Overview (Present Rank: 8th | Future Rank: 22nd)
The Detroit Tigers have spent the majority of the last five years making noise in the playoffs without ever coming away with what matters most, a World Series trophy. After owning a 74-87 record in 2015, a suddenly declining rotation, and an aging core, many are wondering if the Tigers' window of contention is all but over. After dishing out a combined $243MM to Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann over the offseason, Detroit has made it clear that they’re going for it all before that window gets slammed shut.
New General Manager Al Avila is running the show now and prioritized improving the mediocre bullpen. With a team good enough to make the postseason, but not deep enough to make a serious World Series run, one has to wonder if the Tigers should start the rebuild now, and start planning for the future. After all, it couldn’t hurt to improve their 26th ranked farm system in hopes of putting together a legitimate World Series contender for years to come.
*Detailed analysis conducted April 2, 2016; rankings and charts updated throughout the season.
The toughest decision Avila had to make as the new General Manager was certainly the decision at catcher: choosing between his own son, Alex Avila as the unproductive incumbent and the promising young James McCann. McCann didn’t set the league on fire like plenty of his rookie peers did, but Al Avila saw enough in him to send his son packing to the rival White Sox. With his son in Chicago, Avila will be able to see what they really have in the 25 year-old McCann, and if he should be penciled in as the team’s catcher of the future.
In case McCann suffers through some growing pains, the Tigers invested $500K in Jarrod Saltalamacchia. ‘Salty’ has fallen off a bit since his career year in 2013. He had never posted an OPS above .750 before 2013, and he has never surpassed that mark since. In 2013 he ended the season at .804, and uncoincidentally won his only World Series that year with the Boston Red Sox. After showing a resurgence down the stretch last year in Arizona, the Tigers are hoping he can manifest another career year that translates into another World Series ring for the team he plays for.
Future Outlook: An upgrade might be necessary
Right now, Detroit has James McCann penciled in as the starter for the next five years. If McCann doesn’t show big improvements to his game, his performance might not be sufficient for a team trying to compete for a championship. Depending on how McCann plays in 2016 and beyond, the Tigers will have to decide if signing a top-tier free agent like Matt Wieters or acquiring a player of Devin Mesoraco’s caliber is necessary. Either way, the Tigers should invest in the position in the lower levels and start developing their catcher of the future if they bring Wieters or Mesoraco on board or not.
Miguel Cabrera joined elite company when he became just the eighth player in Major League history to win the American League Triple Crown. That, along with his decade of dominance including two MVP’s earned him a 8yr/$240MM extension that will likely see him retire as a Tiger. A strained left calf hampered the 13-year veteran in 2015 limiting him to 119 games. He still led the league with a .338 AVG and a .440 OBP. If that’s a “down year” for the great Miguel Cabrera, let’s see what he has in store for 2016 with a clean bill of health.
The hope is Cabrera can stay at first base for a long time, but if Victor Martinez wasn’t currently with the team, Cabrera might be relegated to DH duty already. Defensive metrics have never been a fan of his work, although he’s been competent since his move back to first. As he ages, expect those ratings to decline with a move to full-time DHing inevitable.
If Cabrera does make that move, the Tigers don’t have many options behind him at first base within the organization. Detroit's best first base prospect, Dominic Ficociello isn’t a typical first base prospect. Other than running, his worst tool his power. That might come as a surprise considering Ficociello is 6’4”, 205 lbs, but he’s yet to mash over ten homers in a season even in the minor leagues. With no extraordinary tools, and a lack of power, Ficociello’s future seems to be as a fringe Major Leaguer.
Future Outlook: Finding Cabrera's replacement
To be clear, the Tigers don’t need to make this decision for at least another two years. Cabrera is fine at first base as things stand, plus the DH spot is filled by Victor Martinez. However, in two-three years when Martinez’ contract is set to expire and Cabrera is in his mid-30’s, Miggy will be liability on defense. The Tigers can pursue a multitude of avenues to replace him at first base.
One option could be signing a player in free agency, with names like Eric Hosmer, Adrian Gonzalez, Joe Mauer, and Brandon Belt all set to hit the market in the next two or three years. They could go the trade route with big name guys like Joey Votto potentially being available by then. Lastly, the Tigers could build from within and try to sign an international free agent or draft a young player in hopes of them developing into a Major League quality first baseman.
After locking themselves into a 9yr/$214MM contract for Prince Fielder’s services out of desperation, the move backfired when Fielder saw his performance decline in just his second year of the deal. Former GM Dave Dombrowski got out of that by shipping him to Arlington while acquiring Ian Kinsler in the process. The second baseman has been terrific for Detroit in his two years in the Motor City. His days of hitting 30+ home runs and stealing 30+ bases are over, but Kinsler has remained a top-10 second baseman, both offensively and defensively. Kinsler, Cabrera, and Martinez might be the reason why outsiders view the Tigers as an old team, but they’re the only three players in the starting lineup older than 28.
In case Kinsler’s streak of clean health doesn’t continue, the Tigers signed Mike Aviles away from their division rivals in Cleveland. The 35 year-old played six different positions last year for the Indians. The Tigers got their utility man for $2MM this offseason. He brings more to the plate against southpaws (.650 OPS vs. LHP; .542 OPS vs. RHP) which manager Brad Ausmus will certainly keep in mind.
Very few teams have two players on their bench capable of playing over four positions, but Detroit is one of the few exceptions. They’ve given Andrew Romine playing time for the past few years at each position in the infield, left field, and he even pitched a full inning from the mound. Romine’s versatility has kept him on the roster despite his below-average bat. It’ll be interesting to see what the Tigers do now that they have two guys on their bench capable of playing just about anywhere.
Future Outlook: Find Ian Kinsler’s eventual replacement
Ian Kinsler is 33 years old and has two more years left on his contract with a $12MM team option for 2018 that will surely get picked up unless Kinsler’s production completely evaporates over these next two seasons. After 2018, the Tigers have a gaping hole at second base. They need to start looking for future alternatives at the position. Whether that be through the draft, international free agent market, or from another team’s organization, the Tigers need to start developing some second basemen in hopes of a young player taking over the position come 2019.
Detroit certainly knows shortstop is a defensive premium position. That mentality has led to them trading away defensively challenged, but full of potential Avisail Garcia to acquire the slick fielding Jose Iglesias. The Tigers wanted Iglesias’ exceptional glove quarterbacking their infield with anything he did at the plate being icing on the cake. Iglesias would give the Tigers a whole lot of icing in 2015 slashing .300/.347/.370 on his way to his first All-Star game. Iglesias is evolving into one of the game’s top two-way players. Iglesias must improve on his base stealing (11/19; 58%), but if he keeps hitting, the Tigers will have to start thinking how much money they’ll give him on an extension before he’s eligible for free agency after 2018.
Speaking of defensive minded shortstops, Detroit has a few of them in the minor leagues. From Dixon Machado to A.J. Simcox to Jacoby Jones, Detroit has a wealth of options. Machado and Simcox currently stand above Jones as Jones’ inability to hit paired with his drug abuse suspension prevented him from appearing in this outlook as the Tigers simply cannot rely on him.
Machado might be just as good of a fielder as Jose Iglesias. At 24 years old, Machado has an advanced approach at the plate. He may never hit enough to validate a starting role, but his glove will get him to the bigs. Machado has just average speed, but it plays up in his range thanks to a quick first step. If Machado can put more muscle on his 6’1”, 170 lb frame, he could add power to his arsenal as well. Machado clearly has the potential to be an everyday shortstop. It will all come down to his ability to adjust to Major League pitching and hit the baseball with consistency.
The Tigers just picked up A.J. Simcox in the 14th round out of the University of Tennessee. He might not have as high of a floor as Machado who will surely contribute to a Major League team sooner than later, but Simcox does have the higher ceiling. He has all the tools to succeed besides power, but he could certainly add enough strength to reach double-digits in home runs on an annual basis. He’s got the speed and arm needed to stay at shortstop long term. Like almost every prospect with gifted defensive abilities, Simcox will go as far as his bat takes him.
Future Outlook: Defense wins championships
With Iglesias coming off a breakout year that included a .300 batting average and an All-Star apperance, the Tigers must be considering an extension for the 26 year-old. There are a lot of factors to take in account here though. The first one obviously being the play of Iglesias himself. The others being the development of Machado and/or Simcox. If either of them are showing real signs of being a better player than Iglesias (doubtful), then Detroit might halt at handing out loads of cash to Iglesias when Machado/Simcox could provide similar production for a fraction of the cost. If Iglesias keeps up his electric play while staying healthy, this becomes a lot easier decision for Al Avila and the Tigers front office.
When the Tigers signed Jose Valverde, they forfeited their first round pick in the 2010 MLB Draft. They got a 44th overall pick back as compensation for losing Brandon Lyon. They turned that 44th pick into Nick Castellanos and the rest is history. Castellanos is manning the hot corner for the Motor City kitties these days while Valverde and Lyon are both out of baseball altogether. As a former top prospect entering his age-24 season, a potential breakout campaign could be right around the corner for Castellanos. He has shown signs of improvement every year. The real question is how good can he get as he keeps developing his game?
Third base is one of the few positions on this team the Tigers don’t have to worry about for a significant amount of time (assuming they extend Castellanos’ contract). If Castellanos deals with lingering injuries or sees his production decline, Detroit has a scapegoat in Zach Shepherd. Shepherd only played in Single-A last year, but showed some potential. He’s got the glove and arm to stick at third at the hot corner and a bat that plays up. He’ll need to refine his approach to allow him to take advantage of the power he’ll likely develop as he matures.
Future Outlook: When, not if to extend Nick Castellanos
As a homegrown talent, Castellanos has really impressed Tigers executives as he’s emerging into a middle-of-the-order bat in the Majors. One glance at the Tigers 25-man roster, and the only two players of importance to come from Detroit’s system are Justin Verlander (2004 No. 2 overall pick) and Castellanos. The Tigers proved they’ll do whatever it takes to keep homegrown talent as they dished out a record $180MM to keep Verlander in the Motor City (which was later broken by Clayton Kershaw). Castellanos won’t cost nearly as much, but Detroit should follow the same approach of keeping their own.
The Tigers thought left field was such a problem, they invested $133MM to try to fix it. That’s how much it ended up costing Tigers owner Mike Ilitch to bring Justin Upton to Motown. Upton brings instant credibility to the Tigers lineup with 82 home runs over the past three seasons. He’s still just 28 years old despite his nine years of MLB experience. Upton could get even better with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez protecting him in the lineup.
Detroit has another stud in the other corner of the outfield in J.D. Martinez. Martinez provided the Tigers with 4.2 Wins Above Replacement in his breakout season in 2014 after recording a combined -1.9 WAR in the two seasons before that. While many pundits were expecting regression, Martinez upped the anti and posted a 5.0 WAR in 2015. Now 28 years old, Martinez is just entering his prime. Who knows what else he’s capable of, but Martinez has showed no signs of slowing down.
With two not so great fielders in the other two spots, the Tigers are relying on defense in center field. That’s what Anthony Gose’s game has been all about as he progressed through Toronto’s system as a top prospect. Unlike most players, Gose has seemed to take a step back as he’s reaching his mid-20’s. From being a 70+ steals threat in the minors, Gose only swiped 23 bags last year with a poor 68% success rate. The lost speed showed up on defense too as he was given a -10.4 UZR for his efforts of trying to cover the gaps in Comerica Park. Gose’s bat took a step in the right direction last year, but everything else went in the wrong direction. He’s still young enough (25) to believe he can figure things out still.
In the famous deal that brought Miguel Cabrera to Detroit also saw the Tigers give up their two best prospects in the process. Andrew Miller was the projectable lefty that never made it as a starter (although he’s rebounded into one of the best closers in the game) and Cameron Maybin was the 5-tool center fielder oozing with potential. While Detroit can definitely be declared the winner of the trade with the best player in franchise history, the Marlins have nothing to show for it. It looks even better now that the Tigers brought Maybin back to Detroit to complement Anthony Gose in center field. Of course, Maybin is no longer a top prospect, but he’ll still pass as a quality fourth outfielder these days.
Gose working out a long-term would be ideal, but Al Avila isn’t too concerned if he doesn’t. He knows regardless of Gose’s production, he has No. 2 prospect (according to Baseball Prospectus) Derek Hill waiting in the wings. Hill is all projection at this point as injuries have derailed his professional career thus far. Still, Hill has the best speed in the organization and a glove that will make him a pitcher’s best friend. He’ll need to prove he can hit before any fans get too excited about the former 23rd overall pick. He’s got all the tools to be the Detroit Tigers center fielder of the future, and he’ll be given three to four years to prove he is exactly that.
There’s no bigger boom or bust prospect in Detroit’s system than Steven Moya. Once viewed as the top prospect in the Motor City, Moya now is left out of the top-10. He has the power potential to hit 30 home runs annually, but also the contact issues to strike out over 200 times a season. They say hitting a 90 MPH ball with a piece of wood is the hardest thing to do in professional sports, and Moya definitely doesn’t make it look easy. Moya has some wheels, a solid glove, and a strong arm. It all comes down to improving his hitting. If he can hit the baseball, he can hit it far. He just has to hit the baseball.
The Tigers have a number of other young outfielders that have shown promise. Detroit’s 34th overall pick last year, Christin Stewart has the highest ceiling of them all as a power hitting left fielder. Mike Gerber is the opposite with a high floor, but relatively low ceiling. Both will need to improve their hitting approach before they enter the show if they want to stay there.
Tyler Collins and Wynton Bernard came to the Tigers in very different ways. Collins came the traditional way by being selected in the sixth round by Detroit in 2011. Meanwhile, Bernard had to effortlessly workout for Detroit before being brought aboard a year after being cut by the Padres. They were acquired in very different ways, but they’ll each have similar MLB careers as they each fit the mold of a fourth outfielder. Because of his outstanding makeup and persistence, Bernard has a better chance of ever making a bigger impact than that.
Future Outlook: Upton and Gose are locked up, but RF is wide open
Upton signed on for six years. Gose is under control for four more seasons. J.D. Martinez is the only Detroit outfielder expected to hit the market before 2020. He’ll certainly be looking for a nine-figure contract, especially if he keeps crushing the ball like he has been the past couple seasons. Detroit is loaded with outfield prospects. If any of them look like the real deal, the Tigers might be wise to trade Martinez away before he inevitably leaves in free agency, especially if the team falls out of contention. Trading Martinez would allow the Tigers to add players to their weak farm system, while opening up a spot for one of their young outfielders to prove their worth. They could always find veterans like Cameron Maybin to put out there if/when those players deal with growing pains or need more seasoning in the minors.
No player has ever logged more than 65 games at Designated Hitter and went on to win the MVP award since it’s inception in 1973. Victor Martinez almost broke that streak in 2014, but ultimately came up short as the runner-up behind Mike Trout. Finishing second is even more impressive considering David Ortiz is the only other designated hitter to ever finish second in MVP voting. Considering Trout’s sensational defense and Clayton Kershaw’s outstanding pitching led to their Most Valuable Player awards in 2014, it’s easy to argue Martinez’ exceptional .335/.409/.565 performance and league-leading .974 OPS (min 400 PA) made him the best hitter in the league that year. Despite entering his age-36 season, Detroit re-signed Martinez to a 4yr/$68MM contract to keep 2014’s best slugger in Motown.
One year later, the Tigers might be regretting that deal as Martinez only mustered a .667 OPS in an injury-riddled 2015 campaign. They still owe Martinez $18MM in each of the next three years as he approaches his 40’s. If Miguel Cabrera can hold his own at first base the next three years, that could make a transition to DH in 2019 very smooth. Cabrera isn’t getting any younger either, entering his age-33 season himself. By the time he takes over at designated hitter, he’ll be 36 years old. While most players are ineffective by then, Cabrera just led the American League in batting average and on-base percentage as a 32 year-old. It’s clear Cabrera’s hitting prowess doesn’t follow the typical biological laws that surround most players. Being able to rest as much as possible and only come out of the dugout four-five times a game should prolong Cabrera’s offensive success well into the 2020’s.
Future Outlook: Martinez still has three years on his deal
New GM Al Avila is stuck with the deal Dombrowski handed out to Martinez to keep him in Detroit’s batting order. In 2015, Martinez was a shell of his former self, but he's still owed $18MM a year until 2019. All Detroit can do now is sit back and hope he gets back to something closer to his 2014 production. Meanwhile, Cabrera is aging on his own right and likely won’t be able to handle the everyday duties of first base for long. Signed to a contract that goes through at least 2023, Cabrera isn’t going anywhere. Having him move to designated hitter after Martinez is no longer a Tiger could rejuvenate Cabrera’s career as he enters his mid-30’s.
Detroit’s former General Manager Dave Dombrowski made a name for himself by making blockbuster trades. Not only did he acquire David Price (by giving up top prospect Drew Smyly) in 2014, but then he traded him away in 2015, netting the Tigers Daniel Norris, Toronto’s former top prospect. Outside the lines, Norris has an interesting biography that has included living in a van and overcoming cancer. In between the lines, Norris has the stuff of a frontline starter, and is on the verge of translating that stuff into production. He started showing his ace-caliber potential down the stretch last year owning a 1.008 WHIP in his eight starts with Detroit. If he can hone his craft and polish his command, Norris could be that ace pitcher Dombrowski acquires once again for whatever team he’s running by then (if he’s no longer President of Baseball Operations for the Boston Red Sox).
Norris wasn’t the only lefty they received in the David Price trade last summer. The Tigers also acquired Matt Boyd and Jairo Labourt in the deal as well. While Boyd’s future seems less promising, Jairo Labourt has the repertoire that could help a big league pitching staff. Evaluators are split on Labourt’s eventual landing spot being the rotation or the bullpen. His high effort arm action in his delivery makes him more likely to end up in the bullpen where his fastball and plus slider will play up. Labourt has a ceiling anywhere from lefty specialist to dominant setup man.
Kevin Ziomek is another lefty that gives Detroit hope. Coming out of Vanderbilt in the second round in 2013, high expectations began to surround the now 24 year-old. Ziomek has impressed at each level he’s pitched at thanks to solid command of his low-90’s fastball, plus curveball, lefty-killing slider, and improving changeup. Ziomek’s ceiling is more of a No. 4 starter, but his control and feel for pitching gives plenty of reason to believe he’ll reach it.
Taken out of TCU in the second round in last year’s draft, the Tigers might have found another lefty to help out in the future rotation. The 6’3” Tyler Alexander doesn’t have overpowering stuff, but used his two years in college to improve his feel for pitching and develop outstanding command. Alexander also doesn’t have a high ceiling, but if he can keep pitching like he did in his professional debut (0.97 ERA, 0.595 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 1.2 BB/9 in 37 IP) he’ll make it there in no time.
Future Outlook: Give Daniel Norris some help
Right now, the Tigers rotation only features one lefty, Daniel Norris. While Norris should be a mainstay in Detroit’s rotation for years to come, they must add to the collection. Kevin Ziomek and Tyler Alexander have showed signs of helping out down the road, but 2018-2019 look like the earliest they’ll make an impact. Al Avila would be wise to acquire another lefty to place in the rotation alongside Norris, Verlander, Zimmermann, and Sanchez. Adding a player like Gio Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, or Jaime Garcia, who can all hit the market in the next year or two, would form a pretty formidable starting rotation for the next three-four years.
Justin Verlander’s decline has been greatly overhyped by the media. While Verlander’s 2014 ended with a 4.56 ERA, 1.398 WHIP, and a 6.9 SO/9 (lowest since his rookie season), much of that was due to injury. In 2015, Verlander was looking more like his old self, the one that won a MVP and Cy Young award in the same season in 2011. Those elite types of numbers can’t be expected as he enters his age-33 season considering his velocity has already slipped to 93.1 MPH on his fastball. But if he can stay healthy, Verlander is still one of the better pitchers in the American League.
Just in case Verlander does start to hit a steep decline, the Tigers devoted $110MM to land another frontline starter in Jordan Zimmermann. Zimmermann is a two-time All-Star while receiving Cy Young votes in both 2013 and 2014. Most impressive about the soon-to-be 30 year-old is his level of consistency. He has started at least 32 games, pitched at least 195 innings, struck out at least 150 batters all while allowing a 2.0 BB/9 or less in each of the last four seasons. Zimmermann is as safe a bet it gets as far as frontline starting pitcher is concerned.
Anibal Sanchez had a similar model of consistency from 2010-2013 until finger and pectoral injuries slowed him down in 2014. He followed that up with a disaster 2015 season highlighted by shoulder problems. Injuries are starting to take their tole on Sanchez as he enters his age-32 season. Given a clean bill of health heading into the 2016 season, Sanchez hopes to go back to being one of the better righties in the game.
Unlike Verlander, Zimmermann, and Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey is a starter that won’t fool anyone for an ace. The former ninth overall pick in 2005 has struggled in his MLB career after being one of the best prospects in the game. Pelfrey got his velocity back up and had a respectable walk year in Minnesota last season which led to his 2yr/$16MM pact with Detroit. He has built a reputation as a streaky pitcher. When he’s on, he’s on, but when he’s off, he’s really off. If he’s off his game for an extended time in Detroit, they have enough options where they might convert Pelfrey into a full-time reliever.
The Tigers lost a very valuable pitcher in Robbie Ray in the three-way trade that sent Didi Gregorius to the Bronx. The player they netted in that trade was Shane Greene. Greene showed a lot of potential in New York with his six-pitch arsenal. Unfortunately, he hasn’t been able to control his pitches and has proven to be ineffective. If Greene doesn’t start showing why the Tigers traded for him in 2016, he could be on his way out struggling to ever find a Major League roster spot again.
The Tigers have themselves a pair of young righties atop their prospect rankings in Michael Fulmer and Beau Burrows. Fulmer was the reason Detroit was okay with shipping Yoenis Cespedes to the Big Apple. The unquestioned No. 1 prospect in the system, Fulmer brings heat with his fastball that he combines with a power slider as well as a curveball and changeup that both need work. Some scouts view Fulmer as a future No. 3/No. 4 starter, but that’ll come down to the progress he makes on both his curveball and changeup. While his fastball-slider combo are ready for a bullpen job today, the development of his other two pitches will go a long way in proving he’s starter material.
Burrows on the other hand shattered any speculation as to whether he fits better in the rotation or the ‘pen after altering his delivery during his first taste of pro ball. As an amateur, Burrows would often come over the top with high effort, but started to change his approach to more of a three-quarter slot, and a more repeatable delivery. He’s got a lively fastball like Fulmer, but combines it with a hard curveball and a changeup with immense potential. As long as Burrows can keep improving the command of his offspeed pitches during his three or four years of minor league development, he could reach his ceiling as a mid-rotation starter for the Tigers.
One starter in Detroit’s system that’s almost guaranteed to end up in the bullpen is Spencer Turnbull. Turnbull has everything scouts see in potential relievers: velocity (93-95 MPH fastball), a stiff deliver, struggling command, and a lack of quality secondary offerings. He still only has a ceiling as a seventh inning guy if he even makes it there.
Future Outlook: Michael Fulmer is the key
Verlander, Zimmermann, and Sanchez could form one of the best trio’s in the game if Verlander nor Sanchez let their age or injury history prevent them from doing so. While Fulmer could join them atop the rotation soon, it remains a possibility he could end up as a dominant closer instead. When the Tigers traded away a player of Yoenis Cespedes' caliber, they were hoping to get a future frontline starter in return.
Considering Detroit has struggled to put together a competent bullpen in recent memory, adding Fulmer back there might not be such a bad idea. Detroit has an aging Verlander, a consistent Zimmermann, and a promising Fulmer all penciled in for the rotation over the next four-five years alongside Daniel Norris if Fulmer does remain a starter. If he can’t improve the command of his complementary pitches, Beau Burrows becomes a much more essential piece in Detroit’s chances of competing for a championship.
The Tigers haven’t seen their bullpen ranked among the top half in the majors leagues at preventing runs once in the past half-decade. So, they brought in one of the best closers in the past decade. Francisco Rodriguez’ 327 saves over the last ten years trails only Jonathan Papelbon. Detroit is hoping that K-Rod’s experienced arm gives them a reliable presence ending games.
In addition to K-Rod, The Tigers brought in Mark Lowe to help their bullpen struggles. Like most relievers, Lowe’s Major League career has had it’s fair share of high’s and low’s. 2015 was definitely a high for the 10-year veteran. Lowe’s 1.96 ERA, 1.055 WHIP, and 5.08 K/BB ratio were all career high’s. At 32 years old, we’ll see if he can keep that up, or if he’ll go back to his career norms (3.80 ERA, 1.400 WHIP, 2.13 K/BB ratio).
Continuing the pattern of acquiring rival teams’ relievers, they brought in Justin Wilson from the Bronx. Wilson had a sneaky good year in such a large market. Overshadowed by the electric combo of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, Wilson improved his game in almost all areas during his age-27 season. He set career highs in FIP (2.69), K/9 (9.7), and BB/9 (3.0). Wilson doesn’t own much of a platoon split, so he’ll fit in nicely in the back end of Detroit’s bullpen going forward.
The Tigers had three effective relievers last year: Blaine Hardy, Alex Wilson, and Drew VerHagen. Uncoincidentally, they’re the only pitchers that threw over 11 innings for Detroit last year and were retained by new GM Al Avila besides the promising Bruce Rondon as Avila implements his own theory for how the bullpen should look.
Hardy is more of a lefty specialist forced into a bigger role due to Detroit’s lack of relief options. With improved personnel, Hardy can go back to being that reliever manager Brad Ausmus brings out against the lethal left-handed bats this year. He’s limited lefties to a paltry .227/.302/.301 slash line in his 100 career innings.
The Tigers got Alex Wilson as a throw-in through the Yoenis Cespedes-Rick Porcello swap from a year ago. After not establishing himself in Boston, Wilson provided Detroit with 70 innings of 2.19 earned run ball in 2015. Wilson won’t fool anyone for a strikeout king (4.9 K/9), but he’ll try to continue his effective ways in the long relief role.
In VerHagen’s case, he’s the only effective reliever coming back that’s even a homegrown talent. Taken with a fourth round pick in 2012, VerHagen fits more of the spot starter/long reliever that can go for multiple innings effectively. Sometimes those are valuable (Adam Warren), and sometimes they’re not (Chris Rusin).
On the other hand, Bruce Rondon has all the potential in the world to be an elite closer but injuries and “effort problems” have led to him hurting the team more than helping it thus far. While his fastball velocity dipped 2 ticks in velocity post-Tommy John surgery in 2015, it was still touching 99 on occasion, averaging 97.7 MPH altogether. His slider’s effectiveness gives him a quality combination that makes scouts view him as a potential closer if he can just put it all together.
Detroit’s other x-factor in the back-end of the bullpen is Jose Valdez. Equipped with a 96 MPH heater and a lethal slider, Valdez shows closer potential as well. He’s wildly inconsistent with his command though leading to an absurd 6.0 BB/9 in 57 Triple-A innings. It’s boom or bust for Valdez here in 2016. Rondon and Valdez both establishing themselves as effective late-inning options going forward is a best-case scenario.
Worst-case scenario is they both don’t work out, but Detroit will still have Michael Fulmer and Joe Jimenez ready to close games for future Tigers teams. Out of all of them, Detroit is most confident in Jimenez eventually taking over the role after seeing him dominate minor leaguers. Angel Nesbitt and Gerson Moreno each have a chance of being an impact relievert, but scouts are hesitant to believe either of them will succeed.
The Tigers aren’t just making the bullpen a priority in the big leagues, they’re making it a priority in farm system as well. They spent a third round pick (99th overall) on Drew Smith, a flamethrowing reliever. He absolutely dominated minor league hitters in his professional debut. He owned a 0.29 ERA, 0.710 WHIP, 11K/9, and 1.5 BB/9 in 33 innings mostly in Low-A ball.
Paul Voelker has also made some noise in his professional career thus far. His 2.19 ERA, 1.057 WHIP, 10.7 K/9, 3.2 BB/9 stacks up to almost anyone else in the farm system. Most evaluators seeing him likelier fitting the sixth or seventh inning role, especially with all the talent in front of him.
Future Outlook: Kansas City’s success is wearing off on Detroit
After seeing their rival Kansas City’s pitching staff consistently close out games en route to winning the 2015 World Series, Detroit is making the bullpen a priority. They’re stacking powerful young arms in their overall weak farm system. They’re hoping some combination of Joe Jimenez, Michael Fulmer, Bruce Rondon, Jose Valdez, Jairo Labourt, Gerson Moreno, and Paul Voelker becomes the stingiest unit in the league. If not, they haven’t been shy on spending for relief arms like their splurge this past offseason showed us, so that could be another avenue Avila pursues in fortifying the second worst bullpen over the past three years (regarding ERA).
OVERALL OUTLOOK: Detroit will be competitive, but not champions
Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila have collectively put together a formidable roster. One that’s very old-fashioned in a few ways: defense up the middle, power on the edges, velocity being a priority for pitchers, etc. Detroit’s kryptonite has been a weak bullpen in year's past, so new General Manager Al Avila made sure he added valuable relievers to the clubhouse in the form of Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, and Mark Lowe. The Tigers could have a lot of power in their lineup with Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Victor Martinez, and a young Nick Castellanos all in the fold for at least the next two years. Detroit’s pitching staff is above-average, but they're already the third oldest in the league and getting very expensive.
Despite an overall weak farm system, Detroit has a couple of guys (Beau Burrows and Tyler Alexander) that could be mainstays in future rotations. With a roster lacking the depth needed for deep playoff runs, Avila needs to add the pieces necessary to compete for a championship now, or focus on building Detroit’s next championship caliber team in the future. With an aging Major League roster, and mediocre farm system, it'll be almost impossible for him to do both.
*Detailed analysis conducted April 2, 2016; rankings and charts updated throughout the season.