The Tigers got their off-season off to a strong start with good deals for pitching, but the team still has work to do to improve a thin outfield.
With less than five weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we're checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season while acknowledging that there's still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2015. Now up: the Detroit Tigers.
74–87 (.460), fifth place in American League Central (Hot Stove Preview)
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
There was little question what the Tigers and new general manager Al Avila needed to do this winter. Coming off a season in which they were dead last not only in the AL Central standings but also in runs allowed per game in the Junior Circuit (besting only the Rockies and Phillies among all major league teams), Detroit needed pitching, pitching, pitching—and was appropriately aggressive in acquiring it.
Not waiting for this off-season’s pitching-rich market to develop, the Tigers jumped out in front to sign righthander Jordan Zimmermann to a five-year, $110 million contract at the end of November. That deal looked team-friendly then, when Zimmermann was the first major free agent to sign, but it looks even more so now after Johnny Cueto landed $130 million over six years from the Giants, David Price and Zack Greinke both surpassed $200 million in guaranteed money, and lesser pitchers such as Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen, Mike Leake and Ian Kennedy each signed for between $70 million and $90 million over the same five-year term.
By the time Zimmermann signed, the Tigers had already landed their new closer: veteran Francisco Rodriguez, who was acquired from the Brewers for marginal infield prospect Javier Betancourt and journeyman minor-league catcher Manny Piña. Restored to the closer role in his age-32 season in 2014, Rodriguez has made the All-Star team in each of the last two years, saving 82 games at a 92% success rate. He's also steadily reduced his walk rates and maintained his excellent strikeout rates, once again emerging as one of the game’s best closers. With a $6 million option for 2017, he should hold down the closer job in Detroit for the next two seasons.
Avila made a few smaller moves to bolster the pitching staff, too. In free agency, he signed righties Mike Pelfrey (two years, $16 million) and Mark Lowe (two years, $11 million) for the rotation and bullpen, respectively. He then added to his relief corps by sending a pair of minor-league starters—including Luis Cessa, the lesser of the two prospects acquired from the Mets for Yoenis Cespedes in July—to the Yankees for lefty setup man Justin Wilson.
On the other side of the ball, Detroit signed veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia to back up sophomore catcher James McCann, added utility man Mike Aviles to provide infield depth and traded for former Tigers prospect Cameron Maybin, who returns to his original team for his age-29 season, to help flesh out an understaffed outfield that lost Rajai Davis to free agency. Drafted in the first round by the Tigers in 2005 and later traded to the Marlins as one of the two significant prospects in the December 2007 deal for Miguel Cabrera, Maybin’s return is compelling, but it remains to be seen just how impactful it will be.
Unfinished Business: One more outfielder
Will Maybin be the Tigers’ full-time leftfielder or merely a platoon partner for the lefthanded Anthony Gose in center? Whatever the answer may be, it leaves a hole in Detroit's outfield. The only other righthanded centerfielder on the Tigers’ 40-man roster or among their non-roster invitees is Wynton Bernard, who has yet to play above Double A. Meanwhile, a platoon with Maybin playing left against righties and center against lefties would require Aviles (76 OPS+ the last five years) or non-roster invitee John Mayberry Jr. (.164/.227/.318 in 119 plate appearances for the Mets last year) to play leftfield against lefties. What’s more, Maybin has had a reverse split over the course of his career, making him a less-than-ideal platoon partner, be it for Gose in center or Tyler Collins in left.
Despite a huge season from rightfielder J.D. Martinez, the Tigers—whose best hitters are into their mid-thirties—were 10th in the AL in runs scored per game last year. They can’t afford to enter the season an outfielder short.
Preliminary Grade: B
The first priority for the Tigers this off-season was landing one of the four major free-agent starters and a relief ace, and they accomplished both quickly and efficiently, getting both at relative bargains. Wilson, who has three team-controlled years remaining, was a nice addition, as well, but I’m less sanguine about Detroit’s other two pitching acquisitions. Pelfrey isn’t much more than a fifth starter, and Lowe will be 33 in June and has had an erratic career.
On offense, Maybin is a compelling addition, but the Tigers needed two outfielders, not one, and Maybin is now on the wrong side of his age-27 season having failed to prove that he is a viable everyday major league player. As for Aviles (who turns 35 in March) and Saltalamacchia (one of the worst defensive catchers in baseball in terms of both pitch framing and blocking), I wouldn’t be shocked to see one or both dropped from the 40-man roster before the end of the regular season.
That’s a lot of disappointing follow up to two early home runs, but just because those homers happened early doesn’t mean they don’t matter. The Tigers should be better in 2016, but without some additional moves, adding Zimmermann and Rodriguez may not be enough.