Next up in our Three Needs series: the Detroit Tigers.
1. Trade Ian Kinsler.
This is about as obvious as these sorts of decisions get. Kinsler is already 35. He’s going to cost either $11MM or $12MM, depending upon whether he wins the A.L. Gold Glove for second base. (More on that here.) And it’s perfectly plausible that he could, since he continues to draw top-notch reviews for his glovework. Though Kinsler has dipped at the plate this year — he’s at career lows in batting average (.234) and slugging (.397) and is fighting to stay ahead of his prior low in OBP (currently .309) — he has a lengthy record of above-average hitting. And he also carries only a .243 batting average on balls in play this year despite making more hard contact (37.2%) than he ever has before, indicating some positive regression could be on the way. Even in a down year, Kinsler will put up at around 2 WAR; last year, he topped five (and, by measure of the DRS-based rWAR measure, did the same for the three prior seasons as well).
Bottom line: teams are going to see appeal in adding such a high-quality veteran at a palatable price on a one-year deal. Detroit has no real business employing Kinsler at this point. While his partial no-trade clause could factor in, Kinsler will surely see the merit in finding a new home with a contender. Demand at second base may not be immense, but there should be enough to support a decent return. The Tigers should be, and likely are, laying groundwork now to begin an auction process for the veteran.
2. Listen on Michael Fulmer, but hold out for a huge return.
You’ve heard the phrase “controllable, top-of-the-rotation starter” — or some variation of it — discussed quite a bit in recent months and years. Everybody wants ’em, but there aren’t enough to go around. And as that class of pitcher goes, Fulmer is near the top.
Fulmer is still just 24 and won the Rookie of the Year Award in 2016. He won’t reach arbitration until 2019 (as a Super Two) and won’t hit free agency until 2023. His overall ERA has sagged this year on the whole, but he carried an exact match to last year’s effort (3.06) following his start on July 15th. Fulmer faded as a nerve issue became problematic. While that did ultimately require surgery, it’s not expected to limit him next year — and, as an added bonus, his elbow ligaments just received a visual inspection and clean bill of health from the world’s most famous baseball surgeon (Dr. James Andrews). Though he doesn’t rack up all that many strikeouts, most agree it’s not a concern, as Fulmer dominates with a four-pitch power arsenal that may allow him to continue to suppress batting averages on balls in play.
We’ve already heard of some teams approaching the Tigers with interest, and that’ll surely continue. The market has produced huge returns for pitchers such as Chris Sale and Jose Quintana; while Fulmer doesn’t have the former’s excellence or the latter’s track record, he’s much younger and cheaper. Clearly, even with the surgery, he’s one of the game’s best trade chips.
Under the circumstances, the Tigers ought to listen in earnest to offers on Fulmer. But the club would be foolish to pre-commit to dealing him for less than a true haul of young talent. There’s always risk in hanging onto a pitcher that has immediate and long-term value. But that’s just what the team should be willing to do if suitors don’t come calling with packages featuring multiple players that project to be quality big leaguers.
3. Don’t be afraid to lose.
Of course, Detroit shouldn’t hold onto Fulmer or others out of any inclination to keep winning games. The pain will come, and already has; the danger now is in not embracing it fully. Nabbing a few more W’s in 2018 is likely only to cost draft position and extend the timeline of a successful rebuild. There’s nothing the Tigers can do but play Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann, and Victor Martinez (if he’s able to return). Other than those high-priced veterans, who’ll need to reestablish some value to be traded, the efforts should be directed toward developing players, finding hidden gems, and generating trade chips.
That’s not to say that the Tigers can’t give some money to veterans. But they ought to be the sort whose control rights come with some real upside — younger free agents who haven’t yet harnessed their talents or still-useful veterans that slipped through the cracks. While the team had its reasons this year for giving significant time this year to over-30 role players such as Andrew Romine (114 games) and Alex Presley (207 plate appearances despite lengthy DL stints), doing so next year may not be wise.
Instead, the Tigers ought to be willing to part with useful relievers such as Shane Greene and Alex Wilson if there’s something worthwhile to be brought back. They should keep running out Mikie Mahtook unless and until he proves he can’t sustain solid production. And they ought to find out what they have not only in Dixon Machado, but also in reserve catcher John Hicks (who has hit quite well) and newly acquired prospect Jeimer Candelario.
If some buy-low opportunities arise in free agency, that’s always worth considering, but the Tigers already maintain a hefty payroll. And the bet here is that a wide variety of other teams will provide competition (and thus raise salaries) for the sort of short-term assets that might be of interest. Instead, perhaps, working the waiver wire and minor-league free agency will be more fruitful avenues for Detroit. The club should be open to taking chances there and perhaps also pursuing a few Rule 5 players.
It seems likely there will be fewer teams than usual in 2018 that truly don’t care about winning. The Tigers may join the White Sox as the only teams that are really just focused on aggregating young talent (though that could change in the coming weeks and there are a few other organizations that won’t be looking to spend much to improve in the near-term). That’s actually a good thing for Detroit, because the club has a clean path to a top draft pick and can operate without worry of results while other, slightly more advanced rebuilders begin to feel demand for results. The front office already made the hardest call in trading Justin Verlander. There’s no reason to look back now.