Royals vs. Tigers Rebuilds
They've shared the bottom of the division since 2018, but both took big steps in 2021
The Detroit Tigers were the class of the AL Central from 2011 to 2014 winning the division every year before the Royals broke that streak in 2015. That year, the Tigers went 74-87 before bouncing back in 2016 with a winning season and then had a sub-.400 winning percentage for the next four seasons. But 2021 saw them hiring AJ Hinch and making big strides in the standings, finishing at 77-85, which is even more impressive when you look at the fact that they started 9-24, so they finished 68-61. That’s a big stretch of good.
The Royals finished just three games behind the Tigers, but got there in a pretty different way with a strong start, solid finish but trouble in the middle. The two teams are being built similarly. The Tigers rebuild featured some young pitching, including two college arm draft picks in 2018. The Royals rebuild features some young pitching, including at least five college arm picks who debuted between 2020 and 2021. The Tigers offense was a bit of an issue for them, so in 2019, they used their first six picks on bats. In 2020, they used all six of their picks on bats.
Now they’ve got a good chunk of their pitching in the big leagues with some of their top 2021 picks filling out their top-10 prospect list, but they’ve also got guys like Spencer Torkelson, Riley Greene and Dillon Dingler knocking on the door of the big leagues. If that sounds familiar, it probably should. The Royals have a good chunk of their top pitching in the big leagues with a few others hanging around the top 10-15 prospects and they have guys like Bobby Witt Jr., Nick Pratto and MJ Melendez knocking on the door at the big league level.
It feels like the Tigers are a touch ahead in their rebuild, I think, because from the outside looking in, their pitching seems to have taken a step that the Royals pitching hasn’t yet. Casey Mize posted a 3.71 ERA in 2021 and did so with pretty remarkable consistency for a young pitcher. I think it’s fair to say he has some questions with a lower strikeout rate than you want, but that’s a great start. Tarik Skubal has the strikeouts, but gives up too many home runs. Still, he posted a 4.34 ERA in 2021. Even Tyler Alexander, who is unheralded put up solid numbers as a starter.
For the Royals, they just didn’t find that success. Instead of Brady Singer taking a step like Mize, he took a step back. Kris Bubic had moments of looking like a middle-of-the-rotation starter and then moments where he didn’t look like a big leaguer. We know how badly Jackson Kowar and Daniel Lynch struggled at times. Outside of some promising notes from guys like Jon Heasley and Angel Zerpa in a very small sample, the only real huge positive from a young arm came from Carlos Hernandez.
It sort of makes sense that the Tigers are a bit ahead of the Royals in their rebuild given that they started dealing off parts all the way back in 2015 and hit the reset button in a big way in 2017, which is a year before the Royals did. Well, maybe more like a few months. They traded J.D. Martinez, Justin Wilson and Alex Avila in July and then Justin Upton and Justin Verlander in August. They didn’t get a ton back, but they did get Jeimer Candelario, who is someone I wanted in the Wade Davis deal and they also picked up Daz Cameron and Jake Rogers. So it’s a modest head start, but a head start nonetheless.
And now the Tigers have both declared that they are going to spend some money this winter and already backed it up. When they signed Eduardo Rodriguez to a five-year deal for $77 million, they showed that they were serious about taking that next step. They’ve been rumored to be in on Carlos Correa as well, but regardless of if they can sign him or not, they definitely need another bat to add to their lineup. With just two years left on the Miguel Cabrera deal, they can likely absorb a monster contract, especially if backloaded. So they’re going to get better.
The Ilitch family hasn’t been shy about writing checks, and while people were maybe a bit unsure about how much that would continue with Chris in charge after Mike’s death a few years ago, it seems like that’s not something Tigers fans need to worry about. So the Tigers were always likely to spend more than the Royals, but are they actually a full year ahead in the rebuild where they’re ready to add finishing touch pieces?
In mid-season re-rankings, the Tigers farm system ranked sixth on Baseball America and seventh on MLB Pipeline. The Royals were third and fifth respectively. I’d say that’s pretty on par. The Royals have graduated Lynch from that list, so they may fall just a bit, but they both still have some pretty impressive prospects and farm systems.
Let’s just take a look at a side-by-side comparison of some of the numbers. I’m looking at big league and some minor league team numbers.
That’s actually remarkably close. The Royals big league pitching staff wasn’t as good, but might have been better using the underlying metrics. The Tigers offense was better, though neither was good. But again, both have some big prospects knocking on the door. Then in the minors, they were both essentially equal at the top two levels and while the Royals had the much better high-A team last year, the Tigers were better while still bad at low-A.
The two teams were both among the six youngest pitching staffs in baseball in 2021, though the Royals had the third oldest bats compared to the 12th youngest for the Tigers. Though I’m not sure how much that really matters considering what’s about to come for both teams on the offensive side of the ball.
When it comes down to it, I think both teams are in a pretty similar spot with their rebuild. They both have gobs of young pitching that needs to come through, at least a few of them. They both have monster hitting prospects with a couple at premium defensive spots and one on the easier end of the defensive spectrum. It might boil down to how they’re managed, which is where I see the Tigers with the edge for now. AJ Hinch has proven to be a very good manager and while Mike Matheny has shown more analytic leanings since becoming the Royals manager, I’d still give Hinch the edge moving forward.
But maybe more importantly, the Tigers have adopted a lot of forward-thinking pitching philosophies with Chris Fetter in charge at the big league level. The changes they’ve seen from him have been impressive. I think you all know my thoughts on Cal Eldred in charge of the Royals pitching. They took some steps forward in the second half, and that likely saved his job, but until I see more than a couple months of progress, I’m going to have plenty of doubts.
Ultimately the battle will take place on the field where we can actually find out who is ahead with a chance to get back to the postseason first. My money is on the Tigers because they seem to be taking the approach of not waiting to find out which prospects hit and which don’t, but that’s working under my assumption that my prediction of them signing Correa is correct and they put him in a lineup that improved quite a bit throughout the 2021 season with guys like Akil Baddoo, Jonathan Schoop and Candelario providing positive offensive value.
Still, I’m not so sure the Tigers are in that different of a place in their rebuild as much as they’re taking a more aggressive approach to expediting their return to contention process. Both teams are working their way back to contention in a division that figures to be among the most competitive in baseball with a White Sox team already very good, a Guardians team that always competes and a Twins team that fell on hard times in 2021, but won 100 games in 2019 and the division in 2020 with a .600 winning percentage. It’ll be fun to see how that all shakes out in the next few seasons.
40-Man Moves Coming
The deadline to add players to the 40-man to protect them from the Rule 5 draft is tomorrow. Any given day, I can make an argument for a different combination to be protected, but we know for certain that both Melendez and Pratto will be added before the deadline. Given their performances in the Arizona Fall League, Nathan Eaton and Seuly Matias are candidates as well, but I don’t think the former will be added while the latter is a pretty decent possibility. Other names to watch for are Dairon Blanco, Jonathan Bowlan, Austin Cox, Josh Dye, Maikel Garcia, Zach Haake, Brewer Hicklen and Zach Willeman. I might be missing someone, but the point here is that the Royals 40-man roster is currently at 36 and they’re likely to protect at least four of these players (and probably more) and they’ll want to keep some spots available.
So that means some non-tenders are coming. It’s not like the options aren’t aplenty for them. On the pitching side, I wonder what the plan is with Richard Lovelady. He finally emerged in 2021 as a good reliever in the big leagues, but is now out for all of 2022. I would guess they’ll keep him, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee. Joel Payamps was solid, but also is the kind of guy you’re fine with and are always looking for better. Gabe Speier looked good in the big leagues, but it was a small sample and gave up a ton of hits. Kyle Zimmer struggled after they started checking for sticky stuff and Tyler Zuber just struggled. Any or all could go.
Offensively, with the addition of Melendez to the 40-man, you might see the Royals jettison either Cam Gallagher or Sebastian Rivero, though that would likely be a small trade rather than a non-tender. Lucius Fox is a very easy drop as is Ryan O’Hearn, but we know about this team and O’Hearn. Emmanuel Rivera could find himself on the wrong end of a roster crunch too, but I think there’s enough dead weight elsewhere that he should be safe. Whatever direction they go, the next day or so should be pretty interesting. It should be noted that the non-tender deadline isn’t until December 1, so even if guys you want gone are still on the roster, it doesn’t mean they will be in a couple weeks.
The Royals sent out a purposely cryptic tweet yesterday about unveiling new threads tomorrow.
It sure looks like they’re bringing back the all powder blues. Look at that piping on the sleeve and then the way that Whit Merrifield is holding the bat in the Bo Jackson pose. I do love that the social media team hid a bit of an Easter egg as well so when you zoom in if you try, the words “Nice try” appear in the center of the jersey. That’s fun. When the team brought the powder blue jerseys back in 2008, it was great…for like a minute. But they just kind of look odd with white pants. I don’t know. I still like them and they make for a great shirsey, but it just felt incomplete, so hopefully they’re bringing back the whole set like other teams have done in recent seasons.
I mentioned this on Twitter, but I also would love to see them do some sort of Monarchs theme. They should have done this a long time ago, but we can’t change the past and what better season than 2022 to do it? Why 2022? Because Buck O’Neil wore number 22. It would be a great homage to him and they could really put together some sharp uniforms. My personal favorite are the navy blue pinstripes like Brian Utt tweeted to me here.
Do this and there’s even minimal color changing needed. Just a thought, Royals. I won’t even ask for any reward for this idea.