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The good news for the Tigers is that it would be very hard for things to get worse. In 2019, they lost 114 games for a .292 winning percentage, and only once before in franchise history have they lost more. In 2003, they lost 119 games at a .265 win-loss clip.
After that season, they jettisoned nearly everything that wasn’t bolted down, and they managed to reach the World Series by 2006; perhaps the recipe for the modern-day Tigers should be the same.
From 2003 to 2006, they kept only Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe from their starting lineup on offense, and only Jeremy Bonderman from their rotation. Beyond those three, the players who had the bulk of the playing time changed over almost entirely.
Sixteen years later, the Tigers front office is in a position again where it has to examine who is worth keeping.
What’s on tap this off-season? Check out Forbes’ full MLB off-season preview, with best-case scenarios and worst-case scenarios for all 30 teams.
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Where to start? At the trade deadline, Detroit took the first step toward rolling over its roster by trading Nicholas Castellanos to the Cubs, but the return they got (minor league pitchers Alex Lange and Paul Richan) is still in question. Lange is a 2017 first-rounder and he pitched well in Double-A in 2019, but he is still a ways off from making an impact on the Tigers pitching staff, and Richan was a 2018 compensatory pick who is still in Single-A.
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Repairing this roster will have to be a multi-year process, and a lot of it will hinge on the development of players like Christin Stewart and Jake Rogers on offense and Casey Mize and Matt Manning on the mound.
The Tigers are a bit hamstrung financially by money still owed to Miguel Cabrera, who is due at least $30 million per year through 2023, but overall the team payroll is low enough going into 2020 that they could be active in free agency if they chose.
Top Priority: Make room for the kids to play and see what you have. Stewart got 416 plate appearances last year and showed flashes of what’s possible. Get him in the lineup every day in 2020. Mize and Manning were brilliant in Double-A in 2019; they’re the future of Detroit’s pitching staff.
The Tigers will have a lot of natural roster changeover this winter. Tyson Ross, Jordy Mercer, Matt Moore, Gordon Beckham, Edwin Jackson, Blaine Hardy, John Hicks, and Daniel Stumpf are all headed to free agency.
Along with that group, Joe Jimenez, Jeimer Candelario, Niko Goodrum, and Spencer Turnbull are entering pre-arbitration in 2020.
There are also a few players left who are worth dangling in the trade market. Matthew Boyd drew interest at the deadline, but he tailed off in the second half of the season, so his value isn’t what it was a few months ago. Daniel Norris is due an estimated $2.9 million in 2020, according to Roster Resource, and then he is due to enter arbitration the following year. Norris turns 27 next April and coming off of his strongest season so far.
Likeliest To Leave: No one. The Tigers traded Castellanos and closer Shane Greene on July 31, and if they were going to deal someone like Boyd, it likely would have happened at the same time as the others.
Hot Stove Agenda
A rotation built around Boyd and Norris can do decently, but after that, the Tigers obviously need a lot of help. The 2019 staff ranked 20th in fWAR as a group, with Boyd, Norris, and Spencer Turnbull as the top contributors. They could supplement this group by going big and pursuing Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg (if he opts out) this winter, but more realistically, they could do well by going a tier below those two and go after Zack Wheeler or Jake Odorizzi. Or, given their history trading with the Cubs, Jose Quintana could be lured away. He has a $11.5 club option for 2020.
The far greater need is on offense, however. The Tigers were dead last in fWAR at -2.6 in 2019, almost six wins above replacement worse than the next lowest team, the Marlins. Despite being traded away in July, Castellanos had the third-highest fWAR on the team. This group needs help.
Top Target: A bat. Several bats. The way the market stands now, Marcell Ozuna is the best option in the outfield, but the biggest splash is at third base in Anthony Rendon. He will easily be the most highly sought-after bat in free agency, but if the Tigers are serious about moving forward, they need to be in on him.
The past repeats itself, and the 2019 Tigers follow the path of the 2003 group. Back then, they improved by almost 30 wins from 2003 to 2004, and then took the huge step forward in 2006. At the beginning of this decade, they made four consecutive trips to the postseason, including another World Series berth in 2012. Perhaps the beginning of the 2020s will turn out similarly.
The Tigers are in bad shape, and far behind not just in the standings but also in their approach to analytics and player development. The bright future possible in players like Stewart, Mize and Manning fizzles if Detroit doesn’t catch up in this regard.