The Detroit Tigers had one of the flashiest offseasons in baseball last winter, signing Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann (among others) to bolster their roster in hopes of returning to the playoffs. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Upton faltered early in the season before surging late, while Zimmermann missed most of the second half due to injury. Mike Pelfrey, who also signed a multi-year deal last December, was bad enough that he became an afterthought when the Tigers needed spot starters in September.
Things could have gone much differently. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports reported on Saturday that the Tigers were one of a few teams hard after then-free agent righthander John Lackey, who eventually signed a two-year, $32 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. According to Heyman, both the Tigers and Diamondbacks were involved in negotiations, though no one knows just how much either team was offering. Rumor has it that Lackey chose the Cubs over larger financial offers, though neither Heyman nor Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors know if the Tigers were dangling that carrot.
Either way, things worked out for Lackey. He posted an 11-8 record and 3.35 ERA in 29 starts this season, and is slated to start Game 4 of the NLCS against the Los Angeles Dodgers on Wednesday. If advanced metrics are your thing, Lackey posted a career-high 24.1 percent strikeout rate and a 7.1 percent walk rate that is close to his career average. His 3.81 FIP was nearly identical to his career rate, and he topped the 180-inning plateau for the fourth consecutive season.
It’s difficult to say how things would have gone had Lackey signed with the Tigers. He is being paid $16 million per year during his deal, and the Tigers presumably would have had to pay more than that (or offer a third year) to land his services. While he is beyond the elbow issues that plagued him during his time in Boston, giving a 37-year-old pitcher a multi-year contract is still a huge risk.
Signing Lackey also would have had a ripple effect elsewhere on the roster. It’s possible that a signing would have precluded the Tigers from landing Jordan Zimmermann*, rather than Lackey replacing Mike Pelfrey in the back of the rotation. The Tigers were in a self-imposed financial bind at the time, and were not likely to sign two pitchers for north of $15 million per year. Zimmermann was also on pace to have a much better season than Lackey before being hurt, and could ultimately be the better signing when we look back upon these deals (and this article) in five years.
*Zimmermann signed with the Tigers eight days before Lackey’s deal with the Cubs was announced, but negotiations with both parties were likely ongoing throughout most of November 2015.
Every year, fans look back on some of the deals their teams made the offseason prior and wonder “what if?” The Tigers’ 2015-16 offseason doesn’t look great now, but with a few multi-year deals on the books, they have time to change our minds again.