Was the Detroit Tigers’ key to improvement cutting bait?

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 13: Wilson Ramos #40 of the Detroit Tigers in action against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on April 13, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 13: Wilson Ramos #40 of the Detroit Tigers in action against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on April 13, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images) /

The Detroit Tigers did something in 2021 they didn’t do in years’ past: move on from non-contributors

We have all heard the “addition by subtraction” cliche by now; but for the Detroit Tigers, moving on from players who were not contributing to the club’s success may have been the difference between their infamous 9-24 start and their strong finish and echoing optimism.

It’s equal parts ancient and recent looking back at the 2021 opening day roster–players littered with flashes that never met the modest expectations they came with. Certainly part of the addition is the subtraction, but it’s also about what replaced the exported talent that made an integral difference.

Players like Jake Rogers, Eric Haase, Akil Baddoo, Wily Peralta, and Tyler Alexander were all given respective chances and came through in their own unique and often unconventional ways. In other seasons, the club was prone to stick with the familiar. This could be due to the sunken cost fallacy (Jordan Zimmermann), overvaluing experience (Ivan Nova, Austin Romine, Tyson Ross, and on and on), or possibly even a sheer lack of alternatives behind their underperformers.

Nevertheless, the Detroit Tigers finally seem perfectly content with moving on from lesser talent in favor of players who have a higher upside.

Wilson Ramos (-0.4 bWAR)

Ramos was not regarded for his defensive chops before arriving in Detroit, but his .200/.238/.392 line offensively decided to cut him after 35 games that much easier. Ramos was signed to a one-year, $2 million deal in February; a move that further communicated the distrust with catching prospect Jake Rogers, who would eventually get his call-up and provide a lift.

Bringing in a veteran catcher to guide a young Detroit Tigers staff sounded logical but between his stabbing receiving skills and lagging offense, the club proved that moving on and giving Rogers an opportunity was right for the organization this year and beyond.

Nomar Mazara (-0.3 bWAR)

I remember a cold winter morning in 2020 when co-site expert Rogelio Castillo reached out for some input on an article he was working on called “Constructing the Opening Day Lineup for 2021.”  He needed ideas about what to do in the outfield, to which I had mentioned, “What about Mazara? They showed interest in him before.”

The White Sox ended up with Mazara, of course, who had a disastrous 2020 which came at least in part to his sickness. Fast forward and the Detroit Tigers would get their chance, albeit a year later, to acquire Mazara to play right field. Unfortunately, his performance was more like his White Sox showing and less like his three consecutive 20-home-run seasons 2016-2018 for the Texas Rangers. Mazara would hit .212/.276/.321 with 3 home runs across 50 games before eventually getting designated for assignment.

This one-year, $1.75 million contract wasn’t in vain–nobody could have predicted the rise of youngster Akil Baddoo. Still, it is fair to question if there were more competent options. Nevertheless, kudos to the organization for their willingness to move on and provide opportunities to others who may be a more integral part of the club’s future.

JaCoby Jones (-0.7 bWAR)

Heading into the season, JaCoby Jones was likely viewed as one of the better hitters on the team, maybe only trailing Jonathan Schoop and Robbie Grossman. Jones’ broken hand suffered from a hit-by-pitch shortened an already-brief 2020 season, though, and 2021 didn’t bring the same fruits.

It was a short 30-game run, but Jones had made some noticeable adjustments at the plate and was

on pace

for a 27 home run, 75 RBI season while posting a rock-solid 129 OPS+. Metrics never really liked Jones in centerfield defensively, but if the offense was strong enough it may not have mattered or perhaps the staff could slide him to left field, where he posted a 2.1 dWAR in 2018.

As with Mazara, Jones’ offense never really came in 2021 and after 36 games, the Detroit Tigers designated him for assignment. Jones hit .170/.210/.250 on the year for the Tigers. The demotion proved prudent, as Jones posted a .230/.312/.361 line with 7 home runs in 73 games at Triple-A following the roster move. Jones recently elected free agency.

Buck Farmer (-0.3 bWAR)

For relievers, an entire season can be viewed as a small sample size. A disastrous outing or two can skew an otherwise productive showing. For Buck Farmer, though, his days of yielding consistent weak contact disappeared and the Detroit Tigers swiftly removed him from his late-inning role and eventually the bullpen altogether.

Farmer’s April was an implosion: 10 games, 9.2 innings, 12 hits, 13 runs, 8 walks, 10 strikeouts. Since then, the Tigers established a solid four-headed bullpen monster with Kyle Funkhouser, Michael Fulmer, Jose Cisnero, and Gregory Soto. Farmer went to Toledo, then eventually Texas’ Triple-A affiliate where he would post more Buck Farmer-like numbers: 26.1 innings, 22 hits, 22 strikeouts, and a 3.76 ERA.

Interestingly, Farmer’s July and August with the Tigers weren’t that bad. 17 games of 3.24 ERA baseball while averaging over a strikeout per inning. That said, it’s a good idea to avoid the recency bias and the temptation to ignore the bad performances that were only a few short months ago. Thankfully, the Tigers had other well-equipped options prepared.

It was evident that the Detroit Tigers would need a lot of roster turnover before we saw the next competitive club. Thankfully, the process of cuts started in 2021 and the club is now well-positioned to replace stopgap signings with long-term solutions to pair with their young core this winter.