Year One of the Detroit Tigers Rebuilding Extravaganza is not looking pretty. The team’s Opening Day starter is none other than Jordan Zimmermann, who finished 2017 with a 6.08 ERA (which will almost assuredly be the highest ERA of any 2018 Opening Day starter). Speaking of Zimmermann, the Tigers have over half their salary tied into Zimmermann, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez, three players that no teams have any interest in trading for due to their enormous contracts. Further, the Tigers have named newly-acquired outfielder Leonys Martin their leadoff hitter, which is not a good idea.
Despite all of this, there are things to look forward to. The Tigers had some clear holes to patch, with star players Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Ian Kinsler, and Andrew Romine (he’s number one in our hearts) all with different teams in 2018. It’s hard to see all these stars go. Without them, the Tigers are projected to have the third-worst record in the majors this season.
However, it wasn’t all bad this offseason. Here are some highs and lows of the winter season.
High: A fresh coaching staff
With the Brad Ausmus era coming to a close, the Tigers went against the grain of this offseason’s managerial carousel and named Ron Gardenhire to be the team’s new skipper. Most teams have opted to go for younger, more analytically-minded managers with no experience, such as Gabe Kapler with the Phillies, or the Yankees with Aaron Boone. Many Tigers fans are upset that the team did not choose to follow suit.
Considering the context, the Ron Garden-hire should be a fun one. For one, he is a very accomplished manager: he won AL Manager of the Year (in 2010) and finished runner-up five times (whether this matters, however, is up for debate). He has supposedly embraced analytics, though it is harder to believe that when he is trying to slot Leonys Martin in the leadoff spot. Both of these statements have important qualifiers. At the very least, it should be fun to have an extremely quotable manager while the team rebuilds.
Gardy isn’t the only part of the coaching staff to come in this offseason, either. Former Tigers infielder Ramon Santiago takes over as first base coach. Most notably, the Tigers snagged pitching coach Chris Bosio following his departure from the Chciago Cubs. If Bosio can help any one of the Tigers’ starting pitchers bring their game to the next level, he will be celebrated. Overall, the coaching changes entering 2018 are a plus, even if there have already been some questionable decisions.
Low: Ignoring the slow free agent market
In early February, Patrick wrote a fantastic article on how the Tigers could spend their way into contention in 2018 without breaking the bank or jeopardizing the future. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, no one forwarded this article to Al Avila. Very solid players such as Neil Walker, Jonathan Lucroy, and Jarrod Dyson all signed for less than this article predicted, and the Tigers still ignored any new signings. Would these guys have blocked younger players such as Dixon Machado and James McCann from getting significant playing time? Possibly, but McCann will likely have many days off anyways — he has never played more than 114 games in a single season — and Machado could slot into shortstop as soon as the Tigers deal Jose Iglesias, and be a utility player in the meantime. Isn’t the point of a rebuild to draft well and sign smart short-term contracts that turn into prospects at the deadline? In short, the Tigers blew an opportunity with this slow free agent market.
High: Low risk, high reward minor league acquisitions
While the Tigers did not take advantage of free agency, they did make some potentially useful minor league free agent signings. In fact, the team signed three of the top 10 minor league free agent pitchers from Fangraphs’ KATOH projection system: Ryan Carpenter, Kevin Comer, and Mark Montgomery. These are the kinds of acquisitions the team needed years ago when it failed to build a bullpen for a deep playoff run. While there are no guarantees with minor league free agents — Myles Jaye is also in the KATOH top 10, and he posted a 12.08 ERA in five appearances during Detroit’s incredible late-season collapse — the Tigers’ front office is actively pursuing high-upside minor leaguers, and that is an important part of any rebuild.
Low: Pre-Opening Day decisions
It has been hard to pay attention to the decisions made in spring training thus far without beginning the season in a bad mood. Zimmermann was given the Opening Day nod over Michael Fulmer purely due to his age. Mike Fiers has been terrible and nearly made the rotation over Daniel Norris who is still only 24 years old and has pitched well this spring. The team, as mentioned, will bat Leonys Martin leadoff. In general, Gardenhire has done nothing to show that he is actually embracing analytics.
Nothing will be gained by letting a replacement level innings-eater take the mound every five days over a high-upside starter, and nothing will be gained from a low-OBP speedster leading off over a player who can get on base and maybe hit for a little power (Mikie Mahtook, anybody?). All in all, 2018 needs to be an “out with the old, in with the new” type year for the Tigers to make any progress towards contention.
Young players need to see the field as soon as they are ready. Coaches need to set the team up for success by following the rest of baseball in embracing the numbers, new technology and methods driving the better organizations. If the team opts for mediocre veterans, it is going to be a long season. If it opts for youth, hey, it will be a long season, but it will at least be a lot more watchable.