Once upon a time, not that long ago, the Tigers were one of the worst teams in baseball. In 2003, they set the American League record for losses, at 119. In 2002, owner Mike Ilitch hired Dave Dombrowski as general manager. Dombrowski immediately set out to trying to build a contender, highlighted by his numerous trades that were considered steals at the time. One of those trades brought in current cornerstone first baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is still one of the two or three best hitters on the planet. The Tigers have won their division each of the last four seasons. They’ve been to the World Series twice under Dombrowski’s reign, in 2006 and in 2012. But all of that was not enough to overcome the frustration of not actually winning the championship that Ilitch so badly longs for. So after their worst season since 2008, Ilitch and Dombrowski have parted ways. Dombrowski has moved on with the Red Sox, and Ilitch promoted Assistant GM Al Avila to general manager. So now the question lingers: as the Detroit Tigers post-Dombrowski era begins, do they start dismantling the old regime and rebuild, or do they try to win with what they have now?
Honestly, what they have now is a lot of old players on big contracts. Take a look at their current financial situation, courtesy of Cot’s Contracts. They have five players tied up for more than $100 million. That’s before you look at the guys either ready to enter arbitration or already in it and looking for raises. Things start to get hairy when you look at those top five. Miggy’s still great, but his health is starting to become a concern. Victor Martinez is probably still a decent hitter, but he’s nowhere near the guy he was last year. Until recently, Verlander looked like he had lost any resemblance of the ace that he was. Anibal Sanchez looked like a budding ace himself two years ago but looks lost this year. At least Ian Kinsler has played something close to expectations. But he’s going to be doing that next year for something closer to $20 million instead of just the $14 million you see him listed at. After all, the Tigers are paying the Texas Rangers $6 million each year for the next five years as part of trading Prince Fielder for Kinsler.
Then you look at the guys who are leaving this already woeful team for free agency. Alfredo Simon wasn’t great, but he looked like at least an average pitcher who could eat innings at the back end of a rotation, and that’s worth something. Alex Avila isn’t the star hitter we thought he was in 2011, but he isn’t as bad as he was this year either. He was a +2.0 WAR catcher in 2012 and 2014, and if he can return to something close to that, that’s certainly valuable. Rajai Davis has actually been something close to a +1.0 WAR player in only 90 games, despite having a below average batting line (88 wRC+). His value from baserunning and defense alone will certainly be missed. Tom Gorzellany is, well, not much of anything at this point. Randy Wolf has looked solid in two starts so far this year, but who knows what he would do over the course of a full season. Most, if not all, of these players will be lost to free agency.
There are a few prospects and graduates of the system that can help this team out, though. They will either be making league minimum or fairly small amounts of money. Jose Iglesias could be a +2.0 WAR player based on his defensive value alone. Nick Castellanos might be turning the corner offensively, but he needs to improve on his defense or be moved to a position where he’s not such a liability. James McCann has been great defensively and isn’t too terrible offensively, especially for a catcher. Anthony Gose has decent baserunning and defensive skills himself, though he could stand to improve upon those skills; he could stand to improve his on-base ability a little more, as well.
And then, of course there’s J.D. Martinez, who went from nobody to one of the best sluggers in the game. If the Tigers do decide they want to be competitive, they are going to need to find more guys like Martinez in order for the team to break through in this tough AL Central. They need some high upside, low floor guys to fill out the roster, but constantly finding breakout guys before they break out is hard to do. Sure, they’ve done it before with guys like J.D. They’ll need to do it again if they hope to contend for the playoffs and, of course, that ring they all want so badly.
DETROIT, MI – SEPTEMBER 08: Justin Verlander #35 of the Detroit Tigers looks on during the game against the Kansas City Royals at Comerica Park on September 8, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Royals 9-5. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)