The Detroit Tigers are treading water

Apr 5, 2021 - Drops of water form on the glass barrier before the game between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 5, 2021 - Drops of water form on the glass barrier before the game between the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports /

There is an understandable air of negativity around the Detroit Tigers right now. No one thought the Tigers would compete this year, but it was reasonable to expect some kind of progress.

Instead the Detroit Tigers look like the worst team in baseball. Of course 23 games doesn’t make a season, and there are some positives early in the year, but it’s hard to ignore the facts.

The Detroit Tigers are just 7-16, and they have the worst offense (77 wRC+), bullpen (5.87 ERA), and run differential (-38) in baseball. It’s the franchise’s worst 23-game start since 2003, and they are heading into a rough 9-game road trip against the White Sox, Yankees, and Red Sox.

We don’t think the Tigers are quite this bad — for three games in Houston they looked like a viable team — but it’s hard to imagine them ending up much better than they were in 2020.

And that is the main issue here. The Detroit Tigers are in year four or five of their rebuild, and they don’t appear any closer to contention than they did in 2018.

Successful rebuilds can take five years or more — I wrote a long Twitter thread about team offensive production during rebuilds — and you can see teams like Atlanta, the Cubs, Cincinnati, and San Diego needing 5+ years to get back to average offensive production.

But most rebuilding teams show some upward trend in offense by year five, and the Detroit Tigers are looking at a 4th consecutive year of being at least 10% below average with their bats.

The farm system ranks higher now than it did heading into 2018, but we’d argue there were just as many pieces of the future four years ago. Take a look at the tables below and see if you agree.

We define ‘pieces of the future’ as prospects with at least a 40+ FV at FanGraphs, and MLB players who are 27 or under and/or have 3+ years of team control remaining. Your mileage may vary.

2018 Detroit Tigers Pieces of the Future

2021 Detroit Tigers Pieces of the Future

You are free to draw your own conclusions from those lists, but here is what we see. Heading into their respective seasons, the 2018 and 2021 Detroit Tigers had roughly the same amount young talent at the MLB level. There’s definitely more high-level talent in the minors in 2021, though the depth is about the same.

But the most important takeaway from those tables is the lack of progress from the 2018 players. That’s not necessarily the fault of the Tigers. Prospects flame out at a high rate, and many young big-leaguers get hurt or stop improving.

There is a ton of risk in building exclusively around young players, but four years later the Tigers are still following the same path. Give them credit for sticking to their plan, but many of the young pieces from 2018 are aging out now. And there’s talk of trading 2021 pieces for more prospects:

The Detroit Tigers are bad and should consider trading anyone to get better, but at a certain point it just feels like the organization is spinning its wheels. Or running in place, or treading water, or whatever your favored metaphor for stagnation is. Here’s ours:

The Detroit Tigers are kicking the can down a dead-end street.

Vague implications of future free-agent spending are nice, but this team needs more than a couple big off-season signings to compete. They need some of their young big-leaguers to start performing like future all-stars, and they need some of their minor leaguers to make developmental leaps.

To be fair, we didn’t have a minor-league season last year to judge the progress of prospects, so we may have missed out on some promising developments. This front office deserves the rest of the 2021 season to see if some of their investments bear fruit.

But if the Detroit Tigers go into the 2022 off season looking like the same team they were heading into this year, then it’s time for new leadership. Rebuilds can’t stay in one place forever.