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Michael Kopech and the Detroit Tigers’ rebuild

Is rebuilding with a pitching heavy approach smart or not?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Matt Marton-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday night, the Chicago White Sox had a very high-end pitching prospect in Michael Kopech headed to the mound to take on the Detroit Tigers. Kopech appeared destined to headline a talented young Sox rotation in the years ahead. With Carlos Rodon, Reynaldo Lopez, Lucas Giolito, and several more good young arms in the farm system, it wasn’t out of the question that the Sox could put together a dangerous young team as early as 2019. A few hours later, and Kopech was instead destined for Tommy John surgery, and won’t be back on the mound until 2020 if all goes well. Nothing can screw up a plan like pitcher injuries can.

Which makes one consider the wisdom of rebuilding around a foundation of good pitching prospects, as the Tigers are attempting to do. In four straight drafts, including with this year’s first overall pick, the front office has chosen to go with a big, hard-throwing right-hander. On the one hand, big hard-throwing right-handers rule the game. Everyone wants top pitchers of that description. On the other, Beau Burrows, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, and Casey Mize have to form the core of a future contender, or Tigers fans are likely going to wait a long time for realistic hopes of October glory.

Add in the centerpiece of the Justin Verlander trade, 20-year-old right-hander Franklin Perez, who notably spent most of the season on the disabled list for oblique and lat strains, and a host of less polished but interesting arms in the minor leagues, and the Tigers are heavily committed to a future built on young pitching. And pitching is a risky proposition.

Top teams are built out of homegrown offensive stars

This isn’t the way the teams of the moment, such as the Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, or the Boston Red Sox, have been constructed. In each case, a foundation of talented young position players was the focus, and the pitching staff built out of trades, free agent acquisitions, and successful reclamation projects. The Astros were perhaps the exception, as they did burn two top picks on pitching prospects Brady Aiken and Mark Appel, both of whom flamed out completely in a stark cautionary tale to the Tigers. They did have to make a lot of different acquisitions in the pitching staff to finally get themselves to the mountaintop, but the foundation of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, and Alex Bregman is the basis for the team’s success.

There is good reason to think this is the wiser path, as recent powerhouses like the Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Yankees, and Washington Nationals have also featured a lot of homegrown positional talent, with pitching acquired as needed from outside their organizations.

As for the Tigers, there are a handful of legitimately good position prospects in the farm system, but overall the depth of quality guys who might produce a real diamond in the rough is still mediocre, and they lack the elite bats that systems like those of the San Diego Padres, the Toronto Blue Jays, and others have to offer. Daz Cameron, Isaac Paredes, Christin Stewart, and catcher Jake Rogers, all show the potential to be good players in the show, but none of the bunch are brimming with star power just yet either.

In terms of their development strategy, the Detroit Tigers have zigged where most successful franchises have tended to zag, and that could turn out to be a high-risk, and ultimately misguided strategy. Within a short span, the disabled lists could be littered with torn elbows and bad shoulders. Pitcher attrition to injury and command issues is a sobering reality of the game. But it’s also possible, that if the Tigers play it right, they could find themselves stockpiled with the most valuable weapon in the game; a deep stable of high quality pitchers with consistent depth in the upper levels of the farm system.

Pitcher health affects everyone

The crux of the debate is this; since pitchers are much more likely to suffer major injuries that can set them back years in their career, potentially derailing them permanently, is it smart to spend your highest draft picks on pitchers, and to target them as key pieces of deals as important as the Justin Verlander trade?

Before you answer, however, consider this as the counterpoint; since pitchers are more likely to breakdown, why would you want to commit huge sums of money to them in long-term free agent deals? The fact is, if you’re not drafting them, you’re spending either prospects, payroll, or both to get the arms you need to contend.

Free agent position players seem, in terms of injury risk at least, a safer bet to round out a team with consistent performance than going out and giving a 31-year-old Yu Darvish $126 million contract, as the Cubs did this past offseason. With Darvish injured and out for the season, the team was forced to dip back into their coffers and their farm system to deal for Cole Hamels as well. The Red Sox aren’t in bad shape long term, but they currently have a lot of money tied up in Rick Porcello and David Price, who have been solid pitchers at best this year. They’ve also seriously depleted their farm system under Dave Dombrowski to acquire the pitching they needed, and didn’t have the ability to add a major piece to the pitching staff on the mid-season trade market.

Those teams also have a lot of money to spend. Beyond Miguel Cabrera’s enormous contract, the Tigers’ themselves are still yoked under a major deal for Jordan Zimmermann which looked better at the time, but was still a necessary evil brought about by a lack of young arms in the organization. It’s not impossible that the Tigers have the right of it in trying to build a stockpile of young pitching. The problem is how to leverage that into enough positional talent to create a balanced and dangerous team.

Bats are a safer buyer’s bet

At some point, the team is going to have to pay for some talent, and make a judicious trade or two of prospects for major league talent to build a roster that can contend anytime soon. The remaining years of those big contracts will be a drag on their true spending power, but in a good market like Detroit, the Tigers don’t have much excuse to field a below average payroll. That doesn’t mean there’s any sense in throwing big contracts around to free agent pitchers either. Veteran position players, on the other hand, are getting smaller, shorter term deals than they used to.

The Tigers will no doubt need some offensive help even if things go according to plan. A team never produces a full-fledged contender right out of their own system. They may decide to weaken a proposed strengths by dealing someone like Michael Fulmer to get some of that help. The balance there is tricky and could set the clock on the rebuild back indefinitely with a mis-step. If you’re expecting Casey Mize, Matt Manning and the rest of their young pitching to lead them to the mountaintop, you may well be waiting until 2022-2023 at best. And that’s a problem. If the timetable is still four or five years from a legitimate contender, then even talented young Tigers like Jeimer Candelario and Joe Jimenez might as well be trade chips too. The teardown is ongoing in that scenario.

However, if you’re mixing those young pitchers into a staff already featuring Fulmer, Boyd, Jimenez, and a few pitchers from the slightly older group of Daniel Norris, Kyle Funkhouser, Matt Hall, and Spencer Turnbull, you may have yourselves a good staff with strong depth in the minors as early as 2020. The problem is completing the rest of the roster without much high end positional talent coming along.

They could hold onto most of their pitching, feed in the likes of Cameron, Stewart, Paredes and Rogers, and hope that a few veteran acquisitions can produce a team that pitches well, has pitching depth, and plays strong defense. That’s not a description of a juggernaut, but in theory, the Tigers could get themselves to the point where a key trade or two at some point along that possible timeline could propel them back to relevancy just as their young pitchers start to find their way at the major league level.

The Tigers can win with pitching

There are obviously a million ways the rebuild could succeed or fail, and baseball is here to confound us. The point is this. You can win with cost-controlled pitching depth as your primary foundation. To bring this back to young Mr. Kopech, pitchers heal. While losing him is an unfortunate blow to the Chicago White Sox, the sky is in no way falling on them. While Boston has Chris Sale, and the White Sox have an injured young pitcher and a scuffling Yoan Moncada, the tale is still far from being told on that trade. They have time to spare, several other talented young starters, and they still have another ace pitching prospect in Dylan Cease not far from the major leagues.

Injuries happen, and pitchers have unique risk attached, but if you have the controllable pitching depth to overcome them, you have a unique competitive advantage. You may also have opportunities to improve in trade that other teams do not as they desperately hunt for pitching in the offseaon and at trading deadlines. Building that way can work, particularly if they’re able to make modest offensive upgrades without dealing away the wrong arms. The Tigers’ rebuild is in solid, if unspectacular shape, at this point. It’s incumbent on the Tigers’ front office now to find bats to complete the equation.