For much of the last two years, baseball columnists and prognosticators predicted the demise of the Tigers, claiming that aging veterans, bloated contracts, and a barren farm system would conspire to sink the franchise and turn them into a mirror image of the recent-vintage Phillies.
That reasoning certainly looks sound now, as the Tigers stumble their way down the stretch of an extremely disappointing season. But the team’s championship window doesn’t have to close, as long as they keep losing.
Losing to win is a paradox not unfamiliar to sports fans in Detroit, though it’s a concept more often associated with football and basketball. All it takes is one LeBron James or Andrew Luck, as the theory goes, and a moribund franchise can turn around almost instantly.
A one-player reversal of fortune that dramatic simply isn’t possible in baseball, but that doesn’t mean high draft picks aren’t important. Teams like the Pirates, Royals, Astros, and Cubs have shown that losing for multiple years and stockpiling prospects can eventually lead to championship contention.
The Tigers don't have the luxury of dwelling in baseball's basement for the next four years. But fortunately for them, and contrary to the popular national narrative, they aren’t that far away from contending again, provided the team continues to lose this year, and the front office makes the proper moves in the offseason.
It’s understandably hard for most fans to suddenly switch gears and root for their team to fail, but it’s the only logical choice thanks to Major League Baseball’s complex rules governing free agency and the draft.
Before a player reaches free agency, his current team must decide if they want to tender him a one-year qualifying offer, which will be for roughly $16 million next season. Most free agents aren’t worth that sort of investment, but players who do receive a qualifying offer can accept it, or decline and pursue a better deal in free agency.
If a player declines the qualifying offer and then signs with another franchise, the original team is awarded a first-round draft pick the next season. Conversely, when a team signs a player who declined a qualifying offer, they must forfeit their top available draft pick. However, if the signing team’s first selection occurs in the top ten picks of the following draft, they get to keep the their first pick and surrender their next highest selection.
This is particularly important for the Tigers, who will almost certainly pursue one or more free agents this offseason. If they can manage to finish 2015 with one of the ten worst records in baseball, they'll be free to sign as many expensive free agents as they please in the offseason, while still maintaining a top-ten pick.
The Tigers are currently 60-67, which is the 10th-worst record in baseball. They are only 1/2 game behind the Indians and White Sox, but also just 2 games ahead of the Red Sox for the 8th-worst record. Keeping that top pick would give the Tigers much more flexibility in the 2016 draft.
The current draft system assigns a dollar value to every selection in the first ten rounds. Last year, the first overall pick was worth a little more than $8.6 million, while the final pick of the tenth round was worth a little less than $150 thousand.
Teams have an overall draft budget based on the sum value of all their picks in the first ten rounds. Players drafted after the tenth round can receive a bonus of up to $100 thousand, with any dollar amount over that threshold counting against the team’s draft pool. Going above or below the slot value for any particular player is allowed, but if a team exceeds their total budget by too much they incur harsh penalties, including the loss of future draft picks.
Under this system, selections made in the latter half of the first ten rounds tend to be players who will sign for well below their slot values, allowing teams to bank the remaining money and spend it on players taken after the tenth round, when the first $100,000 of a bonus doesn’t count against the draft pool.
So how does this affect the Tigers in a real-world sense? The 8th pick in next year’s first round will be worth about $3.5 million, while the 11th pick will be worth about $3 million. The team picking 8th will have a total bonus pool of about $7.5 million, while the bonus pool of the team with the 11th pick will be around $7 million.
It doesn’t seem like a great disparity, until we remember that, unless they are picking in the top ten, teams who sign big free agents have to surrender their first pick. If the Tigers draft 8th and sign a top-tier free agent, their bonus pool would shrink to around $6.3 million, but if they draft 11th and sign a top free agent, the pool drops to roughly $4 million. That extra $2.3 million buys a lot of flexibility and potential impact talent.
But even if we ignore the monetary implications of losing that draft pick, it’s important to consider the potential impact that a player taken 8th or lower can provide. In just the last five drafts we’ve seen a handful of legitimate aces (Matt Harvey, Chris Sale, Jose Fernandez), solid mid-rotation arms (Andrew Heaney, Aaron Nola), impressive shortstops (Francisco Lindor, Addison Russell, Trea Turner), and impact outfielders (George Springer, Michael Conforto) get drafted in that general range. And the 2016 draft is said to be quite strong, with as many as seven or eight players worth of being selected first overall.
For all their troubles and inconsistencies this year, the Tigers still have one of the top five offenses in all of baseball, and things shouldn’t change too much in 2016. Yes, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, and Miguel Cabrera will all be another year older, but Cabrera is still the best hitter on the planet, Kinsler is closing in on his second consecutive 5-WAR season, and the rest of the starting position players figure to be under 30 next season.
If the team’s run prevention had been merely average this year, the Tigers would still be in the thick of the playoff hunt. But the pitching was so atrocious that it cost the team a chance at the playoffs, and ultimately cost General Manager Dave Dombrowski his job.
Thankfully, in his final act as GM, Dombrowski set the team back on the right course by trading for a handful of promising young arms who could positively impact the rotation and the bullpen next season.
Anibal Sanchez and Shane Greene remain significant wildcards heading into next year, but Justin Verlander’s late-season resurgence is a reason for cautious optimism, and the new arms provide more options. If Al Avila and his staff can sign a top-of-the-rotation pitcher in free agency, address the bullpen, and make a strong pick in the top ten of next year’s draft, there’s no reason the Tigers can’t be consistent winners in 2016 and beyond.
They just have to lose first.