What to Expect From the Tigers This Offseason

Zach Barnes

If one person was able to take baseball fan’s eyes off the historic runs of the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians, even for a second, it was Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila on Oct. 18, the same night the Los Angeles Dodgers took a 2-1 series lead over the Cubs, making those wonder if a “Cubsian” collapse was coming. Whether “Cubsian” is a thing or not is up for debate, but what isn’t, is that the Cubs journeyed on to win their first World Series in 108 years while their Midwest, feline neighbor was deciding what the future of their franchise is.

Avila was direct with his message on the 18th, and recognized the excessive spending in past offseasons. Look for the Tigers to shift away from this.

“We want to get younger. We want to get leaner. We want to run the organization without having to go over our means,” Avila said in the end-of-year press conference. “We want to stay competitive, but at the same time, this organization has been working way above its means for some time.”

That being said and the free agent market set to open up today at 9 a.m. what is the Tigers’ offseason plan?


Trades

MLB.com’s Detroit Tigers reporter, Jason Beck, tweeted the overall theme of Avila’s presser is that this team is going to have to trade to get its desired outcome.

In fact, the trading and payroll dumping has already begun as the Tigers were the second team to make a trade in the offseason when they sent center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for Victor Alcantara, a pitcher said to touch 100 on the radar gun and could potentially be a bullpen asset during the 2017 season. By trading Maybin, the Tigers avoided either picking up his $9 million option or paying a $1 million buyout. Maybin, although only 29 and coming off the best season of his career — though shortened by injury — isn’t the young, ground covering center fielder Detroit needs.

The next Tiger trade could fall under any category from “TV-only movie” to “blockbuster.” I would say it is more likely than not for them to make a trade that will make headlines at some point in the offseason. The free agent market is the embodiment of a crying Jordan meme. Three of the top 10 players are closers and a 32-year-old former New York Mets castaway turned productive, Justin Turner, could arguably be the second best hitter behind Yoenis Cespedes. “Sad,” as new President-elect Donald Trump might put it.

But glad for the Tigers, who are willing to part ways with any one of their players, including Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and their oversized contracts. In fact, the Tigers have received multiple calls on both players according to MLB Network’s Jon Heyman. Most notably, the Houston Astros have gone out publicly to say they want either free agent Edwin Encarnacion the 33-year old slugger, coming off a top 20 WRC+ (a stat used to measure a player’s offensive productivity) or Cabrera. Neither will be cheap. It may come down to what the Astros value more, money or prospects. Encarnacion is said to make about $80 million over four years, but Houston also had the number two farm system as of Aug. 3. Cabrera may require two major league prospects and then another top prospect still in the minors.

Another team, unconfirmed, may be seeking the same pair of players as the Boston Red Sox are looking for a David Ortiz replacement. Respect where respect is due, there’s no replacing Papi, but Boston is a team that is 100 percent in win-now mode and a Mecca for young stars. So if they don’t sign Encarnacion, and ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser said the Blue Jays would be foolish to let a rival team that plays them 19 times sign him so he can wreak punishment on them, Cabrera is an option. The best hitter of our generation is adored by former Tigers GM and Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who was instrumental in signing Cabrera for the Florida Marlins, so it is rumored he’d be willing to pay the price for the future hall of famer.

Cy Young candidate Verlander has an even better chance to be traded than Cabrera. Verlander proved in 2016 he is still an ace. Seeing the contracts of aces Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, David Price and Stephen Strasburg validates the $28 million Verlander will make over the next three years including a vesting option in his fourth. But the difference between Verlander and the pack is that it is way less of a commitment for a team to take on his contract if he were to get traded. 36-year-old Rich Hill and Jeremy Hellickson, who saved his career being the fifth starter for the Philadelphia Phillies, are the top two pitchers. My point, weak market. Because of these circumstances don’t be shocked for a team to eat some of Verlander’s contract and deal a package of top prospects for him. Pitching is at a premium.

Putting the two superstars aside, the Tigers still benefit immensely from one of the weakest free agent classes in memory. JD Martinez and Ian Kinsler are more doable trades but still trades that can net a solid return for the Tigers just now learning baseball is a young man’s game.

The Tigers are unlikely to offer an extension to Martinez, making him essentially a rent-a-player in 2017 if traded. This could affect his stock. On the flip side, if a team doesn’t land Cespedes, Turner or Carlos Gomez and don’t like the age of Jose Bautista or the one-dimensional Mark Trumbo, Martinez can be a great non-free agent alternative to fill a team’s right handed power hole. Since 2014 Martinez’s stats speak for themself and a player cut by the last place Astros turned himself to an all star. In 208 second half at bats Martinez hit .332/.392/.553 with 10 home runs and 29 RBI. I like the Washington Nationals or the Dodgers to be a possible home for Martinez. Both are loaded with prospects and the Nationals need someone not named Ryan Zimmerman to be a right handed bomber between lefties Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy, while the Dodgers are head to toe with lefties and lose two key righty bats in Turner and Josh Reddick to free agency.

Kinsler is coming off his best season as a Detroit Tiger offensively, .288/.348/.484 with 28 bombs and a MLB fifth in runs with 117, and earned himself his first ever Gold Glove, giving management the option to sell him high. The kind of veteran experience he can bring to a team is unmeasurable as well. The only problem is not a ton of teams are in the market for a second baseman. But Howie Kendrick coming out to say he prefers to be traded and Chase Utley hitting the free agent market, the Dodgers yet again look like a nice landing spot with all their young talent. Another team could be the Mets if they don’t sign Neil Walker.

On top of the names above, Detroit would love to package Anibal Sanchez or Mike Pelfrey with one of these guys. But the contracts on those two are so terrible for the performance you’d be signing up for, the Tigers would likely have to eat most of their contracts if they don’t want them wearing the Old English D. Sanchez is set to make roughly $16 million and Pelfrey $8 million.


Free Agents

Don’t expect much. Avila just got done saying he’s past the nine figure contracts and the market doesn’t have many desirables. You can even question if Avila was fully on board with forking over a lot of money for Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann last offseason.

Maybe they go after a bullpen piece? But the guys they have there now can turn out to be effective. Peter Bourjos, Michael Bourn, and Jon Jay could be cheap options as a platoon outfielder, but other than that, look for more in house moves mixed with trading.


In House

Maybin is out. So far, no front runner yet for the center field job. As mentioned, a platoon CF could be signed, and I really don’t foresee Anthony Gose or Tyler Collins starting for a team that wants to be “competitive.” This makes 24-year-old JaCoby Jones a big possibility in center to start the year. He’s been spending the Arizona Fall League completely in the outfield — he was primarily an infielder at LSU — and actually has been impressing the Detroit coaching staff with his athleticism out in the grass. And there is a lot of grass to cover at Comerica Park. Jones got off to a nice start for the Tigers if you consider going 4 for 8 with three doubles and a go ahead hit a nice start. After that he was 2 for 20. Fans attacked manager Brad Ausmus on Twitter for not playing him more, but did you really want his confidence to get shot in his first month of baseball? The bat isn’t seen to be major league ready yet but he can be a 20 home run guy in the future. But if his glove is truly as good as rumored, it can compensate for any holes in the offensive game. Sticking him in the nine hole isn’t the worst thing while you wait for his offense to develop a little more.

The bullpen offers a solid in house core. Both Justin and Alex Wilson were reliable. Alex Wilson recorded his third straight season with a sub 3.00 ERA and Justin Wilson’s 10 K/9 and 54.9 percent ground ball rate shows his 4.14 ERA can be lowered. Former Tigers’ top prospect, Bruce Rondon can still gas 100 mph and act as that hard thrower every team seems to need these days. Francisco Rodriguez was second in the American League in saves and looks to still be able to serve as the anchor of the bullpen while Futures game attendee Joe Jimenez eases into the major league roster. Jimenez is one of the Tigers top prospects and was virtually unhittable in the minors last season with a combined .801 WHIP among three teams. In theory, the bullpen shouldn’t get the groans like it has the past two seasons.

Upton was bad, real bad. I’ll refrain from bringing up his first half numbers so Tigers fans’ eyes don’t bleed. But then he went on a tear in September, hitting a third of his home runs in the month and concluded it with a 1.175 OPS. Don’t expect September Upton next year, but don’t expect May Upton either. He’s too talented to have the kind of strikeout rate he had and if one of the big Detroit bats do end up getting traded I think he is still a great middle of the order bat.

Zimmermann was April’s pitcher of the month and then missed all of July, only had 1 2/3s innings in August due to injury and was a non factor in September. It wouldn’t even be fair to measure his performance with that much missed time. So what to expect for next year? Regression to the mean. No reason he can’t be a mid-3 ERA pitcher with about 200 innings and 160 or so strikeouts. In the nine games Zim won, he had a 2.62 ERA and 1.149 WHIP. So the potential to be effective is there. There doesn’t seem to be any reports stating Zimmermann won’t be healthy to start 2017 so look to him to be apart of Detroit’s attempt to unload and compete at the same time.

Avila is smart. He didn’t guarantee a playoff season next year, just that they would be competitive. Isn’t every team trying to be competitive? But I’ll ask you the fan, if you could unload Miggy, Verlander, Martinez or a combination of them for a package of young prospects would you take it to be great for the future? Detroit isn’t looking to tank like the 2016 Atlanta Braves or Milwaukee Brewers, they just recognize what they have been doing isn’t going to bring a title to the Motor City. So unload any contracts you can and bring in as much young talent as you can. The average age of the players in the top ten for WAR last season was 27. Even less if you take out the surprising season of 34-year-old Robinson Cano. It truly is a young man’s game and Detroit is understanding that maybe handing a super contract to a 30 year old free agent isn’t the best method to win.

But it isn’t out of the realm of possibility for Detroit to be a 90 win team. They had 86 wins without Nick Castellanos, Martinez and Zimmermann for most of the season. Even if you lose a huge piece there is still a strong foundation of young starters and big bats that can make Detroit more than competitive.