Detroit — What if Sports Illustrated was looking to splash another brazen World Series prediction across its cover, like it so incredibly did in 2014 when it touted the Houston Astros, a team that had just posted three straight 100-loss seasons, as the 2017 champions of baseball.
What if they were looking to predict the 2020 champion? What if they examined the Detroit Tigers?
First of all, they wouldn’t. The Tigers minor league system is not close to what the Astros’ was in 2014. There is no George Springer or Carlos Correa comp in the organization right now. Maybe there is a diamond in the rough somewhere, ala Jose Altuve — Jeimer Candelario, Dawel Lugo, Daz Cameron, perhaps — but such an impact player remains unidentified.
The Tigers best prospects are still in the lower levels of the system. And the vast majority of them are pitchers — Franklin Perez, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo, Beau Burrows, Kyle Funkhouser, Gregory Soto, Sandy Baez, Bryan Garcia.
The system is still skinny with position players. Although it does have the first pick in the draft in 2018, so it can conceivably get its Alex Bregman.
No. The Tigers more resemble the Astros in 2010, when they were at the start of their three-year run of abject misery. Not where the Astros were in 2014 when SI’s Ben Reiter delivered his prescient analysis and prediction.
Maybe best to hold off on making any brash predictions here until 2020.
So where does that leave manager Ron Gardenhire and his newly-assembled staff? Is he going to play the role of former Astros manager Bo Porter? The guy who takes all the requisite lumps and losses, and then gets brushed aside when the club is ready to compete?
Guaranteed that is not how he views it. He said as much at his introductory press conference.
“I had a lot of my buddies call and tell me, ‘What are you doing? You want to get your brains beat out?’ ” Gardenhire said. “No. I don’t want to lose. Who’s to say we have to lose? Who’s to say we have to lose next year?
“Baseball is a great game and a lot of things can happen. I am going to go in there thinking we’re going to kick some butt.”
Former Twins corner infielder Michael Cuddyer played 11 seasons for Gardenhire and he’s certain of two things — his former skipper won’t expect to lose, nor will he accept losing.
“Just because you are patient doesn’t mean you don’t want to win,” Cuddyer said. “It doesn’t mean you aren’t competitive. Just because you are rebuilding doesn’t mean you can’t expect quality from your players.
“That’s the thing a lot of people misconceive when you are talking about a rebuilding process. It doesn’t mean expectations are that you are going to suck. Sure, you are going to take your lumps and everyone understands that. But it doesn’t mean you accept that.”
Fulmer, Castellanos: Pillars or bait?
Still, there is a ground-zero feel to everything around the Tigers’ camp. Like the Astros were in 2010, the Tigers will be in no position this off-season to make any real moves. Yes, general manager Al Avila will try to trade veterans Ian Kinsler and possibly Jose Iglesias for prospects. He will look to add an experienced starting pitcher on the cheap. He will fill holes with journeymen players and minor-league free agents.
He will hope, essentially, to get lucky.
“Hopefully, we can find lightning in a bottle,” Avila said at Gardenhire’s press conference. “We’re just trying to make sure we put together a team that can compete solidly over the six months of the season.
“We’re also going to look for minor-league free agents — hopefully we can find a diamond in the rough there, guys that can give us some depth at Triple-A as we need them throughout the season.”
At this point, 21/2 months before spring training, Gardenhire doesn’t know if his veteran middle infielders — Kinsler and Iglesias — will be with him or be traded. He doesn’t know if his middle-of-the-lineup hitters — Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez — will be healthy and able to play up to their previous standards.
He’s looking at his 40-man roster and there are three outfielders— JaCoby Jones, barely exceeded his rookie service limit last season, Mikie Mahtook, barely established as an everyday player and Nick Castellanos, who has played right field for about a month.
He’s looking at two right-handed hitting catchers in James McCann and John Hicks.
Where are the foundation pieces? Are there any, besides Cabrera?
McCann and Castellanos, certainly, will assume leadership roles in 2018. But there is no guarantee they will be pillars when this team is fully ready to contend. Castellanos is a free agent in 2020, McCann in 2021.
Depending on how quickly things turn, both could be flipped to contenders for a package of prospects in a year or two.
Same can be said of right-hander Michael Fulmer. Is he the ace of the Tigers’ next Central Division-winning team? Or is he the guy that brings the package of prospects that includes the core of the next winning team in Detroit?
Players come, players go
If the Astros are the model, then expect an ever-evolving roster for the next couple of years. The Astros churned through Chris Carter. J.D. Martinez, Brandon Barnes, Jon Singleton, Luis Valbuena, Bud Norris, Jose Veras, Jarred Cosart, Brett Oberholtzer, on and on.
Avila won’t be able to make cosmetic decisions with trades or free agency. He can’t afford to be sentimental with veteran players. He’s looking at a three-year window to at least show things are moving in the right direction.
Every move he makes needs to be made with a singular purpose and an eye on the bigger picture. Not to squeeze out a few more wins and put a few more butts in the seats in 2018, but to put the team in position — financially and talent-wise — to attain and sustain long-term success.
With all the salary that has been dumped since the beginning of last season (slashed from $199 million to roughly $102 million at present), and with more coming off the books after the 2018 season (Martinez’s $18 million and Kinsler’s $11 million), the Tigers are going to be fiscally sound.
If they can build a young nucleus in the next two or three years — which isn’t such a pipe dream if a good percentage of those bright, shiny pitching prospects pan out — Avila will have the financial wherewithal by 2020 to add whatever big pieces are needed to put the team over the top.
That’s the end game, and that is way too far away for Gardenhire to even think about as he plans his first spring training. It’s ground zero. It’s square one. It’s crawl before you walk, walk before you run.
“We’re going to teach baseball,” Gardenhire said on MLB Network’s Hot Stove program Tuesday. “We’re going to teach this ballclub to get back to respecting the game. I’m not saying they didn’t, but that’s the way I’ve always gone about this business — with respect and with paying attention to the details of the game.”
He said he was going to spread his message, not just to the big-league camp, but it’s going to be shared at every rung of the system.
“They went the one route with all the veteran players and spending the money and now they want to go a different route — drafting and developing,” he said. “We’re going to get good people back in there and build through the system.
“That’s our goal and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to come with enthusiasm and play the game the right way. We’re going to respect that letter on our jersey. We’re going to respect that and I want people to understand that. We’re going to try to play the game the right way and we’re going to get after it.”