The Tigers found their low point in 2019 … or so they hope. It’s far too soon to envision this organization contending, but the Detroit front office has some payroll space to work with.
- Miguel Cabrera: $132MM through 2023 (includes buyout of 2024-25 options)
- Jordan Zimmermann: $25MM through 2020
- Prince Fielder: $6MM (final payment owed as part of trade with Rangers)
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Daniel Norris (4.073) – $2.9MM projected salary
- Michael Fulmer (3.157) – $2.8MM
- Matthew Boyd (3.136) – $6.4MM
- Buck Farmer (3.083) – $1.1MM
- Drew VerHagen (3.126) – $900K
- JaCoby Jones (2.125) – $1.4MM
- Non-tender candidates: VerHagen
- Gordon Beckham, Blaine Hardy (elected FA after outright), John Hicks (elected FA after outright), Edwin Jackson, Jordy Mercer, Matt Moore, Tyson Ross, Daniel Stumpf (elected FA after outright)
How rough was the 2019 campaign for the Tigers? They ran away with the rights to next year’s top overall draft pick by a whopping seven games, matching the ’18 Orioles with a 47-win effort. Not so hot, particularly given that the organization still opened the campaign with $115MM of payroll. Then again, it’ll be handy to have the 1-1 selection for the second time in three campaigns; no doubt the Tigers wish they had managed to secure the intervening top choice as well.
Last year’s hot stove session was more or less a complete bust. GM Al Avila and his charges spent $15.5MM on veteran additions but got little in contributions and nothing back via trade for that spend. Some of the specific moves were defensible on their own, but it’s nevertheless a disappointing outcome. Otherwise, the club did little to take chances on potentially interesting young talent. The Tigers picked up only a few marginal players in waiver claims and minor-league signings, not one of whom appears to be part of a contending future.
That’s not to cast a pall over the entire organization. It’s in large part a reflection of a typical rebuilding effort after an extended effort at contention. And there’s some legitimately interesting talent on the rise in the Detroit farm, some of it beginning to press toward the MLB level. But that fact only increases the urgency of making strides now, to install some pieces that complement the good young talent as it reaches the majors — thus helping the Tigers open a new window for winning as soon as possible, while Casey Mize and co. are at their most cost-efficient.
So, the Tigers organization needs to make greater progress this time around. How to do it? Frankly, there really aren’t many limitations on Avila and his charges. Having already scraped along the bottom of the league for the past several seasons, the pain of poor outcomes is by now familiar and accepted. The present roster is free of impediments; Cabrera will DH and play first and the front office can pretty much otherwise use its roster spots in whatever way it wishes.
Plus, there ought to be some money to work with — even if we don’t yet know quite what payroll levels this organization will operate at now that ownership has passed from Mike to Christopher Ilitch. The Tigers have largely unwound the remnant obligations of their last contending stretch, though the misguided Miguel Cabrera extension will blot the books for a while longer. Jordan Zimmermann and Prince Fielder will be settled up fully after the coming season. The Tigers have yet to promise a dime to anyone else, so they’ll start their 2020 roster with $61MM in obligations and a modestly priced slate of remaining arbitration-eligible players (after parting with three such players after the end of the season).
Looking over the existing roster for needs feels somewhat beside the point. But there are some areas with greater opportunity available than others.
The pitching staff is relatively stable, particularly the rotation (as far as rebuilding clubs go). There were ups and downs last year for Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Daniel Norris, but all threw well enough to warrant jobs in 2020. (Norris was particularly effective when transitioned to a three-inning “opener” role, so perhaps he’s best deployed with a piggyback option.) Tyler Alexander could also factor, with Zimmermann of course still on board if he’s healthy. Speaking of notable injury situations, this is shaping up to be a big season for Michael Fulmer, who’ll be working back from Tommy John surgery. He’s now about seven months out from the procedure, which took place just before the start of the ’19 season. Odds are the club will target a return early next summer.
There’s room for another veteran signing in the mold of last year’s additions of Tyson Ross and Matt Moore. Those didn’t pan out, but they were a sensible tandem to try out in hopes of unearthing an eventual July trade chip. Youthful, reasonably high-upside hurlers such as Michael Wacha or Alex Wood could be targets this time around if the Tigers want to try that same approach. There are loads of possibilities for veteran depth and wisdom, which would be nice to have on hand as the top prospects arrive.
The rotation need will increase dramatically if the Tigers gain traction on talks involving Boyd, who faded down the stretch after an eye-opening early showing last year. Yeah, he ended up with a middling earned run average and allowed a stunning 39 home runs. But Boyd is a durable, youthful, high-K starter who comes with three years of cost controlled campaigns. The trade market for starters doesn’t look to have much else of interest, so it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see analytically minded contenders poking around for a bargain. The Tigers shouldn’t accept just anything, but ought to explore the possibilities. If something gets done, the open rotation spot and salary capacity can be given to a bounceback target that could be utilized as a trade chip.
It doesn’t seem as if the Tigers need to go wild in the bullpen, either. No, this was not a top-tier unit — far from it. The Tigers relief corps landed in the bottom third of baseball last year by most measures and doesn’t seem especially likely to be much better in 2020. But that’s just not a core area to focus on for a team in this situation. The Detroit organization can afford to allow in-house such as Buck Farmer, Joe Jimenez and David McKay to continue to learn on the fly, even in higher-leverage spots, with some starting pitching depth perhaps also spilling into the relief unit.
Adding at least one veteran to the pen mix might be sensible, but the Tigers shouldn’t tie up relief roles on low-upside arms. Just look at the Marlins’ Nick Anderson bonanza: added in a minor swap in the 2018-19 offseason, the righty threw well enough in his debut season to become a major mid-season trade piece. It’s tough to score that kind of a player, but it’s easier to dig for gold in the relief arena than any other. The Tigers should utilize their reliever roster spots and MLB opportunities to chase ceiling.
There’s obviously work yet to be done on the pitching staff. But with a host of highly regarded arms moving toward the Majors, there’s help on the way. And the near-term problems pale in comparison to the issues on the other half of the roster. Outside of Cabrera and the departing Mercer, only Victor Reyes, Niko Goodrum, and JaCoby Jones posted offensive numbers in spitting distance of average for the Tigers.
Goodrum is capable of playing just about anywhere, which helps with flexibility. (Somewhat curiously, he graded out much better at shortstop than in left field.) Reyes and Jones can both play center, though the latter’s defensive grades strangely plummeted in 2019. While none of these players has shown a particular likelihood of turning into anything like a core piece, it’s nice to have such a reasonably flexible trio to work with.
The other players that had 2019 trials all turned in duds. Jeimer Candelario and Dawel Lugo scuffled at third base. Brandon Dixon launched 15 homers but did little else with the bat during his time at first base. Corner outfielders Christin Stewart, Travis Demeritte didn’t hit. Neither did middle infielders Willi Castro and Ronny Rodriguez or utilityman Harold Castro. Behind the dish, Jake Rogers holds promise but he and Grayson Greiner … you guessed it, didn’t hit in 2019.
These players are all still available to draw from. Some have greater promise than they’ve shown to this early stage of their MLB careers. And the Detroit farm has a few pieces that could pop up in 2020, including infielder Isaac Paredes and outfielder Daz Cameron. But it would frankly be difficult to say that the Tigers are remotely precluded from adding at any specific position except, perhaps, center field — which is just as well given the state of the market. The positional flexibility on hand only adds to the sense that the Tigers can and should explore upside opportunities wherever they can find them.
What the Tigers should probably not do is settle for another version of the Mercer-Harrison middle-infield combo (whether there or anywhere else on the diamond). It is valuable to have some veteran leadership, to be sure, but you’d like to see it come from somewhat more youthful players that have some hope of delivering future value (via trade, future arbitration control, or otherwise). It’s one thing to add a solid part-time catcher or fourth outfielder, but tying up significant playing time with short-term, low-ceiling pieces is of dubious merit.
If the Tigers want the veteran presence and performance, then they’d be better served making a more significant investment in a more youthful, higher-end player. Didi Gregorius, Jonathan Schoop or Yasiel Puig are the sort of players that could plausibly be attracted by multi-year offers if they can’t get them elsewhere. The Tigers can also look at the trade market, which could conceivably feature personnel on the order of Nomar Mazara, Michael Taylor, Maikel Franco, and Albert Almora. We don’t yet know for sure what opportunities might arise and whether they’ll be worth the price. But the Tigers ought to be seeking situations that come with some real upside — both in terms of performance and control rights — even if it means taking on financial obligations that extend past the 2020 season.