WTF: Busted

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One swing of the bat. Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster and former catcher Jim Price always said that this team, particularly its harder-hitting versions in the earlier part of this decade, could change its fate with one swing of the bat. While Price’s statement always came from a place of optimism, the line was no less true last night, albeit in a far unhappier context, when Miguel Cabrera swung through a 1-1 breaking ball from Minnesota’s Jake Odorizzi in the bottom of the third inning of what eventually would be a 6-4 loss to the Twins and ruptured a tendon in his left biceps. Later that night the news that would become this morning’s headlines arrived: Cabrera was done for the year.

The 2018 season began as a hopeful one for Cabrera. After missing significant time in 2015 and 2017 with leg and back injuries, he reportedly entered the current in good health and physical condition. Early returns on the field backed up that story. His March/April (154 wRC+) was one of his best starts of the last five years. Some trouble surfaced at the end of April, though, when spasms in his left biceps caused him to leave an April 29 game in Baltimore.  A few days later, he made his return in a game in Kansas City but again left early, this time hitting the disabled list with a hamstring strain.

Cabrera, seemingly frustrated, was in no rush to return from the hamstring injury:

Nobody appreciates when you play hurt, so I’m going to take my time and play when I’m good. I play a lot of years hurt here in Detroit. They don’t appreciate that. When you are doing bad, they crush you. They crush you. They say you are bad. You should go home. You don’t deserve anything. That you are old. I say “OK. I’m done playing hurt.” When you are going good they say, “Oh, oh, you’re good.” Now I take my time.

That Kansas City game ended up being the only game in which he played in the month of May.

After a twenty-six-game absence, Cabrera returned to action in a home win against the Blue Jays on June 1 and didn’t miss a game this month. He struggled (June: .244/.367/.293, 86 wRC+) in his return, however, exhibiting weak power at the plate. And now he’s done for the season. His 2018, comprised essentially of a good month and a bad half-month, sum to .299/.395/.448, 128 wRC+, 3 HR, 0.8 fWAR/0.4 bWAR/0.5 WARP. In large part due to the time he missed prior to last night’s injury, Cabrera has been the Tigers’ seventh-most-valuable player in 2018, behind Jeimer Candelario, Leonys Martín, Nicholas Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Matt Boyd, and Joe Jimenez.

Now is the time on Sprockets when we provide the obligatory reminder that Cabrera is thirty-five years old and has, beyond 2018, a minimum of five years and $16 a2 million remaining on his contract. While I’ve argued it wasn’t crazy to believe that Cabrera might continue to earn that contract for a few more seasons if you believe that a win currently is worth $10 million, Cabrera already was likely to be shifting to DH on a much more consistent basis in 2019 (following Victor Martinez’s exit), and this injury raises new and serious questions about his ability to contribute going forward.

Comments from doctors and trainers experienced with this type of injury will appear in the coming days and provide a somewhat clearer picture of Cabrera’s possible future with the Tigers. In the meantime, I suggest we might consider the case of former Tiger Cameron Maybin, who, while playing for the San Diego Padres, ruptured a tendon in his left biceps four years ago while making a defensive play during a spring training game. Maybin, who was a month shy of his twenty-seventh birthday at the time and had missed most of the prior season with wrist and knee injuries, chose a rest-and-rehabilitation approach over surgery and was given a two-to-three-month return timetable. Maybin was back in the Padres’ lineup faster than that, though, missing only about a month of the regular season. (Articles about Maybin at the time note that the injury is more common in football and cite the case of John Elway, who also chose the non-surgical route and returned to action after just three weeks off.) Maybin’s somewhat stunted and injury-riddled career makes it difficult to compare his performance before and after the injury. Moreover, the numerous differences between Cabrera and Maybin, including age, body type, and style of play, probably limit the usefulness of the comparison for the purpose of understanding Cabrera’s prognosis. In addition, the fact that Cabrera is choosing surgery suggests that his injury is more severe than Maybin’s, although there aren’t many details available right now.

With Cabrera out, the already probable likelihood that the Tigers try to sell at the trade deadline becomes a certainty. Last night’s loss bumped Detroit out of second place in the AL Central, and one assumes that the team will continue to follow that trajectory in the standings. Keep an eye on some of those players listed above, especially Iglesias and Martín, as trade candidates next month. Expect General Manager Al Avila to field plenty of calls about Michael Fulmer. Look for the new-faces trend to continue. Hope that Cabrera can make a full and productive return in 2019.

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Previously
WTF: Bos to the Races – 5/22
WTF: Welcome Back Kozma – 5/9

Related
2018 Detroit Tigers Season Preview
Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

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Saving Detroit: Upton There

Today is the last day MLB teams can trade players the receiving team would like to use in the postseason. In what I am regarding as a surprise move, the Tigers have sent another outfielder to the Angels, who now are acquiring Justin Upton in exchange for Grayson Long. (Last fall, Detroit sent Cameron Maybin to Anaheim, and, probably not coincidentally, Maybin now is on his way to Houston.) Neil Weinberg has the early report on Long:

The Tigers got 23-year-old Grayson Long, a starter currently having a strong year in AA. He only threw 65 innings across three levels last year due to injury, but he does have the appearance of an innings eater if you buy into the archetype scouting. Based on the public scouting views and one source I spoke with this afternoon, Long’s fastball is solid in the low 90s but his secondary stuff is a bit questionable with opinions ranging from fringe to flashes of above average. He has a change and slider but it’s not clear they will play at the major league level to the point at which he could be a successful starter. That might lead him to a bullpen role, but he has pitched well so far in the minors and I’m a big believer in letting a player keep going until the performance tells you to stop. There’s definitely potential for something really exciting but even the floor seems perfectly fine given the cost.

Upton’s contract had a player opt-out provision effective as of the end of this season. I’ve expressed skepticism about the idea that Upton would exercise that option. Weinberg, on the other hand, called the “odds that Upton opts out . . . quite high.”

It appears the Tigers came to the same conclusion, because the only way this trade makes sense is if Detroit was treating Upton as if he was on an expiring contract just like J.D. Martinez and Alex Avila and needed to get something for him now before he leaves in the offseason.

After watching Upton play here in Atlanta with his older brother as members of the Braves, I have been tracking his time– a bad dip with a fierce, late recovery in 2016, followed by a very solid 2017– in Detroit on this site with some care, and I will watch how the market responds to what I now agree will be his likely free agency this offseason. While he may not get a raise, he’s likely to wind up with a team with greater playoff odds than those of the Tigers or Angels, who, against many of those same odds, remain in the American League wild card hunt. Most of all, I’m happy to see Upton have such a strong rebound. Detroit’s fans didn’t deserve him anyway.

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Previously
A bad time for a bad season – 8/29
Jordan Zimmermann takes tennis lessons – 8/20
Tigers Notes, 8/8/17
– 8/8
Decoding the Upton Myth
– 8/2
Even the umpires just wanna go home
– 7/21

Yo, a J.D. Martinez trade comp – 7/19
Martinez trade triggers premature referendum on Avila – 7/19
Michael Fulmer has righted the ship
 – 6/27

Tigers in Retrograde – 6/19
Fixing Justin Upton
 – 5/31

Soft in the Middle Now – 5/30
Reliever Relief, Part 2 – 5/11
Reliever Relief – 5/8

Related
Catching Fire: It Don’t Come Easy
Catching Fire: Checking in on Justin Upton
Catching Fire: Night of a thousand feet of home runs
Catching Fire: Heading for the exit velocity

ALDLAND’s full Justin Upton archive

Michael Fulmer and the changing face of the Detroit Tigers

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We learned Monday that Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Michael Fulmer is the 2016 American League rookie of the year. While not a unanimous selection like his National League counterpart, Corey Seager, he still claimed the award in convincing fashion:

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Fulmer is the fifth Tiger to win the award, joining teammate Justin Verlander, Lou Whitaker, Mark Fidrych, and Harvey Kuenn. The connection between Verlander, who won his rookie of the year exactly ten years ago and is a contender for his second Cy Young award this year, and Fulmer seems to be a neat and real mentorship relationship. Here’s a snapshot statistical comparison of Verlander and Fulmer in their rookie-of-the-year seasons:

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It certainly is exciting to consider the possibility that the Tigers have found in Fulmer another Verlander, even if Fulmer’s numbers– comparatively superior to Verlander’s ROY season across the selected metrics– have some worried about his ability to repeat his rookie-year successes. (This concern boils down to the relatively large gap between Fulmer’s ERA and his FIP. It seems worth noting that Verlander had an even larger gap in 2006.) It doesn’t mean a lot, but the similarities make for a fun comparison.

Fulmer’s accolades serve as a reminder that the next generation of this Tigers team already has arrived, at least in part, and that, with business-side changes afoot, the veteran generation could be gone before we know it.   Continue reading

Offseason starts with a bang for the Detroit Tigers

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When the Detroit Tigers’ season ended in Atlanta last month, the message from general manager Al Avila was both clear and clearly different than it had been a season ago, when Avila took over the job from his boss, Dave Dombrowski. Then, speaking as the mouthpiece of the team’s owner, Mike Ilitch, he said that “the foot is on the pedal, hard,” and the team continued to make the kind of win-now moves that largely have defined them for the past decade. Now, though, Avila’s taking his foot off the gas and ushering in a period of austerity that’s likely to be painful. It definitely will be different.

The changes began immediately. Yesterday was the first day of the MLB offseason, and Avila wasted no time in making two of his biggest decisions on current player options. First, he “traded” center fielder Cameron Maybin to the Angels for a low-grade relief pitching prospect in a move that essentially amounts to the Tigers declining to exercise Maybin’s option.

Shortly thereafter, the team announced that it would pick up the $6 million option on closer Francisco Rodriguez. (Had they declined K-Rod’s option, they would’ve owed him a $2 million buyout.)

If, as he has said, his new mission is “making this team leaner, younger, more efficient,” I’m not certain this was the way to do it. Given the money, his track record, and his strong performance last season, I like the decision to retain Rodriguez, even considering the general year-to-year unreliability of reliever performance.

The Maybin decision is more confusing, though. By fWAR, Maybin was the Tigers’ most valuable outfielder last year, and he only played in ninety-four games. (He also was their second-best baserunner.) He missed action due to injury, but not really the kind of injury that should make teams worry. He mostly just kept getting beaned on the hands. That’s just bad luck. He’s only twenty-nine. Over the past two seasons with Atlanta and then Detroit, he finally seemed to be approaching the potential he demonstrated eleven years ago that caused the Tigers to spend the tenth overall draft pick on him in 2005. (He also was the team leader in the Instagram handle category.)

Now he’s gone again, leaving behind holes in center field and the top of the batting order. Jeff Sullivan, writing up this transaction largely from the Angels’ perspective, points a finger to JaCoby Jones as the likely replacement Avila is targeting. Jones showed memorable flashes as a late-season call-up this year, but, like many prospects, he’s still young and raw and inconsistent. The other obvious fill-in is Tyler Collins, who has the relative advantage of being a left-handed hitter but the disadvantage of being at an age and experience level where “raw” is not a baseball adjective that incorporates an element of hope.

All of this happened on offseason day number one. There will be more activity involving the Tigers this offseason, and, typically, it is wise to wait to render final judgment on a particular decision until it can be viewed within the full constellation of the team’s moves. Under austerity, though, there should be little hope for or expectation of near-term improvement through an infusion of external resources; doing better must mean doing better with what you already have. There isn’t going to be a Justin Upton trade this year (which, while we’re at it, probably will be the last year J.D. Martinez wears a Detroit uniform). What stings about the Maybin trade– besides the obvious departure of talent and the intangibles of a fun guy who seemed to be having a lot of fun himself– is that it is a move that will make the team worse in 2017, and the Tigers haven’t made too many moves like that in a good while.

The arc of the ALDLAND universe is long, but it bends toward this weekend

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If there are two things I’ve written about with consistency at this weblog they are 1) the Detroit Tigers and 2) the Atlanta Braves’ foolhardy abandonment of their downtown home at Turner Field. Beginning tonight, and for the next two days thereafter, these two ALDLANDic worlds will collide when the Tigers face the Braves in the final three games ever to be played at the aforementioned Turner Field. More than anything, I am grateful that we will be able to attend each of these games, live and in person. These are critical games for the 2016 Tigers, teetering as they are on the edge of postseason qualification, and they are historic games for the City of Atlanta. I have little more to add at this juncture other than that I am very excited.   Continue reading

Highlights from MLB Network’s visit to Detroit Tigers spring training

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As it has done in the past, MLB Network’s “30 Clubs in 30 Days” feature spends a day with each major-league team during spring training. They spent St. Patrick’s Day with the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland, Florida. Here are the highlights:   Continue reading

2016 Detroit Tigers still in search of man out standing in (left) field

After a disappointing 2015 season, which included some odd maneuvering at the trade deadline, the Detroit Tigers entered the offseason with a significant to-do list. They’ve already made acquisitions designed to address needs in the bullpen and starting pitching rotation, but, with three months until opening day, the team still has one major hole to fill.   Continue reading