Times are strange in Tigertown. The end of a win-now era, which lent clarity to the team’s outlook and planning for a decade, leaves the franchise and their fans in limbo. Currently, the status of several of their stars rests in a similarly uncertain state. Foremost among them is Justin Verlander. The long-time ace’s future is the key to understanding the team’s next steps as they try to turn the franchise around.
Many of the Tigers’ decisions in the next few weeks will be powerfully influenced by factors beyond their control. As teams win or lose, and assess their chances to win something after the All-Star break, the market for various players will begin to settle into shape. But some decisions seem obvious.
J.D. Martinez will be dealt sometime in the coming weeks. Presumably Alex Avila will join him. Justin Wilson’s value may never be higher than it is now, with the official stamp and seal of the certified closer bestowed upon him these past two months. Each of the three has a high probability of finding themselves in new colors when August rolls around. And there’s always the possibility of a surprise.
Far less clear is the thinking behind the scenes. While selling is the obvious move, it doesn’t tell us much about the timetable for a turnaround as envisioned by owner Chris Ilitch and the Tigers’ front office. Constructing a real plan is impossible until they see the returns from their deadline moves, and the team that remains. This is where Verlander comes in as the team’s bellweather.
If Verlander goes
The odds remain somewhat tilted against a Verlander deal, both because so few teams could afford him and have the prospects to make it work, and also because JV himself has the final say. But, should it happen, we’re looking a much more of a long-term rebuilding effort. The team can’t expect to come out with a rotation of Fulmer, Zimmermann, Norris, Boyd and a question mark next season, and contend for anything. Coupled with the expected loss of Justin Wilson, if not Shane Greene, in the bullpen, and the Tigers’ pitching staff, which has been their real Achilles heel this season, will be in no condition to lead the team back to the playoffs anytime soon, even as a wild card.
The Tigers already have some very nice starting pitching prospects in the minors, but only Beau Burrows has reached Double-A ball, and that only recently. Burrows and this year’s first round selection, Alex Faedo, shouldn’t be expected to be of any real assistance until 2020. While it’s possible one of the two, or perhaps Sandy Baez or Kyle Funkhouser, could get to the majors sooner than that, expecting to get an actual full-time rotation member before then is wishful thinking.
Help on the way for the bullpen is represented by the potential of Joe Jimenez and possibly Jairo Labourt, Bryan Garcia or Gerson Moreno, but each is a long way from filling a late innings role for the Tigers. The team’s perennial weakness will be an absolute black hole heading into 2018, assuming that Justin Wilson and maybe Greene will be on the move in the coming weeks.
Thus, a deal for Justin Verlander can be taken as a signal of a longer term rebuilding effort. And in that event, Ian Kinsler, and even Jose Iglesias and Nicholas Castellanos, aren’t really a part of the team’s future. The demand for a second baseman isn’t high right now, but with Verlander gone, it’s possible that Kinsler is more easily sold on a trade this offseason. Or perhaps the Tigers simply play out his option year to retain him as a mentor to the younger players on the roster, including any major league ready talent acquired in the coming weeks. As for Castellanos and Iglesias, they’ll be free agents soon, and have done little to convince the team to sign them long-term.
If Verlander stays
What happens if Verlander isn’t traded? In that scenario, the Tigers will still enter the 2018 campaign with a payroll in excess of $170 million. Pretty tough to take that payroll into a season without at least making some attempts to shore up the roster and give the team an outside chance to contend.
Michael Fulmer continues to prove himself one of the brightest young pitchers in the game. With his stuff undiminished by age or injury, Verlander is a good bet to rebound next season. With those two heading up a rotation, you’re in better shape than a lot of other teams out there. Perhaps you add a reliever and take a flyer on a cheaper corner outfielder to replace J.D. Martinez. Or you work on the bullpen and re-sign Alex Avila to give yourself a solid bat and upgraded work from the catcher position. It’s not an impossible roster to win with. It’s not a legitimate contender on paper either.
Of course, depending on the upcoming trade returns, there may not actually be so much necessary to field a decent roster. And there’s just no way to know how Ilitch will react to fading attendance and interest, versus the looming media deals he’ll want to make. Will he really just accept an expensive team without much chance to do anything for the next few seasons? Or will he allow some room to maneuver financially, allowing for a modest bit of hope that pitchers like Norris, Boyd and Jimenez can take their next step and make the team a viable contender for at least a wild card selection.
In this scenario, if it doesn’t go well in 2018, you hope to have Verlander in better form, along with Castellanos, Iglesias and Kinsler, available with only short term commitments involved, to deal at the next trade deadline. As long as the Tigers continue to amass prospects, and refuse to add any more multi-year contracts until the farm starts to produce, there’s nothing to be lost in trying to field a solid team next year. Baseball is full of chance. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to hope for a few things to break their way. That decision will fall to Ilitch and Avila, but until we assess the fruits of July’s work, it’s difficult to see beyond that point.
There are a great many of moving pieces on the board for the Tigers right now. Beyond those mentioned, there is still the outside chance Justin Upton decides to opt out of his contract. There may be a slim chance that Victor Martinez decides to retire after this season to tend to his family, his ranch and especially his health. We don’t know who the Tigers will acquire in trades in the coming weeks. What we do know, is that until Verlander’s fate is decided, predicting the next series of decisions in front of Chris Ilitch and Al Avila is almost as difficult as making them.