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How To Make The Detroit Tigers Competitive: Throw More Money At The Problem

Image Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Many have called for the Tigers to begin a rebuild, but that may be a mistake. Why the Tigers best strategy may be to go for gold.

Dollars per win is a metric most sabermetricians are familiar with. The general idea is that teams want to win as many games as cheaply as possible. For small-market teams, this concept is crucial to their success as they have to find ways to compete with the baseball Goliaths with fractional resources.

And then there’s the win curve. Another sabermetric-friendly term, it describes how wins become much more valuable as you become closer to making the postseason. From a revenue standpoint, the difference between being an 86-win and 88-win team is much greater than the difference between being a 70-win team and 72-win team. In economic terms, we can describe this as saying the marginal value of a win increases as teams get closer to postseason contention.

And that leads us to the Detroit Tigers. They certainly haven’t followed the Moneyball ‘dollars per win’ concept that has allowed so many teams to be successful. While most teams are transitioning to a cheaper cost structure that relies on younger, more cost-effective players, the Tigers have continued to build their team through older free agents commanding top-dollar contracts.

Just last season, Detroit made two major splashes, signing top starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann for five years and $110M and outfielder Justin Upton for six years and $132M. Combine those contracts with Miguel Cabrera’s albatross deal paying him $30M per year until 2025, and the back-end of Justin Verlander’s 2010 extension paying him $20M+ per season, and the Tigers have over $100M tied up annually in just those four players through 2020.

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Image Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

They made those moves last offseason to keep their championship window open while their core players are still productive. There’s no doubt the Tigers will only be able to compete as long as Miguel Cabrera remains effective and Detroit continues to receive quality production from their starting rotation. Their farm system is barren, with their most promising piece being the number nine overall selection in last year’s draft, Matt Manning, who is still years away from potentially producing at the Major League level. Needless to say, the only means for the Tigers to improve would be to continue mining the free agent market, throwing more dollars on the already burning pile of cash.

That last sentence sounds counterproductive. Why continue to spend obscene amounts of money on players who will only continue to handicap any sort of rebuilding effort? The Chicago White Sox just transformed two of their best pieces into two of the top three prospects in baseball, and they now have a farm system that easily vaults into the top five. 

The New York Yankees added multiple top prospects at the 2016 trade deadline by shipping away two relief pitchers (one who has since returned) who weren’t part of their long-term plans. It took a massive rebuilding effort to put the Houston Astros into the upper echelons of the American League West, and the Cubs used their rebuild to win their first World Series title in more than a century. Why wouldn’t the Tigers want to embark on the same rebuilding journey?

They are simply not in the same situation. In their moves, the White Sox traded cost-effective, young, and talented players. Chris Sale and Adam Eaton brought in steep returns because the teams acquiring them took on cheap elite production in return (there’s that dollar per win argument). Meanwhile, Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller had much shorter commitments (one year and two years, respectively) so the monetary cost of acquiring them wasn’t outrageous for the short term value of World Series appearances.

Now compare that to viable trade candidates playing for the Tigers. Cabrera, Zimmermann, Upton, and Verlander are seemingly unmovable because of their payroll-crippling contracts, and no team is particularly interested in an inconsistent and expensive Anibal Sanchez. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer would seemingly have positive trade value, but he’s the sort of player you build around, not sell off in a rebuild.

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Image Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves just three players with interesting trade value: J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Francisco Rodriguez. Martinez, who’s one year away from hitting free agency, has been mentioned in plenty of trade rumors. But with a crowded free agent and trade market for corner outfielders (Mark Trumbo, José Bautista, and Jay Bruce just to name a few), getting a favorable return of prospects for Martinez might be difficult. If anything, the Tigers might have better luck trying to move him at the 2017 trade deadline to a needy contender.

Kinsler is on the books for two more years (assuming his $12M 2018 team option is picked up), and last season he posted his second highest fWAR total (5.8) of his career. But his age (he turns 35 next season) will limit any potential return he might bring. Then Rodriguez, who has been the model of consistency the past few years bringing consistent production to the closer role and is only being paid $6M this season, shouldn’t expect to bring in a return much better than what Fernando Rodney brought the Padres last season (mid-level prospect Chris Paddack).

In all, even if the Tigers were to trade all of their movable pieces, their farm system would still rank among the worst in baseball. With that in mind, is it worth it for the Tigers to even consider making the moves at all? Trading those three pieces would certainly knock them out of playoff contention this upcoming season, and with a future tied up in high-priced mistakes and declining stars, it doesn’t seem as if the Tigers will be fielding another competitive team anytime soon, regardless of the return they would get from these current assets.

And that leaves the Tigers where they are today. A team that won 86 games last season, they are right at the cusp of the win-curve where acquiring wins is extra valuable. Given that they have so much money sunk in the current nucleus already, and trading current assets won’t bring much in terms of future production, the Tigers may be better off doing what has got them into this mess in the first place: spend more money.

It seems counterproductive to keep throwing money into the fire, but the next season or two may be the Tigers’ best chance at reaching the postseason for at least the next decade. A long rebuild will come eventually — the Tigers have already dug that hole for themselves — but with their current contractual commitments, the rebuilding path is much murkier and less straight-forward than it was for the Cubs, Astros, and White Sox. 

Detroit has clear needs for the upcoming season — they need some rotation depth and two or three reliable bullpen arms — and filling those holes may be enough to push them into postseason contention.

The American League is more wide-open then ever, making the win-now strategy even more appealing. While the Red Sox are probably the team to beat in the American League, and the reigning American League Champion Indians should be just as good as last season, every other contender has obvious flaws. With all of their departing free agents, the Blue Jays and Orioles have less firepower than they did last season (especially the Blue Jays), and should see a step-back in their win totals. The Rangers, Astros, and Mariners have talented squads, but none of them are clear-cut postseason teams. Then in the Central (besides the Indians), the White Sox have obviously pulled their hat out of the running for contention, the prized Royals bullpen has been gutted, and the Twins lost 100 games last season.

This is all to say that on paper there will probably be about seven teams fighting for five playoff spots, and those are pretty worthwhile odds. So the best course of action for the Tigers is not to rebuild right away, and instead go after pitchers like Sergio Romo, Travis Wood, Boone Logan, Jerry Blevins, Brad Ziegler, Trevor Cahill, and others.

At a time when many think the Tigers should be rebuilding, it may not be wise to give out $15-$25M collectively to a handful of pitchers, but these are exactly the kind of moves Detroit should make if they want to make the playoffs this year. And with the prolonged agony of irrelevance the Tigers are about to put their fanbase through, winning these next two seasons should be their top priority.

Edited by Jazmyn Brown, David Kaptzan.

SQuiz
Which team had the fewest wins in baseball in 2016?
Created 12/12/16
  1. Minnesota Twins
  2. Cincinnati Reds
  3. Atlanta Braves
  4. Milwaukee Brewers

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