To be honest, I really don’t like to speculate on offseasons. Especially offseasons of previously aggressive teams, with so many quality players remaining on the market. I just recently heard about a significant trade that came within a hair of happening between two hopeful contenders, and no one ever caught wind of it as a rumor. There’s a whole lot that goes on as an industry secret, so I really don’t know what teams are up to. But, forced to speculate, I’d say the Tigers seem just about finished. I don’t think that’s a team that’s going to make another splash, and the roster looks more or less like a finished product.
And so, for the Tigers, it’s been an interesting and uncharacteristic sort of offseason. The Tigers, unquestionably, are in position to contend, and to contend for the World Series. Teams like that, you usually see add players and add payroll. But for Detroit it was more an offseason of acting on fiscal responsibility. The biggest name involved in their offseason is Prince Fielder, and he was sent away. They waved goodbye to a pair of quality free-agent middle infielders. They dealt a good starter to D.C. for a young and underwhelming package. Overall, the Tigers saved some money and set themselves up better for the future. It was odd timing, but there’s an angle that might help explain the thought process. At least, it’s an angle that recognizes what the Tigers still are.
In terms of significant players, it’s a simple offseason to summarize. Doug Fister is gone, and Drew Smyly will take his place in the rotation. Jhonny Peralta is gone, and Jose Iglesias will take his place at shortstop. Prince Fielder is gone, and Miguel Cabrera will take his place at first, with Nick Castellanos then taking Cabrera’s place at third. Omar Infante is gone, and Ian Kinsler will take his place at second. Joaquin Benoit is gone, and Joe Nathan will take his place at closer. Also, Rajai Davis and Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol are new, replacing other role players. Once again, it’s a good team that feels pretty light on depth.
These moves seem to represent something of a step back, at least in the immediate. Smyly’s talented, but he’s no Doug Fister. Iglesias is talented, but he’s no Jhonny Peralta, probably. Castellanos is talented, but there are questions about both his offense and defense at third base. Kinsler, at least, is roughly Infante’s equivalent, if not a bit better. Nathan’s got a hell of an arm. Davis is perfectly useful in a limited way.
Contending teams don’t often take apparent steps back. A year ago, the Tigers were one of the very best teams in baseball, making them the definition of a team that wants to win now. And yet, despite everything, the Tigers remain one of the very best teams in baseball. If this offseason has influenced their odds, it hasn’t influenced them by very much.
Our team-level projections are flawed, because they’re based on human-generated depth charts and imperfect player projections. So, they’re not good science, but they are good for conveying an idea. Conceding that the offseason isn’t over, right now the Marlins project for the fewest WAR in the majors. At the top, one finds the Red Sox, despite their losses. And right there in second are the Tigers, sandwiched between the Sox and the Rays. They’re ahead, of course, of the Royals, and they’re ahead, of course, of the Indians. It’s not even worth mentioning the Twins or the White Sox.
The likelihood is that, right now, the Tigers remain the clear favorites to win the AL Central. The Royals have a chance, and they’ve seemingly improved, but they’ve also lost Ervin Santana and their rotation leaves plenty to be desired. The Indians have a chance, and they’ve made a few interesting low buys, but they’ve also lost Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir and they threw a lot of pretty good innings. All three contenders are flawed, and the Tigers might be the least flawed, and so it seems they remain the team to beat.
So we can talk a bit about the win curve. It’s basically playoff probability based on a team’s win total, and wins become the most important right around the fringes of contention. Wins become ultra-valuable to teams that might be pushed over the top. All wins, of course, are some kind of valuable, but they tend to be most valuable when you’re trying to close a gap. If you want, you can think of those as “high-leverage” wins. This kind of thinking is used to justify what might seem like overpayments. It’s why Shin-Soo Choo would be more valuable to, say, the Rangers than the Astros.
Wins are important to the Tigers. They’re going to need many of them! And there’s value in maintaining or expanding a gap between yourself and another contender. But because the Tigers are the division favorites, a lost win for them means less than a gained win for the Royals. The Tigers have a fairly high playoff probability, and a fairly high ALDS probability. The teams behind them have lower and more volatile probabilities, with more to gain and more to lose. The simplest way of thinking about it: the Tigers are reasonably secure as favorites, allowing them some flexibility provided they didn’t dismantle themselves somehow.
And they didn’t do that. They got maybe a little bit worse, but they improved their situation in the future. They have no long-term commitment to Peralta, or Infante. They get to see what Iglesias and Castellanos can do, and they could be parts of a long-term core. Most significantly, the Tigers swapped Fielder’s money for Kinsler’s money. Even with Detroit chipping in $30 million to go to Texas, that still comes out to a total savings of $76 million, which is an enormous amount of money, even if it means less than ever before. That money means future wins, provided it doesn’t end up in an owner’s pocket, and pretty much every move is about balancing the present against the eventual present.
The Tigers are built to win now, but that doesn’t mean they should just forget about the future. This offseason they borrowed a little from the present to improve the future picture, but because of their present situation that doesn’t look like such a bad idea. Of course the Fister trade is still weird and it still looks like it was a bad call, but the Tigers were going to move one of their starters. Going forward, the Tigers’ playoff odds are a little bit worse than they could’ve been. But they’re still really strong, and now they’re stronger for subsequent seasons. Trying to win now doesn’t mean trying to win now at all costs.
Had the Tigers elected to keep the band together, they’d be in slightly better shape for 2014. As is, they didn’t do everything perfectly, but they took a step toward sustainability. And the roster they still have, in case you haven’t looked at it, is really pretty super.
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