The Multiple Paths to a Tigers Rebuild

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Michael Fulmer is likely part of the solution in Detroit. (Photo: Keith Allison)

This is Ashley MacLennan’s second piece as part of her August residency at FanGraphs. Ashley is a staff writer for Bless You Boys, the SB Nation blog dedicated to the Detroit Tigers, and runs her own site at 90 Feet From Home. She can also be found on Twitter. She’ll be contributing regularly here over the next month. Read the work of all our residents here.

For a team that seemed poised to begin the rebuild process, the Detroit Tigers managed to coast through the trade deadline doing very little. They’ve been promising since the offseason that their goal is to become leaner and younger, but when July 31st had passed, they’d only moved three players. Observers are left asking themselves: have the Tigers done enough to craft a contending team for the future?

The short answer? No.

The more complicated answer is that the team may not have been able to make the moves they wanted, thanks to a market that favored relief pitching over everything else.

There were two players whom the Tigers had to move before the deadline: J.D. Martinez and Alex Avila. With the team’s win percentage at a measly .456 and 6.5 games out of the second American League Wild Card spot, Tigers management understood their hopes of making it to the postseason this year were slim to none. To keep Martinez and Avila, who would become free agents at the end of the 2017 season, would mean hanging onto valuable trade pieces for no foreseeable benefit. They needed to be traded in order for the Tigers to net the valuable prospect pieces they would need to contend a few years down the road.

Tigers general manager Al Avila made it clear he was willing to listen to offers on any of his players, including 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, if the return were right. He was adamant, however, that shedding payroll was not a mandate under which he was working from Tigers owner Chris Ilitch. He would trade players only if it meant helping the team in the future.

The moves Avila made were not flashy. He sent Martinez to the Arizona Diamondbacks for infielders Dawel Lugo, Sergio Alcantara, and Jose King. The next big trade was the combined package of closer Justin Wilson and Avila to the Chicago Cubs for Jeimer Candelario and Isaac Paredes, both infielders, and a player to be named later.

For a team that’s notorious for focusing its draft efforts on pitchers, specifically hard-throwing righties, the apparent interest in infield talent demonstrated a long-term approach to building a better crew of position players for the future. However, these minor moves didn’t single-handedly craft a minor-league system that would produce a winning club in two or three years.

The system has improved, no doubt, but in Bleacher Report’s updated farm rankings, it climbed only slightly, from 27 to 24 of 30. The selection of pitcher Alex Faedo in the amateur draft and addition of Candelario and Paredes — now among the club’s top-10 prospects — has helped increase the Tigers’ hopes, but the team still lacks the kind of talent it will need to reach the postseason by 2020.

Of course, that implies their goal is to compete that quickly. The Tigers currently find themselves at something of a crossroads, where the inevitability of a rebuild lies ahead no matter what and the ultimate goal is a championship, but the paths leading them there can be short, or long and fraught with difficult years of not making the cut.

How the team chooses to approach this path will go a long way to determining how they behave for the remainder of this season and the type of choices they make in the offseason — and even during the 2018 draft and up through the 2018 trade deadline. It’s easy to scold the Tigers for not doing enough this year, but it might be more realistic to acknowledge they made the best moves that were available to them.

Many suspected that the team would go for broke at the deadline, moving players like Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias, both of whom could have netted prospects in return and additionally helped bolster the farm system. But in examining the other moves made during the deadline, the market simply wasn’t interested in infielders, meaning the return offers — if there were any — wouldn’t have been sufficient for Al Avila’s tastes. Holding pat until the offseason, then, made sense. Where the White Sox have been willing to trade anyone, from ace Chris Sale to Jose Quintana to Todd Frazier, the Tigers seem to be unmoved by the offers they’ve received, which led to a lackluster trade deadline.

Where does this leave the team in terms of their long-term contention hopes, then?

If the Tigers want to be competitive again by 2020, they must do more. They need to focus on obtaining prospects nearly ready for a major-league role, something both Candelario and Lugo are. In this vein, moving their youngest pitching talent, like Michael Fulmer or Daniel Norris, to make teams interested in taking on the expensive contracts of older players like Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, or Justin Upton wouldn’t make sense for the Tigers. Fulmer, who’s under club control until 2023, is precisely the kind of young, talented player the team needs to retain and use as the anchor of the future pitching staff. They need to keep all the young, cheap players they can, and not move them just to cut costs.

On the other side, one could look at the Tigers rebuild as a long-term project. Perhaps the team could decide to acquire talent over the course of the next several years, searching for players (such as Isaac Paredes, for example) who won’t be ready for the majors for awhile, taking the time to develop them within the farm system, growing proper major-league talent, and building a winning team from within. This is a strategy the Tigers have never really used before, having focused more on blockbuster trades for players like Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, or Justin Upton to fill the necessary holes on the field.

While this latter project lacks the punch and immediacy of the first, it may be the smarter, allowing the team to focus on the players and groom them accordingly to make the kind of team that can succeed long-term and not just for one playoff run.

It’s nice to imagine a short refresh period, like the one that followed the abysmal 2003 season and eventually led to a World Series run in 2006, but reality will likely find the Tigers somewhere in between the above two scenarios. Come the offseason, they will move who they can, provided the return is good. Depending where those prospects fit in the minors will give fans a better idea of just how long this rebuild process might take.

No matter which way things unfold, the process won’t be quick, and it won’t be easy, but the Tigers do find themselves in a position to build an exciting young franchise and usher in a new era of success for Detroit.

11 August 2017 | 3:27 pm

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