Open up the checkbook this offseason, Mr. Ilitch. A lot of holes need to be filled on your Major League Baseball franchise, the Detroit Tigers.
First and foremost, the pitching needs to be addressed before any big-time strides can be made by the ballclub in 2016.
This fact can be easily realized by looking at the difference in wins above replacement produced by the Tigers pitching staff and the staffs of the ten teams that qualified for postseason play this season.
The staffs of each postseason team recorded at least 11 wins above replacement, with the Texas Rangers coming in last at 11.1 WAR.
The Tigers, meanwhile, finished three wins off the mark at 8.1 wins above replacement, with only three clubs having recorded less WAR via their pitching.
The Arizona Diamondbacks finished with the same amount of WAR produced by their pitching staff.
It’s a far cry from what the organization recorded in 2014 as a unit when it totaled nearly 18 wins above replacement (17.6 WAR) – good for sixth-best in all of baseball, according to FanGraphs.
Obviously the club is in dire need of pitching reinforcements, and the onus is now on new general manager and executive vice president of baseball operations Al Avila, who was elevated to those positions when Ilitch fired Dave Dombrowski last August.
When it comes to the rotation, I propose the Tigers upgrade it in one of three ways, which I’ll outline below.
Option #1: Sign free agent pitcher Jeff Samardzija
If Avila only plans on adding one rotation arm and wants to do so in a relatively cheap manner, the best option on the free agent market is perhaps Samardzija, who disappointed in his first season and most likely his only one spent on the South Side of Chicago. In 32 starts for the rival White Sox in 2015, the Midwest native — who spent his collegiate years at the University of Notre Dame — posted a near career-worst 4.96 earned run average. In fact, it was his worst ERA over the course of a season in which he made 28 or more starts. However, more importantly, the former Notre Dame wide receiver posted a not so horrible fielding independent pitching mark of 4.23 and a WHIP below 1.30. Those statistics tell me that he was not as bad as his ERA would cause you to believe.
At 30 years young, the “Shark” is a sure-fire bounce back candidate, especially when you consider that he pitched in a hitters’ ballpark all season long at U.S. Cellular Field. Transitioning to a more pitchers’ friendly park, like Comerica Park in Detroit, should bring down his home run total from 2015 (29 – tied for most in the American League with four other hurlers: Detroit’s own Anibal Sanchez, Kansas City’s Jeremy Guthrie, Minnesota’s Phil Hughes and Los Angeles’ Hector Santiago) to a more reasonable amount. He gave up 20 long balls in both 2012 and 2014, so I’m going to say he permits 20 of his pitches to leave major league ballparks in ’16. If he does so, I’m going to say he gets to at least three wins above replacement — the “Shark” was good for 2.7 WAR this past season, according to FanGraphs. In ’15, such a WAR would have given him a higher one than all of Detroit’s starting and relief arms who were on the ballclub at the end of the season, including 2011 AL Cy Young and MVP award winner Justin Verlander, who amassed 2.8 WAR.
In this projected rotation, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and youngster Daniel Norris, who came over from the Toronto Blue Jays in the David Price trade deadline deal, would all be back in the saddle, comprising the one through three of the Tigers’ rotation in ’16. With these three arms accounted for and Samardzija sliding into the fourth spot, it would leave one spot open in the club’s Opening Day rotation for next season, which on the cheap could be filled by 2015 Eastern League Pitcher of the Year Michael Fulmer, who came over in the Yoenis Cespedes trade with the New York Mets.
While the Mets have benefited tremendously from the presence of Cespedes in the middle of their order, the Tigers, despite not seeing Fulmer at the major league level yet, should realize benefits from the deal eventually. Already the farmhand has seen his prospect status rise as a result of his great season in Double-A (split between the Binghamton Mets and the Erie Seawolves). Even though Fullmer has yet to see a lick of action at the Triple-A level he is a solid candidate to make the big league team next spring. One caveat: Fullmer suffered a torn meniscus during Spring Training in 2013 as well as a re-tear of the same meniscus in 2014, so Tigers officials may not wish to rush his development.
Option #2: Sign free agents Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija
Lefty Norris is only 22 years old, however, remember that he pitched in Triple-A for the Jays in both ’14 and ’15, making 16 starts this past season for the Jays’ Triple-A affiliate, the Buffalo Bisons. It brings me to this next point: It might be a stretch to see Fulmer donning the “Old English D” at the beginning of ’16, which means the Tigers will likely have to acquire a second starting arm this offseason.
Enter my second option for upgrading Detroit’s rotation: adding Kansas City Royals deadline acquisition and current staff ace Johnny Cueto along with Samardzija.
Despite his struggles with KC in the second half (an unly 4.76 earned run average and 1.45 walks and hits per innings pitched), Cueto still compiled 4.1 wins above replacement on the season, which tops all Tigers hurlers.
Sadly, even Cueto’s dismal second half performance amounts to a greater second half WAR (1.1) than the full season WAR of everyone on Detroit’s pitching staff — outside of Verlander — who made five or more starts in 2015. It’s a mostly lackluster list of Tigers arms that includes Kyle Ryan, Norris, Sanchez, Kyle Lobstein, Alfredo Simon, Randy Wolf, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer and Shane Greene.
Cueto has a solid track record and he should be more consistent in 2016 as he faces off against American League lineups for his first full season. Adding him and Samardzija would quickly solidify the Tigers rotation.
Option #3: Ink both Zack Greinke and Jeff Samardzija
If Ilitch and the Tigers really want to go for the gusto this offseason and pull in a big fish from the pool of free agent arms, they should turn their attention to Dodgers’ ace Zack Greinke, a presumtive favorite to win his second Cy Young Award this November after a superb season on the mound.
Greinke is a beast in the regular season, but he’s also am clutch performer. Unlike Cueto, the 32-year-old Greinke has thrived in the postseason in recent memory, recording an ERA of 2.18 in three starts for the Los Angeles Dodgers the past two postseasons. If you want to go back even further, you’ll find that since his first postseason outing as a Dodger in 2013, the righthander has recorded a 2.38 ERA to go along with 41 strikeouts in a little over 41 innings pitched (41.2 IP). He also went at least six innings and failed to allow more than three earned runs in each of the six starts he made over that timeframe.
Obtaining Greinke and Samardzija would be the equivalent of going to an automobile dealership and driving off with a Mercedes-Benz and a BMW no matter the price tag. It would also equate to past offseasons for the Tigers in which club owner Mike Ilitch allowed Avila’s predecessor Dave Dombrowski to spend freely without any budget in mind.
If given the green light to bring in both free agent hurlers, Avila would be able to add approximately seven wins above replacement to his starting rotation, accounting for an estimated three WAR from Samardzija and an estimated four WAR from Greinke, who would ascend to the role of ace ahead of Verlander.
Greinke has averaged four WAR a season over the course of his 12-year career. When you take into account that Price’s staff-leading 3.7 WAR won’t be returning to Motown in ’16, it’s fair to say that the aforementioned two arms could put Detroit in the 11 WAR range for its pitching staff, a level that usually leads to postseason play.
Additionally, although Simon (1.0 WAR) won’t be back, the Tigers also will no longer have dead weight on their pitching staff (see Joba Chamberlain, Joakim Soria and Buck Farmer — all of whom combined were worth -1.6 WAR in their respective time spent with the organization in ‘15).
Losing Simon plus all of that dead weight would equate to a 0.6 WAR gain for the club’s staff next season, giving the club an estimated 12 WAR from its hurlers in ’16.
And then, there are arms who are due for a spike in WAR next season due to underwhelming campaigns in ’15 that were largely caused by injury, like Sanchez.
The enigmatic Sanchez, for one, has averaged a little over two WAR a season over his 10-year career (2.38 WAR), which tells me that he’s in line for a boost of at least one win above replacement headed into next season. That would give the Tigers’ staff a boost of approximately 13 WAR going into what will be Avila’s first full season as executive vice president of club operations. Not too shabby when you factor in that no bullpen upgrades have been accounted for in this projection, and at least a few relief arms — one or two late-inning arms and a veteran lefty specialist — are likely to be added by Avila this offseason.
According to FanGraphs, my rotation upgrades-based projection would lead to more WAR production from the Tigers pitchers than the pitching staff of the Rangers. At the same time, it would lead to a similar amount of WAR production as the pitching for the team Detroit is looking up at in the AL Central, the two-time reigning AL champion Kansas City Royals. And it would be wise to expect a drop-off in productivity next season for the Royals’ pitching staff, which produced 13.4 WAR in ’15, due to the expected loss of Cueto in free agency to a big market club who has more money to spend. Both the Detroit faithful and front office brass would be more than fine with that being the case.
As good as all this sounds though, how much the Tigers upgrade the rotation will all depend on how much money Mr. Ilitch will want to put on the table.