Are The Tigers Losing With Their “Win Now” Approach?
The Kansas City Royals’ miraculous run through the 2014 MLB playoffs exposed baseball fans across the country to the idea that, contrary to popular belief, a team could win in today’s game in a small market. A team could spend multiple first-round picks across several years and build a truly homegrown lineup and have success.
Meanwhile, over in Detroit, the Tigers could only sit and watch as the team they pulled away from late in the season to win their fourth consecutive American League Central Division title pushed the San Francisco Giants to Game 7 of the World Series. The Tigers had put together a team full of recognizable names — Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Verlander, and so forth — and spent a lot of money in the process to end up being swept out of the American League Division Series by the Baltimore Orioles.
One team’s small-market success by no means defines a trend or proves one system better than another, but the question is worth asking: do the Tigers have the right approach in building their team?
It’s abundantly clear from looks and General Manager Dave Dombrowski’s mouth that the Tigers are in “Win Now” mode, a position normally associated with big free agent spending and blockbuster trades at the expense of the minor league system. Owner Mike Ilitch has opened his wallet on multiple occasions to attract and secure some of the best talent baseball has to offer, transactions which have frequently come at the expense of his organization’s minor league system. Some have paid off — look no further than the two separate trades with the (then) Florida Marlins that brought Cabrera and Anibal Sanchez to the Motor City. Some have not — Joakim Soria’s performance down the stretch (when he was healthy) left much to be desired, although I still maintain that he is a solid arm out of a depleted bullpen.
But the fact remains that even with the star power that Dombrowski has assembled, and the fourth highest payroll in the game, they have still yet to win a championship under their model of money winning championships. Meanwhile, the Royals (19th highest) and Giants (sixth highest) played for a championship last month. The difference from fourth to sixth place in payroll rankings may not seem substantial, but the Tigers spent nearly $15 million — just under what Max Scherzer earned this past season — more than the Giants in 2014.
So, is money the answer? Consider this: since 2000, a team with a Top 5 payroll has only won the World Series five times. Unsurprisingly, the only two teams that have pulled the feat off have been the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Expand the sample size to World Series participants in those 15 years and you’ll find that only eight of 30 teams to make the Fall Classic this century have ranked in the Top 5 in that season’s payroll. On the other hand, the Royals became the fifth team in that timespan to reach the World Series with a payroll in the bottom half of the league.
My point is, several World Series teams of late have developed their team’s core internally, and it may be time for the Tigers to look that way too. Look at the Royals with Hosmer, Butler, and Gordon (just to name a few), the Giants with Posey, Sandoval, and Bumgarner, and the Cardinals with Pujols, Molina, and Wainwright. The Tigers groomed Verlander, Alex Avila, Rick Porcello, and Nick Castellanos, but have relied on outside signings and trades to fill the rest.
Additionally, each of those other aforementioned teams has even more prospects ready to make an impact in the near future. The Tigers have very little in their farm system that look poised to contribute at the big league level outside of Robbie Ray and Bruce Rondon.
Cabrera and Verlander are beginning to show their age, Martinez may be gone this winter, and Scherzer will in all likelihood begin the season elsewhere. The team lacks a bona fide center fielder. Avila takes more foul balls to his body and backswings to the head than any other catcher in baseball, resulting in a series of concussions. The bullpen is about as stable as Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor.
The Tigers have a lot of problem as it is, and they will only be exacerbated without internal reinforcements who can eventually start to shoulder the load. Dombrowski needs to begin filling his farm system with talent that can make a difference down the road if he wants to stay competitive beyond the next two or three years.
Luckily for him and the Tigers, their core is strong enough that they can win without all the existing pieces. The Tigers don’t need to have a Marlins-esque firesale or rot in mediocrity waiting for their draft picks to develop like the Royals did. Dombrowski can let his current team do their jobs and see positive results; however, he needs to start shifting his approach away from big spending and look more toward developing his future core.
Less “Win Now,” more “Win Now and in Five Years.”
Payroll figures taken from USA Today.