Will it be a clunky rebuild in Motor City? (Tigers Preview)

I used to live with a friend who hailed from Michigan, and I can tell you this from two years of living together: Michigan sports fan allegiances are strange. When it comes to football, their Lions loyalty pales in comparison to their fandom of Michigan Wolverine or Michigan State Spartan football. When it comes to basketball, unless they live in the Detroit metro area, it’s kind of the same deal as football (Wolverine or Spartan basketball). The Red Wings are a big deal throughout the state, but then again, it’s hockey, so it doesn’t really carry a whole lot of buzz for Michigan transplants in Kansas City, since the City of Fountains is pretty lukewarm to hockey overall.

My roommate from Michigan (he’s from just outside of Flint), for example, would embrace the Chiefs and Missouri Tigers basketball. In fact, when the Chiefs won the Super Bowl, he made sure that we all knew where to go for the Super Bowl parade. In fact, if the Lions and Chiefs played in the Super Bowl, I get a strange, slinking feeling that he would still cheer for the Chiefs, even though the Lions are technically his “home state” team.

But when it comes to baseball…his Tiger allegiance remains strong and unwavering. His hometown buddy who moved in with us for a few months, and was an even bigger sports fan than him (I mean he had a fantasy hockey team for chrissakes), but happened to be the same way, not going anywhere public without his Tigers hat. And to be honest, that seems to be a common trend for Michigan sports fans from my interactions with them in KC and other areas of the Midwest: no matter what, the whole state rallies behind the Detroit Tigers through thick and thin.

It’s too bad the organization is in the midst of a weird, and clunky rebuilding process.

Though the Kansas City Royals went on a magical run and won the AL Pennant in 2014, it’s easy to forget that they did not win the AL Central division that year. While the Royals finished 89-73, they finished one game behind the Tigers, who ended up winning the AL Central division under first-year manager Brad Ausmus with a 90-72 record. The Tigers were a model of consistency under previous manager Jim Leyland, who only had one losing season in his eight years as manager in the Motor City, and helped bring respectability to a club that knew nothing but failure under previous managers Alan Trammel and Phil Garner (Garner was my favorite as he and former Royals manager Tony Muser had the same, white guy Tom Selleck-look going for them).

While the Tigers fell short of a World Series title under Leyland, they did capture two pennants (2006 and 2012), and made two more ALCS appearances (2011 and 2013) during his tenure. It just seemed like the Tigers at the time in 2015, with a gorgeous stadium, a rejuvenated fan base, and one of the best players in baseball at the time (Miguel Cabrera), were due a title in near time, and just waiting for the breaks to fall their way. After all, if the Royals could win one in 2015, then it was certainly possible that the Tigers could win their first one since 1984 (or at least that’s what Michigan folk told themselves).

However, 2014 proved to be the beginning of one long down spin for the Tigers organization, as getting swept in the ALDS by the Baltimore Orioles proved to be the first domino to fall in their five-year quest to the bottom of the AL Central division. The Tigers only have produced one winning season since 2014 (a 86-75 campaign in which they did not even make the playoffs). Since their last postseason appearance, the Tigers have changed managers (hiring former Twins skipper Ron Gardenhire) as well as general managers (promoting Al Avila to replace Dave Dombrowski in 2015, who ended up taking over the Boston Red Sox the following year) to mixed results, as they have been entrenched deep into a weird rebuild that is head scratching to baseball fans outside of Detroit and Michigan.

While the club is coming off a miserable 47-114 season, the Tigers have a lot of potential to explode in the next couple of years, considering all the young talent they have sitting in their farm system and even on their 40-man roster. 2019 first round pick Riley Greene made it up to A ball as an 18 year-old, and crushed short-season ball, posting a .295/.380/.386 slash in 100 plate appearances. 2018 No. 1 pick overall Casey Mize has the potential to be an All-Star caliber pitcher for the Tigers for years to come, as he posted a 3.20 ERA in 15 starts in Double-A a year ago, and may be primed to do a Brady Singer and battle for a rotation spot later this year, as long as he’s healthy (he dealt with some shoulder issues a season ago). And even the young talent that struggled a year ago at the big league level, such as outfielders Christian Stewart and Daz Cameron and shortstop Willi Castro, showed flashes of potential with the Tigers last year, and there is hope among the Motor City fanbase that with a full Spring, they will show improvement in 2020.

However, while the Tigers have made a conscious effort to reduce payroll the past couple of years (they were in the Top 10 for payroll from 2008 until 2017), their roster is still bloated with bad veteran deals. Once one of the game’s biggest stars, Cabrera looked pretty mediocre last season, as he only hit 12 home runs and posted a 96 wRC+ and minus-0.3 WAR over 549 plate appearances at age 36. At his age and weight (he’s around 250), DH seems to be the only option for him, but he’s not quite hitting enough to rank up there with the better DHs in the American League, which puts Tigers management in a dilemma in terms of what to do with him. After all, the Tigers will be paying him nearly a $100 million dollars total until 2024, which will be the first year Cabrera and the Tigers can opt out of his deal. That’s not exactly a trade-able contract by any means, especially for a guy in his mid-30’s who can’t play anywhere defensively.

And to make matters worse for Tigers fans, who knows what Cabrera will look like as a player by the end of his deal. If baseball fans thought the Albert Pujols deal in Los Angeles was bad, it is possible that the Cabrera extension signed in 2016 may rival it or become worse when it is all said and done.

And that kind of money to shell out over the next half-decade or so certainly does not make rebuilding any easier in Detroit.

What’s interesting to notice as the Tigers begin Spring Training in Lakeland, Florida (the Tigers play in the Grapefruit League, unlike the Royals who play in the Cactus League), is that Cabrera is far from the only bad deal or veteran lingering on this roster. Jordan Zimmerman still has $25 million left on his deal, even if mercifully ends after this season. And though that’s the only egregious deal left on the Tigers payroll, Avila still made some questionable decisions when it came to building this roster for 2020.

Yes, outfielder Cameron Maybin and pitcher Ivan Nova only cost the Tigers $3 million combined. And yes, C.J. Cron and Jonathan Schoop add some insurance in the infield, even if they cost $6.1 million each (though they only signed for one year deals). And yes, Austin Romine probably will be a better option than Grayson Greiner, who barely managed to stay over the Mendoza Line in 2019 for the Tigers. After all, this was a Tigers team that only won 47 games overall a year ago. While the ’62 Mets talk was never mentioned during the Tigers’ embarrassing campaign (or at least not in general baseball circles), their mediocrity a year ago certainly gave baseball’s worst team ever a run for their money. And thus, it’s understandable that Avila would re-load with more familiar names and Yankee Cast-offs: this team, even in a rebuilding year, needs to prove that they aren’t a tire fire to not just the fans in Detroit, but themselves as an organization.

And that’s the rhetoric we are seeing this Spring Training in Tigers circles. Much like the Royals in Surprise, Gardenhire and the Tigers, despite their god-awful record a year ago, are not buying the “rebuilding” talk for a minute in Florida, as evidenced below:

But while Royals fans can sympathize with Tigers fans about this “feel good” propaganda, what good is it for the Tigers to bring in all these guys on one-year deals if the best case scenario may be only 65-70 wins? What’s the point of blocking a prospect like Cameron or Stewart for a former top Tigers prospect over a decade ago in Maybin? Why bring in Schoop and Cron with Castro and Isaac Paredes waiting in the wings? Why not just bring up the young guys, get them more at-bats and see the improvement happen organically through players they have years of club control over rather than a bunch of one-year rentals?

Maybe the Tigers feel they’re a year away anyways from being remotely competitive, and they need to do whatever they can just to bring people to the ballpark. The Tigers barely scrapped by the 1.5 million mark in attendance a year ago, nearly half their total from 2014, their last postseason appearance. Just like the Royals trying to do whatever they can to bring fans to Kauffman, the Tigers are hoping that these “free agent veterans” will keep Tigers fans interested and invested in Comerica Park as they continue this rebuilding process. After all, almost all the vets they brought in “won” with previous clubs in some shape or form in the past, and maybe, that winning culture will rub off on the Tigers’ own system guys in 2020.

The Tigers’ cupboard is not as bare as it was a season ago. I remember going to a Tigers game at the K last year and was like “Who the hell are these guys?” Gone are the days of Magglio Ordonez, Justin Verlander, and even Nick Castellanos. Only Cabrera remains as a relic of those much better days. Now, the Tigers have to forge a new identity in 2020 and beyond, and it will be interesting to see how the Tigers grow as a club this Spring and early into April and May. It’s easy to talk about how a club is looking to “win” in February. It’s a whole lot different when the record is going south in the middle of May.

The Tigers and Royals in many ways are partners in this “rebuilding” journey. The Tigers are a bit better pitching-wise than the Royals, as Matt Boyd is a legitimate ace, despite a questionable ERA and record, and Joe Jimenez is expected to take the leap as the Tigers’ full-time closer in 2020. However, the Royals probably have the upper-hand when it comes to hitting and defense, especially with Whit-Soler-Doz back for round 2 in 2020. That being said, when these two clubs say that they’re “ready to win now”, what they actually mean is that neither of them wants to be sitting in last place of the AL Central come September. That is the coded message underneath all this “Hope Springs Eternal” talk this February.

Lets hope as Royals fans it’s Gardenhire and Detroit’s kitties in last place, and not the Royal blue and white when September ends.

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