DETROIT – If the Detroit Tigers are serious about competing for a playoff spot next season, the question isn’t whether or not they need to sign a starting pitcher in free agency, but rather, how many they should sign.
Detroit took tremendous strides under A.J. Hinch this season, rising from one of the consistently worst teams in baseball to a near-.500 record. Since mid-May, the Tigers are 66-57, a .537 winning percentage.
One of the reasons for that success has been starting pitching. The rotation found a way to battle through injuries to Spencer Turnbull and Matt Boyd and still give Hinch regular quality outings.
But that’s not a reason for the front office to be complacent this offseason.
Turnbull likely won’t pitch next season after having Tommy John surgery, and Boyd’s status seems completely up in the air. That could potentially take both veteran members of the rotation out of the picture.
Fortunately for the Tigers, both Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal developed as anticipated this season. They also racked up nearly 150 innings apiece, meaning they’ll have fewer restrictions heading into 2022.
Now, here’s my concern: Who will take the ball the other three days, when Mize and Skubal aren’t on the mound?
It feels inevitable that the Tigers are going to re-sign Peralta and pencil him into the rotation for next season. He’s been effective since joining the team midway through the season, and his success is a feel-good story.
Is that really the type of move an aspiring playoff team would make, though?
Peralta will turn 33 next May, and coming into this season, he hadn’t been a full-time starter since 2016. He’s only had one season even remotely as successful as this one -- all the way back in 2014, when he was 25 years old.
Despite his 3.08 ERA, all the underlying numbers are screaming “regression” from the rooftops. Pick your favorite predictive measure: He has a 4.84 FIP (fielding-independent pitching), 4.92 xFIP (expected FIP), 4.50 xERA (expected ERA) and 5.22 SIERA (skill interactive ERA).
In a nutshell, those numbers say Peralta has been very lucky this season.
Players without long track records of success have a high variance from season-to-season, so there’s no guarantee Peralta would be effective for the Tigers in 2022.
His line drive rate is higher than his soft contact rate, and he’s almost walking two batters for every three strikeouts.
I realize fans have watched Peralta deliver solid outing after solid outing this season, but these numbers suggest expecting that to continue is a dangerous game.
It seems like I’m in a very small minority of people who are legitimately worried about Manning. The concern isn’t that he’s struggling with his first taste of MLB action -- it’s the way he’s struggling.
Many fans want to point to how difficult last season was for Mize and Skubal as a justification for Manning, but the two situations are obviously not the same.
First of all, Mize and Skubal made their MLB debuts in the midst of a canceled minor league season, coming off a pandemic-altered offseason. They spent the months leading up to their MLB debuts at the alternate training site pitching against teammates.
Manning, on the other hand, has spent more than five seasons in professional baseball. Before getting called up this year, he allowed 29 runs in 32.1 innings with a 1.546 WHIP in Triple-A.
His struggles didn’t start when he got to the Tigers. They began well before that.
Manning reached his peak dominance in 2018 and 2019, when he struck out more than 300 batters across 250 innings with an ERA below 3.00 and a WHIP just over 1.000. His strikeout rate took a bit of a hit in 2019, but we brushed that off because he cut down on the walks and prevented runs at an even better clip.
At the MLB level, Manning has been stunningly less dominant. It’s one thing for a pitcher’s strikeout rate to dip when he’s going up against the best hitters in the world, but Manning -- whose elite prospect pedigree was built on his ability to miss bats -- isn’t fooling hitters at all.
Through 80.1 MLB innings, Manning is sporting a minuscule 7% swinging strike rate. He’s striking out 5.6 batters per nine innings and walking 3.6 per nine. He’s only induced more than seven whiffs in three of 17 starts.
On top of that, Manning is getting shelled when hitters put the ball in play. He ranks in the fourth percentile in average exit velocity allowed, meaning he gives up harder hits on average than 96% of MLB pitchers.
The spin rates on Manning’s fastball and curveball are extremely low, and he’s sporting some of the worst expected stats for opposing hitters in the league.
Look, nobody is giving up on Manning after his 23-year-old rookie season. Lucas Giolito was statistically the worst pitcher in baseball as a 23-year-old before emerging as a bona fide ace the very next year. But that’s generally an exception to the rule, and 2021 has offered very few signs of optimism for Manning.
Maybe Manning will work with Chris Fetter this offseason, rediscover what made him so dominant in the minor leagues and arrive a much different pitcher in 2022. But should the Tigers bet their playoff hopes on that happening in just one offseason? It’s risky.
How many free agent starters?
The Tigers are almost certainly going to keep Manning in the rotation next season because they consider him a part of the long-term plan, and that’s fine -- as long as the other four starters are reliable enough to make up for him if he struggles.
My main concern is that if both Manning and Peralta are on the staff, the Tigers are gambling on 40% of the starting rotation, and that’s without even knowing who the fifth option would be.
Mize and Skubal could be top-of-the-rotation pitchers if they continue to improve, but the Tigers don’t want to have just an average overall staff, especially since starting pitching was the face of this rebuild. To be a legitimate contender across 162 games, they need to stand out in at least one phase of the game.
So, with only $44.5 million in guaranteed contracts for next season (Miguel Cabrera, Jonathan Schoop and Robbie Grossman), is it time for the Tigers to go out and sign one or two legitimate starting pitchers?
Free agent options
Even if the Tigers dip into the free agent starting pitcher market, I doubt they’ll shoot for top-tier aces such as Max Scherzer, Kevin Gausman and Robbie Ray. Fortunately, there are plenty of other options below that tier.
Zack Greinke is an intriguing case. He’ll turn 38 next month and is coming off his worst season in 15 years, according to WAR (wins above replacement).
Yet Greinke is still largely getting the job done. He’s maintained an elite walk rate and limits hard contact. His strikeouts plummeted this season, but could certainly bounce back next year.
Greinke might accept a shorter, more affordable deal than others because of his age and 2021 performance, and that could help the Tigers bridge the gap to the potential debuts of Joey Wentz, Alex Faedo or even Jackson Jobe and Ty Madden down the line.
Not buying it? OK, how about Alex Cobb, who flourished in a prove-it year with the Los Angeles Angels? He probably won’t be overly expensive, either. Cobb has allowed one or zero runs in each of his six starts since June.
A player who could really benefit from a change of scenery is Jon Gray. The 29-year-old has managed to post remarkably solid numbers for seven years in Colorado, including more than a strikeout per inning and a FIP south of 4.00.
Even though Gray has been better at Coors Field, that has a lot to do with how difficult it is for pitchers to adjust to going back and forth between those extreme conditions, and a full season outside of Colorado could very well be his best yet.
Alex Wood is a steady veteran lefty having a resurgent year with the San Francisco Giants. Danny Duffy is solid when healthy. Eduardo Rodriguez has high strikeout upside and is due for some positive regression next season. He could be a bargain for a savvy front office.
This year’s free agent market is ripe with solid starting pitchers who won’t break the bank. It’s not unreasonable to say the Tigers should target one, if not two, of them to round out the rotation.