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As the Tigers’ rebuild draws to a close, managing prospect expectations is vital

If Detroit’s shot-callers aren’t careful, believing in the team’s array of prospects too soon could lead to another round of heartbreak.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

After years and years of eating mud in the league’s cellar, it’s beyond refreshing for Tigers fans to see light at the end of the tunnel. Detroit’s high draft positioning and gradual buy-in to modern techniques of coaching and developing players has taken longer to yield results than it could have if better decisions had been made upfront, but it is finally showing signs of paying off beyond simply tanking for top first round picks.

All the things that are falling into place now would have felt heaven-sent four years ago. The Tigers have top prospects thriving at every level of the organization. Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are knocking at the door. Jeimer Candelario and Spencer Turnbull have grown from moderately interesting building blocks with some serious issues to reliable contributors they can count on. There are legit power arms in the bullpen. And finally this offseason they dropped big money on Eduardo Rodriguez and Javy Báez, their first major contracts since Jordan Zimmermann and Justin Upton.

Now that the right coaching staff is in place — something that couldn’t be said with conviction even during the brightest days of Ron Gardenhire’s tenure as manager — Detroit has even managed to reclaim and develop castoffs from other teams, something we’ve been begging for them to do more effectively since Al Avila took the reins as general manager back in 2015.

It would be tempting to look at the dominoes the Tigers have lined up for themselves and assume it’ll end in success. Before leaping ahead, though, it’s important to temper expectations about the players Detroit is bringing through their pipeline and adjust accordingly. It’s impossible not to be excited about good young prospects, but history tells us to proceed with caution.

The most important place to stay coolheaded is in regards to how successfully we expect Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene to make the leap from prospect to major league mainstay. The same could be said of any pair of prospects, but the Tigers’ two headliners rightly receive the most hype, so it’s a good place to start. The duo are tremendously talented, sure, but if they don’t pan out, it leaves the rest of the grand plan looking significantly deflated.

One piece of reasoning to explain why top prospects sometimes flame out is the difference in talent between the MLB and Triple-A compared to any other league to its immediate inferior. In the minor leagues, talent graduates at a steady pace from the lower levels to the upper ones, giving players a chance to gradually improve as they slowly face better and better opposition. Yes there is a notable leap when moving up to the Double-A level, but there is no analog for the step up from Triple-A to the major leagues.

Think about it this way — there is no Juan Soto in Triple-A. There is no Jacob deGrom of Triple-A. If any player at that level is better than the average minor leaguer at their level to the degree that MLB stars are better than the average major leaguer, they’re promoted quickly. They don’t stick around the Triple-A level long. Sometimes the most precocious will successfully leap right past the level straight from Double-A. Once a player reaches the peak of his profession in the MLB, though, there’s no ceiling for him to punch through. He just keeps getting better than everyone else, finds his level and tries to maintain it, or flames out.

To ask a player to make the biggest step up in difficulty he’ll ever make while at the same time playing against opponents who outstrip his own talents by a higher degree than he’s ever seen before is a ridiculously tall order.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

There’s a whole host of other reasons why a top prospect may not live up to the legend built when he’s climbing up through the organizational ladder. Some players have a weakness that is too small to be exploited by inferior opponents but is gashed wide open by MLB caliber opponents. Some players can’t handle their failures being broadcast to millions. Many will have injury trouble, others will let their foot off the gas, thinking they’ve “made it” and quickly find themselves floundering.

None of this is to say anything bad about Torkelson or Greene in particular. As a Tigers fan myself, I would be thrilled to see them grow into the cornerstones of Detroit’s next championship roster. They’re a special pair of prospects. But even with top prospects, there is still plenty of risk that it just doesn’t work out, or at least falls short of our high expectations.

FanGraphs’ Kevin Goldstein took a more clinical approach to the same point in a recent article. The Tigers’ beloved bromance was chosen as a sample case to demonstrate in an easily digestible way exactly how uncertain any given prospect’s future can be, even highly talented ones.

“The chances both of them are 60+ FV stars? That comes out to 17.1%, or roughly 1-in-6,” wrote Goldstein. “The chances that both are 50+ FV big league regulars? Just over 40%. Again, the most realistic outcomes are those other than both players becoming even major league average regulars or better.”

What should Tigers fans do with this information? The reflexive answer is ‘nothing.’ Bank it, keep it on simmer and hope nothing goes wrong. There’s a slice of the fanbase so calloused by Detroit’s losing ways of the ‘90s and ‘00s, or their failure to win a title during their run of AL Central dominance from 2011-2014, that the brutal stretch of Tigers’ baseball until the 2021 season felt more like destiny’s widened maw than mismanagement and poor timing.

Of course, this isn’t all about the Tigers recent top prospects, graduated to the majors or not. Most prospect sites and scouts out there will tell you that the current talent level drops off rapidly after the top handful of players in the system. There are a solid block of players from fifth to to the late teens on our recent top 30 who range from a smattering of 45 FV players, down to the 40+ tier. While most of these players won’t turn into major league regulars, it remains imperative that the Tigers get the most out of them possible.

Whether that’s starting pitching prospects who ultimately become decent middle relievers, or position prospects who at least become role players on the bench, a team needs to keep finding and developing contributors. They also need to make smart choices about which of these players to trade for major league talent, and which to hang onto and expect improvement from.

Consider the future value tiers based on scouting grades. This is a slightly older chart from 2018, and covers 50 FV or better prospects, but it gives a pretty good sense of the percentages for bust and star rates out of those graded tiers.

Once you get to the 45 FV tier, the average career WAR of those players is generally between 0.8 and 1.5. Role 40 FV players average 0 to 0.7 WAR. The 40+ tier is generally used to indicate those future role players who are still projectable, either because of their specific tools, or their age and projectability. The point being, that most of these guys aren’t going to do much more than chip in here and there, maybe only for a cup of coffee, or for a couple seasons before teams move on to younger players with more potential for improvement.

So, despite the fact that we’re fairly excited about teenaged shortstop prospect Cristian Santana, or pitching prospects like Beau Brieske and Dylan Smith, the Tigers calculations here have to remain cold-blooded. Generally speaking, these guys are more valuable flipping for short-term help at the major league level than for dreaming of major breakouts. But the Tigers have to figure out which is which, and maximize their value to the franchise in one way or another. Getting too aggressive with trades can blow up in your face if you get your pocket picked of a talented young player who is close to a breakout.

The most reasonable thing to do with the knowledge of exactly how likely (or unlikely) it is that Greene and Torkelson — names you can substitute for those of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Matt Manning, Jackson Jobe, Dillon Dingler, or anyone else who makes themselves high profile enough to be in that tier — reaches our lofty hopes, is to build the team in such a way to pillow the fall when some of them don’t become the players Detroit needs them to be. There’s a good reason national prospect writers tend to emphasize depth at least as much as a club’s number of top 100 prospects.

In short, the if the Tigers want to win, they need to act like a team who plans on winning. They can’t just expect the wins to appear alongside flashy prospects like thunder accompanies lightning. They will have to keep the pipeline flowing, not just to produce more talent, but to give themselves a steady stream of trade chips with which to deal for proven talent as needed. Consistent contending teams—at least those without enormous payrolls—do a good job of this, keeping a steady flow of 45-50 FV types stockpiled as support for the major league roster.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Kirthmon F. Dozier / USA TODAY NETWORK

Building blocks are already in place in certain parts of the organization. Most notably, the major league coaching staff stacks up favorably against any in the sport. Even if the only only meaningful change enacted by AJ Hinch’s staff was the tools used for self evaluation and development, it would’ve been a tremendous leap forward. Not only have the Tigers’ major league staff advanced to proficiency with the bleeding edge of baseball technology, but they’ve encouraged (and sometimes enforced) a trickledown of the progressive mindset throughout the organization and quite likely had influence in the overhaul in the organization’s player development staff over the past year.

It’s just as important to build the team in a way that accounts for the expected failure rate of prospects. That may take a little longer for no reason except that it’s a lot more expensive than buying the newest, fanciest toys. Owner Chris Ilitch has promised for years that he’d open his wallet when the time was right, and we’re starting to find out whether he meant it. The contracts Detroit gave to Rodriguez and Báez is a good start, but it was only that: a start. The Tigers also need to be willing to elbow their way into the high rollers’ section of free agency and the trade market more often to build a championship roster. It takes cash and a deep pool of prospects to do both well.

The Tigers are going down a good road at last, but they’re headed towards a crossroads in the near future. Bringing a team from the bottom of the league to the middle is not that hard. All the incentives in the drafts, the waiver wire, and revenue sharing offer a lot of help. The really difficult part is taking an average team, and building a sustained, legitimate contender. Will they create an environment that allows the prospects to become who they will become without necessitating elite MLB performance? Can they maximize the value of their farm system and convert it into major league talent? Will they do what it takes, not just to win today, but to sustain a consistent winning franchise for years to come?

It’s natural to want the Tigers to go big, and to go big now, particularly after the last seven years, but if they make the wrong moves and cash in their prospect chips too aggressively, they may find themselves in a short window of contention again unless everything works out perfectly, which it never does.