At some point, someone here at Glass Half Fulmer will pen an elegy for the 2019 season. I’m pretty sure readers can predict the major beats of that story: the farm got better, the major league club was abysmal, the future will probably be better. You’re going to read that piece in varying degrees a lot this offseason.
I’m not here to write that piece. I’m here to focus on something that Tigers fans seem to know but also tend to overlook in favor of focusing on the farm system and player development.
It’s time for Chris Ililch to spend money.
For the last ten years, the Tigers did nothing but spend money. In his quest for a World Series, the late Mike Illich never met a player he didn’t want to pay. Lose your DH for the season? No problem- go drop $214 million on Prince Fielder. Need a piece for your rotation so you can make one last run at a championship? Here’s $110 million for Jordan Zimmermann.
Want an elite hitter? How about $130 million for Justin Upton! All those big contracts led to a very high payroll for the Tigers, topping out at $173 million for the ill-fated 2015 club.
Understandably, after Mike died and the Tigers began rebuilding, it made little sense to waste millions on a roster that was destined to finish in the lower half of the American League. Spending $172 million on the 2016 roster, which finished second in the Central may have been justifiable, but with zero financial flexibility and tons of bloated contracts, there was no more space to add players.
The problem is that the Tigers are no longer big spenders. While contracts for Jordan Zimmermann ($25 million) and Miguel Cabrera ($30 million) still weigh down the books, the Tigers have no other major financial commitments. They also lack expensive arbitration cases. Matthew Boyd will deservedly get a raise over the $2.6 million he earned this year, and Daniel Norris will make more than $1.2 million. Otherwise, the only major financial commitment is to the injured Michael Fulmer, making $3 million this year. There’s a real chance that not one of those players makes more than Jordy Mercer did this year (though I’d guess Boyd beats him in his second year of arbitration).
The end result is that the Tigers’ payroll in 2020 will be, before free agent additions, somewhere around $80 million. Add onto that $6 million in dead money from the Prince Fielder trade, and the Tigers have about $90 million in payroll. That puts them $46 million behind the average MLB payroll in 2019 of $136 million.
Right now, though, there’s little sign that the Tigers plan to use that financial flexibility. When asked about potential additions from outside the organization, Illich deflected, and as The Athletic’s Cody Stavenhagen observed, it seemed very clear that fans can expect little in terms of outside relief.
And now we come to the crux of the matter. While the Tigers have a much better farm system than they did five years ago (Fangraphs has the Tigers 8th overall), they’re still shallow when it comes to position prospects. On top of that, the Tigers as an organization have struggled to develop good hitters. The list essentially consists of Curtis Granderson, who spent five years in a Tigers uniform. In an age of austerity throughout baseball and a growing emphasis on home-grown position player prospects, fans point to the lack of good hitters in the farm as proof that the rebuild won’t be good enough.
Anyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I think that argument is bunk. As the game moves more toward elite homegrown position players defining the best teams, it’s an understandable position to take, but it overlooks a critical aspect of team building: free agency. More and more, the answer to the Tigers woes (great as they might be) is a simple one. Spend money.
And this works for almost anything. Consider the following:
The Tigers hitters are historically bad! They were worth -3.1 WAR in 2019!
So spend money.
Tigers catchers put up -2.0 bWAR this season. That means Grayson Greiner, John Hicks, and Jake Rogers cost the team two wins over the course of 2019. Had the Tigers signed Martin Maldonado (0.9 WAR, $2.5 million) or Alex Avila (1.2 WAR, $4 million), they would have won three more games. Tigers second basemen were worth -1.0 bWAR last season. Bringing in Asdrubal Cabrera ($3m, 1.8 WAR) would have improved the team by three more wins. For $7.5 million, you could have had Jonathan Schoop (1.3 WAR).
And those are just the stopgaps! Yasmani Grandal settled for one year, $16 million from the Brewers. He put up 5 WAR. Mike Moustakas took $10 million from the Brewers for one year. He was worth almost 3 WAR. Michael Brantley was worth 4 WAR. The Astros got him for two years and $32 million.
Sure, none of those guys would have altered the awfulness of this year’s club, but all four look like they could be decent role players over the next three or four years. And the position player market is bad enough that they probably would have taken a 3-4 year deal with a reasonable AAV. Going into this offseason, for instance, 3 years $60 million might be enough to add Josh Donaldson, filling third base for the next couple years. That makes the team watchable in the short term while giving you building blocks for when the young pitchers finally hit.
The Tigers can’t develop high-walk, high power players!
So spend money.
The Tigers have almost $50 million before they hit a league average salary. They could sign Anthony Rendon without coming close to $130 million. Want more patience and power in the lineup? We already mentioned Josh Donaldson and Yasmani Grandal, both of whom would be improvements. But Marcel Ozuna’s going to be 29 and he can hit for power and take walks. Give him a four year deal and at the very least, you’ve patched an outfield hole. Yasiel Puig gives you a league average wRC+ with upside. Hell, Todd Frazier has an ISO close to .200.
I mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Tigers fans are laser-focused on developing homegrown offensive talent. I get it- it’d be great to have our very own Mookie Betts.
But historically, the Tigers have been better at developing pitching. Why try to do something that you’re bad at when you can patch the hole with money, especially when you have so much? As Craig Goldstein put it at Baseball Prospectus, financial flexibility gets you nowhere if you’re not willing to use it. Let’s use it.
The Tigers were so bad that spending on hitters won’t really help!
No. Spend money.
For a while, driven by prospect highs and an absurd amount of optimism, I thought Detroit could be competitive in 2020. I thought that for two reasons. First, the Tigers have so many good young arms moving so quickly that even after the attrition of the minor leagues, the pitching staff is going to be awesome. Second, I did the math on financial flexibility (see above) and realized that we had FIFTY MILLION DOLLARS to spend in a buyer’s market.
Welp, that was a bad take. The arms didn’t move fast enough, Michael Fulmer had the first Tommy John surgery for an important pitcher in this organization in recent memory, and Illich decided that he didn’t want to spend.
It’s that last one that really gets me, though. Ever the relentless optimist, I’d argue that the young arms will be up in 2021 and 2022. So why not strike now? MLB free agency is broken. The headlines are everywhere. Players like Grandal and Donaldson (there they are again) struggled to find homes last year. It’s time for the organization to take advantage.
Adding Marcel Ozuna probably won’t make the Tigers appreciably better next year. But the way things are looking, you could probably get him for the same average annual value as Mike Moustakas, and if you’re willing to offer four or five years, there’s a real chance he takes that deal. Locking up a guy like Ozuna through age 34, or Donaldson through age 35, or Grandal through age 34, doesn’t get you the same bargain that the Braves got when they signed Ronald Acuna. But the free agent makes your team better into the future, so that when Mize and Manning and Skubal and all the rest finally make it to Comerica, they have a decent lineup around them,
The Tigers can’t wait, either. As Fansided’s new Editorial Director for baseball Kurt Mensching put it, you can’t just sign a crop of free agents all at once. It’s incumbent on a team to look at their minor league system and their roster and project into the future. A dearth of high-quality upper minors prospects in the outfield, for instance, means that signing Marcel Ozuna for four years is probably a worthwhile move. An organizational weakness at the corners means Josh Donaldson solves some problems. No decent second base options in the foreseeable future means that maybe three years on Jonathan Schoop is a worthwhile bet. Regardless of the player, now is the time to strike. Start filling holes on the 2021 and 2022 roster today.
Nobody will come to Detroit! The team is terrible!
They will if you spend money.
In 2004, nobody wanted to pay Pudge Rodriguez. Dave Dombrowski gave him $40 million over 4 years. In 2005, nobody wanted to pay Magglio Ordonez. Dombrowski gave him $85 million over five years. Today, nobody wants to pay anybody. You don’t need to be Dave Dombrowski to complete the pattern.
In conclusion, despite an awful 2019, the Tigers have a bright future. But that future is bright in large part because of a whole lot of financial flexibility. It’s time for Chris Illich to actually use it.
Don’t wait. Spend money.