This is the latest entry in MLBTR’s 2017-18 Offseason In Review series. Click here to read the other completed reviews from around the league.
The rebuilding Tigers did much of their heavy lifting on the trade front last summer, when they shipped out Justin Upton, Justin Verlander, Justin Wilson and J.D. Martinez, leading to a relatively quiet winter for the team that holds the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft. GM Al Avila and his staff made a handful of small-scale free-agent pickups and one notable trade as they continue to look toward the future.
Major League Signings
- Mike Fiers, RHP: One year, $6MM (Controlled through 2019 via arbitration)
- Francisco Liriano, LHP: One year, $4MM
- Leonys Martin, OF: One year, $1.75MM (Controlled through 2019 via arbitration)
- Ryan Carpenter, LHP: One year, league minimum
- Total spend: $12.295MM
Notable Minor League Signings
- Derek Norris, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Brayan Pena, Alexi Amarista, Travis Wood (suffered ACL tear in spring; since released), Louis Coleman, Niko Goodrum, Pete Kozma, John Lamb, James Russell, Enrique Burgos, Jim Adduci
Trades and Claims
- Traded 2B Ian Kinsler to the Angels in exchange for RHP Wikel Hernandez and OF Troy Montgomery
- Claimed RHP Johnny Barbato off waivers from the Pirates
- Selected OF Victor Reyes out of the Diamondbacks organization in the Rule 5 Draft
- Kinsler, Anibal Sanchez (option declined), Bruce Rondon (non-tendered), Andrew Romine (waivers), Jairo Labourt (waivers)
The primary need for the Tigers over the past year-plus has simply been to build up a farm system that was depleted by years of aggressive “win-now” moves that left the minor league ranks perilously thin. In that same vein, paring back the big league payroll to clear room for future commitments has been paramount.
With that in mind, the Tigers surprised no one when they moved their top remaining trade chip: Ian Kinsler. A saturated market for second basemen and a sub-par 2017 season at the plate held down Kinsler’s value on the trade market, and his limited no-trade protection tied Avila’s hands. Detroit ultimately landed outfielder Troy Montgomery (ranked 26th among Tigers farmhands by MLB.com) and righty Wikel Hernandez in exchange for the veteran, shedding $12MM in 2018 payroll in the process.
Turning to the 2018 roster, while it certainly wouldn’t behoove the Tigers to spend heavily on rotation upgrades in a season where they’re likely to be one of the league’s worst teams, Detroit unquestionably lacked starting depth. Jordan Zimmermann has struggled enormously in his first two seasons with the Tigers. Michael Fulmer was coming off ulnar nerve transposition surgery. Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris have displayed flashes of potential but have not yet solidified themselves as long-term rotation cogs. Beyond that, the team’s options were thin.
Affordable deals for Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano give the Tigers a pair of veteran stopgaps who could potentially become trade assets themselves this summer. In Fiers’ case, if he thrives in Detroit, he’s also controllable for the 2019 season via arbitration, making him all the more logical a piece. It’s cliche to call Liriano mercurial at this point, but the lefty has long shown a wide variance of outcomes on a season to season basis, and if the Tigers can get him to harness his control, he could net a semi-interesting piece this summer. Adding that pair could mean that Norris begins the year in Triple-A, whereas the out-of-options Boyd is a lock to make the roster.
The Tigers faced a similar dearth of outfield options and, accordingly, made a similarly low-cost stopgap acquisition in signing Leonys Martin to a one-year pact. Like Fiers, he’s controllable through the 2019 season via arbitration and could either emerge as a trade piece this summer or an affordable option over a two-year term. The fleet-footed veteran gives the Tigers an above-average defender in center field who can provide value on the bases even if his bat doesn’t bounce back to its 2013-14 and 2016 levels.
Detroit was undoubtedly pleased with the contributions of John Hicks at backup catcher last year, but given his lack of a track record in the Majors they brought in veterans such as Derek Norris, Brayan Pena and Jarrod Saltalamacchia as minor league depth options. The need for a utility infielder led to a comparable blend of minor league signings in Alexi Amarista, Pete Kozma and Niko Goodrum.
The list of remaining questions for the Tigers, as one would expect in the early stages of a rebuild, is plentiful. At present, the team lacks clear long-term options at both middle-infield positions and all around the outfield. Detroit’s system, at least, is stacked with outfield prospects, including Daz Cameron, Derek Hill and Christin Stewart, among many others. The infield, however, is murkier. While there’s some hope that Dawel Lugo (acquired in the J.D. Martinez trade) and Isaac Paredes (Justin Wilson/Alex Avila trade) could hold down infield spots in the long term, neither is considered a elite prospect by national outlets. That, of course, hardly means they won’t establish themselves as regulars, but it’s worth noting that the vast majority of Detroit’s top-ranked prospects are pitchers and outfielders.
That’s all the more problematic with Jose Iglesias in his final year of control and likely to be traded this summer. Dixon Machado has yet to prove his mettle in the Majors but will be handed the keys at second base. The lack of infield depth made the Tigers a logical suitor for someone like Neil Walker from my vantage point, as he’d have pushed Machado to a utility role (until Iglesias was traded at the very least) and could’ve emerged as a trade chip himself. Perhaps Walker wasn’t interested in signing with a rebuilding club, or perhaps the Tigers simply felt it better to give Machado everyday at-bats sooner rather than later. Regardless, their lack of infield depth seems fairly glaring.
Perhaps, then, that’ll be a potential area of focus as the Tigers look to do some further summer shopping on the trade market. Offseason pickups such as Fiers, Liriano and Martin all figure to be widely available, as do Iglesias and corner outfielder Nicholas Castellanos, both of whom were shopped this offseason but ultimately remained with the club. (The Tigers also reportedly explored extension talks with Castellanos, but it doesn’t seem as if the sides gained much traction.)
The larger question facing Detroit this summer will no doubt be whether the time is right to cash in on larger chips such as presumptive closer Shane Greene and, much more significantly, ace Michael Fulmer. While Fulmer in particular could be viewed as a building block, he’ll also likely be considered a difference-maker to contenders looking to bolster their rotations leading up to a postseason push.
The Tigers will be marketing a whopping four and a half years of control over Fulmer, which could lead to franchise-altering offers of young talent for the 2016 Rookie of the Year. Detroit, no doubt, would only move him for an otherworldly return given the lack of urgency to market him, but teams figure to line up with enticing offers. Scoring a big return in what feels like an increasingly likely trade of Fulmer — be it this summer or at some later point in the next 18 months — could rapidly accelerate the rebuild for Al Avila & Co.
Beyond that, this is largely a season where the Tigers will need to find out what they have in some key young pieces. Can Daniel Norris and Boyd cement themselves as big league starters? (And, if so, could they also be marketed this July or next winter? Norris actually has less team control remaining than Fulmer.) Can Jeimer Candelario establish himself as a starting-caliber third baseman? Is JaCoby Jones an everyday option in the outfield or more of a utility piece? It’s a critical year for several young pieces around the roster as the Tigers evaluate who will comprise the core of their next contending roster.
The Tigers brought in several stopgap options, as one would typically expect from a rebuilding club, but they held off on cashing in on some of their more appealing chips in Michael Fulmer and Shane Greene. Both could find themselves on the market again this winter, along with a host of other names, as Detroit still looks to be years away from once again emerging as a perennial threat. While last year’s deadline deals were as much about shedding salary as they were acquiring talent, their July maneuverings will take a different tone this summer, as they’ll be marketing more affordable and (in some cases) controllable assets.
Those deals, paired with the expiration of Victor Martinez’s contract following the 2018 season, should help push the Tigers’ rebuild to the next stage, though the ultimate progress of that rebuilding effort will be largely dependent on whether their young assets that’ve already reached the Majors can break out in 2018. The Tigers have done quite a bit of maintenance on their long-term payroll since embarking on this rebuild, and their farm is in much better shape, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.
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