DETROIT – The Houston Astros and Washington Nationals will square off in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night -- a painful reminder that the Detroit Tigers have never felt farther away from reaching that goal.
The Tigers finished with the worst record in baseball by 6 1/2 games and the worst run differential by 81 runs. Detroit wasn't just the worst team in baseball -- it was the worst team in baseball by a wide margin.
Next season doesn't figure to be much better. The year after that? Not much reason for hope.
But it wouldn't be unprecedented for the Tigers to start trending upward after that.
Recent rebuild success stories
The Astros have been a baseball powerhouse the last three seasons, winning 101, 103 and 107 regular season games while earning a World Series title, an ALCS appearance and (so far) an AL pennant.
The 2017 World Series title was just four seasons removed from a three-year stretch in which the Astros lost 106, 107 and 11 games from 2011 to 2013.
Houston hit its low point in 2013 with 111 losses. Theoretically, if 2019 or 2020 is the low point of the Tigers' rebuild, they could be back in contention by the mid-2020s.
The Chicago Cubs followed a similar path. They lost 101 games in 2012 and 96 games in 2013 before winning their first World Series in 100 years in 2016.
The example that hits closest to home for Tigers fans is the 2006 team that went to the World Series just three years after the worst season in franchise history.
How can this version of the Tigers become the next struggling franchise to go from 100-loss seasons to a World Series appearance in a matter of years? Well, a lot has to go right, and it all has to happen at the same time.
Look no further than this year's World Series matchup to see how important starting pitching is, especially in the current baseball landscape.
Home runs and offense are at all-time highs, but the teams playing for the championship got there on the back of their starting rotations.
Houston has two of the top five pitchers in the game in Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, as well as a third ace in Zack Greinke. Washington has two elite pitchers in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg and a top 20 starter in Patrick Corbin.
In this regard, the Tigers have some legitimate hope.
Detroit's minor league system is highlighted by the No. 1 pick in the 2018 draft: Casey Mize. At just 22 years old, Mize is already the No. 2 pitching prospect in the game and the No. 7 prospect overall.
Mize's recruiting ranking isn't just based on potential. He showed concrete results during his first full professional season. Before suffering an injury in mid-June, Mize was sporting a 0.92 ERA, 14% swinging strike rate, a .409 opponent OPS and has struck out more batters (75) than he allowed base runners (58) in 78 innings.
Mize struggled after the injury, but his stuff was still excellent, generating the same swinging strike rate and whiffing a batter per inning. He finished the year with a solid strikeout rate and minuscule walk and home run rates. That bodes well for the future.
What's exciting about the Tigers' minor league system is in addition to Mize, there's plenty of pitching depth to fill out a rotation in the future.
Matt Manning would be the No. 1 pitching prospect in most organizations, checking in as the No. 27 prospect overall after another outstanding season.
Manning struck out 148 batters in 133.2 innings this year while posting a 2.56 ERA, 0.98 WHIP and low walk and home run rates.
His rate of 10 strikeouts per nine innings was much lower than last year's rate, but he was extremely durable and consistent while showing improvements in other areas.
Manning is only 21 years old, so he should only continue to improve.
Don't forget about Tarik Skubal, either. He wasn't a first-round pick like Mize and Manning, but he had the best 2019 season of the three.
Skubal struck out 179 batters in 122.2 innings between Single-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie this season, including a ridiculous 17.4 K/9 with the SeaWolves.
Overall, his 13.1 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and 0.5 HR/9 suggests Skubal might have the best stuff in the system behind Manning. He was ranked outside the organization's top 20 prospects early in the season and is now No. 74 in baseball.
The Tigers are also excited about Alex Faedo and Joey Wentz, who rounded out the SeaWolves rotation. Faedo struck out 134 batters in 115.1 innings this season with a 1.12 WHIP and 3.90 ERA. His swinging strike rate was actually higher than that of Mize or Manning, at 15%.
Wentz was absolutely phenomenal after coming over in the Shane Greene trade with the Atlanta Braves. He allowed just six runs in 25.2 innings with the SeaWolves, striking out 37 batters and walking just four. His 0.94 WHIP, 2.10 ERA and 13 K/9 fit right in with the elite Double-A rotation.
Wentz generated swings and misses on 17% of his pitches after joining Erie. It's easy to see why he was a top 10 prospect in the Braves' system.
The issue for Faedo and Wentz will be limiting home runs. They're both fly ball pitchers, and in this era, that can make for ugly starts -- just ask Matthew Boyd.
If the Tigers have any hope of becoming World Series contenders in the next five years, some combination of Mize, Manning, Skubal, Faedo and Wentz need to be elite starting pitchers. The Tigers also have some candidates for rotation depth in No. 6 prospect Franklin Perez, No. 14 prospect Beau Burrows and No. 20 prospect Anthony Castro.
There are so many talented pitchers in the organization that the Tigers have a great chance to boast the best starting rotation in the AL Central Division in a few years.
Recent high draft picks bounce back
There's very little offensive talent to get excited about in the Tigers' minor leagues, but there are players with high upside who could emerge as possible major leaguers over the next few years.
The team's 2019 first-round pick, Riley Greene, looks like he could evolve into a player to build an offense around, but he's only 19 years old.
Greene was the No. 5 pick in last year's draft and had an up-and-down debut in the minor leagues. He showed solid extra-base power with five home runs, eight doubles and three triples while also drawing 22 walks in 57 games.
The Tigers are desperate for players who have power and plate discipline, which is why they selected Greene at No. 5. He has to turn into a high-end MLB player to anchor the Tigers' future offense.
Isaac Paredes quietly had a nice season with the SeaWolves, posting a .784 OPS with 13 home runs, 23 doubles, and nearly as many walks (57) as strikeouts (61). His understanding of the strike zone as a 20-year-old is extremely encouraging.
Beyond Greene and Paredes, there are few positives.
Jake Rogers posted a .845 OPS between Double-A and Triple-A this season but looked completely lost at the plate in Detroit. He struck out 51 times compared to just 14 hits in 35 games -- good for a .125 batting average and .481 OPS.
No matter how strong he is behind the plate, he can't be that bad offensively and stay in the lineup.
Daz Cameron had an extremely disappointing season, batting just .214 with a .707 OPS and 152 strikeouts in 120 games. But there were signs of improvement from the 22-year-old outfielder, including an excellent walk rate, 17 stolen bases and 41 extra-base hits.
The Tigers acquired Cameron in the Verlander trade with Houston because he has elite speed and good power. The bottom line is he has to cut down on the strikeouts.
Willi Castro could end up being a solid MLB hitter after posting an .833 OPS with 17 stolen bases, 11 home runs and 28 doubles in Triple-A this season. He struggled in his first taste of MLB action, but it was only 30 games.
Parker Meadows was a second-round pick with tremendous upside. Nick Quintana was last year's second-round pick. Kody Clemens was pegged as a steal in the third round in 2018.
All three had terrible minor league seasons but figure to be bounce-back candidates in 2020. If one or two of these players can hit for power and draw some walks like the Tigers are hoping, the future offense will start to look much different.
Next few draft picks
For the Tigers to have any chance to get back into contention, they have to nail their upcoming first-round picks, starting with the No. 1 overall selection in 2020.
While Houston was rebuilding, it drafted George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman in the first round from 2011 to 2015. All three turned into elite hitters and All-Stars atop a lineup that won the 2017 World Series.
The Cubs' rebuild was highlighted by drafting Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber from 2011 to 2014. That made up part of the core of the 2016 championship team.
If the Tigers hope to build a strong offense, Greene has to be the start of a similar run, as does the upcoming No. 1 pick. The Tigers will likely be picking in the top five each of the following two years, as well.
Suddenly, the offensive talent could start piling up if Al Avila nails these picks.
Mize, Manning, Skubal, Faedo, Wentz, Perez and Burrows are all 23 years old or younger, so the Tigers' window to accrue talented bats hasn't closed. But they can't miss on high draft picks.
Imagine Greene, Paredes and Cameron become staples in the future Tigers lineup. If two of Castro, Quintana, Clemens and Meadows can become decent MLB hitters, half the lineup would be serviceable.
If the Tigers add elite bats in the 2020 and 2021 drafts, the offense would be much better in four or five years.
If the team's elite pitching prospects live up to the hype, the Tigers' offense doesn't need to be the best in baseball. It just needs to be solid.
Boyd's brutal second half collapse is a blow to the Tigers' rebuild. There's no sugarcoating that.
Through his first 12 starts, Boyd had a 2.85 ERA, a WHIP just over 1.00 and 88 strikeouts in 72.2 innings. Opponents posted a .614 OPS against him and whiffed on 13% of his pitches.
In his final 20 starts, the underlying numbers remained elite, but the home runs completely buried Boyd.
He allowed 32 home runs in 112.2 innings. Hitters posted a .538 slugging percentage and .858 OPS over that span. He maintained an elite strikeout rate and a low walk rate, but the home runs overshadowed the positives.
His full season numbers reveal a pitcher who realized how to use his arsenal, but doesn't have overpowering stuff. He had 4.76 strikeouts for every walk and posted a respectable 1.23 WHIP. But he allowed 39 home runs in 185.1 innings, which simply can't happen.
Boyd is under team control for three more seasons. If he can continue to miss bats and do a better job keeping the ball in the yard, he'll garner enough trade interest at the deadline and in the offseason to give the Tigers another opportunity to acquire a high-end hitting prospect.
There aren't any other obvious trade chips on the roster, but if they emerge, Avila needs to capitalize.
Free agent signings
Remember the years leading up to the 2006 Tigers team that went to the World Series? Yes, Verlander and Joel Zumaya and Jeremy Bonderman were critical members of that run, but the Tigers also made smart free agent signings to get over the hump.
It started with Pudge Rodriguez. It continued with Magglio Ordonez. It culminated with Kenny Rogers.
The Tigers had an improving core with the likes of Curtis Granderson, Craig Monroe, Verlander and Bonderman, but these three agent signings, along with savvy trades for Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco, put them over the hump.
When the time comes that the Tigers are on the brink of taking the next step into true contention, Avila needs to show he can push them over the top with free agent moves.
Could that be a mega deal for someone like Mookie Betts? Mike Ilitch was always willing to pay up for the top everyday player on the market, but how will Chris Ilitch handle the situation if the Tigers are trending in the right direction?
After next season, Miguel Cabrera's $30 million will be the only committed contract money on the books. The Tigers will soon have plenty of money to spend on free agents with no critical extension talks in the near future.
Who do the Tigers need to worry about locking up on the current roster? The only possible conversation would be about Boyd, and if he's good enough to warrant a large extension, he'll likely be traded before 2023, anyway.
Would the Tigers consider someone like Springer for a long-term deal in 2021? Or a shorter deal for former Brother Rice High School graduate D.J. LeMahieu as a 33-year-old?
Down the line, would the Tigers consider pursuing the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Freddie Freeman, Nolan Arenado, Corey Seager or Trevor Story, should they become free agents in 2022?
These are more examples than actual suggestions. So much will change between now and when the Tigers are ready to jump back into the competitive free agent market. Some players will never hit free agency. Others won't fit the Tigers' needs.
But regardless of the actual names, the Tigers need to be willing to spend when the time comes to round out the offense.
The bullpen is last on this list not because it's unimportant -- Tigers fans know better than that -- but because it's the hardest group to project long term.
Last season, Blake Treinen and Edwin Diaz were arguably the two best closers in baseball. This season, neither could get anybody out. Meanwhile, the likes of Liam Hendriks, Seth Lugo and Kirby Yates emerged as elite relievers.
The Tigers can't worry about putting together a strong bullpen until closer to contention, but the outlook is more positive than it was from 2011 to 2014.
First of all, many of the best relief pitchers are failed starters, and not all of the Tigers' pitching prospects can make the rotation. Players such as Kyle Funkhouser and Anthony Castro seem like possible future bullpen pieces because they have good stuff but lack consistency as starters.
Joe Jimenez, Bryan Garcia, Matt Hall and Gregory Soto are pitchers on the current roster who could stick around as solid relievers into the future.
To summarize what it will likely take for the Tigers to get back to the World Series in the next five years:
- Top pitching prospects translate to elite starting rotation
- Highly drafted position players in organization bounce back
- Upcoming first-round draft picks bring in impact MLB bats
- Trade chips turn into legitimate assets over next few years
- Ownership completes offense in free agency
- Organizational pitching depth rounds out bullpen
Mize, Manning, Skubal, Faedo, Wentz, Perez, Burrows, Anthony Castro, Spencer Turnbull and Funkhouser give the Tigers a great chance to field an elite starting rotation. If at least three or four of these pitchers don't pan out, the rebuild will be much longer than five more years.
The offense is a greater concern. An optimistic projection for the future might look something like this:
- C: Jake Rogers
- 1B: upcoming first-round draft pick
- 2B: Kody Clemens
- 3B: Isaac Paredes
- SS: Willi Castro
- LF: Riley Greene
- CF: Daz Cameron
- RF: Parker Meadows
Catcher, first base, second base, shortstop and right field look like obvious spots that could use upgrades, whether that's through the draft or free agency. Even Paredes, Greene and Cameron aren't slam dunks, but they're showing promise.
This doesn't even consider the possibility that someone on the current roster turns out to be worth a long-term spot. Niko Goodrum feels more like a bench bat than a starter on a World Series contender, but there's still at least some hope for Jeimer Candelario, Christin Stewart, Travis Demeritte and Dawel Lugo.
JaCoby Jones, Harold Castro and Victor Reyes have shown flashes of being serviceable MLB players, too. But right now those are the best hitters on the team, and that's why the Tigers lost 114 games.
There's a template for turning a 100-loss team into a World Series contender in five years, but it's much more common for teams to get stuck in 10-year rebuilds than pull off what the Astros and Cubs did the last few years.
Avila has a foundation of top pitching prospects, upside position players and cap flexibility. Can he turn that into a World Series run next decade? If not, this rebuild could get very messy.
In the meantime, fans will settle for watching Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez -- reminders of a better time -- compete for a ring.