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Who’s rebuilding better - the Royals or Tigers?

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It wasn’t that long ago that these two teams were atop the division.

Kansas City Royals v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

Just five years ago, the Royals and Tigers were battling for the Central Division title. The Tigers would edge the Royals by one game, but the Royals would get the last laugh by making the playoffs as a Wild Card, winning an epic game, and going on an amazing run that would lead to a pennant and a championship the following year.

The Tigers stumbled and missed the playoffs the next two seasons, and in the middle of the 2017, the sell-off began. Big money veterans Justin Verlander, Justin Upton, J.D. Martinez, and Alex Avila were all traded within a few weeks of each other, and the Tigers bottomed out with 98 losses, their worst season since 2003.

So the Tigers got a few months of a head start on the Royals, who really began their rebuild (but don’t call it a rebuild!) in 2018, although you could argue that moves like trading Wade Davis for Jorge Soler before the 2017 season were done with an eye towards the future. With a bit over two years into both rebuilds, how do the two franchises compare? Let’s take a look.

Trades made

First, let’s look at what has already been done. Here are the trades made since each team began their rebuild movements.

Tigers rebuild trades

Date Traded away Trading team Players acquired
Date Traded away Trading team Players acquired
7/18/2017 J.D. Martinez Diamondbacks Sergio Alcantara, Jose King and Dawel Lugo
7/31/2017 Alex Avila and Justin Wilson Cubs Isaac Paredes, Jeimer Candelario
8/31/2017 Justin Upton Angels Grayson Long and Elvin Rodriguez
8/31/2017 Justin Verlander Astros Daz Cameron, Franklin Perez, and Jake Rogers
12/13/2017 Ian Kinsler Angels Wilkel Hernandez and Troy Montgomery
7/31/2018 Leonys Martin and Kyle Dowdy Indians Willi Castro
7/31/2018 Mike Fiers Athletics Nolan Blackwood and Logan Shore

The Tigers traded away some big names but also had to eat some money to make these trades happen, with the Upton and Verlander deals costing them around $17 million. Lugo has already reached the big leagues, likely as a low-ceiling utility infielder who is currently hitting .230/.250/.344 in 20 games as a 24-year old. Third baseman Jeimer Candelario was a 2 WAR player last year and is just 25 years old.

The rest of the trades did help populate the Tigers’ farm system. From these deals the Tigers received the #3 prospect in their system, according to MLB Pipeline (Franklin Perez), #8 (Daz Cameron), #10 (Willi Castro), #12 (Jake Rogers), #13 (Isaac Paredes, who Baseball America has a top 100 prospect), #17 (Logan Shore), and #29 (Troy Montgomery).

Here is what the Royals have done.

Royals rebuild trades

Date Traded away Trading team Players acquired
Date Traded away Trading team Players acquired
1/4/2018 Joakim Soria and Scott Alexander White Sox and Dodgers Trevor Oaks and Erick Mejia
1/29/2018 Brandon Moss and Ryan Buchter Athletics Heath Fillmyer and Jesse Hahn
6/6/2018 Jon Jay Diamondbacks Elvis Luciano and Gabe Speier
6/18/2018 Kelvin Herrera Nationals Kelvin Gutierrez, Blake Perkins,and Yohanse Morel
7/22/2018 Jacob Condra-Bogan Nationals Brian Goodwin
7/27/2018 Mike Moustakas Brewers Jorge Lopez and Brett Phillips

Again, you could arguably include the Jorge Soler trade in there as well. While the Tigers ate money to make deals happen, the Royals threw in tradeable assets to send away bad contracts. For example, they included Scott Alexander in a three-way deal with the Dodgers and White Sox to get rid of $9 million they owed on Joakim Soria. They included Ryan Buchter to get the Athletics to take on around $5 million of Brandon Moss’s salary.

The Kansas City deals netted them a few fringe Major League pitchers in Fillmyer, Oaks, Lopez, and Hahn (who has been injured). According to MLB Pipeline, these trades also netted the Royals their #15 prospect (Blake Perkins) and #17 (Kelvin Gutierrez). Brett Phillips could still be a useful outfielder, Yohanse Morel also has a promising future as a live arm, and the return would be even better had the club not lost Elvis Luciano to the Blue Jays in the Rule 5 draft.

Remaining tradeable assets

Both of these teams could be pretty active at this year’s trade deadline. The Tigers reportedly tried to move outfielder Nick Castellanos last winter, but could not find the right fit. Castellanos was a 3 WAR player last year, and has hit 49 home runs over the last two seasons combined. He makes nearly $10 million with one more year remaining until he reaches free agency. However, he has been an average hitter this year, and a poor defender, which could limit his market.

Shane Greene has gotten off to a fantastic start, allowing just three runs in 27 innings with a league-hith 20 saves. Greene struggled last year, but with two years of club control left and a reasonable salary of $4 million, he could be a very attractive piece for any club seeking bullpen help.

Matt Boyd has also had a great season this year, leading the league in strikeout-to-walk ratio and posting a career-best ERA of 3.08 with a 2.91 FIP. It is unclear whether the Tigers would trade him while he is pitching well, or whether they want him to help usher in the next wave of arms coming through the system, since he is under club control through 2022.

The club could also look to sell high on Brandon Dixon, a first baseman they claimed off waivers who is hitting well this spring. Michael Fulmer was a hot trade candidate last year, but he suffered a knee injury and is now out for the season with Tommy John surgery. The club would probably like to move Miguel Cabrera, but his offensive production and enormous contract make him unmoveable. One-year veterans like Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer will have to play better and stay healthy to have any trade value.

The Royals have said they need Whit Merrifield, but expect the versatile player to be the subject of many trade rumors this summer. His new contract makes him very attractive to cost conscious clubs and his ability to play second or outfield while serving as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball should be valuable.

Danny Duffy committed to the organization when he signed a five-year, $65 million deal, but his flashes of brilliance may make him an attractive trade piece, provided he can stay healthy and show some consistency. The Royals will have to decide if Jorge Soler is part of the future, since he is under club control through 2021, or if he is not a good fit for what they are trying to do and an asset to trade.

A rejuvenated Alex Gordon could have value to a contender, but he has 10-5 rights and a large salary that could make a deal difficult. Likewise, Ian Kennedy has been a solid reliever, but his $16 million salary for 2020 will make it hard to move him. Reliever Jake Diekman seems a likely bet to be dealt in July, and Brad Boxberger, Billy Hamilton, and Martín Maldonado are candidates as well.

Edge: Tigers

The Royals can probably net more from Whit Merrifield than any team can get from anyone else listed. However the Royals seem reluctant to deal him, and the Tigers have players more likely to be dealt in Greene and Castellanos that could net a decent return. If the Tigers decide to move Boyd while he is pitching well, he could also have a lot of suitors.

Young position players to build around

Outfielder Christin Stewart is the most promising young hitter in the Tigers lineup. The 25-year old has hit .254/.345/.429 in his first 63 big league games, but enjoyed 25-30 home run seasons in the minors as well as a good eye for walks. Candelario held his own last year, hitting .224/.317/.393 with 19 home runs, but has struggled this year and is currently injured.

The Tigers grabbed Victor Reyes from the Diamondbacks in the Rule 5 draft last year, and he may have a future in the outfield. The rest of the Tigers lineup isn’t particularly young - their adjusted batting age is about league average. Guys like Niko Goodrum, John Hicks, Jacoby Jones, and Greyson Greiner are role players all 26-year of age or older.

The Royals have anchored their lineup around young phenom Adalberto Mondesi. The 23-year old has red flags about his plate discipline, but he has held his own this year, hitting .283/.315/.468 with a league-high 26 steals and fantastic defense. Hunter Dozier has emerged as one of the league’s best hitters this year. Although he’s not particularly young at age 27, he will have several controllable years remaining and now looks like he is part of the future. Ryan O’Hearn showed great promise last year with 12 home runs in just 44 games, but has struggled so far this year.

The book is still out on guys like Nicky Lopez and Kelvin Gutierrez who could be solid defenders. Bubba Starling could be in the picture now too after a strong performance in Omaha, although the clock is ticking on him and outfielders Jorge Bonifacio and Brett Phillips.

Edge: Royals

Mondesi is by far the most dynamic player on this list, and Dozier could be an All-Star this year.

Pitching development

The Tigers have three pitchers in their rotation - Matt Boyd, Spencer Turnbull, and Daniel Norris - 28 years of age or younger who have combined for a 3.40 ERA in 230 innings this year. All three are under club control through 2022, which could give the Tigers a good anchor to their rotation. The club has handed out many of the other starts to short-term veterans like Tyson Ross, albatross contracts like Jordan Zimmermann, or AAAA guys like Ryan Carpenter. Joe Jimenez has potential as a reliever, but most of the other arms in the bullpen won’t stick around through the rebuild.

The Royals have struggled to develop pitching for several seasons, and right now Jakob Junis and Brad Keller are the best young pitchers in the rotation. Both project to be mid-rotation starters, although they have flashed the potential to be a bit more. The club may have a few potentially intriguing bullpen arms with Richard Lovelady, Kyle Zimmer, and Scott Barlow, but they have been pretty inconsistent in the early going.

Edge: Tigers

The Royals continue to struggle developing pitching, while the Tigers have a solid trio already.

The state of the farm system

The Tigers had a bottom-six farm system, according to Baseball America, every year from 2013 to 2017. They finally made a big jump up this year, and are now ranked 15th, with three top 100 prospects - Casey Mize (one of the top pitching prospects in baseball), pitching Matt Manning, and shortstop Isaac Paredes. They have loaded up on power arms, and took advantage of a high draft position to pick Mize, the top college pitcher in the draft last year. Keith Law ranks the club 18th, and writes they are “getting better but not there yet” and that they spend their draft capital last year on “high-risk prep hitters with question marks.”

Last week, the Tigers added Florida prep outfielder Riley Greene with the #5 pick, who, according to Law, may have some of the best upside in the draft.

The Royals have been ranked in the bottom five of all farm systems in each of the past three years, according to Baseball America, and are #27 this year. They write the “upper levels of the system lack potential regulars, with few high-end prospects anywhere in the organization” and rank Brady Singer as the lone Top 100 prospect before the season. Keith Law is a bit more optimistic, ranking them #21, thanks to the strong team that was in Lexington last year.

The Royals grabbed Texas prep infielder Bobby Witt, Jr. with the second-overall selection in the draft last week, a player who some think is the best shortstop prospect in the draft in years. They also went very college-heavy in later rounds, with 35 of their 41 selections coming from college - 23 of them pitchers.

Edge: Tigers

The Tigers got a jump on the Royals in renewing the farm system and have some higher upside arms, but the Royals are catching up and the addition of Witt could give their farm system the high-upside player it currently lacks.

Conclusion:

Both teams should have quite a bit of financial flexibility going forward. Despite each team having some large deals on the books (Cabrera and Zimmermann for the Tigers, Kennedy, Duffy, and Perez for the Royals), both teams have just over $60 million in obligations next year, and just over $30 million in 2021.

The Tigers have developed the arms, while the Royals seemed to have done a better job growing young bats. Detroit has a number of power arms that will soon be ready, which could give them flexibility to make trades to address other areas.

The Tigers seem to have a slight edge on the Royals in their rebuild, probably due to starting their rebuild a bit earlier and having more tradeable assets initially to deal with. Had the Royals dealt the core of their championship club - Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas - they may be in a better position now, although you can’t fault them too much for wanting to take another crack at contention.

The Royals could catch up quickly though if the college arms they selected last year continue to progress. Bobby Witt, Jr. is a wild card as well, and if he arrives earlier than expected, he could add a dynamic bat to the lineup. It is clear, however, that both franchises are still a few years away from being real contenders. Maybe one day soon we’ll see another division race between the two the way we saw it in 2014.

Potential 2022 lineups?

2022 Tigers Royals
2022 Tigers Royals
C Jake Rogers MJ Melendez
1B Brandon Dixon Nick Pratto
2B Willi Castro Nicky Lopez
SS Isaac Paredes Adalberto Mondesi
3B Jeimer Candelario Hunter Dozier
LF Christin Stewart Whit Merrifield
CF Daz Cameron Khalil Lee
RF Victor Reyes Seuly Matias
DH Miguel Cabrera Ryan O'Hearn
SP Casey Mize Brady Singer
SP Franklin Perez Daniel Lynch
SP Matt Manning Jackson Kowar
SP Spencer Turnbull Brad Keller
SP Alex Faedo Jakob Junis
RP Joe Jimenez Richard Lovelady

Poll

Which organization has a brighter future?

This poll is closed

  • 62%
    Royals
    (357 votes)
  • 37%
    Tigers
    (216 votes)
573 votes total Vote Now