It’s official. The Detroit Tigers clinched the number one pick in the 2018 draft by finishing the season 64-98. The funniest thing about this — unless you’re a Giants fan — is that the Tigers were able to secure that pick thanks to a walk-off home run by Pablo Sandoval to end San Francisco’s season. I would love to get GM Brian Sabean’s thoughts at that moment on how he felt about signing Sandoval mid-season. Since the Tigers finished one game worse than the Giants last year, they won the tie-breaker.
FanGraphs projected the Tigers to be a .500 team at the beginning of the season. My more subjective assessment pegged them as a team that could snag the second Wild Card slot if enough things broke right for them. As soon as it was announced that J.D. Martínez was going to miss three to four weeks (he ended up missing about six weeks) with a Lisfranc sprain, that was enough for me to dismiss their playoff shot. That is how sensitive I believed their chances to be.
Of course, more went wrong for the Tigers than Martínez missing a month and a half. Ian Kinsler had a disappointing year at the plate. Nick Castellanos continued to be one of the worst fielders in baseball. Jordan Zimmermann, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and Aníbal Sánchez combined for a 5.87 RA9 over 89 starts! That added up to a paltry 1.4 bWAR between the four of them. Even Michael Fulmer, who was good this year, saw his run average rise by over a run compared to his Rookie of the Year season in 2016.
As much as the starting rotation struggled outside of Fulmer and Justin Verlander, at least they delivered some value. The same cannot be said about Víctor Martínez and Miguel Cabrera. V-Mart had a solid 2016 season, hitting .289/.351/.476, but then fell to a below-average hitter in 2017. His line of .255/.324/.372 from a slow DH led to him being a sub-replacement level player. Cabrera was only slightly better, hitting .249/.329/.399. That coming from a below-average fielder at first base whose speed is comparable to Martínez’s also resulted in Miggy being sub-replacement level.
Cabrera and Martínez combined for -1.4 bWAR, and for that that they were paid a combined $46 million in 2017. Obviously that is a disastrous level of poor value. Martínez was able to leverage an extension after his 2014 season where he was one of the best hitters in baseball. You still have to question the reasoning behind giving a four-year deal to 36-year-old DH two years off of a torn ACL. But late owner Mike Illitch was determined to keep the Tigers’ window open at any cost. At least Martínez only has one more year left on his contract.
Cabrera, on the other hand, has six years and $192 million left on his contract, including his 2024 buyout. His 2017 season was riddled with ineffectiveness and injury, punctuated by a gigantic 86-point drop in wOBA over the previous season. That is such a dramatic drop that Tigers fans should wait to see how he performs in 2018 before they start to panic — it’s hard to believe that Cabrera could actually get this much worse in just a single season — but the future Hall of Famer is probably not going to be posting a .400 wOBA anymore. He will also probably be moved to DH once Martínez leaves.
These onerous contracts to aging veterans and the constant selling from the farm system meant that the Tigers were going to have to go through a painful rebuild some day. Truth be told, I thought this was going to happen a year or two ago, but Illitch kept opening his checkbook.
The farm system is better than it was before the season, where multiple outlets ranked it in the mid-twenties. They did not get much for J.D. Martínez, but they did well in the Verlander trade. I am unqualified to assess exactly how much better their farm system is now, so it suffices to say that they made good progress, especially with the number one pick coming their way. However, I am confident in saying that it still needs enough improvement for the Tigers to probably be a long time from contending. Franklin Pérez is likely their only prospect who could rank in the top fifty in baseball this offseason.
In terms of contracts, I already mentioned that V-Mart has just one season left. The Tigers will be tanking, so they should just keep him. If he bounces back and there’s any interest from other teams, then trade him. Kinsler has a team option for $10 million and a buyout for $5 million. It seems silly to let a potential trade asset walk to save $5 million. On the other hand, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Tigers will pay the $5 million to buy-out Sánchez and not pick up his $16 million option.
Zimmermann’s contract is more onerous. It was a bit backloaded, so he is owed $74 million over the upcoming three seasons. He has a full no-trade clause for 2018 and a partial no-trade clause for the subsequent two seasons, not that anyone expects teams to be banging down Detroit’s door with trade offers. The issue is that Zimmermann has had a 5.90 RA9 since joining the Tigers and is still under contract for three more seasons.
Of course, Miguel Cabrera’s contract situation dwarfs all the others. Sometimes you can predict baseball, and Cabrera’s contract vying for the all-time worst in the sport and a detriment to a Tigers’ rebuild were easily foreseeable at the time he signed it. Illitch gave Cabrera a free market-value contract two full years before he was scheduled to hit free agency. Again, he was determined to do anything to keep the Tigers’ window open, and sadly, likely expected that he would not be around to see the end of the contract. Unfortunately, that’s what happened.
Cabrera was going into his age-31 season and did not exactly have elite athleticism, yet he was signed through his age-40 season, and it was done two seasons before it was necessary. What is really going to hurt for the Tigers and their fans if Cabrera declines to Pujols-like levels is the fact that he could have been let go in free agency after 2015. At worst, I suspect that he would have signed for no more than half of his current extension, especially since he only played 119 games in 2015. Instead, going forward, the Tigers are going to pay a declining veteran $192 million in the midst of a rebuild.
One might ask what is the big deal with having bad contracts if a team is tanking. The problem is the opportunity cost. There was no predicting that Zimmermann would decline as much as he has, but it was easy to see that Cabrera’s contract was ill-advised. If you count the entirety of his extension, that is a quarter of a billion dollars that the Tigers will not have to supplement their team once they become competitive again, and it is a mistake that could have been easily avoided. They might not even have to rebuild if they had that kind of money on hand.
I am not going to fault the late Mr. Illitch for doing anything to keep the team’s window open given his age and desire to win a World Series. But the fact of the matter is that delaying the Tigers’ rebuild cost them time and money that is going to make their current rebuild especially long and painful. GM Al Ávila certainly has his work cut out for him. He did well in some of his trades, including the move of Justin Upton’s contract in case he declines his opt-out, but he has a long road ahead. The first step is to nail the first pick in the 2018 draft.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.