How the Detroit Tigers Can Contend For a World Series in 2016


The Detroit Tigers need to acquire more talent this offseason and hope things break their way during the season if they hope to contend for a playoff berth.

The Detroit Tigers, as currently constructed, do not look like a playoff team. The organization has addressed a few glaring needs this offseason in acquiring Jordan Zimmerman, Francisco Rodriguez, and Cameron Maybin, but there are still plenty of holes that need to be plugged if the club hopes to bounce back and compete for a division crown — much less a World Series ring — this season.

The Tigers have already committed nearly $160 million to the 2016 payroll. That figure includes some assumptions for arbitration awards to J.D. Martinez and Jose Iglesias, but it’s a number that gets us pretty close. Fans don’t often care much about money except every team has a limit to what they can spend, even the deep-pocketed Mike Ilitch. $160 million would be the third highest opening day payroll ever for a Detroit Tigers team, behind the $173 million they spent last year and the $164 million they spent in 2014.

That gives the club about $13 million to spend still this offseason if they’re comfortable with matching last year’s number, or perhaps $29 million if they’re willing to push up against the $189 million luxury tax threshold. (I don’t personally believe Ilitch will approve a payroll that high, but that’s not known at this point).

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Current estimates peg the cost of a win at about $8 million on the free agent market. That is to say, teams are generally willing to pay a player $16 million if they feel he will add about two wins to their win total at the end of the year. Smart teams can typically squeeze more out of their free agent signings by looking for players (or player types) that they feel are undervalued by the market.

Every team (and fan base) probably feels their club is above average in this regard, but by definition only half of them can be. It’s probably best not to assume the Tigers are suddenly better able to read the market than other teams are.

All this to say the Tigers probably have room in the budget to increase their 2016 win total by between one and four wins, depending on where the final payroll ceiling rests. They could do better than four in 2016 wins by borrowing from the future (signing players to long-term deals and back loading the contracts), but that will further exacerbate the impending payroll doom of 2018 and beyond.

The current roster is projected (by the Steamer Projection System) to be worth about 30 wins above replacement which equates to a season win total of about 77 wins (replacement level winning percentage is set at about 47 wins). Adding four more wins would put the 2016 Tigers right around the 81-win .500 threshold.

An 81-win projection would make the Tigers close enough to contention to “go for it,” but they wouldn’t start the season as the division favorite and they certainly wouldn’t be a slam-dunk to make the playoffs even as a wild card. There is a great deal of slop in my estimates above — an easy +/- five wins either way — but the Tigers still need to catch a few breaks in order to make a serious October run.

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What could some of those breaks be?

Justin Verlander Pitches Like an Ace Again

This one is somewhat easy to imagine. Justin Verlander had a solid year in 2015, but had to overcome a horrific start. If we only look at his second half performance, he pitched like a Cy Young Award contender with a 2.80 ERA (and matching 2.81 FIP) with a strikeout rate that trended back up to his career norm. Giving the Tigers something close to that performance for 200 innings would add up to four wins to their projection.

Nick Castellanos Breaks Out at the Plate and in the Field

The Steamer Projections are actually pretty kind to Nick Castellanos. It pegs him to be an above-average hitter for the first time in his career and imagines a slight increase in his fielding ability as well. That would be a very encouraging start for a player in his final pre-arbitration season, but the Tigers will probably need even more out of him if they’re going to win a ring.

Castellanos’ fielding improved by seven runs from 2014 to 2015. Another such improvement would put him right around league average at the position and would bump up the Tigers’ projection (nearly) one more win.

And, like Verlander, Castellanos was better in the second half of the season than he was in the first half. He hit for an .800 OPS after the All-Star Break, a 142 point increase over his fist half line. Matching that line would add an additional win to the team’s ledger.

J.D. Martinez is an All-Star Again

The projection systems still don’t totally but into J.D. Martinez’s transformation at the plate and in the field. He’s still pegged to be a quality hitter (though not to the level of his actual performances the last two seasons), but he’s projected to be only an average fielder in right.

If he can simply match last year’s output offensively and defensively (which is not out of the question given his position at the top of the aging curve), he’ll add another two or three wins to the projection.

Summing It Up

If all these things break the Tigers’ way — they’re willing to add to the payroll this offseason, these players beat their projections, and no one significantly fails to match their projections —  they could be looking at an 87-89 projection (with room for a few wins of variance on either side). That would put the Tigers in the hunt for a division crown or a Wild Card spot.

If any of those things fail to break Detroit’s way, they’ll be looking at another October spent at home with the window of contention slamming shut behind them.