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They Should Have Blown It Up: A Detroit Tigers preview

A look ahead at our first opponent of the 2017 season

MLB: Spring Training-New York Mets at Detroit Tigers Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most memorable sequences on The Simpsons takes place when Lisa, fed up with her family’s insensitivity toward her vegetarian ways, steals the pig at Homer’s barbecue and sends it rolling away downhill on a cart. The pig passes through dirty hedges, falls into a slimy river, and gets shot through the air across town. All the while, a frantic, distraught Homer repeatedly insists, “It’s still good! It’s still good!” The party was destined to be over the second that pig started rolling down the steep hill, but he fruitlessly chases after it anyway, unable to accept that what he had is gone.

I hope it’s obvious enough where I’m going with this.

The Detroit Tigers entered the 2016-2017 offseason with five big sandbags on their payroll and other than budding number-two starter Michael Fulmer, no players that are both cheap and noticeably above-average. That’s a result of many years of damaging their player development pipeline to compete on an annual basis. 43.8% of the Tigers’ WARP in 2016 came from players over the age of 30. That’s easily the highest mark in baseball (2nd: Braves, 35.5%). With aging stars, a lack of young, premium talent, a roster that finished 2.5 games out of the Wild Card, a payroll hamstrung by bad contracts, a potential powerhouse team in the Indians atop the division, and little on the way from the farm, the Tigers entered November in situation ripe for a total teardown. Detroit had some pretty successful teams built around Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez, but the sooner the Tigers accept their new reality, the better.

General manager Al Avila didn’t wait long to make a move. One domino fell on Nov. 3 when Detroit sent center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for a decent prospect. However, the person who set up the dominoes must have screwed up and put them too far apart, because that was the only move of consequence Detroit executed all winter, leaving Tigers fans bewildered and frustrated. Perhaps seeing three rebuilding teams in the division made management feel that zigging while everyone else zagged was a worthwhile strategy. That works better when you actually zig; the Tigers seemed content to just zag less than the competition and may have doomed themselves to mediocrity by doing so.

In fairness, attempting to sell this offseason would not have been without its challenges. Two of the Tigers’ best potential trade chips are mashers that provide no value from their speed or defense. J.D. Martinez and Cabrera both can hit .300, draw a walk, and thump a lot of extra-base hits, but we saw that a pure hitter like Edwin Encarnacion had to settle for much less this offseason than the world originally expected, so the market was down on guys like this. Furthermore, Martinez only has one year of team control left and Cabrera’s age and contract situation may have proven to be a turn-off. Still, the Tigers have to cash in Martinez this year or he walks for nothing and Cabrera’s ability to outproduce his paycheck will only continue to dwindle. Trading these guys in even an adverse market would have made some sense.

The Tigers also had guys to deal that didn’t fit the dreaded “defensively-limited slugger” label. Verlander may not have the big fastball from his younger days, but he was one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2016 with a performance that compares favorably to the recently-traded Chris Sale. Granted, Sale, is neither 34 years old nor does he come attached to a contract potentially worth $106 million over four years, but if the Tigers were willing to eat cash, you’d have to think Verlander could have netted some good pieces.

The same could be said for the more modestly-priced Ian Kinsler, a man who’s quietly building himself into an interesting Hall of Fame case. Kinsler’s power came back with a vengeance last season and you’d better believe there’s a healthy trade market for a guy who can play in the middle infield and give you nearly 60 extra-base hits. There might be a rough tie for second, but besides Jose Altuve, I’m not sure there’s another second baseman in the game definitively better than Kinsler right now.

Cabrera, Kinsler, Verlander, and Fulmer are the stars of a team that seems better than it really is. The aging players aren’t offset by much upside elsewhere on on the roster, as it seems most of the younger Tigers have already peaked. At this point, it’s doubtful that slick-fielding shortstop Jose Iglesias is going to develop a bat or third baseman Nick Castellanos will find a glove. Victor Martinez can’t play a defensive position and J.D. Martinez probably shouldn’t. The catching situation projects to be one of the worst in baseball and Maybin’s departure has left a gaping hole in center field. There’s some serious concerns here.

There’s two places where the Tigers have a decent shot of improving over last season to offset some of these issues. One is in left field, where Justin Upton struggled immensely for five months before clubbing 13 homers after the calendar flipped to September, preserving some hope that there’s still All-Star potential for him at age 29. The other is the starting rotation, where the Tigers stand a good chance to do better behind Fulmer and Verlander this time around. Despite not being able to shake homer problems, 24-year-old lefty Daniel Norris took a step forward in 2016 and could serve as a respectable mid-rotation starter over a full season, something the Tigers sorely lacked last year. Fellow southpaw Matt Boyd has a crappy fastball that he grooves too often, but he missed enough bats last year to profile as a legitimate option near the back of the rotation. Who’d have thought a year ago that we’d be talking about Boyd in a more favorable light than Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez?

The Tigers could potentially take another step forward in the bullpen as well. Most have been used to thinking of Detroit relievers in a negative light lately, so it might come as some surprise that they were about average last season. Bruce Rondon finally looks like he’s ready to contribute and fireballer Joe Jimenez is knocking on the door of the majors. Francisco Rodriguez is still a good pitcher and Wilsons Alex and Justin have carved out reliable roles for themselves. The Tigers have some shutdown potential in the late innings.

It’s not hard to see why the Tigers think they stand a chance to get back to the postseason with this roster, especially in this division. If the offense stays one of the American League’s best, the bullpen prevents rallies, and the back three slots in the rotation can tread water, you could see this team creep toward 90 wins. There’s also the world in which regression hits Verlander and Kinsler hard, the defense gets even worse than it already is, aging saps more life from Cabrera’s bat, the Tigers can’t find anyone reliable to start besides their top two guys, and the Tigers finish near the bottom of the division. Finally, there’s the most likely scenario in which Detroit has roughly average success on their question marks and they finish as a middling team that can’t distinguish itself. “I followed the 2016-17 Tigers offseason and all I got was this lousy Victor Alcantara” makes for a T-shirt as confusing as whatever plan Detroit is trying to execute. Why couldn’t they just pick a lane?

Probable Starting Pitchers:

  • Monday, April 3: Justin Verlander vs. Jose Quintana
  • Wednesday, April 5: Michael Fulmer vs. James Shields
  • Thursday, April 6: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Derek Holland

Key Personnel

Probable Lineup Pitching
Probable Lineup Pitching
1. Ian Kinsler - 2B SP1. Justin Verlander - RHP
2. Nick Castellanos - 3B SP2. Michael Fulmer - RHP
3. Miguel Cabrera - 1B SP3. Jordan Zimmermann - RHP
4. Victor Martinez - DH SP4. Daniel Norris - LHP
5. Justin Upton - LF SP5. Matt Boyd - LHP
6. Mikie Mahtook - RF CL. Francisco Rodriguez - RHP
7. James McCann - C RP1. Justin Wilson - LHP
8. JaCoby Jones - CF RP2. Alex Wilson - RHP
9. Jose Iglesias - SS RP3. Bruce Rondon - RHP