Despite the fact that the Royals squeaked past Oakland in the Wild Card game and then rode their elite bullpen into the World Series, the 2014 Tigers were objectively the best team in the division. Detroit would win the division and boasted a run differential of +52 as opposed to Kansas City's +27. In fact, they have won the AL Central every year since 2010. Their core has gotten older and slipped some, Dombrowski finally messed up a major trade last offseason, and the window looks like it may be closing. But, like the White Sox, they have had a very busy winter so far. How do they look at the moment?
To keep track of all of the Winter Meetings insanity, Adam Berry of MLB.com has posted a transaction tracker sorted by team. Accordingly, here's what the Tigers have done so far since the Giants won the World Series with the Gregorious-Greene and Travis-Gose swaps added in:
OF - Yoenis Cespedes
RHP - Alfredo Simon
RHP - Shane Greene
LHP - Gabe Speier (minors)
RHP - Alex Wilson (minors)
OF - Anthony Gose
RHP - Max Scherzer (FA)
OF - Torii Hunter (FA)
RHP - Rick Porcello
OF - Devon Travis (BA's #1 Detroit Prospect as of the night before the traded)
SS - Eugenio Suarez
RHP - Jonathan Crawford (minors)
RHP - Melvin Mercedes (minors)
RHP - Robbie Ray (minors)
IF - Rodrigo Leyba (minors)
The offseason is clearly not done, but this looks like the Tigers have taken a step backwards for 2015. As of now it does not look like Scherzer will be coming back (although I am not convinced this is a foregone conclusion). I believe Rick Porcello is more valuable than Yoenis Cespedes generally, and surrendering Porcello means they have jettisoned the main beneficiary of committing to Jose Iglesias rather than keeping Eugenio Suarez (who probably will have a better bat, but who knows). Cespedes is really fun, and he's a good player, but he doesn't get on base and has to make up for his wonky routes in the outfield with his super-cannon of an arm and athleticism. Better than what they had in the outfield, but that's not saying much.
If the Tigers are forced to use Shane Greene in their rotation - which looks like the plan - then it doesn't look like they've done anything to improve their disaster zone of a bullpen yet (and Joe Nathan is now officially 40). They are clearly relying on Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera bouncing back from down years (one or both is very possible), as well as Anibal Sanchez remaining healthy all year (possible, but risky), Alfredo Simon continuing to out-pitch his peripherals,* their 36-year old Catcher-Turned-DH maintaining the best season of his career, and J.D. Martinez' 2014 being real.
They also have to bank on Ian Kinsler not getting hurt or diminishing into his mid-30s, Jose Iglesias not being the worst hitter in the majors (and staying healthy for that matter), and Alex Avila not continuing his slide into oblivion as he gets absolutely clobbered behind the plate.
*Having added Simon, who has been accused of both rape and murder, the Tigers are still easy to root against!
The Tigers could very well be really good again next year. Not everything is going to go wrong, and they don't need 100% of it to go right, but they are really walking on a tightrope without a net. At the beginning of the offseason, Baseball America posted their Top 10 Tigers Prospects list. At that time, people I spoke to ridiculed this as perhaps the worst farm system they had ever seen. Since then, the Tigers have traded away the #1, #5, and #7 guys on that list. They have some pieces that are major league ready to call up to patch holes, but none of them project to be high-impact as opposed to placeholders, and if anything in their Plan A goes wrong it's hard to see where meaningful help is coming from. Moreover, even if most of Plan A goes right, there's still a chance they just get sabotaged by their ghastly bullpen again, and there's a very real chance that they only have two players next year capable of above-average OBPs.
Dombrowski is creative and aggressive, and they have demonstrated a willingness to spend their way out of trouble in the past so I wouldn't count them out just yet. They could sign Scherzer and Melky tomorrow and cover up a lot of their weaknesses. But Detroit's margin for error is shrinking rapidly, and there are very possible scenarios where they crater next year and then remain pinned beneath Verlander and Cabrera's contracts for a long, long time.
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