Detroit Tigers: Five Ways to Improve the Team in 2017

Sep 14, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers manager Brad Ausmus (7) in the dugout prior to the game against the Minnesota Twins at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier today, we took a look at the Detroit Tigers’ 2016 season. While they ultimately missed the playoffs, there were still a lot of positive notes to build upon for next year. But what can they improve on this winter?

The offseason is a time to focus on the aspects of a team that need improvement. The Detroit Tigers have players locked up at most positions, which doesn’t leave them a lot of room to make changes. The front office will still be busy in the months leading up to Spring Training, however, as they try to tweak their roster to cut back on costs and build a younger team.

James McCann should return as the primary backstop, and Miguel Cabrera is obviously in no danger of losing his spot at first base. Ian Kinsler is similarly locked in at second base, and on the left side of the diamond, Jose Iglesias and Nick Castellanos are key parts of the team’s young core.

In the outfield, Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez are slated to begin the season with Detroit. Victor Martinez will also reprise his role as the team’s designated hitter, barring a very surprising development.

So which players’ futures are still up in the air? Cameron Maybin was excellent for the Tigers last season, batting .315/.383/.418 and stealing 15 bases, but Detroit would need to pick up his $9 million option first.

The trade rumors are already swirling around Maybin and J.D. Martinez, who are two of the team’s most coveted players. While many of the contracts handed out by Detroit’s free-spending front office are considered to be untradeable, those are two names that could attract some attention over the winter.

On the pitching side of things, young arms like Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer will stick around, as will veteran Justin Verlander. Closer Francisco Rodriguez’s name may appear in trade rumors frequently as well, as he has an affordable $6 million option for the 2017 season.

The Tigers have already stated they don’t intend to chase free agents this winter. That’s probably a good thing, given how weak the market is. However, it means they’ll have to focus on improving via trades and minor league deals. Financial restrictions could make it an interesting offseason for a team that’s used to spending big bucks every year.

So what areas do the Tigers need to improve before Opening Day next season? Let’s take a look at five.

Jul 20, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Brad Ziegler (29) pitches during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

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A Better Bullpen

A consistent weakness for the Tigers over the last several seasons has been their bullpen, which has simply not performed at the same level as the rest of the team.

In 2016, Detroit relievers posted a 4.22 ERA. That ranked 13th in the American League. Similarly, only the Twins and Rangers had a higher opponents’ batting average. Batters hit .260 against the Tigers’ bullpen this season.

With an offense as potent as the Tigers’, opposing teams know that no lead is safe in the late innings. Unfortunately, teams also know that late-inning deficits against Detroit can be easily overcome. If the Tigers decide that they aren’t able to afford another year of Francisco Rodriguez, they’ll be in an even worse situation.

Although general manager Al Avila has already stated that the Tigers don’t expect to be active participants in free agent bidding this season, the bullpen is one area that they should consider making an exception to that rule.

Trading an outfielder like Maybin or Martinez for relief help could work, but a better idea would be to use the money freed up through trades to acquire some of the quality arms on the free agent market. While this isn’t an especially great free agent class, it is strong when it comes to closers and setup men.

One possible target could be Brad Ziegler. The right-hander is quietly one of the most consistent relievers in the game, having averaged a 2.44 ERA over nearly 600 career innings. He’s surprisingly affordable, having earned just $5.5 million last season. Ziegler will be 37 years old in 2017, so the Tigers may be able to sign him to a similarly priced deal.

Aug 4, 2016; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (27) walks off the field after being relieved in the second inning against the Chicago White Sox at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Protecting the Rotation from Another Bad Contract

The Detroit Tigers rotation for next year is pretty well-set. Justin Verlander has resumed his rightful place as the team’s ace, and rookie Michael Fulmer is a strong #2 starter behind him. Daniel Norris also made a good impression this season, posting a 3.38 ERA with 71 strikeouts in 69 innings.

From there, there are some question marks. Jordan Zimmermann missed a considerable portion of the 2016 season with a variety of injuries. He was also ineffective later in the season, resulting in a 4.87 ERA. Considering that he is slated to make $18 million next season, he’ll definitely be in the rotation come Opening Day.

Trading Zimmermann might seem like an overreaction, given that he was an All-Star in 2013 and 2014, and was in the running for the Cy Young Award as recently as 2014. But the Tigers already have Anibal Sanchez, who went from being the AL ERA leader to a starter who barely belongs at the back-end of their rotation. They can’t afford to make that mistake twice.

That’s why dealing Zimmermann now, when his ineffectiveness can be explained by injury, is smarter than waiting to see if he turns it around next year. Beginning in 2018, his salary jumps up to $24 million. At that point, he will be just as untradeable as Sanchez.

If the Tigers deal him now, they can slot Matt Boyd or another inexpensive option into their rotation instead. Since the front office has stressed that they are aiming for a cheaper, younger team, this would fit in well with their plans.

With Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey signed to contracts that will be nearly impossible to get rid of, it’s imperative that the Tigers consider protecting themselves from the same issue with Zimmermann.

 Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Improved Defense and Baserunning

Somehow, the Tigers need to increase their speed and efficiency.

Take baserunning, for example. In 2016, Tigers baserunners took extra bases just 34 percent of the time. That means that 66 percent of the time, runners were satisfied with moving up one base rather than trying to go from first to third or to score from second.

The Tigers were tied for the worst rate in MLB in this aspect, and it was hardly the only demonstration of their lack of speed. There were 22 teams who had more success at stealing bases, and the Tigers made outs while on base more often than the league average. Overall, this team is not built for speed.

Detroit needs to find a way to score that doesn’t involve home runs. The Cleveland Indians shut them down this season in large part because the Tribe’s starting pitching was so strong. The Tigers weren’t able to hit the ball out of the park enough times to make up for their inability to score in other ways.

Finding room for speedy, defensive-minded players might be difficult. With so much of the Tigers’ lineup for next year already set, it will require creativity on the part of the front office.

Getting rid of Cameron Maybin seems like it would hurt the team’s speed and defensive metrics even further, but trading J.D. Martinez could help. Call to the Pen’s Brad Faber discussed this on Friday, noting that Martinez only has one year left until free agency and Avila has already stated that a long-term contract isn’t likely given the Tigers’ new budget.

Oct 5, 2013; Oakland, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics second baseman Eric Sogard (28) throws the ball to first base against the Detroit Tigers during the sixth inning in game two of the American League divisional series playoff baseball game at Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

A Utility Man

One way to subtly improve defense and speed while still keeping the payroll in check is to improve the Tigers’ bench. In 2016, the Tigers signed Mike Aviles only to deal him at the deadline for Erick Aybar. They also utilized bench options like Tyler Collins, Andrew Romine and JaCoby Jones.

A speedy utility player could help the Tigers to balance out the power in their lineup with some defensive prowess. Cleveland’s utility man, Michael Martinez, is likely to be available on a minor league deal at the end of the season. While he isn’t great with the bat, this is the type of player the Tigers need to stockpile. Martinez can play the outfield and infield, and can also pinch run to steal bases.

Another similar option who might be available on an expensive deal is former Athletics utility man Eric Sogard. Sogard was an everyday player for the A’s, but his excellent defense and speed would make him a good option for the Tigers off the bench.

The trouble for Avila and the rest of the front office will be convincing fans that speed and defense are important. After so many years of a power-driven lineup and an unlimited payroll, it’s likely that moves like this will be seen as giving up or “rebuilding” instead of legitimate attempts to compete.

The teams who have made the World Series in the last three seasons have all had deep benches, with a mix of speed and power in their lineups. If the Tigers want to compete, they need to adopt that strategy as well.

Brad Ausmus

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Consider the Coaches

The Detroit Tigers have already stated that Brad Ausmus will return for 2016. Ausmus has struggled in his role as manager, and this is probably the final chance for him to successfully lead the team to the playoffs. To do that, he needs to review whether his coaching staff is helping or hurting him.

Al Avila told the Detroit Free Press that he expects most coaches to return. On Friday, the Tigers announced that Triple-A Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon would rejoin the big league club as their hitting coach, replacing Wally Joyner.

But what about the other coaches?

Mick Billmeyer has been the Tigers’ bullpen coach for three seasons, and in none of those three seasons have the Tigers had an above average bullpen. This includes relievers who had good seasons elsewhere, like Mark Lowe in Toronto last season.

Similarly, while Dave Clark is a very likable coach, there has to be some concern as to why the Tigers trail the rest of the league in baserunning.

The primary reason, of course, is that the roster isn’t built for speed. At the same time, when players are crushing the ball in the way that the heart of the lineup is known to do, there’s no excuse for not taking an extra base at a slightly higher rate.

Ultimately, performance on the field comes down to the players. There’s only so much a coach can do. Omar Vizquel, the Tigers’ first base coach, is easily one of the most knowledgeable players in the game – but he can’t help Victor Martinez or Cabrera to suddenly become fast enough to steal bases.

However, the bullpen coach is partially responsible for making sure his players are ready to go when called, and the third base coach has perhaps the most important job in the game. Players seem to disregard Clark’s directions, running through stop signs or holding up when he would rather have them run.

Again, some of this speaks to the players on the roster – perhaps they feel they don’t need to listen to any coach – but having an in-depth discussion about whether the right staff is in place is vital to the Tigers’ offseason plans.

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