Last season, for the first time since 2010, the Detroit Tigers missed the playoffs. They had won four straight division titles and seemed to be right up there with the World Series favorites every season from 2011-14. As a result, the Tigers taxed their minor league system by giving up prospects in trades and draft picks for luxurious free agents and when they finally took a bit of nose dive last season, some people started to compare them to the Philadelphia Phillies, on Twitter and sites such as FanGraphs, the same Phillies that Ruben Amaro tried so hard to make a dynasty out of and left in despair for the past four seasons.
With the Phillies just having visited Detroit, it seems like a good time to analyze the comparison, which I feel is like apples to oranges and just made because these were two pretty successful teams for a while. What happened in Philly versus Detroit after that first taste of failure is where the comparison stops. Here are three reasons why:
First: Miguel Cabrera is not Ryan Howard
Also, Justin Verlander isn’t Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez isn’t Raul Ibanez, and Ian Kinsler isn’t Chase Utley. Most importantly, though, Cabrera will not age the same way Howard has. Howard is on the verge of being released in the year 2016, but from 2005 through 2011 he was a feared power hitter. His body broke down on him after his age 31 season and he has never been the same as he was.
Howard has never been the same as Cabrera, though; the only thing Howard had over Miggy in their respective primes was power. Howard has a 28-percent career strikeout rate to Miggy’s 16 percent; Howard’s wOBA has been in a consistent nosedive since 2006, whereas Miggy has stayed above .400 for a truly amazing wOBA; and Cabrera has never come close to a negative WAR, while Howard hasn’t posted a positive WAR in two straight seasons since 2010 and 2011.
Cabrera is also better on defense, which helps his cause, and he has already passed the age where Howard started to breakdown. Cabrera is the type of guy who will hit even into his 40s. There will be a little regression with the bat and his pop, but nowhere near what Howard experienced.
This also goes for all the other players with big contracts. The Phillies only really had one of those contracts work out: Cole Hamels. Cabrera and Verlander might not live up to the exact numbers in their deals, but they won’t be disastrous and/or worth negative value during these. Verlander is starting to look good again, and Jordan Zimmermann is doing as well as his 2013-14 numbers suggest he is. Roy Halladay fell off the map after 2011, and the chances of that happening to a much younger Zimmermann or Verlander are slim. The Phillies also never traded for prospects during their run, something the Tigers did last season to keep it going.
Second: The Young Core
The Tigers’ core of talent under age 30 includes Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, Matt Boyd, and James McCann. The Phillies of 2011 had Hamels, Hunter Pence, and Vance Worley. I’d take the Tigers side in 2016 over the Phillies of 2011.
Also, the Tigers have started to retool their farm system, something the Phillies couldn’t do until just recently. Beau Burrows is looking good as a teenager in the Midwest League, Christin Stewart is leading the Florida State League in home runs, Steven Moya is starting to hit, and the Tigers have found gems like Mike Gerber and Zach Shepherd. The system isn’t a top one by any means, but with a top-10 pick, it’s looking up.
Going into 2012, the Phillies’ top 10 prospects were: Trevor May, Jesse Biddle, Sebastian Valle, Jonathan Pettibone, Phillippe Aumont, Freddy Galvis, Justin De Fratus, Brody Colvin, Jiwan James, and Maikel Franco. There was one future major league starting talent in that group: Franco. At the time, he was 20 and raw and the Tigers have a few international talents themselves.
The counterargument to this is that you can’t tell that all the Tigers prospects won’t be flops either, but they all grade out better. The Tigers young talent, on top of the contracts not being as bad as the Phillies, makes the comparison a bad one.
Also, the Tigers have Al Avila as general manager, someone who has scouts and analytics. The Phillies stayed with Amaro until last year and paid deeply, as most of his moves were not solid ones.
Third: The lineup isn’t breaking
The last major reason that comparisons between the Tigers and the Phillies are not apt is that the Tigers will have an outstanding lineup through next season at the very least, and possibly two more seasons if Upton opts to stay and J.D. Martinez is extended.
The Phillies had a really good rotation, but it was older, and Roy Oswalt left after 2011 on top of the declines and eventual departures of Halladay and Lee. If the Tigers only have to make minor adjustments to the lineup, they can focus on acquiring some good pitchers to help the likes of Verlander, Zimmermann, Francisco Rodrigues, and Fulmer. This way they can make a run at the playoffs again.
Even if the Tigers were just like the Phillies, they could rebuild within a few season just like the Phillies have done. J.D. Martinez, Jose Iglesias, and Nick Castellanos would all bring back a ransom for the Tigers, much like Hamels and Ken Giles have for Philly. The Tigers would also be able to build off of drafts, much like the Phillies have in drafting J.P. Crawford and Cornelius Randolph. The Phillies are primed to be a competitive team already, and I’d consider them to be playoff contenders as soon as next season. Their rebuild did take about four seasons, but it’s not like they went a decade without winning.
The Tigers can do the same and already have a little bit of a head start if things aren’t looking up after this season. The Tigers and Phillies are easy teams to compare, but in reality, we never know when a team’s window of opportunity will close. If the Tigers had never found J.D. Martinez and had signed Mike Leake over Zimmermann, they’d be in a totally different spot right now.
Teams can make moves that ensure they are good for longer — for example, locking up J.D. Martinez long-term would help. In reality, the Tigers could make a run this year, and even if they don’t, their situation won’t be like the Phillies. It looks even better than a four-year fix if they were to falter.