Last winter’s off-season splashes are not necessarily taking their winnings to the field. The Detroit Tigers should take notice
Adrenaline and testosterone spike any time I think about the Detroit Tigers adding a premiere free agent this off-season. It just makes sense; the club has over-achieved to a 62-70 record entering Tuesday and they lack a true, in-his-prime, bonafide star in the lineup. They need a middle-of-the-order bat desperately and they have the means to address the need after the season. Sure, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson are on the way, but those should be complementary pieces over the next 2-3 years, not the lead role in the Detroit Tigers’ plot to contention.
Additionally, the free-agent pool plays into their hand of needs. Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Marcus Stroman, Freddie Freeman, and Marcus Semien are just a few of the names that would all help the Detroit Tigers while filling a respective need. Then there are the former Tigers; Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who would scratch a nostalgic itch while also figuring to contribute.
These moves would bring excitement. They’d spike jersey sales. They’d finally foster a little national notoriety again. But if the 2020 offseason and subsequent 2021 season has taught us anything, it’s that playing at the top of the free-agent pool is not a pre-requisite to success.
It pains me to admit it–because at the core I believe that good baseball players make a team better and the best baseball players make a team great, but look around the league. Cohen took over the New York Mets and essentially stated that money wasn’t an object. Stroman, Walker, and McCann were added to stars deGrom and Alonso. Lindor was traded for and then signed to a massive extension. Loads of effort, commitment, and dollars to ultimately sit in third place, seven games out of the NL East.
The LA Angels have arguably the greatest pure baseball player of all time on their roster while the second greatest baseball player of all time has sat out most of the year. They’ve stumbled into Jared Walsh but Anthony Rendon and Justin Upton have underperformed drastically. Again–lots of commitments for a 65-67 record, 4th place in the AL West.
Conversely, some teams haven’t necessarily made the big moves but continue to win. I keep wondering when the San Francisco Giants’ luck is going to run out, but it just hasn’t. Their big moves consisted of bringing back Kevin Gausman coupled with signing Tommy La Stella, Anthony DeSclafani, and Jake McGee. After their sizzling start, they added rental Kris Bryant, who has hit 6 home runs across 23 games for them. They rest atop the NL West.
The Tampa Bay Rays continue to quietly dominate the league even after trading away Blake Snell and Willy Adames. Consensus top prospect Wander Franco was essentially an addition in himself while Nelson Cruz provides a veteran DH bat for them to lean on in the playoffs. They continue to put the Boston Red Sox in the rearview in the AL East, with a comfy 7-game partition.
Perhaps the most evident would be a team like the Brewers. Yelich was certainly an explosive play for them, but outside of those monster seasons in 2018 and 2019, he’s been simply very good–a theme for the rest of the club. Adames has been an incredible addition, with names like Peralta, Burnes, Woodruff, and Williams all playing key roles without the superstar tags. Perhaps part of their quiet performance is a product of their market, but their team-of-very-good has them 9.5 games up in the NL Central.
Undoubtedly, teams are showing that playing at the top of the market can be fruitful, too. The Dodgers continue to win after adding Trevor Bauer and re-signing relief ace Blake Treinen and Justin Turner. The Yankees were determined to improve and have done so by adding Joey Gallo and Anthony Rizzo to a team stacked with big contracts like DJ LeMahieu and Giancarlo Stanton. The Padres have won with Tatis, Machado, and Hosmer among others. The White Sox, although a bit more subtle, added Hendricks and extended Lance Lynn as clingers to their young core.
Teams can win with big payrolls. The point here is not to discourage the Detroit Tigers from spending. It is that spending big is not a necessity, nor a guarantee, to an improved record. Perhaps if they do so in a more thoughtful, strategic manner, there are fewer Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann signings in the future–and even if the Detroit Tigers do not land a Carlos Correa or Trevor Story this offseason, it does not necessarily mean doom for the team or the front office.
Whether we like it or not, payroll is a factor in how teams make decisions. Owners have a budget and GMs are forced to operate within that budget. Any large acquisition would mean less for the Detroit Tigers in years one or two of that deal and way more in years six, seven, and eight. Although Francisco Lindor hasn’t been some disaster in New York, I’d venture to guess the organization was looking for a little more than .224/.316/.370 from their new franchise cornerstone.
Again, not to say they shouldn’t spend–but if a $25 million player could potentially prevent other necessary down-the-road additions, they need to be very careful who they decide to hitch their wagon to for the next decade–especially if the goal is building this sustainable contender as Hinch and Avila have continued to reference.