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August 4, 2010

Prospectus Hit and Run

Time for Tigers to Look to 2011

by Jay Jaffe

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In many ways, the Tigers' season ended July 24 when Magglio Ordonez broke his ankle while sliding into home plate in the third inning. A few innings later, Carlos Guillen departed with a severe enough calf strain to hit the disabled list as well, where he joined not only Ordonez but Brandon Inge, who had suffered a fractured metacarpal the previous week. The devastation wrought by this injury stack left the Tigers with a lineup half-full of Triple-A fodder, one which was no-hit by Matt Garza two nights later.

The Tigers did look good early-they spent much of the first half in second place, trailing the Twins, then surpassed Minnesota for a bit. Then, through Sunday, they lost 15 of 19 games, saw their playoff odds plummet, and are presently looking up at the Twins and the White Sox; they're seven games back in the AL Central.

Can they get back in this thing? All signs point to no.

For starters, Detroit's schedule is brutal. ESPN ranked the Tigers' second-half schedule as the fourth-toughest among contenders, noting that the team will have played 30 straight games against teams above .500 by August 19. They're just 16-21 against the rest of the division, a mere half-game better than the Royals. With six games left against the Twins (versus whom they're 5-7) and a whopping 14 against the White Sox (versus whom they're 1-3), any shred of hope in climbing back into contention rests on sweeping a few of those series.

Prior to the injuries, the Tigers had assembled a more than passable offense, with a .264 True Average that ranked fifth in the league. Miguel Cabrera (.351/.429/.660) isn't just having an MVP-caliber season, he's chasing the Triple Crown. Ordonez (.303/.378/.474) had built on last year's late-season resurgence. Johnny Damon has been exactly as effective as last year (.292 TAv) once you adjust for ballpark and league, with his 57-point drop in slugging percentage coming out in the wash. Rookies Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch have pleasantly surprised despite cooling off after scorching starts; the former's .427 BABIP remains ripe for regression. Inge and Guillen had enjoyed modest rebounds from subpar 2009 performances, with the latter playing a passable second base after shifting to cover for the disappointing Scott Sizemore. Only the catching tandem of Gerald Laird and Alex Avila and the slapdash shortstop solution of Ramon Santiago and Danny Worth-cobbled together after Adam Everett's mid-June release-had been a sustained drain on the lineup.

The major problem for the Tigers has actually been their rotation, which ranks 12th in the league in support neutral performance. Justin Verlander is the only starter with a Support Neutral Winning Percentage above .500 and an ERA better than the park-adjusted league average, and while recent hot streaks by Max Scherzer and Armando Galarraga put them in the vicinity of those marks, their performances haven't been enough to compensate for the bitterly disappointing Jeremy Bonderman (5.05 ERA) and Rick Porcello (5.91 ERA). As if that's not bad enough, the Tigers are paying over $21 million to two starters no longer with the club-Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson.

Unless the Tigers start dominating their division foes in the next two weeks (a tall task considering their injuries), they should be looking to shed salary. As of now, the BP Playoff Odds Report gives the Tigers just a 2.5 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and that doesn't even account for their players on the DL.

Detroit entered the year with the game's sixth-highest payroll at $122.8 million, and this team needs to start getting younger. Damon and closer Jose Valverde, both of whom signed below-market deals in early 2010, would surely be in demand; third baseman Jhonny Peralta, Laird and others less so. Adding a few extra million dollars saved to the $52 million coming off the books this winter via the expiring pacts of Ordonez, Bonderman, Willis and Robertson certainly couldn't hurt the team's chances to land another frontline pitcher and retool the lineup. Figuring out whether Sizemore and Avila can hit enough to be lineup regulars is another priority; even Boesch, who's 6-for-63 since the All-Star break, rates a concern given the lefty swinger's .251/.319/.423 showing against righties. As harsh as it is to punt with such a large payroll, the bottom line is that barring a miraculous comeback, the Tigers' focus should squarely be on 2011 and beyond, not on climbing back into the AL Central scrum.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

1 comment has been left for this article.

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