Let me be clear, Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler aren’t going anywhere soon, but that’s only part of a team. Kinsler’s only on the books until 2018 if the Detroit Tigers decide to pick up his last year (at age 36). Cabrera and Verlander are inked until 2019, and Sanchez through 2018 ($16M). For 2018, Both Kinsler and Sanchez are under a team-option and have $5M buyouts.
That’s who’s sticking around, and hopefully for GM David Dombrowski, staying healthy.
This year, the Tigers, more than any other year in recent memory, are losing integral parts of their core to either free agency, or contract expiration. Here’s a quick look:
Coming Off the Books
Torii Hunter‘s contract expired, and he’s a bit wishy-washy about whether he’s going to retire. At age 39, the time might be now to gracefully bow out, as too many professional athletes simply don’t do when Father Time comes knocking.
Max Scherzer, as everyone knows, is a free agent. He turned down the Tigers offer of six years at $144M prior to the 2014 season. The Tigers made sure everyone knew that the offer was on the table, and that Scherzer boldly dismissed it. So, he is off the books and out of the rotation, in all likelihood.
Victor Martinez is also a free agent, but it appears the Tigers will do “everything in their power” to retain him, as they should. He’ll turn 36 this December, so it’s no surprise the age-card is being played by analysts and speculators. It’s at this age (or even sooner) players begin to see declines in their overall numbers. Martinez is an anomaly, though. He’s a career .306 hitter, never hitting more than 23 home runs in a season. But during his third year in Detroit, at age 35, he put up his best on-base percentage of .409, his best OPS of.974 (both league best), and drove in 103 with 32 homers. While most players this age start to drop off, Martinez seems to be just heating up. If the Tigers are unable to bring him back, it will leave a crater in the middle of the lineup unlikely fixable through free agency. Martinez should be top priority (after the bullpen).
The perennial question in Detroit is: how to fix the bullpen? Dombrowski made moves in the offseason to alleviate the ongoing problem by signing Joe Nathan and taking a chance on Joba Chamberlain. Bruce Rondon was expected to make an impact as a setup man, but ended up requiring Tommy John surgery at the season’s outset. Aside from the additions of Nathan and Chamberlain, the Tigers had to rely on Phil Coke, Al Aburquerque and a host of other so-so relievers. Taking chances on Joel Hanrahan and Jim Johnson was not the answer. And the trade-deadlin acquisition of Joakim Soria proved ill-fated as Soria struggled down the stretch and finally melted down during the ALDS. Still, it appears the Tigers will keep him on in 2015.
Perhaps the most closely watched part of the Tigers offseason will be what happens with the bullpen. I mentioned earlier in the season that if the Tigers made the playoffs, the tale would be told by the bullpen. It was indeed.
This is where the Tigers are still in good shape. There are a few ‘ifs’, however. Justin Verlander must return to Justin Verlander form, and by that I mean, he cannot stink as he did for a majority of the 2014 regular season. Rick Porcello must maintain his composure for an entire season. Just as Verlander began to heat up and learn how to pitch with less velocity, Porcello took a shellacking his last few starts. David Price, and Anibal Sanchez need only stay consistent. Price, Verlander, Sanchez and Porcello only equals four. Enter lefty Kyle Lobstein. Lobstein had up-and-down success in his 39.1 innings pitched, but could prove an adequate fifth starter should Dombrowski not decide to pursue outside help. Other options include Robbie Ray, Drew VerHagen, Kyle Ryan.
J.D. Martinez appears to be the real deal. In 480 plate appearances, Martinez hit .315 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI. The changes he made to his swing before being tossed away by the Astros have clearly made a difference. Martinez showed the ability to adjust after rough stretches, and his power numbers held up throughout the 2014 season. He finished the season with an overall WAR of 4.2.
Nick Castellanos had a strong rookie season, and while his overall numbers might not look great, it’s important to remember that stats aren’t the end-all-be-all. He passes the “eye-test.” Castellanos, over 579 plate appearances compiled a batting average of .259 with 11 home runs and 66 RBI. Like J.D. Martinez, Castellanos showed a consistent ability to drive the ball to all fields. He ended the season with 31 doubles. He’ll be 23 when the 2015 season begins, and if he continues to progress, the Tigers have their third baseman.
What will the Tigers defense look like without Torii Hunter? More importantly, what will the Tigers look like if they decide Alex Avila, due to health concerns can no longer sit behind the plate? Avila has consistently been one of the American Leagues top defensive catchers, but he’s also been a magnet for foul-tips and backswings. Avila suffered three concussions during the 2014 alone, and perhaps more in his previous five seasons with the Tigers. It is getting to a point where real discussion might be going on about whether Avila should continue his career. Prospect James McCann is waiting in the wings.
Holes to Fill
Ian Kinsler (2B)
Torii Hunter (RF)
Miguel Cabrera (1B)
Victor Martinez (DH)
J.D. Martinez (LF)
Nick Castellanos (3B)
Alex Avila/James McCann (C)
Jose Iglesias (SS)
Rajai Davis (CF)
This Detroit Tigers offseason will be one for the ages, as the team has more holes to fill than in any offseason in recent memory. If Victor Martinez returns, the only defensive spot left unfilled will be right field, and with the Tigers lack of depth, Dombrowski will almost certainly have to fill that position through free agency or trade. Of course, this assumes SS Jose Iglesias remains healthy and hits above the Mendoza Line.
The question also remains as to whether the Tigers will continue to use Rajai Davis in center field. If the opportunity presents itself to upgrade at this position, Dombrowski may pull the trigger.
In terms of the bullpen, the hope is that Dombrowski will not once again go all in with starting pitching and perhaps allocate more towards the bullpen. I expect the Tigers to make strong moves for one or two of the following relievers on the market: Andrew Miller, Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek.
I also expect Victor Martinez to return. Martinez has never shown speed on the basepaths, so his age isn’t a concern in that category. He appears to have turned yet another corner in his approach at the plate which has led to notably increased power. Side note: Martinez struck out only 42 times in 2014 (MLB best).
As this postseason has shown us, star-studded starting rotations don’t guarantee anything. That said, I expect the Tigers to do most of their offseason work on the bullpen, a constant source of frustration for the organization and fans alike.