*All stats taken prior to 8/31 game against Oakland for consistency on the multi-day project unless stated otherwise*
There’s been a fair bit of discussion lately on the path Detroit should take moving forward. Jonathan Schoop’s extension at the deadline, and their relatively quiet deadline in general, started the debate of how aggressive Detroit should be in 2022. The growth and development of the young pitching core, Case Mize, Matt Manning and Tarik Skubal, throughout the season has fans and executives alike optimistic for the near future. Surprise breakouts from Akil Baddoo, Eric Haase, Kyle Funkhouser, and Jake Rogers* have cleared up some areas of concern for the club, and top prospects continuing to excel in the minors makes it easy to fill in the gaps and see a successful club no later than 2023. But what about 2022? How soon can they push the envelope without shortchanging the long term success of the club? Is one more year of playing it safe merited? Let’s take a closer look under the hood and see how good Detroit really is, and what that means moving forward.
Arbitration and Baseline Payroll
With a huge shoutout to Patrick O’Kennedy, also a BYB user and fellow Tiger enthusiast, here’s the Tiger’s current financial situation. They’re currently around $85million in salary, and after a combination of arbitration raises and free agent departures, figure to sit at that same estimate entering the upcoming offseason. This leaves plenty of room for upgrades on the roster without damning the club to any financial burdens. Players like Wilson Ramos and Nomar Mazara have left the club without leaving a major gap, but Jose Urena’s inevitable departure probably merits some external replacement to fill his innings - ideally at a higher level. Trades and non-tenders could certainly change this as well - it wouldn’t surprise me to see any of Niko Goodrum, Victor Reyes or Grayson Greiner* non-tendered, but I expect they retain most of, if not all, of the arbitration class. Thus, a payroll of approximately $85million entering the season. Again, thank you to Patrick for this extremely helpful payroll estimate; further reading and commentary can be found at his original post, here: https://www.blessyouboys.com/2021/8/13/22614928/a-way-too-early-detroit-tigers-2022-payroll-preview
*Since Jake Rogers underwent Tommy John Surgery, he will likely miss all of 2022. Thus, Grayson Greiner will likely be retained.
2021 Production and Figures
Looking around the league, seeing the contenders and the pretenders, I see 4 distinct groups of teams.
- The Powerhouses: Teams north of a .600 record (97+ wins). Teams like Tampa Bay and San Francisco.
- The Serious Contenders: Teams with a legitimate chance at a playoff shot, between a .545-.600 record (88-97 wins). Teams like Houston and Chicago.
- The Fringe Contenders: Teams who look closer to the playoffs than they really are, between .500-.545. record (81-88 wins). Teams like San Diego and St. Louis.
- The Non-Contenders: Teams with no shot at contention in 2021, at or below .500 record (81 or fewer wins). Teams like Detroit and Pittsburgh.
It seems obvious that the top tier of teams is unreachable in a single offseason; as San Diego showed this year, it’s rarely as simple as "add a lot of talent and everything goes as planned"; Making a jump from ~82 wins to ~90 is simply unreasonable and probably detrimental in the long haul. However, with the pace set since Wilson Ramos' first IL stint, Detroit is 53-47* (in exactly 100 games!), good for a .530 winning percentage and placing them solidly among the "fringe contenders"; the goal should be to add to the "Post May 7th" team until that squad could reasonably be expected to put up 88 wins on a full season.
Before we proceed, a run down of each position’s productivity seems in order. That will show what positions should stay stable and which are worth prioritizing for offseason upgrades. In order of weighted Runs Created+,(wRC+), an all-encompassing offensive statistic, with stats according to FanGraphs:
The key offensive stat in this table is wRC+. It is weighted in such a way that 100 is average and each point above or below is 1% above or below average; for instance, Robbie Grossman has been approximately 14% better than a league average hitter, while Victor Reyes has been approximately 30% worse than a league average hitter. Ouch.
Obviously, the team doesn’t have a lot of great hitters. Candelario, Grossman and Schoop are consistent batters who profile as "above average" for their careers; there’s no reason to expect that to change moving forwards - of course Candelario has continued to surge in the second half and is easily the best hitter on Detroit's team at the moment. Haase and Baddoo are serious breakouts; typically, hitters need a larger sample size to solidify their status as "good hitters", but both seem like good bets to continue adapting to the league and staying relevant in their own way. Baddoo, especially, seems to have longevity thanks to his maturity, youth and patience. Finally, Hill and Rogers are short-sample stars who could continue producing, but really haven’t shown enough offensive presence in the Minors or Majors to securely feel they’ll repeat their performance in 2022. They certainly could, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone if they don’t. However, due to their great defense, these two have lower offensive floors to be quality all-around contributors. Unfortunately, Rogers will miss most - if not all - of 2022 rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery.
There are a few slightly below-average hitters. Paredes and Cabrera are essentially league average; Cabrera is on a bit of a hot stretch and, with good health, should probably put together another almost-average offensive season in 2022. Not great, but he’s the icon. So be it. Paredes is young and has a high-contact, high-OBP approach that works best up the middle, but defensive issues and power concerns certainly limit his ceiling, especially if he's behind Candelario at 3B. Expect him to be a roughly league average hitter, but not a starter due to lack of a defensive home and power barring a change in approach away from ground balls.
Then there are the current middle infielders. Between Goodrum, W. Castro, H. Castro, and Short, the Tigers have 4 players with experience at shortstop but no business as a starter on a contending club. All are below average hitters for their careers, and none seem particularly likely to make a meaningful jump forwards in 2022. This is - on paper - the easiest place to upgrade the offense; making a significant weakness into a strength is a massive flip for the lineup as a whole.
The rest of this cast fits their role adequately; Greiner is a competent backup catcher, for instance, and Reyes as a 4th or 5th outfielder is fine. Ramos, Jones, and Mazara, the poorly hitting veterans, have been removed from the ledger. Upgrades around the margins are well and good, but the difference between Greiner and Jason Castro, an upcoming free agent, for instance, as a backup catcher is pretty meaningless all things considered.
A similar table can be made for starting pitchers using a combination of their traditional and expected stats. Sorted by Fielding Independent Pitching, in descending order - lower is better - and again from FanGraphs:
The table shows what attentive fans have known all along: the Tigers have enviable young pitching, but the rotation as a whole lacks a true "ace", proven reliability - the best pitchers are quite young - and, perhaps most importantly, depth behind the top 5 or 6. With Turnbull out all season and Fulmer likely to stay in the bullpen after his success there this season - more on that in a minute though - the rotation rests on Boyd and the "Big 3" every Tiger fan knows by heart at this point. Fetter’s ability to refine pitchers could lead to more Peralta-like stories on an annual basis, but those are especially suspect to combustion. In short, another strong starter would do a lot to boost the Tigers hopes moving forward.
And finally, the relief pitchers, on the same criteria:
A few of these names are no longer in the organizational picture - such is the life of a reliever. However, the "top four" - Fulmer, Cisnero, Funkhouser and Soto - is a high-octane group that consistently gets outs. While relievers are volatile, assuming this group is healthy, the back end is solid enough to keep winnable ballgames close with the same consistency as any other contender.
The problem is everybody else. Alexander as a swingman is quite useful, and a few of the young pitchers - like Lange, Foley or Rony Garcia - could reasonably step up their game in a manner similar to Funkhouser this year. More time with Chris "Magic" Fetter already seems to be helping Lange and Jiminez, as their most recent stints - albeit short - have been much better than previous go-arounds. Relief help would be, well, a relief, but the club is arguably best served bringing in more veterans like Ramirez or Teheran and relegating them to the bullpen as depth, saving cash for other holes.
2021-22 Winter Options
Finally, the moment everyone has been waiting for: the "so what" of this! In short, the Tigers have been pretty competitive once they put April in the rearview mirror and let the kids play. Executives have hinted at more spending this winter than previous winters: what does that mean for Detroit? What kind of winter is in play? Well, there are a few options - I’ll run through a few scenarios of what Detroit could do - and also, what I feel they should do - coming off such a positive season!
The "Bare Minimum" Option
This is the path we’ve seen Detroit take for a few years now. Avoid major free agent signings, maybe swing a trade or two for a few minor prospects, but nothing super exciting. Players like Freddy Galvis, CJ Cron, and Jose Urena would be the targets on short, cheap deals, with a possible 2-3 year deal for an underrated veteran a la Grossman last winter. Hopefully the Front Office believes in the team a little more than this, but it’s sadly a defensible take, especially with CBA negotiations and a possible lockout looming this winter.
The "Approaching Average Salary" Option
This would be a major step forward for Detroit. According to Spotrac, the MLB median team salary is $130million, leaving approximately $45million for Detroit to spend; plenty to add a few good players, or even a great one or two, and fill most of the club’s holes from outside. This is an ambitious approach, but not overly aggressive, and shouldn’t handicap the club moving forward.
The club could also leverage their low team salary in cash-oriented trades. Every year, good players get dumped from teams looking to decrease salary; Yu Darvish and Blake Snell to the Padres are the best examples of recent years. It’s likely other good players are on the market simply due to a club’s lack of payroll space. Whether due to an injury reducing their 2021 production, a simple raise in arbitration, or a team looking for a major upgrade at a different position, players like Austin Meadows, Kyle Hendricks, Matt Chapman and Dominic Smith could, theoretically, be traded without a significant prospect loss. The Tigers may wish to pursue these avenues rather than a major free agent expenditure, if the market allows it.
The "All-Out Win-Now" Option
This extreme is, frankly, too much. The club has over $120million before reaching the de facto salary "cap" of $210million. In a vacuum, that’s enough to add a star shortstop, an ace starting pitcher, and a slugging corner outfielder… but at the cost of long term flexibility. Players like Carlos Correa, Max Scherzer and Freddie Freeman would be the targets here; however, acquiring any two of "that group" is fairly unreasonable for a single club, even if it’s technically possible. I wouldn’t recommend this course, although it would admittedly be fun for a bit. Hopefully Detroit has learned from the Cabrera/Martinez/Fielder situation and can avoid that.
2021 has been an unmitigated success. A full MLB season is a long affair, and under Hinch’s tutelage, Detroit has shown growth in both their talent and their character as a team. Investing a little capital into the club now could easily lead to a surprise Wild Card contention in 2022 while setting the stage for even greener pastures beyond. If I was in charge - and I’m not - I would put together an offseason something like this:
1. SS Chris Taylor (4 years/$60 million).
Going after a top-tier SS really limits the spending for other positions. It may be more worthwhile to get a cheaper SS option, plus, Taylor can move around to accommodate a prospect, a trade, or a signing in 2022 or 2023, and figures to be much cheaper than the star options. Conforto is a little splurge, but he could certainly carry a lineup if he bounces back. In all, this adds $46million to the 2022 ledger, which would likely be the upper level spent this winter. Conforto and Heaney could reasonably be replaced by a higher tier SP, but I prefer the Giant’s approach of trusting the staff to churn out high-quality veterans and promote youngsters from within.
Whatever Detroit does this winter, the future is undeniably bright. Between prospect development and overall maturation, it seems likely Detroit improves in 2022. However, an impact hitter or two and the continued embrace of "AJ Hinch" baseball could easily spur the Motor City Kitties further than many expect after their prolonged futility.