MLB Hot Stove: White Sox, Royals moves help open the door for Tigers in AL Central

 

Very early in the offseason, there were indications the Detroit Tigers would try to get younger and more cost effective. Cameron Maybin was traded to the Los Angeles Angels the day after the World Series, and other veterans like Ian Kinsler , Justin Verlander and even Miguel Cabrera popped in trade rumors.

Since the Maybin trade, the Tigers have done nothing aside from signing a few minor league free agents and selecting lefty Daniel Stumpf in the Rule 5 Draft. If general manager Alex Avila was going to tear things down, it would have happened by now. This won’t be a total rebuild as some expected.

If Avila is still planning to tear things down, or at least trade one or two more veterans, the offseason activity of other AL Central teams should give him pause. The Chicago White Sox are clear sellers after trading Chris Sale and Adam Eaton at last week’s Winter Meetings. The Kansas City Royals aren’t full blown sellers, but trading Wade Davis for Jorge Soler is a move made with the future in mind.

The Minnesota Twins aren’t very good and are in the middle of a rebuild. The White Sox have joined them and the Royals might not be as formidable as they were in 2016, when they went 81-81. A slow start to the season could push Kansas City to a massive trade deadline fire sale given all their impending free agents. Everything else going on in the AL Central this winter favors the Tigers.

Then there are the Cleveland Indians , the defending AL champs who pushed the Chicago Cubs to extra innings in Game 7 of the World Series despite not having their best hitter ( Michael Brantley ) and two of their three best starters ( Carlos Carrasco , Danny Salazar ). Cleveland has to replace cleanup hitter Mike Napoli , either with someone else or by re-signing Napoli himself. Otherwise they’re still set to be a top tier contender in 2017.

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GM Al Avila’s team has a good chance to contend in 2017. USATSI

The Tigers won 86 games this past season and were 2 1/2 games back of a wild-card spot despite going 4-14 against the Indians. Four wins in 18 games! Realistically, what are the odds of that happening again? Very, very small. The Indians really whupped Detroit in those 18 games — they outscored them 106-71 and only two of those 14 losses were decided by one run — but that’s a level of dominance we rarely see.

Right now, if you’re Avila and the rest of the Tigers brass, you’re looking at the state of the AL Central and thinking two things:

  1. The Twins and White Sox won’t be very good in 2017 and the Royals are at a crossroads. They’re going to be pressured into making a quick decision about their ability to contend or need to rebuild.
  2. There’s no possible way we can go 4-14 against the Indians again. That’s such an extreme outlier.

The Tigers can contend in 2017, given their roster. If Avila is working under a mandate to get younger and shed salary, that’s a different story, but I don’t think that’s the case. Owner Mike Ilitch has made it very clear he wants to win a World Series during his lifetime. I believe the 87-year-old would support any decision to try to win now. His track record proves it.

The question now is how can the Tigers put themselves in the best possible position to win next season? What moves do they need to make? They traded their starting center fielder a few weeks ago, so that’s one obvious opening. Unless they really believe in JaCoby Jones and Anthony Gose , finding a more veteran replacement for Maybin would be a good start.

As it stands, the Tigers are set on the infield (Cabrera, Kinsler, Jose Iglesias , Nick Castellanos ), on the outfield corners ( Justin Upton , J.D. Martinez ), and at DH ( Victor Martinez ). Three of the five rotation spots are set (Verlander, Michael Fulmer , Jordan Zimmermann ) and chances are Daniel Norris has a leg up on one of the other two spots. Let’s run down their options at the other positions.

Catcher

James McCann ‘s first season as the starter did not go too well, at least offensively. He hit .221/.272/.358 overall while the league average catcher hit .243/.310/.393 in 2016. McCann did throw out 45 percent of base stealers, which is phenomenal, but he also was a below-average pitch-framer according to StatCorner. There is definitely room for improvement here.

Free agency does offer some decent catchers at the moment. Matt Wieters is the big name and might be a little too pricey for the Tigers, who presumably do not want to bury McCann entirely. Welington Castillo would provide more offense without much defensive downgrade, if any. Brayan Pena would be a defensive upgrade and a lateral move offensively. Jason Castro would have been a nice fit, but he signed with the Twins.

Center field

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Brett Gardner would give the Tigers a relatively low-cost upgrade in center field. USATSI

The free-agent market doesn’t offer much help in center field. The best available center fielders are Ben Revere , Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson , who is coming off knee surgery. That’s not great. Are they better than Jones and Gose? Probably, but they’re downgrades over Maybin. Free agency is not the best way to plug a center field hole this offseason.

The most obvious trade candidate, who really is a strong fit for the Tigers, is Brett Gardner . The New York Yankees are in the middle of their quasi-rebuild and Gardner is very much available. He’s a strong defender who always gets on base (.350 OBP in 2016), and since the Tigers have such a strong lineup, Gardner would end up hitting eighth or ninth, not leadoff. There are two years and $23 million left on his contract, plus a club option for 2019, so he’s not going to blow up Detroit’s budget.

Other potential trade targets include Jarrod Dyson , Lorenzo Cain , Marcell Ozuna , Juan Lagares , Travis Jankowski , Charlie Blackmon and Billy Hamilton . Obviously some are more available (and desirable) than others.

Starting rotation

The Tigers have three spots accounted for with an odds-on favorite for the fourth spot. Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey are still around, so they’ll be in the mix for the fifth spot thanks to their contracts. Shane Greene and Matt Boyd are possibilities, too. The Tigers don’t need another starter. Chances are one of Sanchez, Pelfrey, Greene or Boyd will take the job and run with it. Or at least that’s what the team hopes.

Should Avila want more of a sure thing in the rotation, especially with Norris relatively unproven and Zimmermann coming off a poor season, the best the free-agent market has to offer is Ivan Nova and Jason Hammel . Yikes. A Doug Fister reunion or a roll of the dice with Brett Anderson are lower cost alternatives. Rotation depth is important, though I’m not sure free agency offers anything better than what the Tigers already have.

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Brandon McCarthy is a potential trade target as a salary dump. USATSI

The trade market is a bit more robust. The Arizona Diamondbacks have been getting hits on all their young arms. The Los Angeles Dodgers would reportedly like to unload Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy . The Tampa Bay Rays have essentially their entire rotation on the trading block. There are starters available. The only question is whether the Tigers are willing to pay to get them. Pitching isn’t cheap these days.

Bullpen

The Tigers are in perpetual need of bullpen help, aren’t they? Francisco Rodriguez is solid in the ninth inning and the Wilsons, Alex Wilson and Justin Wilson , are a fine righty-lefty tandem. Greene, Bruce Rondon , Mark Lowe and Kyle Ryan are other members of the 2016 bullpen, a bullpen that ranked 12th in MLB with a +4.3 WAR, according to FanGraphs.

Shopping at the top of the free-agent market for Kenley Jansen isn’t necessary, though of course he would make the bullpen better. Brad Ziegler stands out as a free agent who could really help the Tigers in a setup role, though he may get a closer’s job elsewhere. Same with Greg Holland . Others like Joe Smith , Sergio Romo and Joe Blanton would improve the middle relief situation at a lower cost. The Tigers may be a bit jaded about the bullpen market after Lowe melted down this summer, though.


As it stands right now, the Tigers can definitely contend in the weakened AL Central, and they’ll rely on their veterans to lead the way. Verlander and Cabrera have to be great, Upton and Zimmermann have to rebound, and Castellanos and J.D. Martinez need to stay healthy. If that happens, Detroit will be in the hunt. If not for the AL Central, than at least for a wild-card spot.

Personally, I think trades for Gardner and McCarthy plus Castillo and Ziegler signings would make the most sense for the Tigers. Whether they have the wherewithal to make those moves (prospects to trade, money to spend, etc.) is another matter. They all represent upgrades though, and since the Tigers still have a win now roster and the rest of the AL Central got weaker, any upgrade is worth making.

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