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October 18, 2011

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Detroit Tigers

by Jay Jaffe, Kevin Goldstein and ESPN Insider

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Kiss 'Em Goodbye is a series focusing on MLB teams as their postseason dreams fadewhether in September (or before), the league division series, league championship series or World Series. It combines a broad overview from Baseball Prospectus, a front-office take from former MLB GM Jim Bowden, a best- and worst-case scenario ZiPS projection for 2012 from Dan Szymborski, and Kevin Goldstein's farm-system overview.

Today we bid farewell to the Detroit Tigers.

Signs of hope: The Tigers won 95 games and the American League Central flag, making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and reaching the ALCS before falling to the Texas Rangers. Justin Verlander had a career year, winning the "pitchers' Triple Crown" by leading the league in ERA (2.40), strikeouts (250), and wins (24), not to mention WARP (7.0). Miguel Cabrera moved past a tumultuous offseason to hit .344/.448/.586, winning a batting title and leading the league in OBP while ranking second to Jose Bautista in true average (.359).

Alex Avila emerged as an All-Star catcher, hitting .295/.389/.506 with 19 homers, throwing out 32 percent of would-be base thieves and ranking among the league's top pitch-framers. Avila actually had a better WARP than Cabrera (6.4 to 6.2).

Jhonny Peralta (.299/.345/.478) made good after being re-signed as a free agent, and Victor Martinez hit a sizzling .330/.380/.470 in the first year of his four-year, $50 million deal. Closer Jose Valverde converted all 49 of his save opportunities while posting a 2.24 ERA, with free agent Joaquin Benoit and rookie Al Alburquerque teaming with him to form a formidable late-inning unit.

Doug Fister was an outstanding deadline pickup, posting a 1.79 ERA and 57/5 K/BB ratio in 70⅓ innings, while Delmon Young and Wilson Betemit made for solid late-season acquisitions, as well.

Signs of disaster: The rotation behind Verlander and Fister wasn't great, with Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, and Brad Penny all posting ERAs of 4.43 or higher in 30 or more starts. Scherzer and Penny struggled to keep the ball in the park while Porcello (and Penny) didn't miss enough bats. Magglio Ordonez's performance collapsed (.255/.303/.331, minus-1.5 WARP) while he was making $10 million. Carlos Guillen gave the Tigers just 102 plate appearances for his $13 million salary. Ryan Raburn regressed to .256/.297/.432 after a strong .285/.348/.498 during the previous two seasons, and Austin Jackson hit just .249/.317/.374 as his BABIP fell from .396 as a rookie to .340. The team's third basemen combined to hit .222/.286/.331, with Brandon Inge (.197/.265/.283) so bad that he was at one point sent to Triple-A.

Signs you can ignore: After hitting just .266/.305/.357 with four homers in 305 PA with the Minnesota Twins, Young arrived in mid-August and batted .274/.298/.458 with eight homers in 168 PA for Detroit, adding five more homers in 36 postseason PA despite straining an oblique. The former top prospect is still just 26 years old, but his career numbers to date—.288/.321/.428, a .261 TAv and 2.5 WARP—suggest he's merely a placeholder rather than an asset. Jay Jaffe, Baseball Prospectus

Bowden's Bold Move
The Tigers should be able to bring most of their team back in 2011 with the only glaring holes at second and third. This is a very weak free-agent class with Aramis Ramirez being the only free-agent option that would clearly improve one of the two positions, but his cost probably won't make sense given the Tigers' roster, financial commitments, and arbitration-eligible players the next few years.

Detroit would like to trade for David Wright or Ryan Zimmerman, although the Tigers probably don't have enough to package around top pitching prospect Jacob Turner to make a deal work for either one of them. The dream would be to sign Jose Reyes and move Jhonny Peralta back to third. If that's not an option, I would think about trading for Pedro Alvarez of the Pittsburgh Pirates, whose stock is low because of the dismal year he had. Alvarez will break out in either 2012 or 2013 and develop into an adequate defensive player who is capable of winning a Silver Slugger award at the hot corner. Other possible trade targets the Tigers could look at: Chase Headley, Howie Kendrick, Gordon Beckham, Jose Altuve, and Steve Lombardozzi.

Even if the Tigers don't pull off an impact deal this winter, they will still be the favorites to win the AL Central again next season. But to go beyond the ALCS, they need to find an everyday second baseman or third baseman who is preferably a left-handed hitter to help balance a right-handed dominant lineup. Jim Bowden


Hopes and Fears

Best-case scenario ZiPS projection: 96-66

Below .500 as late as May 29, the Tigers had an amazing run during the last two-thirds of the season, going 70-41 and ending up with 95 wins in a year that was starting to look like a disappointment. To make a serious run at 100 wins again and safely lap the rest of the division in 2012, the Tigers have to avoid the gaping lineup holes that plagued them in the first half. The team got star offensive seasons from five starters and still finished only fourth in the league in scoring, with way too many plate appearances scooped up by Inge and a very done-looking Ordonez. To hit the high end of the win expectations, the team will need to be more aggressive at patching holes, even when the players are longtime Tigers.

Worst-case scenario: 82-80
Having Verlander is always a good thing, but he's not going to put up a Cy Young/MVP type season every year, and it took a lot of great seasons from Detroit's front-end talent to counter the lineup holes and the poor back end of the rotation. The team can't simply count on getting that many great seasons out of the stars every year, and if the rotation isn't put on more solid ground, it may not be bailed out as effectively as it was this season. The current plan is to use Turner as the No. 5 starter, but he wasn't really dominating in Double-A, and given the fragility of young starters, the Tigers need to have a better Plan A. If Turner dominates in Triple-A for a couple of months next season, having too much pitching is an easier problem to fix than too little. Without additional depth in the rotation, an untimely injury plus a subpar season from a star or two would knock the Tigers down to the rest of the Central pack. Dan Szymborski, Baseball Think Factory

Organizational Future
The Tigers have one of the best offensive weapons in baseball with Cabrera and arguably the game's best pitcher in Verlander, but a weak supporting cast finally caught up to them in the ALCS. The bad news is that this is not a system rife with reinforcements for the future. The Tigers have one of the weakest systems in baseball in terms of position players with few, if any, hitters at the upper levels capable of contributing to a playoff-level team. There is more pitching on the way, namely in Turner, but they'll need to find offense from sources other than their own system. Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

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

23 comments have been left for this article.

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