The Detroit Tigers are going to be awful in 2019.
The Detroit Tigers probably won’t impress anyone in 2020, either.
But in 2021? The Tigers just might be good enough to win the World Series.
The team’s putrid 2018 season and bleak outlook for 2019 makes such optimism seem truly insane. But there is precedent all over baseball for this kind of turnaround.
In 2012, the Kansas City Royals completed their 4th consecutive season of 90+ losses (72-90).
Two years later, the Royals went 89-73 and came within a hair of winning the World Series. They would complete the turnaround in 2015, dominating the Mets to claim the crown.
The Houston Astros went 72-90 in 2014. Three seasons later, they were champions.
That is two teams in the American League that have gone from the cellar to a championship in 3 seasons. Just in the last half decade. And each team was built on the backs of homegrown talent. The 2015 Royals had the 17th highest payroll in baseball the year they won it all. The 2017 Astros’ payroll ranked 18th. These titles were not purchased during a sudden a free agent bonanza by either club. Free agency and the trade market merely bolstered a homegrown core.
Even the Tigers organization knows a thing or two about quick turnarounds. They went from 71-91 in 2005 to being prohibitive World Series favorites and American League Champions in 2006.
I feel the pain of every Tigers fan. I care way too much about the team’s on-field fortunes. But if we have learned anything in the past decade, it is that massive (and usually unforeseen) turnarounds are not only possible, but quite common.
There is a way for the Tigers to be a real threat to win it all by 2021. What would a 2021 contending Tigers team look like? Let’s take a stab at it.
It all starts here. The Tigers have invested the bulk of their draft capital on starting pitchers. This component of the rebuild must go well, or the whole thing falls apart.
With a stable of young arms knocking on the door, the Tigers really need at least 2 of their prospects to pop.
(Age on Opening Day 2021)
Casey Mize (23)
Michael Fulmer (28)
Matt Manning (23)
Franklin Perez (23)
Free Agent Veteran Turd (N/A)
Also in Mix: Beau Burrows (24), Alex Faedo (25), 1st Round Pick in 2020 Draft after the Tigers stink again
Casey Mize was drafted 1st overall to be an ace. He likely needs to be a legitimate #1 or #2 starter for the Tigers to be a contender in 2021. Mize has great stuff and should be good-to-great for a long time.
Nobody has been thrown into more hypothetical trades than Michael Fulmer the last 18 months. In my scenario, he stays in the fold. The Tigers probably should have traded him when his value was higher. Now, with myriad injuries on his résumé, he is worth more to the Tigers than anybody else. It would take an entire productive and injury-free season to re-establish Fulmer’s trade value. The balance of this hypothetical rotation beyond Fulmer is totally unproven. I like the idea of a 28-year-old hurler who has already shown he can succeed at the highest level.
Matt Manning was terrific on the farm last year in his age-20 season. Franklin Perez lost nearly the entire year to injury, but should return to form. He was impressive in Double-A in 2017 at just 19-years-old. Between these two, at least one of them needs to emerge as a solid 3rd or 4th starter. It seems like a fair bet, considering their ceilings exceed this projection.
Alex Faedo and Beau Burrows look like two failed 1st round picks to me. It’s early, but if either of these guys contribute meaningfully, I will be pleasantly surprised. Burrows has a better shot than Faedo.
Don’t forget: The Tigers will be bad again in 2019. Which means they’ll have another great draft pick in 2020. It will present another opportunity to add a high-end arm to the equation.
While great starting pitching does not grow on trees, there is rarely an issue finding OK starting pitching on the free agent market. As long as the Tigers can get a couple of these young arms to approach their ceiling, they will be in business. They can piece together the back-end with relatively meager spending. The Mike Fiers/Gio Gonzalez/etc. types are typically scooped up on the cheap. These dudes won’t be starting games in the playoffs anyway. If Chris Ilitch wants to get aggressive and add a frontline starter, all the better. But we are keeping this projection conservative.
We are keeping this section short and sweet. Bullpens are impossible to project. Relief pitchers are prone to more fluctuations than my bathroom scale as I cycle through fad diets.
Let’s just say that bullpens are relatively easy to build. It is the reason why the Tigers’ failure to build theirs properly was always so infuriating. You had guys like maniac Jonathan Papelbon (still great at the time) being dangled by the Phillies for virtually nothing, and Dave Dombrowski passed. The lackadaisical approach to addressing the bullpen will always be the unforgivable sin of the Jim Leyland-era Tigers.
I envision the ideal 2021 bullpen being a mix of homegrown relievers, failed starters-turned-relievers (Kyle Funkhouser?), and a premier free agent or two.
Our 2021 scenario has the Tigers building a rotation from within. For the bullpen, I would expend some real capital. The organization should sign the best available reliever and solidify the end of games.
Daz Cameron (24), CF
Kody Clemens (24), 2B
Miguel Cabrera’s Corpse (37), DH
Josh Jung (22), 3B
Jeimer Candelario (27), 1B
Isaac Paredes (22), SS
Christin Stewart (27), LF
Parker Meadows (21), RF
Jake Rogers (26), C
Do you think I felt good writing out a hypothetical lineup where all 9 guys were “What Ifs?”
This 2021 lineup (if it came to fruition) might be one of the best in baseball, or the very worst. But it is littered with a whole lot of interesting.
Daz Cameron, Kody Clemens, Isaac Paredes, and Parker Meadows have all looked terrific on the farm.
Christin Stewart has always hit in the minors, and certainly looked like he belonged in his 17-game Tigers cameo last year (.792 OPS).
Jake Rogers might not hit better than Mister Rogers, but he is arguably the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues right now. The 2021 Tigers would be fine with an A+ defensive catcher in the 9-hole. Offense is a bonus. What team has a good hitter in the 9-hole?
Josh Jung (Texas Tech) comes to the Tigers via their 5th overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft. He has a chance to be a Scott Rolen-type cog in the new Detroit machine. It also helps that he bumps Jeimer Candelario to 1st base.
Miguel Cabrera might be totally finished, but he’ll be making $30 million in 2021 whether we like it or not. You have to hope he finds the Fountain of BALCO, rubs some illegal cream all over his body, and hits again. My 2021 hypothetical Tigers organization includes a shadow division of management featuring Victor Conte, Jose Canseco, and a host of other shady characters who have been arrested at least once. This is key. Cabrera must be revived and give this 2021 squad at least 115 games in the 3-hole.
Maybe I am nuts, but I like this projected lineup. You fully expect at least 3 or 4 of these guys to fall flat on their face in the Majors (or sooner), but that is where ownership can plug the holes via free agency. It has never been easier to acquire solid bats on the market than it is these days.
Candelario can’t hit his weight? No problem. If it were 2021 right now, the Tigers could scoop up the desperate-for-work Mike Moustakas and his .774 OPS to hold it down at 1st.
Parker Meadows is a bust with holes in his swing? OK, give Adam Jones a call and sign him to play right field as a credible stopgap option.
There are always free agent bargains to be had. I never understood these contenders with giant holes in their lineups. Go pay Moustakas a few bucks to give you 500 respectable at-bats!
If the Tigers show sufficient progress the next 2 seasons, you cannot rule out a marquee free agent or two joining the fray as well. By then, the team could be under new ownership. Dan Gilbert will spend, if he winds up in Detroit.
The Tigers are stockpiling assets. Despite the many “ifs”, you can see what Al Avila is trying to do.
Avila, a scout at heart, believes he can build a winner by bolstering the farm system and then plugging in value free agents. If executed properly, I tend to believe him.
The Bottom Line
After a decade of near-misses and crushing disappointment, I have fully embraced the rebuild. The Tigers are doing this thing the right way. The Cubs & Astros have recently showed us the benefit of being really bad for several years in a row.
The Tigers will be bad in 2019. Las Vegas sportsbooks have their win total set at 67, 3rd worst in all of baseball. This projection seems right on point. If the Tigers can add more meat to their farm with the 5th overall pick this June and the 3rd overall pick in June 2020, the forever barren farm system could finally begin to bloom.
I was fully in support of the Tigers chasing every fat free agent for a decade. I loved every minute of the rabid chase to acquire talent.
Now, I kind of like laying in the weeds. Get as many of these lottery tickets as you can, hope a handful pan out, and then augment the roster with 1-3 major acquisitions. The Astros built from within, then sprinkled Justin Verlander on top. The Cubs built from within, then nabbed Aroldis Chapman to get them over the mountain. That is the path.
Could the Tigers win it all in 2021?
2018 was a season of stop-gap options masquerading as a team.
2019 will be much the same (Jordy Mercer/Tyson Ross/Matt Moore signings, anyone!?)
While the plug-and-play veterans hold down a rather pitiful fort, the Detroit Tigers are preparing for a bright future.
Buy a nice bottle of bubbles and stash it for 2.5 years.
The Detroit Tigers are your 2021 World Series Champions.