The Winter Meetings are by far the busiest week of the offseason, especially when your team is as active as the Detroit Tigers. With several needs to fill, Tigers general manager Al Avila made things happen, adding a starting pitcher, backup catcher, and strong bullpen arm in just a few days time, along with a couple more irons in the fire.
Summarizing everything that happened is easy enough, but synthesizing it takes a bit more time (which is to say, sorry this post is a day late). Our friends at Let's Go Tribe came up with an excellent format for breaking down what happened, so I'm "borrowing" that for our own purposes. Here's what this week taught us about the 2016 Tigers and the new front office in charge of building them.
Al Avila is not f***ing around
The Tigers have already made six significant changes to their roster this offseason, and we haven't even had a chance to complain about the weather yet. The additions have ranged from questionable to brilliant, but every single one has left the Tigers in a better position than prior to said move. My favorite so far: adding Jarrod Saltalamacchia as a backup catcher. It adds necessary catching depth, provides the Tigers with some insurance should James McCann fall into a sophomore slump, and gives manager Brad Ausmus a power bat off the bench to use in late-inning situations. Oh, and all of that comes at a major league minimum salary.
Striking early paid off in other areas too. The Tigers got out ahead of the starting pitching market when they signed Jordan Zimmermann. His five year, $110 million contract compares favorably to the $90 million pact the San Francisco Giants agreed to with Jeff Samardzija, and doesn't cost them the mega bucks handed out to Zack Greinke and David Price. Giving Mike Pelfrey a two-year contract looked puzzling at first, but he adds necessary depth, fits the current roster well, and his $8 million contract is moveable if things go south.
Now, the Tigers are in an enviable position compared to other clubs. They could stand to add more pieces, but don't have to. Many fans want another outfielder, but the team doesn't have to pony up for Alex Gordon or Yoenis Cespedes if the fit isn't right. With a solid foundation in place, the Tigers can wait out the market and see if a bargain falls into their lap.
Or Avila can continue to be aggressive. It has worked out so far.
The Tigers are going to fix the bullpen
If adding a second reliever after the K-Rod trade didn't say enough, trading for Justin Wilson should have you fully convinced that the days of bottom-barrel bullpens are over. Barring a major surprise, the Tigers' Opening Day bullpen will contain zero players who started the season in the 'pen last season. Moving Shane Greene to the bullpen is the only realistic chance we see a holdover from 2015, but remember, he was in the rotation at this time last year.
Better still is how the Tigers have fixed their bullpen. Rodriguez, Lowe, and Justin Wilson will combine to make $12.3 million* next season, and the internal candidates that round out the roster will all make close to the major league minimum. The 2016 Opening Day bullpen will combine to make roughly $16.5 million, or $1 million less than the Tigers paid to Joe Nathan and Joakim Soria alone in 2015.
The best part? All of these pitchers are under club control through 2017, and all but two will be around in 2018. This is plenty of time for the organization to develop their closer(s) of the future, and should eliminate the need to splurge for multiple bullpen arms in future winters. If this unit falters in late inning next season, it won't be for lack of effort on the front office's part.
*Rodriguez has $2 million in deferred money paid in 2018, which makes his luxury tax hit higher than his actual paycheck.
There is a budget, even if Mr. Ilitch says otherwise
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch knows how to sell things. Pizza. Tickets. Unbridled optimism about the amount of cash he's going to spend. That latter part came during Jordan Zimmermann's introductory press conference, when Ilitch threw on a backwards snapback and screamed "YOLO!" when asked about how high his team's payroll would go.
Then, David Price signed elsewhere. And Ben Zobrist. And Jason Heyward. They're also probably not in the mix for Yoenis Cespedes or Alex Gordon. Instead of a shiny new Zack Greinke, we got a slightly used Mike Pelfrey. Some people didn't like that. Others downright hated it. There are limits to a billionaire's generosity, though. Adding expensive piece after expensive piece is fun now, but could mean major trouble for the Tigers in five years (if not sooner).
Instead, Avila's pragmatic approach has brought the Tigers to within a whisker of the luxury tax while plugging as many leaks as possible. The only long-term guarantee is to Zimmermann, and other contracts will come off the books long before his deal turns into a problem, if at all. Keeping payroll constrained now helps the Tigers fill out the periphery of their roster, something we maligned Dave Dombrowski for neglecting during the stars and scrubs era from 2010 to 2015. Resisting the urge to go buy a Justin Upton now may help them fill a dire need in July or next winter, and sets them up for continued long-term success.
Daniel Norris isn't going anywhere
Neither is Michael Fulmer, nor Matt Boyd. Of course, I thought Luis Cessa fit into that group as well, but he's a definite step below the likes of the Tigers' top young pitchers. Avila and the rest of the Tigers brass recognize that a strong farm system is essential for long-term success in today's game, especially if the Tigers are ever to tighten the payroll pursestrings. Banking on prospects can be risky, but a robust farm system helps you fill holes anywhere they pop up, whether that comes from internal promotions or via trade. If holding onto these starters now helps expedite the process of turning us into the St. Louis Cardinals, I'm all for it.
Plus, Norris is too fun to trade.
We still don't know what to expect in 2016
What do you think of this roster? I'm still not sure. It's plausible that their big bats bounce back and they regain control of the AL Central. It's also plausible that the starting rotation falls apart again and we get a repeat of 2015. Projection systems don't like the Tigers at the moment. Then again, projection systems don't like anyone. They're a little moody and very anti-social. Grumpy Cat is their spirit animal. They just hate the Tigers more than other teams, which makes sense if you weigh recent performance more heavily than anything else.
Maybe it's the offseason homer in me, but I like this team, though. The bullpen doesn't look like a dumpster fire. There is upside in the rotation, along with a certain aversion to home runs that (spoiler alert!) we will explore more later this winter. They still have Miguel Cabrera. I don't know if they're the class of the division yet -- what up, defending champion Royals -- but this roster has piqued my interest, and I'm ready to see more.