Sunday, December 03, 2006

Looking Ahead: Detroit Tigers

2006 W-L Record: 95-67
2006 pW-pL Record: 95-67
Runs Scored: 822 (5th in AL)
Runs Allowed: 675 (1st in AL)
Free Agents: Matt Stairs, Jamie Walker, Dmitri Young

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Sean Casey/Chris Shelton

2B -- Placido Polanco
SS -- Carlos Guillen
3B -- Brandon Inge
LF -- Craig Monroe/Marcus Thames
CF -- Curtis Granderson
RF -- Magglio Ordonez
C -- Ivan Rodriguez
DH -- Gary Sheffield

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Justin Verlander

Jeremy Bonderman
Kenny Rogers
Nate Robertson
Zach Miner/Wil Ledezma

2007 Proj. Closer: Todd Jones/Joel Zumaya

The Tigers hit a lot of home runs and rarely get on base. That's the team in a nutshell. Last year, they finished 3rd in the league in home runs but only 8th in doubles. That indicates a slow power team, one which isn't likely to repeat such a ratio. But their Slugging Percentage of .449 was 5th in the league, thanks in part to a league-leading 40 triples. That would indicate a fast team in a big ballpark. Can the Tigers be simultaneously slow and fast? Yes, it's split pretty evenly in the lineup.
As for the OBP, the Tigers drew 430 walks last year, which was next to last in the AL. Their .329 OBP was 12th of 14, boosted somewhat by a .274 batting average (which is itself about average).
So the Tigers are built almost entirely on home runs and triples. It wasn't a terrible formula last year; in fact, the Tigers finished 5th in the league in scoring despite playing in a big ballpark. But I wouldn't put any money on the triples-and-homers formula long-term. And, sure enough, neither are the Tigers.
Detroit traded three pitching prospects to the Yankees for Gary Sheffield in November. It seems like Sheffield would be the answer to their problems; his career OBP is .398, and he does of course manage a lot of power as well. The trouble is that Sheffield is coming off an injury-shortened 2006 that saw him hit 298/355/450. That's not bad, but it's not really worth $28 million over two years. Considering that Sheffield is 39 years old, and it's even more risky. A lot of people praised the Sheffield trade, but I think that's because they were expecting Sheffield to bounce back to his 2005 quality (291/379/512). That's possible, but I don't think it's that likely, what with his aging wrist. Sheffield will be an improvement, no doubt, but I don't think it's a $28 million improvement.
Sheffield will likely be the team's DH, which will move Marcus Thames somewhere into the outfield. Thames is like almost everyone else on the Tigers; good power, but little else. His 256/333/549 batting line isn't bad, but he's limited defensively and isn't helping the team's OBP troubles. If Thames doesn't end up in left field, that spot will likely go to incumbent Craig Monroe. Monroe has many of Thames' attributes, except that he's not quite as good and is coming off a poor 2006 (255/301/482). If one of them has to be traded, I'd go with Monroe.

The Tigers wisely installed Curtis Granderson in center field last year, after they realized that the only thing Nook Logan can do is run really fast. Granderson is . . . well, the same as everyone else on this team (260/335/438) but is also a good center fielder. That almost makes up for the league-leading 174 strikeouts. Granderson is a valuable guy, but he probably shouldn't be leading off, not with those numbers.
RF Magglio Ordonez actually managed a .350 OBP, good enough for 2nd on the team. Although he's getting paid an obscene amount of money, Ordonez did manage to stay healthy in 2006 and proved quite productive (298/350/477). He's no wizard with the glove, but so long as he can combine power and patience, he'll be worth keeping around.
In the infield, the Tigers seem to be settling for . . . well, something. The only superstar they have is team MVP Carlos Guillen. Guillen isn't more than adequate at shortstop, but his offense is superb: 320/400/519 with a team-leading 20 steals. Guillen is one of the more underappreciated talents in baseball, and isn't too far below Mr. Jeter on the AL Shortstop Totem Pole.

At second base, the Tigers will be waiting to see which version of Placido Polanco shows up. Will it be the guy who was a dynamite contact hitter down the stretch in 2005 (338/386/461)? Or will it be the oddly disappointing guy from 2006 (295/329/364). Polanco has his charms, but he's not worth keeping around if he's hitting like that. His career batting line is 300/344/409, and if he can approach that, he'll prove valuable, especially if he can get on base at the top of the lineup.
Third base will be manned by Brandon Inge. Inge is a loss offensively; his 253/313/463 in 2006 was actually a notch better than his career batting line. Inge is the same story; power, with little else. To be fair, though, he is a sharp defender at the hot corner. And there's no need for the Tigers to get rid of him unless they've got someone better on hand.

First base is the position where the Tigers could most easily upgrade, but so far have failed to do so. The easiest thing would be to give the starting job back to Chris Shelton. Shelton got off to a red-hot start in 2006, but slumped his way out of the starting lineup. His final batting line was 273/340/466; about averagefor a first baseman.
The Tigers' mistake was replacing Shelton with Sean Casey. Casey is a defensive loss who's as fast as an IV drip. Even worse, his offense is deteriorating from bad to YECCH. After being traded to Detroit in mid-2006, Casey hit an abysmal 245/286/364. This is the first baseman, not the backup catcher.
But for some reason, the Tigers decided to re-sign Sean Casey to a 1-year deal for $4 million. Casey is, at this point in his career, utterly useless except for the occasional pinch-hitting appearance. If the Tigers decide to give Casey the job ahead of burgeoning prospect Chris Shelton, they will have fired the first shot in their foot in their quest to repeat as AL Champions.
There aren't really any young hitters making their way toward the majors in the Detroit system. Most of them are already in the majors. So it's fair to say that the fate of the 2007 Tigers rests entirely on the pitching staff.

Luckily the Tigers have a strong pitching staff that will make them competitive even in a worst-case offensive scenario. They allowed the fewest runs in the AL last year -- thanks in part to a solid defense -- and while I do expect a certain regression in 2007 (a regression named Kenny Rogers), the Tigers are still in fantastic shape.
The two bright lights of the starting staff are Rookie of the Year Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman. Verlander made a much-anticipated debut in 2006 and was quite productive, finishing with a 3.63 ERA in 186 innings. His strikeout rate was a bit low -- only 124, surprising for someone with his stuff -- but there's every reason to believe he'll be equally potent next year. The only real worry is work, as Verlander pitched a lot of innings down the stretch and into the postseason.
Jeremy Bonderman may not be as glamorous as Verlander, but he's nearly as productive (4.08 ERA, 64:202 BB:K ratio in 214 IP) and he's only four months older than Verlander, even though he's been in the majors for 4 years now. The Tigers are well set with these two young guns atop their rotation and should be for years to come.
Behind these two, the Tigers have a couple functional guys. Nate Robertson won't be mistaken for a star, despite his 3.84 ERA last year. He's not much of a strikeout pitcher (137 in 208.2 IP last year), and his career 4.56 ERA is more indicative of his talents. But he's still a guy who can make 32 starts (his exact total for three straight years) and keep his team in the ballgame.
I'm more dubious about Kenny Rogers. I expected that the Tigers would regret signing the 42-year-old Rogers to a free agent deal, since his 2005 Texas season had all the signs of collapse except for his ERA (which was 3.46). Well, Rogers was pretty much the same pitcher in 2006; he struck out very few hitters (99 in 204 IP) gave up more HR (23 in '06, 15 in '05), and yet his ERA was still a quality 3.84. Rogers benefits from roomy Comerica Park and a good defense, but at some point you have to figure that all those balls put into play are going to hurt him, especially as he starts drawing Social Security. But then I said that last year . . .

The Tigers are set 1-4 and have some room to play with the #5 spot. One possibility is young Zach Miner, who filled that role in 2006. Miner's 4.84 ERA and 32:59 BB:K ratio weren't exactly enthralling, but he's still young, and the bar is low for a #5 starter.
Another possibility is the returning Mike Maroth. Maroth missed most of 2006 with injury, but appears to be on track f0r a 2007 return. The problem is that Maroth is just a slightly less effective version of Nate Robertson -- very few strikeouts, and a career 4.78 ERA. He's not a bad guy to have as your #5 starter, but the Tigers do have other options.
A less likely scenario, but one that would help the team, would see reliever Wil Ledezma return to the rotation. Ledezma has a great deal of potential and will just be 26 next year (the Tigers seem to be growing young pitchers on trees). He's become more and more of a reliever in recent years (17 of his 24 appearances last year were in relief), but he has the ability to start and pitch quite well.
Either way, the Tigers are set in their rotation, giving them both quality and a good deal of stability. It's a pretty young rotation that projects well in the future. Although it is odd; four of the five starters next year are younger than 30 -- the exception is the 42-year-old Rogers.

The bullpen is also looking sharp in Detroit, thanks to a young flame-thrower named Joel Zumaya. Everyone pretty much realizes that Zumaya is the best choice for closer that the Tigers have, but Detroit management stubbornly sticks with "proven closer" and much-less-effective pitcher Todd Jones. Jones saved 37 games last year, so everyone anointed his head with oil. Of course, he was playing for the pennant winners, and his 3.94 ERA and 11:28 BB:K ratio in 64 innings were ignored. He's a big candidate for disappointment in 2007, when he'll be 39. And maybe then people will actually realize how disappointing he is.
Zumaya is a great weapon to be able to release in the middle innings, but even then he would be best served as a closer. He notched 97 strike0uts in 83.1 IP with a 1.94 ERA, and his amazing stuff was well-documented in the postseason (as was his wildness; 42 BB allowed).
Behind Zumaya, the Tigers have Ledezma (if he doesn't start) and Fernando Rodney, both of them very capable middle relievers. A lot has been made of the fact that the Tigers are losing LOOGY (Left-handed One-Out GuY) Jamie Walker. And while Walker was a good piece of the puzzle, he'll also be turning 35 next year. Better to let some dumb team pick up the tab on his declining years (Baltimore, of course, to the tune of 3 years and $12 million).
The Tigers have the benefit of a young, cheap, and very productive pitching staff. If they can find adequate offense and continue to get solid defense to back them up, they're contenders for the short- and long-term future.

Offseason Game Plan:
The Tigers have already filled their most pressing offensive need by getting Gary Sheffield. They also got Sean Casey, who doesn't fill a need, but they think he does, so that's that.
In fact, the Tigers have the benefit of having some spare parts that could be traded. The corner outfield situation is getting crowded, with Craig Monroe, Marcus Thames, Brent Clevlen, and a couple others all jockeying for position. Monroe's name has been tossed about in trade talks recently. This would be terrific for Detroit; trade away one of your least valuable and most expensive (arbitration-level) players who can easily be replaced from within. In exchange, you could get some relief help or a quality backup infielder.

The Tigers may not be as potent as the Indians and may even find themselves finishing in fourth place in 2007. But there will be little shame in that, considering the strength of the AL Central. The Tigers do have some shortcomings offensively, but they're at least taking a few halting steps to remedy that. And their team has a brighter long-term future than both Chicago and Minnesota, so there's some consolation there. The good news for all baseball fans is that the AL Central will be closely contested again next year, and the Tigers should be right at the center of things.

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