Has the World Series Window Closed for the Detroit Tigers?
In sports, most teams encounter a cycle of winning and losing, a period of time where you are bad, become good for a while, and then are bad again.
Of course, if you're the Chicago Cubs, those winning cycles are fewer and farther between. But nonetheless, most franchises ride this wave to varying degrees at some point.
The Detroit Tigers have been riding along the crest of the "good" wave for a few years now. Starting in 2006, when they lost the World Series to the St. Louis Cardinals, Detroit has been a winner. With the exception of 2008, they have finished with a record better than .500 every year since, have won the American League Central four years in a row, and made the World Series in 2012.
But after their ALDS sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles this week, has their window to win their first world championship since 1984 closed?
A few of their best players are eligible for free agency this season, and some of the players they do have under contract have bloated contracts that could stifle the team's ability to sign other players moving forward. And the farm system has been gutted in recent years in order to bring veterans onto a roster that was in prime "win-now" mode.
The window to win a World Series, it appears, is beginning to slam shut. If it hasn't already.
Pending Free Agents
The Tigers are going to have some tough decisions to make on some of their players this offseason.
The Tigers are set to lose their best pitcher and their best hitter to free agency, unless they pony up the cash to keep them both. Victor Martinez' nERD of 3.3 this year means a lineup full of Martinezes would score 3.3 runs a game more than a lineup full of average hitters, sixth-best in all of baseball. Max Scherzer's nERD of 2.14 means he would allow 2.14 runs a game fewer than a league average pitcher over a 27-out contest, fifth-best among MLB pitchers.
Martinez turns 36 next year and is mostly limited to DH duties, which will probably keep him in the American League. Detroit could re-sign him, but as you'll see in a minute, they already have a lot of money committed to other big-name stars in the coming years. Scherzer is expected to test free agency and will also land a mega-deal somewhere else.
In addition, Detroit traded away one of their best young pitching prospects, Drew Smyly, in order to acquire David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays. However, that acquisition didn't get the Tigers where they wanted to go, and now Price is eligible to be a free agent after next season.
The Tigers were very smart to find someone to take on the ridiculous contract they signed Prince Fielder to before the 2012 season, a nine-year, $214 million deal that looked like an albatross the day they put pen to paper. Fielder is still owed $144 million over the next six seasons, with $30 million of that being paid by Detroit starting in 2016.
Unfortunately, the Tigers still have a few players signed to long-term deals that will start to get very ugly for them in the next season or two.
Most of the players listed above had productive seasons, as evidenced by both their nERD totals and their Wins Above Replacement, as calculated by Baseball Reference. Miguel Cabrera continues to be one of the best hitters in the game. However, he is signed through the 2023 season, when he will turn 40 years old, on a deal that will start paying him $28 million a year in 2016 and 2017, $30 million each year from 2018-2021, and then $32 million in 2022 and 2023 (contract information taken from Cot's Contracts and Baseball Reference).
Ian Kinsler also had a solid season, and the financial commitment to him isn't as severe, owed $16 million next year, $14 million in '16 and $11 million in '17, with a $12 million team option for 2018 or a $5 million buyout. And Anibal Sanchez has just another three years left on his deal, one that will pay him $16.8 million a season through 2017, when he will be 33, with a $16 million team option for 2018 or a $5 million buyout. That is reasonable for a #3 starter, however, he served as their #4 and #5 starter this year, which is a bit pricey.
One other potential weight around their necks is the contract that was given to a fading Justin Verlander. It pays him $28 million a season starting next year through 2019, when he will turn 36. There is a vesting option of $22 million for 2020, provided he finishes in the top 5 of the 2019 Cy Young vote, but that seems unlikely to happen.
The Tigers will also have a couple of arbitration raises owed to two of their starters for next year, Price and Rick Porcello. Price made $14 million this year and will see an uptick in that number, possibly in the $18 million range. And Porcello, their number-four starter who went 15-13 this year with a 3.43 ERA, will see a raise from the $8.5 million he made this season.
Weak Farm System
According to the latest Top 50 prospect rankings by Baseball America, done in July, the Tigers do not have a prospect that is considered among the 50 best in baseball, and in MLB.com's mid-season Top 100 prospects, no one from the Detroit organization is represented there, either. They list outfielder Derek Hill as the organization's top prospect, with an ETA in the big leagues of 2018.
In recent seasons, the Tigers have traded away Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, Francisco Martinez, Jacob Turner, Avisail Garcia, and Smyly, among others. They also did not have a first round pick from 2010-12, and because of their success, their recent first round picks have been at the end of the round, preventing them from landing any of the blue-chip prospects on the board.
Of course, there are valuable players that can be picked throughout the draft, and it's obviously better to be a World Series contender than picking in the top 10 of the draft every year. But at some point, there comes a price to pay for sacrificing so much young talent, and the Tigers are creeping up on that time right now.
Reasons For Hope
The Tigers do have a few young players providing decent production for minimal salary. They got an incredible season from 26-year-old left fielder J.D. Martinez, who put up a .315/.358/.553 slash line with 30 doubles and 23 homers. He's arbitration eligible for the first time this off-season. And third baseman Nick Castellanos, just 22, has a bright future ahead of him at the hot corner as well.
The Tigers' payroll in 2014 was just over $163.6 million, and next year they already have $98.5 million on the books, with holes to fill in the rotation and, more urgently, the bullpen. Detroit's current path has been compared by many to the 2011 Phillies, who won 102 games, lost in the NLDS, and then saw their window of opportunity slam shut.
Are the Tigers there now? Or can they still squeeze one more year out of their core, before Price leaves for free agency?
Cabrera is still one of the best pure hitters in the game, and they still have Price, Procello and Sanchez for next season, as well as Verlander, who pitched a bit better in September but has seen his stuff clearly diminish. They'll need to find a true ace to replace Scherzer if they want to be considered AL Central favorites again next year, they'll have to revamp a bad bullpen, and either re-sign Martinez to a long-term deal (which could cripple them further in two or three years) or find a player or two who can replace his production.
When you're riding the wave of success, it's a whole lot of fun. But as Phillies fans will tell you, the ride back down to mediocrity is at some point inevitable, and not a whole lot of fun.