Sunday, November 29, 2015

Worst to First: How to Make the 2016 Tigers Winners

Danville, Kentucky -- Folks, the MLB offseason is now fully underway with the Detroit Tigers having signed ex-Washington National Jordan Zimmerman to a 5 year deal. I'm not usually a big fan of the strategy of trying to "buy a team" as Mike Ilitch and company have done in the past. Championship teams aren't bought; they are made. The bonds of camaraderie necessary to take a team to the promised land must be forged by blood, sweat, and tears. It's a process that takes years. The 2015 Royals have rendered an approach based on acquiring expensive high profile talent obsolete. The Tigers would be better served by emulating the Dayton Moore approach. Let players grow together on the farm system, à la Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, then plug roster holes with gritty veterans like Omar Infante, Alex Rios, Jeremy Guthrie, and Ryan Madson. Buying talent didn't work for the Nationals, and it didn't work for the Dodgers. There's no short-cuts to Autumnal glory. Saavy GMs must address the chemistry factor.

On the surface, signing Zimmerman is just another win-now, big-bucks move. However, there's a lot to like about the Zimmerman deal. Zimmerman is a Midwest man, born and raised across Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Folks, there's no better way to motivate an athlete to succeed than coming home. Much work remains to be done if the Tigers wish to go from the AL Central's worst in 2015 to first in 2016. If new GM Al Avila wants his team to contend, he needs to double down on the strategy of coming home. Here's the players he should target and the moves he should make.

Sign Doug Fister

Folks, when I heard that Avila inked Zimmerman -- a 19-game winner in 2013 -- to a 5-year deal, the first thing I thought about wasn't his 3.5 projected WAR in 2016 or his 3.57 career xFIP. I immediately thought this was a great move for the Tigers if it increases the likelihood of a reunion of ex-Tiger and ex-National Doug Fister. Doug Fister was one of the crown jewels of the Dombrowski-era, a prime example of Dombrowski's ability to turn spare parts into winning pieces. As the team's 4th starter in 2013, Fister won 14 games. His arrival in 2011 helped turn the tide of the season. He could similarly turn the tide of 2016.

Folks, things can't always go back to the way they were. I learned this all too well at a recent high school reunion. There are some wounds even time can't heal. But the stars are aligning for Doug Fister to return to Detroit. The Tigers need a reliable innings-eater while the young arms of the future like Kyle Lobstein get primed for the big show. Doug Fister needs to rebuild his value after a surprising injury-riddled off year in 2015. Doug Fister and the Tigers need each other. Now, they just need to believe in one another. Fister was always a blue-collar hurler who pitched to contact instead of trying to strike everybody out like losers such as Corey Kluber. It didn't make sense for him to play under the spotlight of our nation's capitol in Washington, D.C. Dougie's democratic style of pitching is a much better fit for the rust-belt town of Detroit, where men unionize and support each other like brothers. The prospect of reuniting with his former teammates should make any offer very enticing to Mr. Fister. Bring him home, Avila.


Sign Brayan Pena

Alex Avila, because of what can only be attributed to massive daddy problems with the new GM, is now a Chicago White Sock. Alex Avila is frequently undervalued by nerds who decry his high strikeout rate, lackluster wRC+ and unexciting DRS. Folks, the nerds couldn't be more off-base. Alex brought a lot of things to the table that don't show up in a spreadsheet. He handled the ace-studded pitching staffs of 2011-2015 with poise and class. Building that kind of familiarity and rapport with the young James McCann won't happen overnight. On top of that, McCann struggles against right-handed pitching. There's no clear internal option for replacing Avila either -- Bryan Holaday generates all the enthusiasm of three-day-old Little Caesar's pizza that you drunkenly ordered and have been forced to eat by a nagging spouse.

To ease the transition to the McCann regime, Al Avila should bring the effervescent Brayan Pena back to the Motor City. After spending 2013 in Detroit, Brayan would be able to easily sync-up with his former teammates Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez (along with Doug Fister for that matter). There's no better player to mentor young James than Brayan, the nicest guy in the league.

As a Reds fan, losing Brayan would break my heart. But there's no smarter move if you're Al Avila. Sign Brayan Pena to a 2-year deal.

Unfortunately, it might already be too late. After noticing that Brayan followed the St. Louis Cardinals twitter account and consulting with my old bookie from Branson, Missouri, I became the first to break the news that Brayan had signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pena's agent has yet to confirm.
God forbid that the nicest man in baseball sign with the worst franchise in baseball.

Sign Austin Jackson

The Tigers need another outfielder to platoon with Anthony Gose, who hits left-handed pitching as effectively as I salvage marriages. Austin should be on the radar of multiple teams. I've already said that Cleveland should be in on him. The Tigers might need him even more, and their need goes beyond requiring somebody to hit lefties. The Tigers suffered in 2014 in no small part because of Torii Hunter's absence. The organization has all but admitted this:
"Torii was my biggest asset in the clubhouse last season," Ausmus said. "That presence was missed in 2015."
If the Tigers are serious about contending, they need to fill that vacuum. Austin is the man to do that. Austin has no doubt gained a lot of perspective playing in Seattle and North Chicago this past season. He studied under Torii from 2013-2014. He's not the young rookie we met back in 2010; he's come into his own as a veteran and a leader. He ready. Make it happen, Al Avila.

Fernando Rodney

The Tiger's need bullpen help; that's no secret. Trading for proven closer Francisco Rodriguez was a big step in the right direction. But the Tigers relief corps is still light on proven arms, especially with the departure of proven closer Joe Nathan and proven closer Joakim Soria. Fernando could help here. He is a proven closer. His veteran presence of mind is being severely undervalued on the open market, as the sabermetric craze has caused GMs to value FIP more than on-the-job experience. Rodney is #6 on the active saves leaders list. A reunion with Rodney is a no-brainer, Al.

Fire Ausmus

The Tiger's manager situation is where truly bold leadership is required. The Brad Ausmus regime has been a failure. Young players brawl under his leadership. Players phone it in and don't give 100% on his watch. The team missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011 because of him. Folks, they don't teach you how to lead at Dartmouth. Ausmus lost the clubhouse; it's time to promote Omar Vizquel or experiment with Victor Martinez as player-manager. Go big, Mr. Avila, and whatever you do, don't hire another ivy-league nerd.


The Tigers can still contend in 2016, but it will require a change in approach. Throwing money at the problem won't do anything. A culture of friendship and belonging has to be created. By bringing in former Tigers and clubhouse leaders like Fister, Pena, Jackson and Rodney, Al Avila can help the Tigers franchise adapt to the reality of post-2015 Royals baseball. Give me a team full of friends over a team full of well-paid strangers any day.