfrey came from the Asst. GM ( Chadd) who also grew up in Wichita, like Pelfrey.
Good writeup, but this:
“but his velocity remained in the 92-93 mph range, and it seems unlikely that it will ever reach its previous heights.”
is wrong. He still hits 99.
I gave them a b- because the pelf rely signing was bad and u can’t expect a bunch of older relievers to be your messiah and salvage the bullpen