Can the Detroit Tigers Win in 2016?

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I think it has been safely established that the Tigers don’t look as good right now as they did last March or last September – at least on paper. I also think that it has been safely established that these 2015 Tigers do look like they have the necessary talent to win their division and make a World Series run – though they aren’t shoo-ins and they won’t likely be able to make the postseason in spite of the kinds of adversity they have dealt with in some years.

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What we’re hearing a lot of chatter about is the “closing window” for the Tigers, though. It is true that well-paid cogs are getting older and that financial commitments are biting harder. It is also true that the Tigers have dealt away so many prospects over the past decade that there is precious little left on the farm to rebuild from. The question being asked is this: is 2015 the Tigers last good chance (before we Tigers fans have to suffer through another top-to-bottom rebuild)?

If we look ahead to November of 2015 we can see that the Tigers will have only 5 players under contract (Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler) and that those 5 guys are owed a total of $105.8 million for 2016.

At this point we should expect to see David Price, Yoenis Cespedes, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Tom Gorzelanny, Joba Chamberlain, Alex Avila, Alfredo Simon and Rajai Davis hit free agency.

We likewise expect (at this point) to see Nick Castellanos at 3rd base, Anthony Gose in center, James McCann catching, Bruce Rondon and Ian Krol in the bullpen and Shane Greene in the rotation as the Tigers “cheap”, pre-arbitration players.

Al Alburquerque will be entering his 3rd arbitration year, JD Martinez his second and Jose Iglesias his first. Combining the arb-eligibles and the pre-eligibles should come in a bit under $15 million for 2015 – provided Martinez doesn’t hit so poorly that he is non-tendered and doesn’t hit so well that his salary jumps by $10 million (he appears to be capable of either).

It is difficult to say with any real confidence that the Tigers should expect meaningful contributions in important roles in 2016 from anyone not listed above – though we will be watching throughout the 2015 season to see who from the Tigers long-list of B and C prospects look like they might elevate their game to that level.

The Tigers are therefore probably going to enter the 2015-2016 offseason with a lot of holes to fill and something like $50 million available to fill them all. They’ll need to find at least one starting pitcher (maybe two if no one in the minors looks ready to contribute), a corner outfielder and a couple of top bullpen arms.

Given that, we’ll also be expecting backup outfielders and infielders to come “from within” as well as 6th and 7th men in the bullpen. These are areas that in the past Dombrowski has not always been confident in handing over to spring training competition to decide.

Is that “doable”? It certainly should be. It may or may not be advisable for the Tigers to lock up Price. The necessary contract would have an AAV close to $30 million and would probably be long, long, long. It is unclear whether Price would want such a contract from the Tigers anyway. What we can tell is that next years free agent class looks extraordinarily deep (though mid-season extensions may change things) in terms of starting pitching.

Solid bullpen arms can always be had if you’re willing to spend $6 million or so and don’t get seduced by the lure of the “established closer”. The outfield picture is dicier, with a couple of stars in Jason Heyward a Justin Upton, a handful of other desirable contributors, some big gambles and a lot of chaff.

It is possible – even easy – to imagine an offseason in which the Tigers let David Price and Yoenis Cespedes walk and take the compensation picks. They might replace them with – to name some purely hypothetical names – Yovani Gallardo and Gerardo Parra along with extending Joakim Soria and signing Manny Parra. That wouldn’t exactly leave the Tigers tapped out, but certainly leave them without the necessary financial wiggle-room to pursue any big guns. They would be entering Spring Training next February planning to fill some roster spots with internal competition.

The question would be “could those Tigers win?” I think we will have a much better idea of that by the time the 2015 season draws to a close. It won’t so much depend upon how well the 2015 Tigers finish but on performances by certain guys. It is just possible that the Tigers could make the postseason in 2015 despite poor performances from the guys that they will be counting on in 2016, particularly if they are led by a resurgent Joe Nathan (Hah!) and Price and Cespedes play as well as they are capable of. But… the Tigers wouldn’t be able to pay to keep those guys or pay to replace their lost production.

We will have a good idea in a year whether we should expect star-level or AAAA-level production from JD Martinez. We’ll know whether our hopes for Nick Castellanos, Bruce Rondon and Jose Iglesias have been dashed. We’ll know whether last season was an aberration or the new normal for Justin Verlander and whether age and injury will wear down Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Ian Kinsler. It should go without saying that if we do not expect those four to average at least – say – 3.5 WAR apiece in 2016, the team is going to be unlikely to contend. Whether we have hopes for a championship in 2016 will also depend hugely on two guys that not a lot of people are talking about: Anthony Gose and Shane Greene.

If Gose is able to be a league average center fielder (ZiPS currently projects him at 1.9 WAR as a full-timer) and Shane Greene actually looks like a #3 starter (he has stuff – though he lacks a prospect pedigree) it will go a long way towards making contention in 2016 a reasonable goal. On the other hand, if the Tigers have some of these guys “not pan out” to the extent that they need to be seeking replacements through free agency or trade, the odds are long.

If some of the young guys look like budding stars, we may be full of optimism about the 2016 season. If they look like workable major leaguers, then we should expect an offseason very much like the past one – in which we mourn for lost talent but expect another exciting roll of the dice. But what if things don’t look so good? It’s possible Rondon can’t get throw strikes, Castellanos proves that he cannot stick at third base, Shane Greene leads the league in home runs allowed and Justin Verlander’s ERA sticks persistently closer to 5.00 than 4.00.

As I mentioned, a Tigers team like that could just possibly win 80-some games and make a postseason run. There’s depth and talent to go with the uncertainty. But… a team like that would seem to have no chance of remaining in contention without a spending spree no-one thinks Ilitch can afford. We might get another gamble on 2016 anyway, since no one wants to give up too soon, but projections would probably put the Tigers at something like a 78-win dark horse. Fan enthusiasm and attendance would decline dramatically and a top-to-bottom rebuild (combined potentially with a sale of the team) would seem like the only realistic option. We could expect to see the players we have grown so attached to auctioned off for a handful of middling prospects (and with a lot of salary “eaten” in the process) since

What I am trying to say is that the Tigers are not entering the last year of their “window” right now. Their “window” has no foretold closing date. We will see as the season plays out whether there is another year left, and the same will be true every year. This is different from the scenario many of us would prefer – that of teams like the Cardinals – in which a deep farm system is relied upon to keep competitiveness affordable rather than to fuel a short-term dash towards the pennant. Teams that are run that way have to accept slightly lower championship odds in exchange for stability and a future. But the situation that the Tigers and their fans find themselves in right now isn’t as grim as all that.

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