Ace starter David Price is gone and Alfredo Simon will be a free agent at the end of the 2015 season from a team that ranks 14th of 15 teams in the American league in team pitching WAR and team ERA. The demise of a once-great pitching rotation is at the core of the Detroit Tigers' fall from the top of the AL Central Division in 2015.
Before the recent trades, this Tigers team was half of a starting rotation and most of a bullpen short of being a legitimate threat to contend for a championship. Team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski realized this, and convinced ownership to let them to become "sellers" at the trade deadline for the first time in many years. Thus begins the "reboot" promised by Dombrowski and the front office staff.
The Tigers' haul of prospects received in the deadline deals is impressive. Three young pitchers -- Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Michael Fulmer -- are believed by the Tigers to be close to major league ready. Three more prospects, Luis Cessa, Jairo Labourt, and JaCoby Jones, are farther away, but with enough upside to put them immediately among the team's list of top prospects.
Meet the Tigers' newest prospects
Despite the optimism about the talent level of their newest players, the Tigers are likely not counting on them to solve their pitching problems by Opening Day 2016. But from their newfound pitching depth, the team hopes to launch back into contention immediately. Tigers' President Dave Dombrowski offered an optimistic but realistic perspective, as relayed by Mlive's Chris Iott:
"Our starting pitching will need to be addressed in the wintertime," Dombrowski said Friday afternoon. "You're not going to stick three of these guys -- even though they might be capable of doing that -- you're not going to be putting three young guys into your rotation and saying that you're going to try to win a world championship. But I assure you that our goal going into next year will be to try to win a world championship."
"When you talk about Norris and you talk about Boyd and you talk about Fulmer, you're talking about three guys that are real good pitching prospects that are close. Those are three guys that are close to pitching in the big leagues that can battle for spots next year, so it really gives us a lot more depth."
If the 2016 season began today, the Tigers would probably have Norris penciled in as the team's third starter behind Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. That is unlikely to happen. There is a bumper crop of free agent starting pitchers this coming off season, led by David Price and Zack Greinke, with plenty more mid-rotation candidates available. Along with the departure of the Tigers' pending free agents will come approximately $46 million in payroll savings, after salary and arbitration increases for 2016 are factored in. We also know that the Tigers will not be afraid to trade prospects if they can find a major league pitcher or two to help them win a championship.
Replacing David Price or Max Scherzer with an ace would cost $25 million or more per season. A less costly approach would be to find a solid mid-rotation starter and maybe a veteran starting pitcher to provide some insurance while the young prospects grow into their roles and hope for Verlander and Sanchez to rebound with better seasons. Only three rookie pitchers qualified for the ERA title in 2014 and only three more are on track to qualify in 2015. Plenty of rookie starting pitchers contribute to their teams, including most playoff teams, but they are best eased into the starting rotation. The Tigers don't need their new young prospects to replace Price, they just need them to shore up the back end of the rotation, provide the depth that was missing this season, and grow from there.
The Tigers entered the 2015 season with Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon in the starting rotation with serious questions about whether they would be productive in their roles. Their failure is a large factor in the decline of the Tigers from division champions to deadline sellers this season. Greene will be in the mix, along with the new young pitchers and with Buck Farmer, Kyle Lobstein, and Kyle Ryan, for spots on the 2016 roster, if not in the starting rotation.
The Tigers have the rest of this season to see what they have with their newest players, as well as how far back Verlander can make it after almost two seasons recovering from injuries. One or more of the highly regarded prospects may immediately step into the rotation and show he belongs, as Norris did on Sunday.
What the Tigers see during the final two months of the 2015 season could go a long way to determining what must be done in the off season. Regardless of what happens this season, one thing is certain: the Tigers have a lot more pitchers who have a chance of making an impact entering the 2016 season than they had in 2015. The club has added quality and depth to their major league pipeline, giving them more reason for optimism than they had last April.