A mid-March trip to spring training is an annual rite of passage for many. For those without all that free time on their hands, spring starts a bit earlier: when the Baseball Prospectus annual arrives in the mail. Every year, the annual is an excellent blend of thoughtful commentary, top-notch analysis, and a heaping of one-liners -- though it may be missing a certain BYB-centric je ne sais quoi -- and this year is no different.
If you are interested in reading it cover to cover -- fair warning, it's bigger than Bartolo Colon -- you can buy the BP annual here. However, it has plenty to say about our Detroit Tigers, and these are the highlights. Let's get irrationally upset about it.
1. The Tigers are doomed...
The main focus of FiveThirtyEight's Rob Arthur's essay on the Tigers was their dwindling chances of winning a World Series with their current core, led by a group of players on the wrong side of 30. Miguel Cabrera has dealt with injury issues, Justin Verlander might not be the same dominant force for much longer, Victor Martinez is old, etc. They have a large payroll and no prospects. The first sentence is "The Detroit Tigers were once a great team." There's even a Phillies comparison at one point because of course there is.
The player projections aren't all that rosy either. Miguel Cabrera is expected to do Miguel Cabrera things, and Victor Martinez might ward off Father Time for a bit, but the computers don't seem to like the rest of the roster. Cabrera, Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Cameron Maybin are the only position players expected to exceed 1.0 WARP, while no one on the pitching staff projects above 2.5 WARP. If the computers are right, the tone of Arthur's essay -- one could mistake it for an obituary, at times -- might be correct too.
2. ...But maybe not yet
The "window is closing" storyline is the same one we've heard for several years now, but Arthur adds a small twist. He acknowledges owner Mike Ilitch's willingness to spend his way to success towards the end of his essay, a potential asset that may keep the Tigers in contention long enough to secure the championship that has escaped them recently.
The Tigers are in rare company, though. Arthur points out that teams with high payrolls who fall below .500 tend to rebound the next season, climbing back to 81 wins on average. Given the Tigers' injury struggles -- they ranked among the bottom third of baseball with the amount of payroll that reached the disabled list last year -- and their expensive additions this offseason, it's not ludicrous to bet the over on that 81-win benchmark. Adding Justin Upton to the mix only helps their cause, and strengthens Arthur's assertion that the Tigers can buy another year or two of contention.
We've talked about how Upton probably won't be around that long and how it helps the already sunken payroll. However, what gets overlooked is the fact that Upton is an easy three-win improvement over the incumbent left field options. That's a major addition given how tight the AL Central race is projected to be, and one that could push the Tigers into "the playoffs are a crapshoot" territory. With no overwhelming favorite in the American League heading into the season, Ilitch's financial muscle may be the difference.
3. Miguel Cabrera is really good
Okay so maybe I didn't learn this from BP's publication, but PECOTA is a big fan of the future Hall of Famer. Cabrera is projected for 5.9 WARP, second to only Mike Trout in the American League. Projection systems are normally very conservative, but PECOTA thinks Cabrera will nearly match his 2015 numbers, falling just seven points shy of last year's .333 true average (TAv).
4. Nick Castellanos could be a late bloomer
We can gloss over the fact that PECOTA doesn't think Castellanos will be a lick better in 2016. A .259/.310/.414 projected slash line isn't all that sexy for someone whose bat was so lauded in the minor leagues, and he's no Nolan Arenado with the glove.
However, Castellanos' comparables are very interesting. Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, and Edwin Encarnacion all struggled mightily during their early years, but, as fate would have it, all turned into very good hitters later in their careers. Castellanos showed signs of progression in 2015, and with no ready-made replacement left in the system, the Tigers could use a breakout sooner rather than later.
5. PECOTA still doesn't believe in J.D. Martinez
There were a lot of questions surrounding J.D. Martinez heading into the 2015 season. Sure, he wowed baseball by hitting .315/.358/.553 with 23 home runs in 480 plate appearances in 2014, but his season left many with that "let me see it again" taste in their collective mouths. Martinez did just that last year, batting .282/.344/.535 with 38 home runs, a franchise record for right fielders.
PECOTA is that annoying kid that wants to see the magic trick one more time, though. Martinez is projected to hit just .271/.324/.465 in 2016, nearly identical to the .271/.319/.442 slash line it projected for him in 2015. While projection systems can be notoriously slow to adapt -- PECOTA is just now warming to Corey Kluber, for instance -- it's safe to say Martinez should outperform that stat line in 2016.
6. The bullpen might not be that good
As previously stated, projection systems are notoriously conservative given that they're created by computers and are technically averages of thousands upon thousands (I assume) of simulations. Either that, or some kid with a Super Nintendo has a lot of time on his hands.
Either way, the projected ERAs of the Tigers' projected bullpen aren't very encouraging.
Francisco Rodriguez: 3.73
Mark Lowe: 3.71
Justin Wilson: 3.70
Alex Wilson: 4.26
Blaine Hardy: 4.05
Bruce Rondon: 3.99
Kyle Ryan: 4.72
Someone in that bunch will impress. Someone will also make a complete mess of things. Relievers are as trustworthy as children on field trips, and the Tigers have gotten stuck with "amusement park offering free Mountain Dews" over the past few years.
7. Justin Verlander will throw 200 innings
This is fact since it says so in writing, and we can all ask Baseball Prospectus for our money back if they get it wrong. A triceps injury limited Verlander to just 133 1/3 innings last year, but what a ride it was. Provided he stays healthy, he should exceed the 3.86 ERA and FIP PECOTA projects for him. Unfortunately, his closest comparables -- Jason Schmidt, Ryan Dempster, and David Cone -- don't offer much optimism.
7 1/2. Alfredo Simon pitched for the Tigers last season
This wasn't an actual observation, but Simon is listed in the Tigers' section since (surprise!) he hasn't signed with anyone else yet. This angered me to no end and I'm bringing the rest of you down with me.
8. Justin Upton is pretty much a Hall of Famer
In my mind, the most interesting part of the BP annual is the player comparisons. There are some interesting ones in the Tigers' section -- Bruce Rondon's first comparable is Daniel Schlereth, for instance -- but Justin Upton's are quite bonkers. Frank Robinson was pretty good at baseball once upon a time, while Matt Holliday and Carlos Gonzalez are modern day mashers. None of the contemporaries in this scenario may join Robinson in Cooperstown, but Upton's projected 3.9 WARP would be a welcome addition to left field.
9. Jose Iglesias is probably going to regress
I don't know how many people expect Iglesias to hold onto last season's .300 batting average and .347 on-base percentage, but PECOTA isn't one of them. Iglesias is projected to hit .268 with a .315 on-base percentage in 2016, numbers that I would have been comfortable with heading into 2015. Anything above that would be nice, of course, but I would rather see him replicate (or better) the 454 plate appearances he tallied last year.
10. Jordan Zimmermann is still on the team
With how often players change teams these days, it can be hard to forget who is actually on the roster at the end of the offseason. Justin Upton is an easy one, since he just signed with the Tigers. Ditto Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, who will be around until The Fast and the Furious 15 is filmed. But Jordan Zimmermann? Yup, I kind of forgot about that one (and I live in D.C.).
Never you mind, though. Zimmermann's projections are perfectly boring, with a 3.90 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, and 2.1 WARP. If he tops those numbers, along with his projected 186 innings, the Tigers should be in good shape.