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The Detroit Tigers and the Ugly Side of Tanking

Tigers' SS Javier Baez

Everyone loves a great bandwagon or a rags-to-riches story. Tanking, when done right, can rewrite an organization's narrative. Take the Houston Astros, for example. In the early 2010s, the organization was known for being mediocre at best and also in the middle of a stretch of downright horrendous seasons. Fast forward, and they are amidst a dynasty run. They have terrorized the American League postseason since 2017, fueled by strong player development and strategic trades. But what happens when the clock strikes midnight before Cinderella is ready to leave the ball? What happens when tanking does not work?

Let’s take a look at the Detroit Tigers. Since dismantling the pitching juggernaut of the early 2010s, which included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, David Price, and Robbie Ray, the Tigers have 6 straight sub-.500 seasons, including a year in which they only won 47 games. That team was one of the worst in modern history. Fans weathered these rough seasons in hopes of brighter days to come as the team acquired many early first-round picks over multiple years. It was a necessary sacrifice to build up the next great Tigers' core, according to the Detroit’s front office and public relations team. On paper, the strategy is a necessary evil in today's game, as small market teams “cannot” afford to spend like big market clubs. This, of course, is far from reality. Otherwise, the San Diego Padres, who are in the fourth smallest media market of all MLB teams, could not afford their star-studded lineup. So, what gives?

Tanking exists because it is the most cost-efficient way to build a contending big-league club. It is hard to make an argument against having the bulk of an organization’s team be on rookie deals. The Detroit Tigers have recently attempted this approach, and it seems like it might have been a swing-and-miss. The key to this grassroots development is success with high-value draft picks and developing them to their ceiling.

To be clear, it is still early in the careers of many of the Tigers' players, and there is plenty of time for them to figure it out. That being said, the bulk of Detroit's early-round picks have arrived or are close to arriving at the major league level. In 2021, the Tigers had a winning record after May, so it appeared as if things were improving in the Motor City. In came the 2022 season, where two major prospects, Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson, were expected to debut. Those call ups, coupled with the free agent signing of Javier Baez, built excitement around the team, and some success looked achievable for the first time in a while. Torkelson and Greene entered the season as the number 1 and number 3 prospects, according to MLB pipeline. Unfortunately, Torkelson struggled mightily over the 2022 campaign despite being a preseason favorite for AL Rookie of the Year. Greene debuted later in the season because of a foot injury. While he posted better numbers than Torkelson, Greene’s stats were not good enough to be in consideration for AL ROY. Despite the potential of those prospects, Torkelson and Greene were the two most important pieces in their farm system, which now only has 3 prospects in the top 100. Only one, Wilmer Flores (#100) is projected to be ready for a debut. The Tigers no longer have a farm system loaded with high-end talent, meaning if the rebuild is to be considered successful, the team needs to start winning ball games within the next few seasons.

So what is next for the Tigers? A difficult road lies ahead. At the deadline, the Tigers were listening to offers for Tarik Skubal and made it clear that anyone was available. Skubal has been the brightest spot for the lackluster Tigers as they struggled to play a winning brand of baseball. Trading Skubal would suggest their tank has failed, and it is necessary to continue rebuilding despite having a top 5 pick in 4 of the last 5 drafts.

However, this team has talent. Time to develop is what it needs. Many players have the capability to be stars, like Tarik Skubal, Spencer Turnbull, Casey Mize, Matt Manning, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson. Akil Baddoo, a product of the rule 5 draft, had a great start to his young career there. We’ve also seen the incredible feats Javier Baez is capable of when he is playing his best baseball. Injuries plagued the Tigers’ starting rotation last year, as no starter hit 120 IP. There is an argument to be made about that derailing the year, but the team, as a whole, just struggled.

Offensively, they were the worst team in the league, producing an astounding 2.5 offensive fWAR (MLB best was 38.5 and the median was 19.35). Their bats ranked almost dead last in nearly every category, including wOBA, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, and strikeout rate, to name a few. It can be reasonably deduced that their injury-ridden pitching staff was not holding them back.

Defensively, they were average. They ranked high in terms of OAA as a team and below league average in UZR. Collectively, they produced 0.5 dWAR (the exact median for MLB).

In terms of pitching, the battered staff ranked 24th in value created, but that is not indicative of what a healthy Tigers’ rotation looks like. As stated earlier, they did not have a single starter clear the 120 IP benchmark. As a unit, the Tigers’ pen was one of the best in the league, ranking 7th in the majors in fWAR. Gregory Soto was lights out all year, but they can no longer rely on him, as he was recently traded to the Philadelphia Phillies. The two other centerpieces of Detroit’s bullpen, Andrew Chafin and Joe Jimenez, are no longer with the team; regression is to be expected this upcoming season.

What does all this mean? The Tigers' tank has given them many talented prospects, but they are struggling to help them reach their ceiling. Part of the issue seems to be impatience, as the Tigers desire to see results at the major league level but are not allowing players to fully develop and figure out the game. Spencer Torkelson was one of the best college bats in recent memory, but the Tigers’ brass did not give him enough time in the minors before promoting him. He was hitting .238 and had a wRC+ of 129 in AA when they decided to promote him. Yes, batting average is not a great baseline stat, but it gets the point across that he was not ready for a jump from AA to the MLB. In A and AA, he was able to demonstrate his elite power, but he struggled mightily in AAA. Even more concerning is the front office shopping Tarik Skubal, which indicates the higher-ups are ready to initiate another rebuild without allowing the team built by their current rebuild to come together.

The Tigers are at a crossroads, as it seems like next season will be crucial in deciding whether or not the rebuild has failed. It could potentially lead to trading away many young pieces and restarting the process, which fans do not want to see. The young core needs to show signs of progression next season. Otherwise, the Detroit Tigers will repeat this same process of continued losing to acquire high draft picks. Should this be the case, the fans suffer, as they were sold an elaborate marketing scheme that promised future glory if they just watch a few rough years of baseball. As it currently stands, the Tigers could be looking at a failed deliberate tank. For the sake of the game, hopefully Commissioner Manfred is right that baseball is cyclical. That implies Detroit is bound to bounce back. The Tigers being competitive again is good for baseball. Only time can answer what is to become of this seemingly talented organization. Tigers fans, hold the line and do not lose hope.


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