How do you properly analyze a baseball team that just lost 114 games in a single season? This is the question we were faced with last week after the Detroit Tigers’ 2019 season came to an end. While some are able to just shrug off such a poor showing, we can’t help but view this year as an abject failure. There were some positives along the way, but not nearly enough to outweigh the fact that the Tigers just completed the second-worst regular season in franchise history.
At the same time, did anyone expect anything different? Sure, no one predicts a team will lose 114 games in a season — we thought they might be a bit more fun, if not any better than 2018 — but the Tigers were projected to be one of the worst teams in baseball from day one. Eleven of our 14 staff members predicted the Tigers would finish in fourth or fifth place, and no one went any higher than third. Hell, only four of our 14 staffers thought the Tigers would even win 70 games.
The end result is... well, I don’t know. This was a frequent response to most things Tigers-related in 2019, in no small part because the franchise is in a bit of a holding pattern until their current group of prospects is ready for MLB action. The coaching staff will return virtually unchanged, which seems fair, but also... not. The team has hinted that any free agent spending this winter will be of the same modest variety we have seen over the past couple years.
But with the team digging out of such a deep hole — teams that have lost at least 108 games in a season have taken, on average, five years to return to .500 — it seems reasonable to wonder exactly where the Tigers are headed right now.
I hinted at it above, but all of the comments we have heard from both Al Avila and Ron Gardenhire suggest that the Tigers’ approach to the 2019-20 offseason will be similar to the year before. Many of their prospects have either arrived in the majors or will reach the bigs in 2020, and blocking them with veterans takes important playing time from young players that will (likely) go through growing pains. And in cases where there isn’t an heir apparent at a given position, handing plate appearances to a younger player who might be around the next time the team is competitive makes sense, and gives the Tigers a chance to evaluate someone who has been overlooked elsewhere.
At the same time, teams aren’t built entirely through their farm system. Many of the prospects and cast-offs the Tigers are evaluating will eventually fail (if they haven’t already), and waiting for all of those pieces to come together takes time. While it’s not possible to entirely build a contender out of free agents in this age, picking your spots and finding the right players to pair with those already in the system could help the team become competitive sooner rather than later. It’s a formula that worked when the Tigers bucked the above trend and went from 119 losses in 2003 to the 2006 World Series, and one that could happen again if the Tigers are willing to take advantage of baseball’s newfound aversion to spending on free agents.
When will the Tigers spend?
With the Tigers all but assuring they won’t be spending big on free agents this offseason, we are once again left wondering when (or if) the dollars will start flowing again. Detroit may not be in play for every top talent on the market like they were when Mike Ilitch was at the helm, but most financial models estimate that the Tigers could sustain a $150-160 million payroll. Even hovering a shade under that would still keep them above the MLB average, and a healthy amount ahead of the other clubs in their division.
But will the Tigers be willing to dip into that well? They have cited Jordan Zimmermann’s contract as a hindrance on their current payroll, and could (understandably) be reticent to dive into the market just to find themselves back in the same situation, self-inflicted or not. The Tigers have at least $31 million coming off their books after the 2020 season in the Zimmermann and Prince Fielder contracts. Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million contract is the only guaranteed money on their books after next season, giving them a blank canvas to go out and acquire players that could help fill holes not addressed by the farm system.
Will they do that? We have no idea right now.
Are the Tigers headed in the right direction?
This is the toughest question of the bunch to answer, but also the most important. Chris Ilitch seems to think so, as he handed Avila a multi-year contract extension earlier this season. However, it’s tougher to see progress from our vantage point. The Tigers’ farm system has steadily improved since Avila took over, but has not taken the giant steps forward other clubs in similar positions (Baltimore and San Francisco, for example) have made following recent front office shakeups. The Tigers have seen a few nice internal breakout candidates, like lefthander Tarik Skubal, but the team still has precious little talent on the position side.
Unfortunately, we are only left with the same wishy-washy answers as above. The major league club offered precious little in optimism for the future — even in players that might be real contributors for the next contender. The farm system has progressed some, but still lacks enough talent to leave fans confident that the future will be considerably brighter than what we have seen over the pat few years. Things could still turn around, of course, but it will take a bit more time — and another season of watching, waiting, and hoping — for us to see considerable progress, the type of which we were hoping to get out of 2019.