What the Detroit Tigers can learn from baseball’s final four teams

Detroit Free Press

Ryan Ford
 
| Detroit Free Press

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MLB’s postseason is down to its final four, with the Tampa Bay Rays and Houston Astros (seeded No. 1 and No. 6, respectively) facing off in San Diego beginning Sunday night, and the Los Angeles Dodgers and Atlanta Braves (No. 1 and No. 2) beginning their series Monday night in Arlington, Texas.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers, coming off a 23-35 season, are watching the league championship series on their electronic devices of choice for the seventh consecutive year. (Yes, it’s been a long, strange trip since their loss to the Boston Red Sox in the 2013 American League Championship Series.)

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But there’s still plenty of work to do before next season, when, theoretically, they should be pushing for a winning record (or at least avoiding another top-three draft pick).

With that in mind, let’s look at one thing the Tigers can learn from each of baseball’s final four:

Houston Astros

The lesson: Don’t be afraid of rookie pitchers.

No team used more rookies on the mound this season than the Astros with 15. (The Marlins, out of COVID-19-induced necessity, also had 15 rookies take the mound.) And while the Astros went 29-31 and wouldn’t have made the playoffs in a normal five-team field, their rookies were above average, posting a 4.19 ERA in 266 innnings with a 15-14 record as a group. (Houston’s nonrookie pitchers posted a 4.43 ERA, barely better than the MLB average.)

The regular-season seasoning paid off in the playoffs, as six rookies — Cristian Javier, Enoil Paredes, Brooks Raley, Andre Scrubb, Blake Taylor and Jose Urquidy — came up big in the first two series. The group allowed only seven earned runs (four by Urquidy in his ALDS Game 3 start) in 24⅓ innings against the Twins and Athletics, good for a 2.59 ERA. Those rookies, as well as strong performances from third-year pitchers Lance McCullers Jr. and Framber Valdez, are a big reason why the Astros didn’t need dominating performances from star vets Justin Verlander (out for the season with Tommy John surgery) and Zack Greinke (missed a start with a dead arm).

To be fair, the Tigers tried a similar strategy, with nine rookies taking the mound in 2020. But other than Bryan Garcia — whose secondary stats indicate he might have pitched as well as his 1.66 ERA suggests — it didn’t work out as well. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal showed the expected flashes of potential, but others, such as Kyle Funkhouser and Beau Burrows, were disappointing more often than not.  There are plenty more rookies on the way to Detroit, though, with Alex Faedo and Matt Manning likely getting a shot in 2021.

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L.A. Dodgers

The lesson: Don’t be afraid to spend on a superstar hitter.

The Dodgers were already looking at a top-five payroll when they dealt for 2018 AL MVP Mookie Betts and the one-year, $27 million deal he signed to avoid arbitration over the winter. They then doubled down (or 1,350-percented down) with a 12-year, $365 million deal that starts next season.

Did it pay off? Betts led all National Leaguers in WAR (according to baseball-reference.com) at 3.4, thanks to his .292/.366/.562 slash line with 16 homers and 39 RBIs in 55 games. Then again, the Dodgers didn’t acquire him for regular-season success; this year was their eighth straight division title. They got him for the playoffs. And so far he’s delivered, with seven hits — five of them doubles — six runs and four RBIs over 19 at-bats in sweeps of the Milwaukee Brewers and San Diego Padres.   

Admittedly, the Tigers are never going to keep up, payroll-wise, with the Dodgers, who were on the hook for nearly $95 million on Opening Day in July — even with a 63% discount due to the shortened season. (Nor should they, considering the Dodgers’ superior TV deal.)

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But at some point — and stop us if you’ve heard this one before — the Tigers will need to spend some cash to fill the holes in their lineup, especially as every contract but Miguel Cabrera’s drops off the ledger. Even with pay raises for their ascending young players, the Tigers are looking at less than $60 million on the books going into the 2022 season. We won’t list every free agent who’ll hit the market by then, but one from the shortstop quintet (sorry, Willi Castro) of Francisco Lindor, Javier Báez, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager or Trevor Story would look mighty nice wearing the Old English “D,” even if it takes a mega-contract like Betts’ to make it happen.

Atlanta Braves

The lesson: Build around a young rotation.

The Braves have made history this postseason with four combined shutouts in five games against the Reds and Marlins, and just five runs allowed in the first two series. A trio of 20-something starters — Max Fried, Ian Anderson and Kyle Wright — have carried the load in those five games, throwing 28⅔ of the Braves’ 49 postseason innings so far with a 1.28 ERA. All three starters are 26 or younger, with Wright checking in at 24 and Anderson, the only rookie, at 22. (Mike Soroka, who was an All-Star last season at 21 hopes to be back in 2021 after Achilles surgery in August.)

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Good news for the Tigers: They’re already trying this, with Mize and Skubal in the bigs already and Faedo and Manning presumably on the way. It’s tough to say if Matthew Boyd, Michael Fulmer and Daniel Norris will still be part of the rotation when 2022 rolls around, but of the Tigers’ four top pitching prospects, Faedo will be the old man of the group at 26 on Opening Day.

And while we’re gazing into a hopeful future, let’s remember that Franklin Perez could move up the organizational ladder quickly, assuming there is a 2021 minor-league season. The key to the 2017 Verlander trade is still just 22 — about 50 days older than Manning, actually — has finally been healthy all year, though he’s still looking for his old stuff after 2018 and 2019 seasons cut short by injuries.

Tampa Bay Rays

The lesson: Don’t trade with the Rays.

Remember the guy who homered to tie the Rays’ ALDS Game 5 in San Diego? That was Austin Meadows, who came over from the Pirates in a 2018 deal in exchange for Chris Archer. And the guy who started that game, his third start of the 2020 postseason? That was Tyler Glasnow, who arrived from Pittsburgh in that same deal, and has 20 strikeouts in 13 1/3 innings against the Blue Jays and Yankees.

One last guy; remember the unknown outfielder who homered against the Yankees in each of the Rays’ first three ALDS games against New York? That would be Randy Arozarena, who came to Tampa Bay as part of an offseason trade for Jose Martinez. The Rays then flipped Martinez at the trade deadline and called Arozarena up from their alternate training site; Arozarena responded with a .281/.382/.641 slash line in 23 regular-season games. Oh, and a .444/.500/.926 slash line in the playoffs.

Relievers Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks, who held the Yankees offense — which put up 22 runs in two games in the wild-card round — to one run in 4⅔ innings in that Game 5? Yep, acquired by trades with the Marlins and Rangers in 2019. (Diego Castillo, who got the win, was the only Rays pitcher in Game 5 not acquired via trade.)

Although, we will note that one deal hasn’t entirely worked out for the Rays: Tampa Bay’s starter at shortstop for Game 5, Willy Adames, was originally a Tigers farmhand. Then-general manager Dave Dombrowski shipped him to the Rays at the 2014 trade deadline in a three-way deal that netted David Price. And while the Tigers didn’t go all the way that season, Price produced 5.4 WAR in about a season with the Tigers before he was shipped to Toronto in 2015 for Boyd, Norris and Jairo Labourt. That trio (well, mostly Boyd and Norris) has contributed 13 WAR for the Tigers, making the Tigers’ total return 18.4 WAR. Adames, at 25 and in his third season in the majors, has produced 7.2 WAR.

So maybe the lesson is “Don’t trade with the Rays … unless you’re Dave Dombrowski.”

Contact Ryan Ford at rford@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @theford. Read more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.  Oh, and the Free Press has started a new digital subscription model. Here’s how you can gain access to our most exclusive Detroit Tigers content.

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