The Tigers who left: Why we’ll miss them in ’18

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Justin Verlander

Fans will miss their faces. Their post-game words, too.

But what they’ll really miss when the new-look Tigers start their season next week is the high-beam baseball light some past stars, since traded, delivered nearly daily to a team that has been undergoing necessary demolition in a bid to build a new baseball model at Comerica Park.

The net losses, far beyond box-office allure, boil down accordingly:

The Tigers were eighth in the American League in hitting in 2017 and 12th among all teams with a.258 batting average. They were 10th and 18th in runs scored. They were eighth and 18th in OPS (on-base plus slugging). Their pitching, last among 30 teams, was more the story to 2017 and more responsible for the Tigers’ 64-98 death certificate.

Justin Verlander, their ace, is gone, dealt to the Astros in an August swap that helped bring Houston a World Series parade.

J.D. Martinez, their most potent hitter in 2017, was traded to the Diamondbacks and then signed a 5-year, $110 million deal with former boss David Dombrowski and the Boston Red Sox in the offseason.

Justin Upton is now in Los Angeles with the Angels, alongside Mike Trout and Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani, among others, after it became clear Upton would opt out of his Tigers pact. It left Detroit’s front office no real option but to deal him last August and gain at least a couple of prospects who might help as the farm system is re-seeded.

Justin Upton

Ian Kinsler was likewise dealt to the Angels, the only team among those clubs chasing him to which Kinsler would agree being shipped, per no-trade clauses in his contract, which was signed when Kinsler played for the Rangers. The Tigers’ heartbeat star and leadoff batter is five months from 36 and needed a new home as much as the Tigers needed two more prospects, however marginal, for their youth push.

Justin Wilson and Alex Avila are now with the Cubs after Tigers general manager Al Avila flipped them for three potentially vital talents as part of the Tigers’ 2018 roster makeover. Wilson last year became something of a Tigers phenomenon, a shutdown closer. Mysteriously, he didn’t fare well with the Cubs, who left him off their playoff roster. But his back-end bullpen flair is one more feature to which the Tigers had been accustomed. They’ll hope their repeal-and-replace efforts in 2018 will soothe Tigers fans who for so many years during the years and late innings have closed eyes and offered personal petitions.

Now, remove some of the aforementioned names:

Upton for five months provided the Tigers with 28 homers and a .904 OPS as part of an overall season that saw him reach a gaudy 5.6 WAR (wins above replacement).

Martinez bashed 16 homers for the Tigers after missing the first six weeks with a rolled ankle. He then all but hoisted Arizona into the playoffs with 29 homers in 62 games. He finished with an 1.107 OPS and a 4.1 WAR.

Kinsler won a Gold Glove in 2016 and last season could easily have won another. His offense had begun to slip, not that 22 homers was any failing. But his defense and all-around savvy will be tough to replace, especially when his heir is Dixon Machado, a shortstop who has worked as a part-timer and who could be deployed as a second-base regular in 2018.

Ian Kinsler

Together, the Tigers lost — in the deals that sent Upton, Martinez and Kinsler packing — 23 percent of their hits, 28 percent of 2017’s runs, 35 percent of a team’s home runs and 26 percent of its RBIs.

All of that statistical drama must be remembered in context: Martinez played in only 57 games for the Tigers because of an early ankle injury and his early July trade. Upton was gone at the end of August.

Verlander’s exit from Detroit, of course, is still being processed. When he and his 12-year status as a Tigers ace and potential Hall of Fame pitcher migrated to Houston, a Tigers audience seemed unwilling to let go. It was as if last autumn he was still Detroit’s Verlander, masquerading in orange Astros paraphernalia.

But he is Motown’s no more. The Tigers’ biggest baseball celebrity, on and off the field, became part of a trade parcel that brought to Detroit three building-block talents: Franklin Perez, Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers. Verlander’s rotation replacement, which isn’t impending ace Michael Fulmer as much as it’s newcomer Mike Fiers, will remind the Tigers all too often in 2018 that the price of reconstruction has been steep. Especially when Verlander last season had 18 of the team’s 72 quality starts (six innings or more, three or fewer earned runs).

Consider comparative numbers from 2017, with the caveat that replacement players such as Mahtook and Machado should benefit from either added age and/or everyday experience.

■Mahtook: He steps into Upton’s old haunt, left field. Mahtook had a 2017 WAR of 0.6, five full games beneath Upton’s final grade. Mahtook batted .276, with a healthy .330 on-base percentage and a .787 OPS. In fact, those numbers compare favorably if one considers that a man now 28 likely will bat leadoff for new manager Ron Gardenhire and if one focuses on how Mahtook stacks up against last season’s first hitter, Kinsler (.236, .313, and .725).

The problem, of course, is that Mahtook will be playing left field. Power and run-production are a mandate there. And that simply isn’t within the scope of this gent’s projected reach.

Machado: This is going to be interesting, as in whitewater-rafting interesting. Machado is a strong shortstop. He can also play second base (27 games in 2017). How well he adapts to daily labor on the infield’s right side — if indeed that’s where he’s stationed on Opening Day — is of intrigue, as is his bat, which might at least have the advantage of daily shifts in 2018.

Machado was carried in 2017 for base reasons. He was out of minor-league options and the Tigers didn’t care to lose him on waivers. He batted .259 in 73 games, with a .301 on-base percentage and a low-blood-sugar OPS of .621. The Tigers believe a player who turns 26 in February, who is 6-foot-1, 170 pounds, will survive in 2018 as he adds muscle and sees a steadier stream of pitches.

But this is not to say Machado will make fans or a front office forget about Kinsler. Machado has much growing to do, in a hurry, at a relatively new position to avoid inevitable comparisons, particularly if Kinsler thrives, in his career twilight, with the Angels.

Nick Castellanos: This is where the Tigers could find at least a smidgen of parity with the player replaced. Castellanos will play right field in 2018. It’s the position to which he relocated not long after Martinez was traded last summer.

Castellanos has an .882 OPS during the 2017 season’s second half and looks, two months ahead of turning 26, as if he will raise his overall numbers in 2018. He slammed 26 home runs last season, with 10 triples and 36 doubles. He also played comfortably in right field and could — could — be a better defensive outfielder than Martinez, which is not the highest of bars to clear.

Fans will continue to miss Martinez, who not only was one of baseball’s premier power-sluggers, but also one of its better overall hitters. But in Castellanos the Tigers will brandish a splendid young slasher who figures to be attractive when July’s trade deadline approaches.

Fiers: It will not comfort those who haven’t yet archived their Verlander jerseys that Fiers is his Tigers rotation replacement. For a couple of reasons.

Note that Fiers last season played for the Astros. Note that you never saw him pitch in the playoffs or in the World Series. That’s because the Astros deemed him excess freight when they bolted together their playoff roster, which isn’t the greatest testimonial to a man who last season pitched in 29 games (28 starts) for Houston.

The reason he wasn’t around for the post-season stems from his 5.22 ERA in 2017 and 1.43 WHIP. Fiers is 32, pitches right-handed and has since signed a one-year deal with the Tigers, who wish/hope/pray he might dabble with numbers he accrued in 2015, when he worked for the Brewers and Astros and etched a nice season: 3.69 ERA in 31 games and 30 starts, 1.25 WHIP, etc.

That probably ranks as unrealistic, given last year’s efforts. But pitchers so often can cavort from good-to-not-so-good and vice versa.

The Tigers will apply faith and seek grace as they trek forward, into Opening Day and beyond, aware that this 2018 adventure will have its hardships. And, they hope, its reminders that baseball, in years ahead, should be better, with new faces making them pine a bit less for some old and glorious favorites.


Listed with Tigers stats / season total stats.

Traded July 18

J.D. Martinez

.305/.303 AVG

16/45 HR

39/104 RBI

.388/.376 OBP

Traded July 31

Alex Avila

.274/.264 AVG

11/14 HR

32/49 RBI

.394/.387 OBP

Traded July 31

Justin Wilson

3-4/4-4 W-L

2.68/3.41 ERA

0.94/1.29 WHIP

13/13 Saves

Traded Aug. 31

Justin Upton

.279/.273 AVG

28/35 HR

94/109 RBI

.362/.361 OBP

Traded Aug. 31

Justin Verlander

10-8/15-8 W-L

3.82/3.36 ERA

1.28/1.17 WHIP

176/219 Strikeouts

Traded Dec. 13

Ian Kinsler

.236/.236 AVG

22/22 HR

52/52 RBI

.313/.313 OBP