For the first time in years, the Detroit Tigers have something to be excited about in nearly every aspect of team-building.
The Rebuild Nears its Close
Not many fanbases have been put through the wringer as much as Detroit Tigers fans in the latter half of the 2010s. Despite major success at the turn of the decade, the Tigers were never able to snag that ever-elusive World Series title. To build teams of the Tigers caliber in the early 2010s however, decisions had to be made regarding the future in Detroit. Dave Dombrowski, the Tigers general manager at the time, has always had a reputation as a big spender. At the time of contention, Tigers fans were willing to overlook the spending and depletion of the farm system in exchange for the excitement of landing a big fish at the deadline or in free agency. After all, spending is a part of the formula for winning.
Now, Tigers fans have been taught this lesson once again, only in a much different way. Over the last five seasons, the front office in Detroit has been reluctant to spend on nearly anything in terms of talent. Their record reflects this philosophy, sitting at a dismal 260-412. The fall from the top has not been graceful, as the Detroit faithful had to come to terms with the decision to sell off fan favorites such as JD Martinez and Justin Verlander to kickstart a much-needed rebuild. Sitting on the other side of the trade deadline, the Tigers have been able to acquire pieces like Jeimer Candelario, Willi Castro, and Matthew Boyd. Restocking the farm system is always the first step in a successful rebuild, but always signals a lengthy commitment. Al Avila, the current GM, has seen this process through to its end. That time has come, as the projected cornerstones of the rebuild have begun turning into current big league contributors.
The Tigers “big three” of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, and Matt Manning are all pitching legitimate big-league innings and looking as advertised. According to ESPN, Mize leads the pitching staff in WAR, with Skubal following behind him. Both have had dominant stints in their own right, with Mize showing the ability to stay composed and navigate trouble and Skubal showcasing flat-out dominant swing and miss stuff. The injury bug that has plagued the Tigers 2021 pitching staff has forced Matt Manning into playing a role in the rotation. His first few starts came with a learning curve, and while he has had his struggles, his recent play has been encouraging.
On the pitching side, there is a lot to be excited about, but the crown jewels of the farm system have just recently been promoted to Triple-A. Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene are on the fast track to The Show, with many people expecting at least one, if not both of them to be competing for opening day roster spots in 2022. These pieces, paired with the emergence of guys like Akil Baddoo, Derek Hill, Jake Rogers, and Eric Haase as potential pieces for the future should have the Tigers beginning to look more critically at certain positions where the farm may not hold the answer in the long-term.
Ready to Spend
One major aspect of the rebuild has been limiting spending to essentially only what was needed to field a full roster. Apart from low-budget guys who have played their way into the future (Jonathan Schoop), free agency has not been a priority. While this philosophy has made recent Tigers teams difficult to watch, it has paid dividends in terms of Detroit’s payroll. The restraint of recent off-seasons has provided the Tigers flexibility to pursue big-time free agents when the time was right, and this off-season, the Tigers should be ready to pounce.
Looking at the organizational depth chart should give the Tigers a pretty clear idea of where the big money should be spent: Shortstop. Ryan Kreidler has had a nice year in the minor leagues and was recently promoted to AAA, but this should not deter Detroit from at least exploring Shortstop options in free agency. The biggest name being floated out in Tigers circles is Carlos Correa, largely due to his connection with AJ Hinch and his recent comments about wanting to finish his Astros tenure out with a championship. At 26, Correa would provide the Tigers a long-term option at SS to begin building their next contending roster around.
Another name being floated, for obvious reasons, is SP Justin Verlander. While the Tigers’ young starters have been great, the rotation still needs to be filled out with quality starters if the Tigers hope to contend in the next couple of seasons. Verlander, coming off of Tommy John surgery, will likely be a cheaper option that would reward the fans for sticking it out through the rebuild. According to Spotrac, the Tigers currently sit $111 million dollars under the luxury tax threshold, meaning they have a massive amount of money to work with this offseason. When Miguel Cabrera‘s contract expires at the end of the 2023 season, the Tigers will have an additional $30 million of flexibility to add to this sum. For a team that has shown in previous years that they are not afraid to spend, ranking 23rd in payroll is not a trend that fans should expect to continue. AJ Hinch’s recent comments should excite the fanbase about how the Tigers will be approaching their future offseasons.
The AJ Hinch Effect
For somebody who will probably get no love in the manager of the year debate, AJ Hinch certainly deserves some. What Hinch has done with the 2021 Tigers, given the talent level of their roster, is remarkable. This is a team that was projected by almost every national media outlet to finish last in the AL Central. They sit in third, only 3.5 games out of second. This is even more impressive when you consider that the pitching staff has been decimated by injuries. Matthew Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, Julio Teheran, and Jose Ureña have all missed significant time, but AJ Hinch has been able to use guys like Wily Peralta and Tyler Alexander to fill their voids. A large credit goes to pitching coach Chris Fetter and his ability to truly bring the best out of nearly all the pitchers he works with. However, the way that Hinch has been able to navigate the bullpen to put the Tigers in the best position to win while simultaneously giving guys the rest they need has been nothing short of spectacular.
It is clear that Hinch understands how important it is to bring a winning culture to the clubhouse and how important it can be to building future teams. The big free agents the Tigers will need to land are not going to sign with a 47-114 club, but they will be much more inclined to sign with a club that finishes with 75+ wins in need of a star to take them to the next level. Hinch has the Tigers at this point, and in only his first season, this is a massive accomplishment. The ball is now in Chris Illitch and Al Avila’s court to pursue the talent Hinch needs to take this team to the next level. If they answer the call, Detroit could be back as serious contenders in no time.
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