Owner willing to spend in order to win elusive World Series title
By Richard Justice
I'm here to guarantee that the Detroit Tigers win the 2016 World Series. Wait, can you really do such a thing? Sure you can. Don't believe me? Watch me work.
I interrupt this column to point out that Tigers owner Mike Ilitch is the inspiration for this column in the wake of his extraordinary revelation on Monday. In announcing the signing of free-agent pitcher Jordan Zimmermann, Ilitch said he'd given general manager Al Avila the go-ahead to spend whatever he needed to deliver a championship.
"I'm telling [Avila and manager Brad Ausmus], 'You have to go out and get me the best players. I don't care about the money. I want the best players, and that's it,'" Ilitch said.
Fair enough. Zimmermann's signing is a nice step in the right direction. Avila's recent acquisition of closer Francisco Rodriguez is another.
But there's more work to do. Some of you will point out that outfielder Jason Heyward ought to be the next man up on Avila's shopping list. And that's why you're not writing this smart column.
We're going to build the 2016 World Series champion by starting at the end of games and working backwards. Maybe you've heard the Tigers have had some problems in this area. Last season, Detroit had baseball's 27th-best bullpen (4.38 ERA). In 2014, the Tigers were also 27th.
In 2015, the teams with the three top bullpens -- Pirates, Royals, Cardinals -- all went to the postseason. Kansas City has ridden its bullpen to back-to-back World Series appearances. When a team plays the Royals, it knows that the games essentially are six or seven innings. So even though Avila made a very smart acquisition in getting K-Rod, the goal is to have one of those mega-bullpens.
If money is no object, we're going to do it up right. Our shopping list includes:
Darren O'Day: How does $28 million over four years sound? That's probably enough to get the deal done, even though the Nationals and Dodgers appear to be in the hunt. In four seasons with the Orioles, O'Day averaged 68 appearances with a 1.92 ERA. You're wondering if he'll pitch the eighth or ninth innings in Detroit. That's the beauty of O'Day. He can do either and do it better than almost anyone.
So that's a start.
Ryan Madson: His career was reborn in Kansas City last season with 68 appearances and a 2.13 ERA. That was a huge workload after three injured seasons, but at 35, Madson should have plenty of quality innings left in his right arm.
Antonio Bastardo: In a perfect world, we would sign both Bastardo and Tony Sipp, the top two left-handed relievers in this market. Two lefties are preferable to one, but this bullpen has so much depth and quality that one ought to do it. Bastardo had a huge season for the Pirates, appearing in 66 games with a 2.98 ERA.
Depending on how Ausmus lines 'em up, one of baseball's worst bullpens in recent years would have Rodriguez, O'Day, Madson and Bastardo for the final nine to 12 outs. This bullpen might have a price tag of over $30 million, but recent history -- Royals and Giants, to name two -- suggest the investment is worth it.
Now, we turn to the lineup.
While Heyward and Yoenis Cespedes might be more popular signings to play left field -- and either would be excellent -- I've got someone else in mind.
Justin Upton: Only four American League teams hit fewer home runs than the Tigers in 2015. While Heyward is very nearly the perfect ballplayer in terms of getting on base, running the bases and playing defense, and while Cespedes hits home runs, Upton is coming off a 26-double, 26-homer season with the Padres. He's just 28 years old, so Upton is likely to get a six- or seven-year contract in the $25 million annual salary range. Let's go with seven years, $175 million.
Like Zimmermann, Upton would cost a Draft pick, but Detroit's first-round pick (ninth overall) is protected, which means we're talking about a third-round pick here since the club already forfeited its second-rounder for Zimmermann. That's a small price to play for a hitter like Upton.
That's enough if Verlander and Sanchez have solid healthy years. But this thing is about winning, not competing. So here is another name to consider.
Mike Leake: First, Avila has to find out what it would take to sign Zack Greinke and Johnny Cueto. Either of those two would transform a potentially solid rotation into one of baseball's best. If they decide to pitch elsewhere -- and there will be uncertainties in this journey -- Leake is a very good fallback postion.
Leake is 28 years old and has averaged 189 innings and a 3.83 ERA in his five full Major League seasons. Let's say $80 million over five years.
Here's where it gets tricky. First baseman Miguel Cabrera will turn 33 in April and is coming off a season in which he played 119 games. If he can stay on the field for 130-plus games, Miggy will still be one of the dominant offensive players in baseball.
Likewise, Victor Martinez turns 37 this month and played 120 games. His OPS dropped from .974, tops in the AL, to .667. Avila is going to have trouble signing, say, a Steve Pearce because the playing time is uncertain. Also, in Andrew Romine and Bryan Holaday, Detroit has infield depth. But the one hold-your-breath aspect of the Tigers will be the ability of Martinez and Cabrera to stay healthy.
And that's it.
I began adding up the payroll and then stopped. If it's just about winning, the bills don't matter.
Here's to you, Mike Ilitch. Here's to your beloved Tigers. Here's to October baseball and to finishing the job. That's the real message in all of this, isn't it?
You say you'll spend whatever it takes to win a championship. And that's all your guys haven't done. They've been one of baseball's best teams for the past five seasons. Only one AL club has won more regular-season games in this time. Only one team in all of baseball has played more postseason games.
This success is a wonderful tribute to your commitment to winning a championship. But that lack of a championship is the thing that's gnawing at you, the thing that's driving you.
Some will say that there's no such thing as a guaranteed championship, and that's true. Injuries can derail the best-laid plans. But the baseball gods sometimes smile on those who deserve it, and Mr. I might be at the top of the list. And a great bullpen doesn't hurt, either. Detroit is lovely in October.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.