If it was up to J.D. Martinez, the Detroit Tigers would have won. Maybe then, he wouldn’t have been traded.
“It wasn’t up to me,” Martinez said during All-Star Game festivities this past week. “It wasn’t my fault.”
At this time last year, Martinez was the first Tiger shuttled out of town in the team’s rebuilding process, traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks for three prospects. This weekend, he will return to Detroit, where he broke out in 2014.
“Detroit was a very special place for me,” he said. “I consider Detroit my home team. It’s the team where I grew up and the team where I became me and it was tough to leave, but life goes on and you keep going.”
Martinez’s Boston Red Sox are in town for a 3-game series against the Tigers, starting tonight at Comerica Park (7 p.m., Fox Sports Detroit).
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Martinez has firmly established himself as one of the game’s elite hitters this season.
In his first year with the Red Sox, he leads MLB with 29 home runs and 80 RBIs. He’s in the first year of a 5-year, $100-million deal.
After being released by the Houston Astros right before the 2014 season, the Tigers signed Martinez to a minor-league deal. Quickly, he became the poster boy for baseball’s launch-angle craze, hitting 99 home runs over the next four seasons.
Martinez talked about the disappointment of playing on talented teams that came up short.
“Guys ask me all the time, like, ‘Dude, how did you guys not win?’” he said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s baseball and you look at the team that we had – we had four Cy Young winners as our starters – and the lineup that we had, it was disgusting.”
It would not be a surprise to see Martinez’s friend and hitting idol, Miguel Cabrera, at Comerica Park this weekend. Cabrera is rehabilitating from a ruptured biceps and is out for the season.
About watching Cabrera, Martinez said: “Special. It was one of those things where every time a situation came up where there was a guy on base or he had to come up with a hit, if I was a betting man, I would bet that he was going to hammer a ball.
“Whether he got the hit or not was one thing, but I knew you wouldn’t want anybody else up there just because he was so consistent, he would lock in. He was the best player in the world at the time.”
Free Press sports writer Anthony Fenech and columnist Jeff Seidel dissect Detroit Tigers improbable 6-3 win over Justin Verlander in Houston, July 15. Detroit Free Press
Let’s go back in time.
Back to Oct.18, 2016, when all of this started.
“We want to get younger,” Tigers general manager Al Avila said. “We want to get leaner. We want to run the organization without having to go over our means.”
That moment, to me, marked the official start of the Tigers’ rebuild.
By my calculation, the Tigers are now 1 year, 8 months and 30 days into a rebuild.
Put another way: This is a construction project that isn’t even close to being done. It’s like an expensive old house that was torn down, and the general contractor is sipping coffee, waiting for the new walls and floors to arrive.
So how is Avila doing?
It’s hard to say for certain because so many of the Tigers’ prospects are still developing in the minor leagues, but the first goal was successful: The Tigers are younger and cheaper after Avila traded everything that wasn’t either too old (Victor Martinez) or too hurt (Miguel Cabrera) or too much of a liability defensively (Nicholas Castellanos) or offensively (Jose Iglesias). Avila also moved Justin Verlander when it didn’t seem possible, considering the no-trade clause in his contract.
As an added benefit to the fire sale, the Tigers have been horrible and added prospects through the draft. They picked up the No.1 pick in Casey Mize. Kody Clemens might give the Tigers some power at second base. And Brock Deatherage has done nothing but impress since being drafted out of N.C. State.
Best of all, after a spunky start, the Tigers stink again, and it looks like they are headed for another top-five draft pick, if they don’t mess it up and start winning.
But still, it’s not yet clear how well the rebuild is going, as this team is in a holding pattern, waiting for the young kids to arrive.
But there are some concerns:
Who is left to sell?
This is it, folks. Don’t expect Avila to be able to squeeze much else out of this roster, at least in the short term. It seems unlikely the Tigers will be able to add much more talent, at least at this trade deadline, because they don’t have a lot of pieces left to trade this season.
Shane Greene seemed like a lock to be moved until he was put on the disabled list with inflation in his right shoulder on July 2.
Castellanos should generate interest because he is a fantastic hitter. But it is unclear what the market will be for a guy with defensive limitations.
While Jose Iglesias hit .283 in May and .304 in June, he is hitting just .238 in July. Iglesias has been on the trading block, basically, since Avila started this whole process.
That leaves Michael Fulmer. He figures to have a couple more starts before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but his value has fallen after recent struggles. If the Tigers can get a Justin Verlander-type haul, then it’s a no-brainer to move him.
But that seems unlikely.
Fulmer is under team control through the 2022 season. And it would make more sense to trade him during the winter or next season. There is no reason to rush to trade him.
Don’t expect these prospects to come up to Detroit and become immediate contributors.
The worst part about a rebuild is how long it takes. And the unpredictability.
Back in early May, I would have said that Jeimer Candelario would be one of the cornerstones of the Tigers’ rebuild. And he looked like he would be the rock of the batting order, a two-hole hitter for years to come. He was hitting .290 on May 4 and had a .516 slugging percentage.
But since then, he has hit .188 and Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire has dropped him to seventh or eighth in the lineup. Granted, Candelario has played just 126 games in his career. So it’s foolish to make a judgement right now, either way.
But it is concerning.
“I think the thing I didn’t expect was, like, Candelario going into a prolonged slump — some of these guys who were really playing well early, all of a sudden, losing it,” Gardenhire said, in Houston. “Maybe, playing too much. I don’t know.”
This is a cautionary tale for all of these prospects.
“You give them breaks,” Gardenhire said. “You give them a day or two off. Like Candy: He had the injury to his hand. Then he came back. He was fine after that. Then, he started to mentally get worn down, because you are playing every day in the big leagues. Then, you start trying to change things. You aren’t getting to the ball. You start guessing. Then, it becomes a mental war. You are fighting yourself, more than you are fighting anything else. Physically, you are tired… That’s what we are trying to teach these guys: Let it go, move on to the next at-bat. That happens in this game.” Right now, everybody is focused on obtaining talent and wondering when these players will arrive. But that’s only half of it.
The other half comes when they have to deal with struggles under the bright lights.
“You see what they are doing to him,” Gardenhire said, of how pitchers are attacking Candelario. “It’s not a steady diet of trying to beat him with a fastball. They are mixing their pitches a lot better because he was successful early. He was clicking on some fastballs. Now, they are spinning the ball. A lot of change-ups. That’s what they have done to every one of these young guys. They start spinning it a lot more. Then, they start guessing and start chasing. It’s happened to every one of these guys.”
Prospects will not turn into stars overnight. It’s a slow process. Painfully slow at times and mentally draining.
“There are a lot of guys driving themselves crazy,” Gardenhire said. “When you start seeing bats and helmets flying, those are things that tell me they are really frustrated. We have had meetings about that stuff. It still comes up. That’s what you have to deal with when you have younger players, without much experience at the Major League level. They are going to get frustrated.”
Offensive prospects needed
Over the last few months, I have toured the Tigers’ farm system. And there is no question this organization has some talented arms. But I keep wondering about the offense. There are some intriguing positional prospects like outfielders Daz Cameron, Christin Stewart and Mike Gerber, as well as infielders like Isaac Paredes, Dawel Lugo and Sergio Alcantara.
But the Tigers need almost all of these guys to get to Detroit.
Granted, there is still time to stock the bats. And you can always flip an arm for a bat down the road. I’d rather have too much pitching than too many position players any day of the week. But it’s still reason for some concern.
If the Tigers are able to trade either Fulmer or Castellanos, it’s imperative to bring in some guys who can produce runs.
Not enough players like Robson
During a trip to Erie, I was concerned at how little power that team had, especially in such a small park.
But I was incredibly impressed by Jacob Robson, a 23-year-old outfielder from Windsor.
Robson was promoted to Triple-A Toledo and has continued to impress, hitting over .400 in his first 16 games. Will he continue at that pace? Probably not. But he has hit at every level of the minor leagues. He’s played more than 250 games for the Tigers’ minor league system now and has been a consistent .300 hitter.
He is the type of player this organization needs so badly: young and athletic, capable of hitting and playing great defense.
Is this a 10-year plan?
Avila can’t just focus on a five-year plan. He has to think 10 years down the road, in regards to every aspect of this organization.
Which brings us to Castellanos and Christin Stewart, the slugger in Toledo.
Will Avila try to keep both of them?
Neither is considered a great defensive player. Will one end up as a designated hitter?
You can’t have both be a DH. And Avila has to consider that before he either trades Castellanos or signs him to a long-term deal.
Along those same lines, at some point, Avila has to start thinking about his manager situation.
Gardenhire has done a fantastic job, teaching these young players. I believe he is the right person, at this time. But he is 60 and has a three-year contract.
It would be perfect if Gardenhire was 50 years old and could ride this rebuild from beginning to end.
But he’s not. For now, that’s a concern that can be put off for a few years.
But that’s my main point: Every aspect of this rebuild is going to take time. A long time. Everybody should be thinking years, not months.
Contact Jeff Seidel: [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel/.
It was momentarily bright, then predictably gloomy. And as the Tigers staggered to the All-Star break, a few things became clearer.
This rebuild will be every bit as tedious as expected. There are no shortcuts. There are no guarantees. And there won’t be much help at the trade deadline.
Sorry if that’s what you’ve been hungering for, but in this market, with this roster, it’ll be more bust than boon. At least we’ve confirmed this about the Tigers: They have no untradeable players, and that includes Michael Fulmer and Nick Castellanos.
The unfortunate flip side for GM Al Avila is they don’t have many tradeable ones either, certainly not as many as they’d hoped. All the debate about Fulmer, 25, might be moot, although even with his struggles — 3-9 record, 4.50 ERA — he’d be coveted, under four more years of team control. Avila still should hold firm and either demand a ton or keep him.
A month ago, the Tigers were 36-37 and stirring interest for their spirited play under Ron Gardenhire. Twenty losses in 25 games later, they’re 41-57, although the record really doesn’t matter. What matters is virtually every possible trade chip has faltered, making it much more difficult for Avila to go prospecting before July 31. Outside of All-Star Joe Jimenez, most of the younger pieces have faltered too — notably Fulmer, Jeimer Candelario and Matt Boyd — and reminded us that building-block development can be painfully slow.
The Tigers have lifted their farm system from near the bottom to the middle of the pack, but the next leap will not be as easy. The veterans that might draw trade interest have periodically been injured or ineffective, which is unlucky timing for the Tigers. Shortstop Jose Iglesias and starters Mike Fiers and Francisco Liriano might be decent chips, if healthy, but center fielder Leonys Martin and closer Shane Greene stumbled after hot starts.
Fulmer still throws as hard as almost any pitcher in baseball, and although I wouldn’t deal him, the possibility has become more palatable the more he has struggled. You’d listen if a team like the Yankees was willing to give up a premier prospect or two, but that seems less likely now, with only two more starts before the deadline.
It’s a similar situation with Castellanos, who has developed into a menacing hitter — .305, 15 home runs, 56 RBIs — but is a liability in right field. Because the top four in the American League — Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Indians — seemingly are set, there will be fewer would-be contenders to bid.
Remember the last-minute bounty Avila got for Justin Verlander last summer, which landed the Tigers their No. 1 prospect, pitcher Franklin Perez? Not happening, which is no surprise. This season was going to be a wobbly bridge to the future no matter what, but the Tigers surely hoped they’d have something to sell.
They’ll need some luck to boost their rebuild, and it wouldn’t hurt if the Yankees (62-33) and Red Sox (68-30) remained in mortal combat in the AL East. The team that doesn’t win it will be stuck in a one-game wild card, so the stakes are enormous. And surely the Yankees realize they blew it last year, passing on Verlander, who sealed the World Series for the Astros.
Maybe the Yankees would be willing to pay more for Fulmer to avoid the same mistake, and to shore up their rotation beyond Luis Severino, underperforming Sonny Gray and oft-injured Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia. And then maybe Red Sox GM Dave Dombrowski would make a move to match, especially after losing starter Eduardo Rodriguez with an ankle injury.
Murmurs persist that the Yankees, desperate for a starter, have been eying Fulmer, who could be the best option (short- and long-term) in a light crop of candidates — Cole Hamels, J.A. Happ, Chris Archer, Kevin Gausman. More likely, the Yankees will kick the tires on Fiers and Liriano.
One report had the Tigers interested in Yankees hitters Clint Frazier, 23, and Tyler Wade, 23, which doesn’t seem enough for Fulmer. Sorry, the Yankees don’t get to set a lower price because Fulmer has scuffled. Avila gets to set the price because there’s no urgency to deal, not like last year with Verlander, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez and Justin Wilson.
Once you pick the rebuilding path, you have no choice but to be patient. Just ask the last three world champions. The Royals won it all in 2015 after posting a losing record in 17 of 18 seasons from 1995-2012. The Cubs won it all in 2016 after a five-year stretch in which they averaged 93 losses. The Astros won after famously enduring three seasons of at least 106 losses, when they stockpiled high draft picks.
That’s the pain and pattern a lot of teams are resigned to following — too many in the AL — although the Tigers are hoping to avoid the extreme. They’ve made progress in the minors and now possess five of the top 100 prospects in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline — starting pitchers Perez, Matt Manning, Alex Faedo and Beau Burrows, and outfielder Christin Stewart.
Heavy on young pitching, weak on young position players, the Tigers have a ton of work ahead. There are sobering examples all around them in the cataclysmic Central, where Kansas City is burrowing back into a rebuild and the Twins might do the same. The White Sox were supposed to be the next great ashes-to-flashes team and got all sorts of prime prospects by trading Chris Sale and others. Today, the White Sox may be teeming with young talent, but they’re 33-62 and crafting their sixth straight losing season.
Avila hasn’t wavered in his approach, and hasn’t sugarcoated the raw realities of a rebuild. In case anyone didn’t get the message, it sharpened the past month, and should be abundantly clear when the trade deadline comes and goes.
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WASHINGTON, D.C. — By late afternoon on Monday, it had yet to sink in.
Joe Jimenez sat by alone behind a small table, answering the same questions over and over again from baseball reporters around the world, and the most anonymous of this year’s All-Stars didn’t have an answer.
“I’m still trying to figure it out,” he said.
How, after struggling so mightily his rookie season, was he among the best baseball players in the world, with a star on his right sleeve that signified that he, too, was now one of them?
All the Detroit Tigers’ young reliever could do was laugh. Because beyond that shy laughter, he surely knew the answer: He’s supposed to be here.
At this time last season, Jimenez was pitching at Triple-A Toledo. The first half of his dreadful debut year was in the rearview mirror and he was back to dominating the minor leagues. More struggles came and they were tough — he posted a 12.32 ERA in 24 appearances last season — and before the final game of the season in Minnesota, sounding embarrassed over his performance, shell-shocked at the way he was getting rocked, he vowed things would be different next season.
“I tried to forget about it as soon as I could,” he said. “I tried to forget the bad moments because I didn’t struggle a lot in the minor leagues, so I just tried to forget about it and move forward every day in the off-season with a purpose and new goals.”
But in order to get here, Jimenez had to push himself out of his comfort zone. It began with a trip to Los Angeles immediately after the season, a place he didn’t know anybody, where he visited a sports performance facility. There, the seeds of an arduous off-season were planted, which then sprouted in Lakeland, Fla., where his star was born two seasons ago when he posted a perfect 0.00 ERA in 17 appearances.
It was then when Jimenez was tagged as the Tigers’ closer of the future, a designation that has never been more evident than this season. Privately, the Tigers front office had seen in Jimenez’s winter commitment what they never did with their last closer of the future, Bruce Rondon, whose mentality couldn’t match up.
The team’s new coaching staff watched with wide eyes when Jimenez took the mound in spring training. He dropped more than 20 pounds, he made the adjustments the front office had asked him to, and it was a credit to that work ethic that soon into the season, manager Ron Gardenhire tasked him with getting big outs in the back-end of the bullpen.
Oftentimes with young players as talented as Jimenez, it’s just a matter of time before things click. To him, things clicked during the second weekend of the season in Chicago.
“I was feeling the way that I was feeling in the minor leagues,” he said. “I just throw it and it doesn’t matter how, I just get outs. That’s the way that I felt starting the season.”
For all of his physical gifts, with relief pitchers, the great separator is mentality of knowing opponents can’t touch him. That is what will have him saving baseball games for the Tigers for what they hope is a long time.
He doesn’t talk about the closer of the future tag because he has too much respect for Shane Greene, but he smiles when asked about it, because those goals — like making the All-Star team — revolve around being trusted with the biggest outs of the game. While Greene was on the disabled list recently, Jimenez took those reins. He blew one, sure, but the best do. And if Greene is traded in the future, the job will be Jimenez’s.
“I just got a taste of it,” he said. “Obviously I was closing in the minor leagues so I kind of know how to prepare for it and in the big leagues, it’s a little tougher. But I liked it the few days that I was the closer and I’m just looking forward to having more of those in a few years or whatever.”
This season, Jimenez has showed closer-like numbers, posting a 2.72 ERA and 1.09 WHIP with 48 strikeouts in 43 innings.
On Monday, he got the taste of what could be the first of many All-Star appearances. He didn’t know many of his teammates, but tagged along Twins right-hander Jose Berrios during batting practice before the Home Run Derby. He talked with Yadier Molina, who caught for him in last year’s World Baseball Classic. He couldn’t wait for his family to arrive in the evening.
But of all the goals he talks about, the biggest, to him, is winning. And at a time in which the Tigers are among the worst teams in baseball, it speaks volumes to hear a player as young as Jimenez — one who could be with the team through their rebuilding process — mention the ultimate goal.
“At the start of this year, I told all of these guys that I want to win a World Series,” he said. “I’m not going to stop here. I wanted to be here, but I want to win a World Series more. We are going to do great things.”
Jimenez has already begun doing those things.
He came up to the big leagues last year, got his confidence knocked around the yard, and now he’s in the All-Star game. At first, he talked to the media through a team translator. But on Monday, he fielded those identical questions by himself.
“There you go,” his agent said when he finished. “First one down.”
Zimmermann (neck), who left the Tigers over the weekend to receive a nerve-blocking injection in Dallas, isn’t expected to miss a start due to the issue, Chris McCosky of The Detroit News reports.
Zimmermann apparently required the injection as part of a preventative maintenance program rather than as the result of a setback during his most recent outing July 11 against the Rays. The All-Star break should afford Zimmermann ample recovery time in advance of his next scheduled start, which has yet to be announced. The Tigers will open the second half with Matt Boyd, Mike Fiers and Michael Fulmer as their three starters for next weekend’s series with the Red Sox, so Zimmermann’s first turn would presumably fall either July 23 or July 24 in Kansas City.