Detroit Tigers Roster Preview: Julio Teheran could be a potential jackpot

Mar 12, 2021; Lakeland, Florida, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Julio Teheran (50) throws a pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2021; Lakeland, Florida, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Julio Teheran (50) throws a pitch against the New York Yankees during the first inning at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Detroit Tigers and every team in baseball for that matter add depth to their roster by signing free agents to one-year contracts or to minor league deals.

These players can add value in a number of ways, but for bad teams, they can be low-risk, high-upside acquisitions. Kind of like, the baseball GMs version of a lottery ticket. In many cases, players with prior MLB success who have struggled in more recent seasons are targeted with the hope they can regain their past form. If they can rekindle their prior success they provide a roster upgrade and, more important to rebuilding teams, can become trade chips at the deadline (jackpot!).

During the rebuild, the Detroit Tigers have not had much success in creating long-term value from these “lottery ticket” type signings. That hasn’t been for lack of trying, however. Tigers fans will likely remember (or maybe not considering the lack of innings) Tyson Ross, Matt Moore, Zach Godley, and Hector Santiago, to name a few (I highlighted pitchers since the overall article is about Teheran but they have done it with position players as well).

None of these signings should be considered bad since they are very low-risk and didn’t include huge investments of financial resources or contract length but they did fail to further the rebuild considering none of these players performed.

Entering the 2021 season the Tigers have again looked to the low-risk free agent pool in an attempt to find value. Julio Teheran signed with Detroit on February 20th. Yes, the Julio Teheran was once a top prospect and considered a future anchor for the Atlanta Braves rotation. Clearly, he meets the criteria as a player who has had past success. Teheran’s recent seasons have seen a significant downturn in his production should the Tigers be expecting better results?

Julio Teheran’s Contract Status with the Detroit Tigers

Teheran was signed as a minor league free agent with an invite to spring training. The deal includes a $3,000,000 salary plus an additional $1,000,000 in incentives.

Julio Teheran’s Game

The Good (years)

There was a time when Julio Teheran was one of the most valuable assets in baseball. Prior to the 2011 season, he was widely considered a top-five prospect and perhaps the best starting pitching prospect in baseball. He didn’t experience immediate success but the 2013 season saw him start to live up to his immense promise. From 2013 to 2016, Teheran accumulated 13.8 bWAR, and only in the 2015 season did he have a FIP above 3.69. In the following seasons (2017-2019) Teheran wasn’t able to fully replicate his prior success but he proved very durable (no less than 31 starts and no less than 174 innings) even if his stuff and results had taken a step back.

Even during his peak years, he was never a pitcher who succeeded with crazy strikeout numbers and missing a ton of bats. His success was due to limiting contact, limiting walks, getting ground balls, and staying away from the barrel of the bat. Never possessing overpowering velocity this was a solid recipe for success for his early seasons.

The Bad (years)

The signs started showing up in the 2017-2019 seasons. His FIP during those years was quite a bit higher than during his best seasons (never below 4.66) and starting in 2018 his velocity and overall pitch movement started to slip. Perhaps those should have been telltale signs of an impending collapse and maybe the Braves (since they let Teheran leave for the Angels) and others in the industry expected another slight decline. But, what actually happened wasn’t so much a slight decline, as it was more akin to hang gliding off a cliff, just without the hang glider. His numbers fell dramatically in 2020 to the point where he was among the least productive pitchers in baseball. To illustrate the point as succinctly as possible, Teheran’s expected wOBA (xwOBA) was in the 1st percentile. Yes, that is as poorly as you can perform.

The Unknown (year)

For the Tigers in 2021, this is a low-risk signing and as we try to predict the unknown of what lies ahead, Teheran’s spring gives us some reason for optimism. One of the biggest differences in Teheran’s arsenal from 2014-2016 to 2017-2020 was the decline in his average fastball velocity. Never a pitcher with overwhelming heat, his average fastball velocity fell from 91.8 in 2015 to 89.2 in 2020. This is a massive drop for a pitcher who already isn’t going to be throwing the ball by people. The horizontal movement of the pitch tailed off slightly as well, dropping from 8.7 in. to 7.9 in. This may not seem like a huge drop but coupled with the loss in velocity it could have an impact. His sinker and slider lost some of their previous velocity as well.

All that brings us to this spring where Teheran has shown a return to his 2014-2016 velocity levels. In 9 innings, he has consistently been in the low 90s with his fastball and his off-speed stuff has looked sharp as well. The results have been excellent. Teheran has only given up two runs, whiling striking out 12 and only allowing 7 baserunners. He also appears to be gaining some confidence. His most recent spring outing (highlights here) was the longest and most impressive to date. Four innings, no runs, one hit, and seven strikeouts. His velocity and movement looked strong. He located his fastball well and was consistently hitting 92. The slider showed a tight, vertical break and generated several swings and misses. The early returns have been nothing but positive giving hope a rebound may be coming.

Julio Teheran’s ZIPS Projection

ZiPS sees Teheran making 29 starts and pitching 143 innings with a 5.51 FIP. So certainly better than his 2020 performance but not even reaching his 2017-2019 levels, let alone his peak seasons.

MCB take on Julio Teheran

Teheran has been one of the bright spots of camp. The apparent return of his fastball velocity, along with what appears to be better life and command of his arsenal, seems to have placed him firmly into the Tiger’s projected rotation. Unlike the other lottery tickets mentioned above, he seems to be putting himself in a position to reward Detroit with a productive starter who keeps his team in games. There even seems to be some potential for better than that which would be a very welcome change from those past lottery tickets. Who knows, maybe around the trade deadline the Tiger’s even hit the jackpot……even if that jackpot is more $10 scratch-off than Mega Millions.