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2017 MLB offseason outlook: The Tigers need to get worse before they get better

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This is going to be a terribly un-sexy offseason for the Tigers.

Minnesota Twins v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Based purely on record, the Detroit Tigers roster that finished the 2017 season would be a historically bad team. They won just six of their final 30 games after trading Justin Verlander and Justin Upton, a .200 winning percentage. Extrapolated over a 162-game season, that would leave the team with just 33 wins. This would easily be the worst record in MLB history.

And if everything goes well this offseason, the 2018 Tigers should be even worse.

This doesn’t mean they will be historically bad next season. It took a special kind of awful for the 2003 Tigers to lose 119 games, and their current roster is far more talented than that outfit. A team with Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Michael Fulmer, Nicholas Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, and others should not be that bad. Perhaps they aren’t even as bad as their 64-98 record in 2017.

But if the Tigers are truly going to plunge into the depths of a full rebuild, they need to go further. Just about everyone should be on the trade block this offseason — yes, even Fulmer for the right price. The last two World Series champions are shining examples of how a no-holds-barred rebuild can pay off in short order; hell, even the Tigers themselves pulled off a quick 180 following the aforementioned 2003 season.

They can’t do that as constructed, though. Whether Kinsler, Iglesias, and/or Castellanos are traded, some players need to be shown the door this winter or soon after. The Tigers have already built up a nice stable of pitching prospects, but they could always use a few more. General manager Al Avila took half measures when filling out the coaching staff, but he can’t afford to do so with this roster.

Tigers Offseason Overview

Team Detroit Tigers
Team Detroit Tigers
2017 record 64-98
General manager Al Avila (3rd year)
Manager Ron Gardenhire (1st year)
Key free agents RHP Anibal Sanchez
Arbitration-eligible players 10
Projected payroll $141.5 million*

*Includes $14 million sent to the Houston Astros and Texas Rangers for Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder, respectively.

Key arbitration-eligible players (salary projections via MLB Trade Rumors)

Jose Iglesias: $5.6 million
Alex Wilson: $2.1 million
Nicholas Castellanos: $7.6 million
Shane Greene: $1.7 million
James McCann: $2.3 million

The Tigers have 10 arbitration-eligible players on their 40-man roster in all. A few of them could be non-tender candidates (more on them in a bit), but the only ones projected to receive significant raises are Iglesias, Castellanos, McCann, and Greene. That final case is the most interesting, though; Greene made just over the league minimum salary in 2017, but will probably be in line for a big payday now that he has a few saves under his belt. This will only continue as he racks up more saves next year, and could make him relatively expensive over his final two years of team control (he’s a free agent after the 2020 season). He will almost certainly be trade bait if he stays healthy and continues to pitch well.

The potential non-tenders are also interesting. Outfielder Alex Presley and catcher Bryan Holaday seem like goners, but the team’s front office seems reluctant to be as ruthless as is necessary at times during a rebuild. Presley could help with the team’s outfield depth next year, but anyone expecting another .770 OPS is going to be disappointed. Still, he’s cheaper than your usual depth signing. Blaine Hardy (projected $800,000 salary) and Bruce Rondon (projected at $1.2 million) could also be non-tender candidates, but it seems silly to cut a pair of bullpen arms loose before getting another look at them in spring training. Rondon, in particular, should stick around. He has had issues with both his on- and off-field performance over the past few years, but c’mon, the dude throws 100 miles per hour. He is out of minor league options, but there is enough wiggle room elsewhere on the roster to accommodate him early on.

Player to watch: Victor Martinez

While Kinsler, Iglesias, and Castellanos are the players most likely to be traded this offseason, Victor Martinez should be a constant source of storylines. He still hasn’t been cleared to play baseball after missing the final month of the season due to heart surgery. When we last saw him on the diamond, he was awful, hitting just .255/.324/.372 with horrible baserunning numbers. Worse yet, he was apparently causing problems in the clubhouse. Most fans would be fine with releasing Martinez entirely, but that’s a bitter $18 million pill for Tigers ownership to swallow. Provided his doctors clear him to return, he should be on the Opening Day roster. How long he lasts after that remains to be seen.

Team needs: everything ... but mostly pitching

The Tigers have a stable of solid starting pitching prospects in the pipeline, but few (if any) of those players will be of help in 2018. That’s unfortunate, because this pitching staff could use some help. They finished the 2017 season with a 5.36 ERA, the worst in Major League Baseball. Only six players posted an ERA under 4.00, and two of them — Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson — are no longer around. Andrew Romine is another one.

Worse yet, Michael Fulmer was the only starter with an ERA under 5.20. He will be a capable ace atop their rotation next season, but the situation gets murkier after that. Jordan Zimmermann will throw as many innings as his 32-year-old right arm can handle, but there’s no telling how good those innings will be. Daniel Norris will also get as many chances as he likes, and his development will be priority number one for new pitching coach Chris Bosio. Matt Boyd is out of minor league options, and thus facing a sink-or-swim season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Tigers look for a cheap veteran starter late in free agency to soak up some innings, but don’t get too excited about a potential trade chip; we’re probably looking at someone in the Mike Pelfrey or Alfredo Simon mold (if not either of those players themselves).

Expect the same in the bullpen. Shane Greene has the closer role to himself (until he’s traded, at least), but everything else is up for grabs. Buck Farmer, Drew VerHagen, and Bruce Rondon should get early shots since they are out of minor league options; however, as mentioned above, Rondon could be a non-tender candidate or cut loose in spring training if things don’t improve. Detroit still has several other options beyond those four, though, and probably won’t make a big splash in free agency.

Outlook: It’s bad mmkay

While the Tigers were able to restock their farm system with a few savvy midseason trades — not to mention a 2017 draft class that looks promising so far — the major league team is going to be rather unwatchable next year. Avila has already promised that this will not be a sexy offseason for a team that has grown accustomed to splashy signings year after year. Even the players they do have available to trade won’t bring in the same caliber of prospects they received for Verlander and Wilson, and the club may even wait until the 2018 season to trade Kinsler or Castellanos.

When the Tigers trade these players doesn’t necessarily matter; that they are traded does. Detroit cannot afford to let any of their productive veterans leave via free agency. Letting Kinsler or Iglesias walk would be a waste of trade value, even if it’s limited compared to the likes of Verlander, Justin Wilson, or even J.D. Martinez. The Tigers need to relentlessly look to acquire prospects and other young talent, whether it’s through trades, the draft, or even on waivers. Taking a chance on a Rule 5 pick-up might not be as sexy as bringing home Curtis Granderson on a one-year deal — though I certainly wouldn’t be against this — but it may pay off in the long run.

Until then, prepare for a cold, boring winter. The rebuild is underway, and we can’t do much more than wait it out.