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Detroit Tigers Mailbag: The rebuild might take longer than you think

Don’t plan that 2020 World Series parade just yet.

Detroit Tigers v Cleveland Indians Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

For all the excitement the Justin Verlander and Justin Upton trades provided at the end of August, the last two weeks have been a harsh reminder of how painful the rebuilding process can be. The Detroit Tigers are just 2-12 since those two trades, and have been outscored by a whopping 56 runs. They won’t be this bad going forward — Miguel Cabrera will improve and Michael Fulmer will be healty next year — but the baseball generally won’t be pleasant to watch.

There will be prospect-y stuff to distract us during most of the baseball season, but right now is a developmental dead period. The minor league season is over, and the Arizona Fall League doesn’t start until early October. Draft talk won’t start to pick up until 2018, and the hype train doesn’t really get rolling until the college baseball season begins a couple weeks before spring training.

So we’re stuck right now. Either we pay attention to the Tigers’ race for a top draft pick, or we... watch football?

Yeah, let’s stick with the baseball for now.

Before we start talking about the rebuild, let’s define what “contention” means. The American League Wild Card has been a hot mess in recent years, and is downright ratchet this season. The Minnesota Twins currently hold the second Wild Card spot, and they have a +8 run differential this season. The Seattle Mariners are only a few games behind, and they’re at -9 through 146 games. One AL playoff spot will go to a thoroughly mediocre team, and it’s hard to see that changing next year. If everything comes up Millhouse for the Tigers, they could be that team.

That’s only if everything goes right, though, and only for a Wild Card spot. Unfortunately, setting our sights higher means pushing the window of contention back into the 2020s.

Here comes the cold water: the Tigers don’t have enough talent in their farm system right now to expect a full turnaround in two or three years. Previous rebuilds in Houston, Chicago, and Kansas City saw each of those teams build top-five farm systems — the Royals and Cubs hit No. 1 on Baseball America’s organizational rankings along the way — before they finally started winning. The Cubs and Astros saw immediate results, while the Royals took a few years to gel before things came together in 2014. The Boston Red Sox had top five systems in 2014 and 2015, but finished in last place both years before jumping back to first place last year. The Twins also had top five systems in those years, and they have only made it to .500.

The Tigers aren’t at that level yet. They picked up some nice top-end talent this year, but the farm system is still quite thin, particularly at the upper levels. Jeimer Candelario looks like a nice prospect right now, and Tigers fans are hoping one of Christin Stewart or Mike Gerber pans out. There isn’t much after that, though, and Detroit will need to replace Nicholas Castellanos, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, and Victor Martinez by the end of 2019. The pitching is in even worse shape, and most of their top prospects will only be in position to start taking their early-career lumps by 2020.

As many have pointed out in the comments, playoff droughts for rebuilding teams are typically longer than one might think. The Cubs went seven years between playoff appearances, while the Astros went 10. The Tigers are only in year three of their current drought, and are just now starting to strip this roster to its studs. They can return to contention in a couple years, but it will take a lot of things going right to do so.

Also, the Cleveland Indians have to lose a game sometime between now and then. Doesn’t seem all that likely at the moment.

While these Tigers are a scant 2-12 since trading Justins Verlander and Upton, they will have a lot more talent on their roster next year than the 2003 team did. Nicholas Castellanos and Mikie Mahtook have both produced a higher OPS than all but one player from that ‘03 squad, and that’s not even accounting for the difference in offensive environments. Miguel Cabrera is a safe bet to improve on his .726 OPS, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tigers signed a free agent stopgap to help bolster the outfield (come home, Curtis).

The pitching might be just as bad, though. The 2003 Tigers produced an 81 ERA+, or 19 percent worse than league average. The 2017 Tigers have an 86 ERA+, and Verlander won’t be around next year. Of course, neither will Anibal Sanchez or Francisco Rodriguez, but there will likely be other also-rans who struggle in their stead.

Still, it’s hard to see this Tigers team being that bad. The 2003 Tigers were once-in-a-generation awful, and there is enough young talent on the current roster and in the high minors to keep the team somewhat competitive. Even 100 losses seems a little steep when you have Cabrera, Castellanos, Michael Fulmer, Ian Kinsler, and others around to lead the way.

stevenyc: Let’s stipulate that it would be a good idea to trade either Iglesias or Kinsler this offseason. They’re obviously in two very different career situations. What kind of return do you imagine each would fetch?

While the two are at very different stages of their career, I imagine the return for either Ian Kinsler or Jose Iglesias would be relatively similar. Both will be entering the final year of their respective contracts, and Kinsler’s age and subpar offensive numbers this year sap a lot of his trade value. Veteran second basemen Brandon Phillips and Neil Walker didn’t return much in midseason trades this year, and I don’t think a Kinsler trade would warrant much more. A top-100 prospect seems like a steep asking price, but I certainly wouldn’t say no.

Part of the reason for this is a relative lack of demand for middle infielders. Everyone and their brother has a talented young shortstop these days, and many of them can hit better than Iglesias. There isn’t much need for second basemen either, save for the couple teams that made low-cost moves this year. It’s possible someone pays up for Kinsler this offseason — the Tigers and Angels have been very friendly in trade negotiations recently — but there won’t be a bidding war.

If I had to choose one player to trade, it would be Iglesias. Kinsler might warrant a slightly better return, but not substantially so. Dixon Machado is a capable replacement for either player, but profiles better as a shortstop long term due to his offensive deficiencies. The Tigers could slide him into a starting role next year and see what he’s capable of. Plus, Kinsler offers valuable veteran leadership for a team getting much younger in the near future.

DKBaseball: Is it too late to ask any questions? I had a few on Tom De Blok. I haven’t been able to find many scouting reports on him at all — probably because he was an international signee just this year. I know he’s has the prototypical pitching body, but could you give me any detail on his stuff? Is he more of a control guy, or is there significant upside with his stuff as he matures?

Tom de Blok is a very interesting case. He was originally signed by the Seattle Mariners as an amateur free agent when his fastball was clocked at 90 miles per hour at some sort of MLB tryout camp. He had already been playing for the Netherlands U-18 team at this point, but struggled to adjust to pro ball and life in the United States. de Blok put up dominant numbers in the Dutch League from 2014 to 2016, and signed a contract with the Tigers after impressing during the 2017 World Baseball Classic. MLive’s Peter Wallner dove further into de Blok’s background earlier this year, and it’s a great read.

More importantly, that 90 mph fastball has added life as de Blok has matured. He now sits in the lower 90s and has touched as high as 96 mph, according to FanGraphs’ Eric Longenhagen. He started the year in West Michigan’s bullpen and moved to the rotation later on, but pounded the strike zone with abandon in both roles. He finished the year with a 5.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, but it was an absurd 27-to-1 at one point. Longenhagen notes that stamina might be an issue for de Blok, who threw a career-high 82 innings this year, but has the raw stuff to be a back-of-the-rotation starter.