The World Series provided a few general lessons for the Tigers

Bless You Boys

Well that was a typically fascinating and unpredictable postseason, yet in the end, the team that looked like the best in baseball during most of the regular season figured it out and did the deed. The Texas Rangers have their first World Series title in franchise history.

There are certainly some fascinating little notes in this Rangers victory. Jacob deGrom finally has a World Series ring despite hardly pitching this season. Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander started the year with the Mets, got traded to Texas teams, and this time it was Scherzer earning ring number two. Former Tiger Robbie Grossman also picked up a ring after a long career as a solid journeyman. Then there’s lefty reliever Will Smith, who has now won three straight rings pitching for the Braves, Astros, and Rangers. The guy is a lucky rabbit’s foot in October.

Maybe the wildest thing about the Rangers from an AL Central perspective, is that GM Chris Young, who we’ll all remember as that really tall pitcher on the 2015 Kansas City Royals, now has a ring as both a player and a GM. If someone has done that before, I haven’t thought of them yet.

Here in Tigertown, there wasn’t necessarily a ton of obvious rooting interest. You may have favored the scrappy, upstart Diamondbacks, but the Rangers haven’t won enough to really be disliked, and they had a ton of great stories on their club as well. The end of the season just means that a very quiet October for Tigers news is finally over, and we’re about to get busy again. Very shortly, we’ll be onto the non-tender deadline, setting the 40-man roster in advance of the deadline to protect prospects from the Rule 5 draft, and diving into free agency.

Before the offseason begins, however, the World Series matchup illustrated two key lessons the Detroit Tigers should have in mind going forward.

From the Diamondbacks, the Tigers should see that the AL Central title in 2024 in within range if they make the right moves. The balanced scheduling has rightly taken some of the advantage of playing in the AL Central away, but it’s still probably the easiest division to win for the next year or two at a minimum. The Tigers have a lot of up-and-coming young talent, and things can come together quickly for a team like that if they make the right decisions.

Free agency lacks the hitter they need, but they’ve really got to figure out a way to trade for another good hitter and really give themselves a chance. I have faith they’ll get the pitching right, even if there’s no promise of a juggernaut staff in 2024, but they really need to make an exhaustive search for a reasonable trade that boosts the offense. Free agency just doesn’t have the player they need this offseason.

A key lesson from the Rangers, is that it’s really hard to win without spending boldly somewhere along the way, and when you have the opportunity to get a really good player, do it. And if you aren’t willing to go all-in on the best player possible, it’s usually better not to bother with a second flight option. Half measures, if you will.

Allow me to be annoying about this one more time, and remind us all that the Tigers should have Carlos Correa at shortstop heading into 2024 instead of Javier Báez. Things would look a whole lot different if they did. The lesson, is that if they weren’t willing to do what it took to get the player they quite clearly coveted most, they shouldn’t have bothered at all. Instead, they didn’t just fail to improve the team in the short-term, they managed to buy a lot of downside anyway with Báez.

We all wanted them to add a bat during the 2021-2022 offseason. Certainly Al Avila felt the pressure to do something significant after a surprisingly strong 2021 season. With the young core about to graduate, it was time to give them the support of a veteran, star caliber player.

I’d just argue that in that situation, you need to get both a high caliber talent on the field, and a leader in the dugout and the clubhouse. Like him or not, Correa is all those things, while Báez is just a quieter presence off the field and not really the type to take a vocal leadership role. When it’s time to get “the guy,” the player that both on the field, behind the scenes, and in front of the cameras in October, can lead a team, do what it takes to get him or forget it. Fallback plans in that situation are no plan at all.

Instead of decisively going and getting the best player they could, Ilitch and Avila tried to have it both ways hoping to squeeze a few more solid year out of Báez without making the truly big commitment. And here they are as a result, tied into a contract for a player who looks washed up as a hitter for $23.3M a year for four more years, because they were scared to pay the better, younger player with the personality and experience to lead for an extra four or five years. That’s not to say a Correa deal wouldn’t become a problem at some point too, but the five-year outlook for Correa was always far better than for Báez.

Ultimately, the Tigers payroll is going to be much reduced this season. Whether he can turn it around or they have to eat the contract, Báez’s deal shouldn’t be a big obstacle in the coming years. There’s no guarantee they’d spend the money elsewhere in the first place, and either way their payroll commitments are going to remain pretty low for a few years unless they do make several big signings. But just as Miguel Cabrera’s deal comes off the books, the Báez deal is another chunk of money tied up for four years, and they never got the performance of a good player at all. That money will end up being a factor by the time extension talks with players like Tarik Skubal, Riley Greene, and Spencer Torkelson are warranted.

Sometime in the year or two, assuming things go roughly as planned, the Tigers are going to be sitting there with a fairly low payroll, a young team capable of winning its division, and the opportunity to go add a really good hitter in free agency. There just aren’t many World Series teams or consistent league championship contenders over the last decade who had no major free agents and no major trades involved in getting them there. The Tigers can talk homegrown all they want, and that’s fine to a point, but it’s extremely hard to get to the top of the mountain that way all alone. A couple big moves are almost always required.

Scott Harris can sling pithy lines like, “we can spend to complement a core. We can’t spend to build a core,” but adding mid-tier complimentary players is exactly where it’s easiest to go wrong trying to outsmart the league. The team that gets the best players is still the team most likely to win. Depth is important, but no one wins with depth as the centerpiece of their plans.

Obviously, the Texas Rangers did a lot of other things right on the drafting and developing sides. It wasn’t just signing Corey Seager and Marcus Semien and a bunch of good free agent starting pitchers. The Diamondbacks have made quite a few pretty bold trades and done well for themselves. They aren’t just a homegrown success story. To win in the major leagues right now, you have to get a lot of things right.

The Tigers are also doing those things right nowadays, too. They have a young core of talented players and know that they’ve got more help on the way. Like Texas and Arizona, the Tigers have dramatically improved in player development. They’ve found ways to develop pitching and polish up some role players for assistance. But two offseasons ago, when the chips were down coming out of the difficult CBA fight, the Rangers were decisive and went all in on the two top players they wanted, and now, they’ve got their first World Series title. The Tigers blundered with half measures.

Hopefully, when the Tigers come to the point of signing a big free agent or making a major trade again, and they better come to that point fairly soon, the new front office remembers the lesson and does what it takes to land their guy.

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