Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the Detroit Tigers.
86–75 (.531), second place in American League Central
SS Erick Aybar*, OF Cameron Maybin, C Jarrod Saltalamachia
C Alex Avila, 2B Omar Infante, OF Mikie Mahtook
(*free agent, still unsigned)
Off-season In Review
After coming up just short of a playoff spot (Detroit finished just 2 1/2 games out of the second wild card and was alive going into the season's final weekend), the Tigers entered the off-season with two possible directions to choose. On the one hand, the team's impressive core—AL Cy Young runner-up Justin Verlander, two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, veteran designated hitter Victor Martinez, slugging second baseman Ian Kinsler, young third baseman Nick Castellanos, AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer and the outfield duo of J.D. Martinez and Justin Upton—offers an immediate path to contention. On the other hand, Verlander, Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Kinsler and closer Francisco Rodriguez are all on the wrong side of 30, and J.D. Martinez will be a free agent after the 2017 season.
In other words, the Tigers' options were reload or rebuild. The lack of long-term youth on the roster aside from Castellanos, Fulmer and Upton (who will be 30 in August) and the team's poor farm system seemed to point toward the latter , and Detroit reportedly spent much of the off-season weighing whether or not to deal the likes of Verlander, Kinsler, J.D. Martinez and others. But aside from shipping Maybin to the Angels in early November, Detroit has been perplexingly quiet on all fronts, instead adding veterans on short contracts and failing to pick a direction one way or the other.
The biggest (and only notable) move by the Tigers was trading Maybin. Originally one of the the two major pieces sent to the Marlins by the Tigers (along with Andrew Miller) to acquire Cabrera back in 2007, Maybin spent a decade bouncing around the league before landing back in Detroit last season. The return to the Motor City seemed to rejuvenate the former top prospect, who posted his best numbers at the plate in five years, hitting .315/.383/.418 for a 120 OPS+ to go with 15 stolen bases and 1.9 WAR. The 29-year-old missed a large chunk of the season, however, due to a wrist fracture in March and a thumb sprain suffered in August, finishing with just 92 games played on the year—commonplace for one of the game's more injury-prone players. The numbers were also unkind with regards to Maybin in centerfield, with Defensive Runs Saved pegging him as 11 runs below average on the year in an admittedly small sample size. Owed $9 million via a team option for next year, he was sent to Los Angeles for 23-year-old minor league righthander Victor Alcantara, a prospect of no real repute.
Maybin's departure (and the designation for assignment of former prospect Anthony Gose, who cleared waivers and remains with the organization) left centerfield wide open, but the Tigers were inactive in filling the role and will apparently try to replace Maybin from within. (More on that below.) One name now in that mix is Mahtook, a former first-round pick of the Rays out of LSU who never quite took off in Tampa and was picked up in a trade in mid-January. The 27-year-old was excellent in his MLB debut in 2015, batting .295/.351/.615 in 115 plate appearances, but he crashed last season, managing a mere .195/.231/.292 line in 196 PA and walking just seven times.
The Tigers also brought back some old friends in Avila and Infante. The former, who spent seven years in Detroit before joining the White Sox last winter, hit a disappointing .213/.359/.373 in his one season with Chicago and was limited to just 57 games by a pair of hamstring strains. The son of Tigers general manager Al Avila, Alex will back up starter James McCann if he can stay healthy—admittedly a gigantic "if" for a player long plagued by concussions. On his way out as a backup is Saltalamacchia, who cracked 12 home runs but hit a putrid .171/.284/.346 in 292 plate appearances. The well-traveled veteran will take his burdensome last name to Toronto on a minor league deal.
Infante, meanwhile, hit just .239/.279/.321 in 39 games before being released by the Royals in June; he was picked up by Atlanta and let go again at season's end. Signed to a minor league deal, Infante—who played the first six years of his career with the Tigers and also spent 2012 and '13 in Detroit—could replace Aybar as the backup infielder if he makes the team. The 32-year-old Aybar joined the Tigers late in the season after being acquired from the Braves and did his usual utility infielder thing, hitting .250/.341/.350 while playing three positions.
Unfinished Business: Centerfield
As noted above, Detroit has apparently opted to go in-house to replace Maybin in center, but all three of their candidates are unproven and lacking. The likely leading contender for the job is Tyler Collins. The 26-year-old (best known for letting Tigers fans know exactly what he thought of their booing after he made an error in centerfield during a late-April game) has been thoroughly mediocre with the bat over three partial seasons with Detroit, hitting just .253/.309/.401. Scouting reports note that the former sixth-round pick has power but is a poor defender who struggles to adjust to pitchers and is a bad baserunner. Beyond Collins, the Tigers could go with Mahtook or JaCoby Jones. The former is a solid defender but was abysmal at the plate last year; the latter, 24, has just 28 plate appearances of big league experience and struggled mightily with the bat at Triple A Toledo last season, hitting .243/.309/.356 in 324 plate appearances.
The options for centerfield in free agency were limited and expensive, with Yoenis Cespedes (a stretch in centerfield), Ian Desmond (on the wrong side of 30 and converted to the position last year) and Dexter Fowler (an average defender but coming off a career year at the plate) as the best available players—and all would have cost a first-round draft pick thanks to the qualifying offers attached to them. Still, it's surprising that a team built to win now like the Tigers wasn't able to find the budget for any of those three, or that Detroit passed on lesser-but-still-productive players like Jon Jay, Rajai Davis or Carlos Gomez. Now the Tigers are stuck with some internal candidates who are a mixed bag at best or will be forced to fish for a bargain-basement veteran like Michael Bourn, Coco Crisp or Drew Stubbs. The Tigers don’t have too many weak spots in their lineup, but centerfield has become one of them.
Preliminary Grade: D
The Tigers are more or less set in the rotation, bullpen, infield and corner outfield positions, but the inaction with regards to centerfield (now a gaping hole on the roster) and the lack of moves in general are confounding, and the return on a flawed yet still valuable and affordable player in Maybin was decidedly weak. In an off-season where the defending AL Central champion Indians improved their already impressive roster by signing Edwin Encarnacion, it's hard to understand why Detroit stood so pat and failed to upgrade a position that needed help.