The Detroit Tigers were the worst team in Major League Baseball in 2017. Is it possible that they could be among the best in 2018? Believe it or not, there is path to that outcome.
I suppose I owe you a disclaimer, though. The situation that I am about to present will in no way come to fruition. This exercise is being done purely because this offseason has been incredibly uninteresting for every team that’s not the Angels, Brewers, or Marlins (sorry, Marlins). Still, if everything comes up Milhouse, the Tigers could be alone at the top of the American League Central division this season.
For the sake of this exercise, let’s say that the Tigers sign all of the top players on the free agent list. That’s right, folks! Welcome back J.D. Martinez! Hello to Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta! Lorenzo Cain* and Jonathan Lucroy, you get a contract! Neil Walker is Don Kelly’s brother-in-law? Come on down! Hell, let’s even sign up Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Trevor Cahill, Peter Moylan, Matt Albers, and Seung-hwan Oh. Wow, the Tigers just spent a lot of money that isn’t mine so I don’t care! We’re going for it, baby!
Question: Can the Tigers compete with the Cleveland Indians even if they sign all of these players?
*[Ed.: We decided not to edit Lorenzo Cain out of this exercise even though he signed with the Brewers on Thursday. We want to discuss this before the Free Agent Firehose hits, and it’s more fun with Cain included anyway.]
As you can see, the starting rotation gets huge boosts from former All-Stars in Darvish and Arrieta, who come out to be roughly four- and three-win pitchers. While Darvish struggled mightily in the 2017 World Series, his arsenal still ranks among the tops in the game. Arrieta is a former Cy Young winner who would get the chance to continue working with Chris Bosio, the Cubs’ pitching coach during Arrieta’s rise from castoff to ace.
The offense gets major upgrades in the outfield. Tigers fans know what Martinez brings to the table, and Cain would would look oh-so-smooth roaming the vast grounds of center field that Comerica Park possesses. While he’s not Ian Kinsler, Walker presents a massive upgrade over Dixon Machado at second base. Additionally, Lucroy gives the team an All-Star behind the plate with a history of gaining extra strikes through his framing techniques.
The bullpen offers less-than-sexy upgrades, but it’s still a fairly deep ‘pen with multiple guys who can close games. Cahill and Moylan offer solid middle relief options who can get ground balls in bunches. Oh had a great rookie season with the Cardinals in 2016, posting a 2.88 FIP in nearly 80 innings of work, but tailed off last season for a 4.44 FIP in nearly 60 innings of work. If he can get his strikeouts back up, he has the ability to be a shutdown closer.
Even with all of the free agent signings, the Tigers are still losing out to the Indians by roughly eight wins. For them to catch Cleveland, it will take further development of the younger players and a resurgence from Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers have been trying to work out the kinks in Daniel Norris and Matthew Boyd ever since they arrived from Toronto in 2015. While they are both listed as relievers for this exercise, they could prove to be valuable members of the rotation should they finally take big steps forward. The Tigers are also going to need a true breakout year from Nicholas Castellanos, who is the designated hitter in this new bizarro world.
Cabrera’s batted ball data suggests that his 2017 season should have gone much better than it did. Pair that with the fact that he was battling injuries throughout the year, and betting the over on his projection isn’t an outlandish idea. He’s Miguel Freakin’ Cabrera, after all. It’s doubtful that his career is going to nosedive at the trajectory seen last year.
As much as we would all like to see someone take down the Indians in 2018, the odds of it being the Tigers are close to zero. And that’s okay. Keep building up the farm, pivot away from handing out over-inflated contracts, and let’s try again in a couple years. But, if the Tigers front office and ownership decides to metaphorically swing for the fences — and spend a historical amount of money in the process — there’s a winning team to be had in Detroit.