Detroit Tigers: How Far Away Are the Tigers From Competing?

The Detroit Tigers are starting to see some of their top talent approach the big leagues, but it is fair to question just how many pieces the club will need to build a contender

Winning in baseball is hard; especially tough when it feels as if the rich continue to get richer in terms of talent. Of course, many teams felt this was the case for the Detroit Tigers over the first half of the 2010’s. But the construction of teams today truly pales in comparison to what some teams are able to do in the game today.

Take the LA Dodgers, for example. About five months ago, the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts and David Price, and since the Red Sox were public about their desire to cut payroll along with the Dodgers’ willingness to include Price in the deal, the prospect capital given up in Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs not only trades away from positions of strength for the Dodgers, but also lessened the quality of talent that went to Boston. Fast-forward a few months and Betts has now inked a massive deal to stay in Los Angeles for the next dozen seasons in a deal worth over $300 million.

Toward the beginning of the season, their ace and left-handed starting pitcher Clayton Kershaw got scratched from his Opening Day start in LA due to back stiffness. But the Dodgers don’t have Dario Agrazal; they have Dustin May; a 22-year old red-headed flamethrower who would give up just one run over 4.1 innings on short notice.

The point is that today’s contenders are ridiculously deep. Not only from a talent perspective, but from a payroll perspective and an intellectual perspective as well. Not only do teams like the Dodgers and Yankees have the ability to spend money, but they have the ability to do it wisely while still continuously developing major league talent.

For the Detroit Tigers, then, where is the path to contention? How many pieces do they need to add before they can be good again? How long should we expect that to take? These are the questions every Detroit Tigers fan is beginning to ask; as the teams’ contention window continues to get pushed back due to players acquired who have under-performed (Dawel Lugo, Jeimer Candelario) as well as injuries (Michael Fulmer, Franklin Perez).

This Means WAR

From a Wins Above Replacement perspective, the Detroit Tigers will need to be in, at minimum, the mid-40’s as a team before they begin to contend and make the playoffs. This is evidenced first by looking at arguably the two best Tigers teams during their last contention window: the 2012 and 2013 clubs.

In 2012, the team actually posted a team bWAR of 42.9, which is surprisingly low for a team that went to the World Series–this mainly due to their outfield, which combined for nearly -4 bWAR between Ryan Raburn, Delmon Young, and Brennan Boesch. In 2013, the club was more talented; producing 53.5 bWAR, which is a number more consistent with what it would take to contend in today’s game. The last two World Series clubs, the 2019 Nationals and the 2018 Red Sox, averaged a team bWAR of 51.35 on their respective clubs; confirming the idea that today’s game requires both more talent as well as more depth compared to the Tigers clubs last decade.

In 2019, which will likely be more indicative of where the team is really at compared to this season (due to the slew of one-year signings), the Detroit Tigers posted a net 8.6 bWAR as a team. On the 2018 World Series Red Sox campaign, Mookie Betts produced 10.6 bWAR on his own! For the sake of round numbers, let’s say then that the Tigers need to find 40 bWAR.

Of course, some of the improvement will simply be addition by subtraction. For example, in 2019, Gordon Beckham, Ryan Carpenter, and Travis Demeritte all posted bWAR numbers at -1.0 or worse. So for those positions and roles, adding a 2 bWAR player would really be a net gain of 3 bWAR or better. Let us assume that they are able to rid about half of their negative WAR talent, or about 5 bWAR. So we would be at 35 bWAR needed to contend.

That means Detroit would need about 12 players to average about 3 bWAR to reach contention in a season beyond what they already have. Of course, the hope is some players will continue to improve and build on what they have produced as well, but between injuries and likely an equal regression, we will leave this possibility alone.

A 3 bWAR player is a nice MLB player; so to assume Avila and company can turn over half of their active roster into these types of players in short order is misguided. Of course, the Detroit Tigers would not be just looking for any player with talent, as moving valuable players off the club may not bring excess value. Here are some positions Detroit might look to improve from outside of the organization as they try to compete:

Corner Outfield

The Detroit Tigers have had a tough time developing corner outfield bats. Matt Joyce has turned in a respectable big league career, but Brennan Boesch, Andy Dirks, Steven Moya, Reynaldo Rivera, and Christin Stewart are some of the names that have underwhelmed for Detroit in the outfield from within. Looking outside to get help, especially with power at the position, will be vital to the success of the rebuild.

Second Base

The Tigers’ woes with development at second base have been less than exciting as well. The club had moved Dawel Lugo there for a short time before moving him again to third base, and Kody Clemens, once thought to be the club’s future second baseman, has underwhelmed and is getting to be old considering the league he plays in.

The Detroit Tigers signed second baseman Jonathan Schoop to help alleviate some immediate troubles, but with no long-term solutions on the farm, it might make sense to address the need either via trade or free agency.

Bullpen

The nature of the bullpen is changing rapidly; and although Detroit does have some promising arms on the big league roster currently, I often deploy the thought exercise on what role that particular arm I am watching would play in the Yankees’ bullpen. The reality is Detroit has a bunch of middle relievers in their bullpen right now perhaps with the exception of Gregory Soto.

Today, closers are becoming obsolete and the best bullpen arms are used in high-leverage situations regardless of inning; and even many of the low-leverage relief pitchers are still throwing mid-90’s with life on their fastball. Getting Joe Jimenez out of the closer role could be good for two reasons: they are either becoming more progressive, or they are improving.

If we were to add six 3 bWAR players in this bunch (say two corner outfielders, a second baseman, and three bullpen arms), this would put us about half way there.

But what about the kids?

Yes, Detroit does have prospect talent and yes, they will likely need to be an integral part of any successful rebuild. But the idea that Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal will turn the entire team around is flawed. Not only are pitchers risky themselves, but it is important to remember they are also still simply prospects at this point–meaning their success is fluid. Skubal, for example, with his sky-high fastball usage, might ultimately end up in the bullpen. That would still be a successful outcome overall, just not the one fans envision when many of the prospect sites consider him to be one of the 50-best prospects in the game.

NORTH PORT, FL – FEBRUARY 23: Matt Manning #83 of the Detroit Tigers pitches during the Spring Training game. (Photo by Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

In an ideal world, the club needs to hit on three of Casey Mize, Tarik Skubal, Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, and Alex Faedo–and three of Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene, Isaac Paredes, Daz Cameron, Willi Castro, and Jake Rogers. Of course, there are players lower on the list who have a shot at contibuting at the big league level, but let us stick to the players closest to reaching the show. That is a high success rate for prospects, although given their prestige I am not sure it is too unrealistic.

 

The challenge for Detroit will be to acquire the talent necessary to put around their younger players to be successful. One  off season will not be sufficient to do what they will undoubtedly need to do. Getting the right player for the right amount of money that will fit into what they are trying to do will be difficult; especially with teams’ growing propensity to lock players up before they even hit the market.

In any case, with the time we will need to see prospects and the time necessary to acquire the much-needed big league assets, expect about two more seasons in a best-case scenario, assuming Chris Illitch will back his words about spending at the right time, before Detroit contends for the Central Division and the World Series again.

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