Justin Verlander made it clear on MLB radio last Friday that he doesn’t want to be stuck in the middle of a Tigers selloff. “Would it have been upsetting for me if we started trading everybody? I’m too old to be part of a rebuilding process.”
For most of the winter, Detroit has been in something of a holding pattern, quietly shopping Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez, but refusing to announce whether they’re actually willing to blow up the core of what was once one of the best teams in baseball. But if they aren’t willing to break up the band, they also haven’t been willing to add to it, fortifying themselves for a potential playoff run. Like someone trying to swim across a river, they have to decide quickly whether to turn back to shore or push onward. If they remain in the middle, paralyzed by indecision, they will eventually be swept away, sink to the bottom, and drown.
But which way should they go? Does Detroit, with its aging lineup and rotation, actually have a chance in a crowded field of American League teams? Can they make it to the opposite shore? The answer is still yes, in a world with a second Wild Card and with so many stars left on an aging team.
Let’s start where we ended last year. Detroit won 86 games, finishing three back of the Blue Jays and Orioles in the Wild Card hunt and eight back of Cleveland in the AL Central. That’s pretty darn respecible and gives them a solid foundation to build on.
They were able to do it thanks to an amazingly healthy season from their starting lineup. Miguel Cabrera, Kinsler, Victor Martinez and Justin Upton each played more than 150 games. Jose Iglesias bounced back from leg trouble to play 137, and J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos each started more than 100 games. For a club built on a stars and scrubs model, that durability was key so that they didn’t have to rely on Andrew Romine, Mike Aviles, Tyler Collins or Anthony Gose too often.
The starting rotation was led by Verlander, who returned to form after a couple years in the wilderness dealing with injuries and lost velocity. The veterans the Tigers has signed to fill out the rotation, however, all faltered. Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez both had ERAs over 5.00, and Jordan Zimmermann was hurt and bad. Verlander’s only support was supported by AL Rookie of the year Michael Fulmer and rookie Daniel Norris, both of whom came over in the Tigers’ 2015 selloff and shined when given the opportunity. Zimmermann should come back at or near full strength, but Pelfrey and Sanchez both seem to be lost causes, and candidates for the bullpen at this point.
Speaking of the bullpen, the Tigers bullpen improved after years of chronic neglect under Dave Dombrowski. Francisco Rodriguez was a competent closer, while Justin Wilson, Alex Wilson and Kyle Ryan emerged as quality setup men. And Bruce Rondon finally seemed to right himself after years of frustrating the Tigers. But that bullpen also ultimately wasted too much time on the likes of Mark Lowe and Shane Green.
In 2017, as constructed, the pitching does seem likely to get better, especially if Sanchez and Pelfrey are put out to pasture. And the bullpen is likely to improve with increased playing time for Rondon and the weak links swapped out. But at the first glance, it’s hard to see the starting lineup improving, right? Kinsler will be 35 and V-Mart 38. Cabrera will be 34. Even Upton and J.D. Martinez will be 29. This is a recipe for decline, especially if they can’t find anyone competent to handle center field.
We could call it a wash, but that’s before we discuss the increased injury risk facing the hitters as they age. The Tigers are still built on that same stars and scrubs model that’s exceptionally risky, and they are very thin at virtually every position. Even one or two of the key starters going down would force the Tigers to rely on replacement level talent at best. And the dropoff from their star level talent to those replacements is sharp.
But the truth is that competing is far easier with the second Wild Card. Teams who figure to be even around .500 have a puncher’s chance of winning a few extra games and making the postseason. The Indians have definitively gotten better, after going out to get Edwin Encarnacion, and are the division favorites in the Central. The Mariners are reshuffling in an effort to be in the Wild Card hunt, and the Yankees figure to be much improved. And the Astros are dangerous.
On the other hand, the Orioles and Blue Jays each appear to have taken a step back, putting them well within the reach of a healthy Tigers club. Eventually, there will be a precipice Detroit falls off of, but that doesn’t necessarily have to be this year. And given the trouble the Twins and Mets are having prying prospects out of clubs for their second baseman and corner outfielder, respectively, it’s likely the efforts to deal their veterans would yield a fairly disappointing return.
That should please Verlander, who doesn’t want them to go. But the Tigers have work to do still if they’re actually serious about competing. They need a center fielder badly and could use some depth in the infield. That opposite shore is in view. They just need to stop treading water and start swimming.