The Detroit Tigers are not going to be very good this year.
This is not news to anyone reading this. They’ve spent the last eight months gutting their roster and trading anything with value that isn’t nailed down. (Sorry, Miguel.) It means that, for the first time in over a decade, the Tigers are embarking on a season in which pretty much everyone involved thinks they have no chance. Sure, there have been years where they’ve floundered or finished well off the pace before – 2008, 2010, 2015 – but it wasn’t for lack of effort.
It has come to my attention that there are a lot of people who are going to find this jarring. If you turn 22 this year, that means you were only 10 years old in 2006, and over half of your life has been lived with the Tigers being relevant. Heck, if you’re currently in college, your memories of non-contending Tigers teams are fuzzy at best and more likely nonexistent. Even if you’re older like me and do have rather vivid memories of those late-90s and early-2000s teams, it’s been a while. We could all use a refresher course.
That is the question. How do you watch – and derive entertainment from – a team that will be mediocre at best and horrendously awful at worst?
Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila has a very busy two weeks ahead of him.
Despite whatever conjecture there will be via public or private comments, the Tigers are likely to at least sell some assets at the trade deadline. This will be the first time this happens under Avila, though he was heavily involved in Dave Dombrowski’s 2015 selloff.
I have, at times, been a bit surprised by the antipathy some Tigers fans harbor toward Avila. The truth of the matter is that his list of moves, particularly on the trade front, is not that long. There are the ones that he didn’t make, but according to those in the know, was hugely responsible for — Michael Fulmer was his idea, as was J.D. Martinez.
A majority of Avila’s free agent signings have been criticized, but looked sound at the time. Justin Upton looked like a disaster, but is now an All-Star. Jordan Zimmermann hasn’t worked out, but not even the most cynical fan could have predicted a spate of injuries and what happened after. Mark Lowe was iffy, but it was really only the Mike Pelfrey signing that commanded significant resources and was ripe for criticism immediately. Even that, as bad as it was, will have no long-term implications, as Pelfrey’s dollars will come off the books after this season. It was just the wrong choice.
What about Avila’s trades? Let’s go through the significant ones.
November 18, 2015 — Tigers trade infielder Javier Betancourt and catcher Manny Pina to the Milwaukee Brewers for relief pitcher Francisco Rodriguez.
Whatever you think of what Rodriguez turned into in 2017, the Tigers did give up nothing of value to get him. Pina is a career backup, while Betancourt is a career .234 hitter at AA.
In 2016, Rodriguez posted a 3.24 ERA and saved 44 games for the Tigers. He did it for $7.5 million dollars. Was he elite? No. Did he blow some bad ones? Yes. Was he good enough overall? Pretty much. The Tigers got a year of decent relief pitching for nothing.
November 20, 2015 — Tigers trade relief pitcher Ian Krol and pitcher Gabe Speier to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for outfielder Cameron Maybin.
Again, Avila gives up little of value here. Speier has some potential, but doesn’t look like he’s about to become an elite reliever or anything like that. Krol is an inconsistent LOOGY. Maybin hit .315 in an injury-plagued season for the Tigers before being dealt again. Good deal, though, one that fans can have no complaints with.
December 9, 2015 — Tigers trade pitchers Chad Green and Luis Cessa to the New York Yankees in exchange for pitcher Justin Wilson.
Outstanding. On one hand, both Green and Cessa have turned into big leaguers, and Green has turned out to be a pretty good reliever. So is Wilson, though — a hard-throwing lefty who should command a significant return on the trade market. The rare trade that works for both sides, but it’s safe to say there are few regrets from the Tigers side of the deal.
November 3, 2016 — Tigers trade outfielder Cameron Maybin to the Los Angeles Angels for pitcher Victor Alcantara.
A salary dump, pretty much. Doesn’t look great on the surface. Alcantara has good stuff if he can ever get command of it.
That’s it. There are some other minor ones — swapping Bryan Holaday for Bobby Wilson, and the Mikie Mahtook deal — but Avila is, near as I can tell, loathed by certain segments of the fanbase on the basis of four trades — three of which were good — and four free agent signings, as well as his retention of Brad Ausmus as manager.
Why? Who knows. The obvious answer is the team hasn’t succeeded despite a high payroll, but a number of the contracts that have led to this situation were handed out by Avila’s predecessor. The same goes for the lack of prospects and roster flexibility — the result of an organization under a mandate from ownership to stretch the window out as long as possible, even when it probably shouldn’t have been. Was Avila second in command during that time? Yes. We don’t know how much or how little input he had on all these moves.
The reality is, as much as some Tigers fans would like to write Avila’s epitaph now, his record as general manager of the team is very much a blank slate. What happens in the next two weeks will go a long way toward defining it.
As if you haven’t figured out by now, things aren’t going well for the Tigers at the present time. It was a very strange 8-game losing streak in that every game except one seems to have hinged on a single moment (the one exception being the finale against the Rays), but it is a losing streak nonetheless (and that’s a story for another post). It’s only natural that the word “sell” starts to creep into writers’ minds. Al Avila has gone on record saying that they are “open for discussions,” which is about as vague a comment as you can get. Seriously, is there any point in time (other than possibly October) when a team is NOT open for discussion? Still, it raises an important question: What do they mean when they say “sell?” If you’ve been reading much of the local sports media, they’ll have you believe it’s nothing short of full rebuild. I can’t say for sure what’s in the front office’s mind, but I find this approach to be ill-advised and unnecessary (and I’ll get into some of the reasons shortly). Rather, if they don’t get things turned around, I think a much better approach would be to do something akin to what they did in 2015, which was to trade away impending free agents, and I’ll even include guys whose contracts are up at the end of next season. I call this the mini-sell, and I have very specific criteria for how to go about doing it. Now, I have not thrown in the towel yet on this season. I am much too obstinate and stubborn to give up with this much time left until the trade deadline, so for now, think of this as a contingency plan if things continue to go south. And without further ado, I bring you my rules for the mini-sell:
A day after another forgettable outing in a long string of forgettable outings, the Tigers decided they had finally seen enough of their erstwhile closer, Francisco Rodriguez. K-Rod, if you missed it, was called upon to keep the Tigers close in a 5-3 game, but quickly loaded and unloaded the bases, giving up a grand slam to Robinson Canó. Afterwards, he declined to speak to the media. One suspected it might not be long until the other shoe dropped.
And indeed it did.
Today, the Tigers finally severed ties with K-Rod, ending a (recently) fraught relationship full of role shuffling, blown saves, homerun balls, and accusations of miscommunication:
The #Tigers have released RHP Francisco Rodriguez and placed OF Alex Presley on the 7-day concussion DL
— Detroit Tigers (@tigers) June 23, 2017
The Tigers recalled the hard throwing Bruce Rondón to replace K-Rod. Rondón, who’s been something of an enigma during his Tigers tenure, was shuttled to Toledo after several rocky appearances out of the bullpen in April. He’s come up with mixed results in Toledo, which include a robust 11.1 K/9 and an equally robust 6.1 BB/9, but he’s been much better lately.
In his last ten appearances, Rondón has thrown 10 innings, allowed 2 runs, struck out 12, and walked only 3. It’s imperative—for both the Tigers and Rondón—that the right hander has a strong return.
As for K-Rod, the veteran closer departs as the fourth all-time saves leader (h/t Chris McCosky), and may very well be destined for Cooperstown. It’s sad K-Rod’s ending in Detroit couldn’t be more of the storybook variety, but age catches up to us all one way or another.
We’re only a third of the way through the season, so not probably not very much. However, it did show us some very important things. Namely, Jordan Zimmermann can resemble his old, pre-injury self when he has a handle on his once deadly slider. It showed us that the Tigers’ bullpen is pretty dang good now, and might have some unsung heroes, such as long-man Warwick Saupold. This series also showed us two different sides to the Tigers’ sometimes explosive, often frustrating offense: they can destroy weak pitching with the long ball and rack up extra base hits and they can play a little smallball, move runners along, and cash them in at opportune moments.
Almost everything went right for the Tigers in their three-game sweep of the lowly White Sox. And when something didn’t go as planned—such as de facto ace Justin Verlander leaving Sunday’s game early with a groin injury or stalwart set-up man Alex Wilson faltering in the eighth—different players stepped up to carry the team.
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