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February 20, 2003

Team Health Reports

Team Health Report: Detroit Tigers

by Will Carroll

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 Projected Lineup

 CF George Lombard
 2B Damion Easley
 RF Bobby Higginson
 LF Dmitri Young
 DH Dean Palmer
 1B Carlos Pena
 3B Eric Munson
 C Brandon Inge
 SS Ramon Santiago

Rotation

 Steve Sparks
 Mike Maroth
 Andy Van Hekken
 Nate Cornejo
 Shane Loux

Closer

 Matt Anderson /  Franklyn German

There have been a couple teams in the course of this Team Health Report journey where I went into it knowing only some limited details about the team. I could name the players, the coach, and maybe enough to write a hundred words, but I didn't know the in-depth stuff. I didn't know the outlook, the organizational plan, which guys were on the way up and down. These teams took longer for a couple of reasons. First, I had to do more research, from the bottom up. I had to make phone calls, e-mails, and dig through the injury notes from last year. The second reason they took so long is that the teams I knew nothing about were bad. Worse than bad, they were uninspiring. These included teams like theDevil Rays and Brewers. Though neither team's forecast looks bright, it's at least interesting to try and decipher how everything went so wrong and how each team could try to dig itself out of the abyss.

Then I ran into the Orioles and Tigers. Both these teams look bad and face 90-loss seasons. But beyond that, it's tough to find even one hot-button issue there to discuss. Both teams are filled with mediocrity and failure. At least the Tigers have a prospect in Carlos Pena and a quasi-prospect in Eric Munson, even if they play the same position. Writing about these teams is like typing through molasses. Each word has to be dragged out, wiped off and set on the page just so. Mediocrity drains me. In life, I'd rather see the winners and the spectacular failures.

Here's a note on the Tigers' projected lineup--it's subject to change. Dmitri Young is as likely to play third as LF, Munson could see some time at DH, and Dean Palmer will struggle to stay healthy enough to DH, let alone play the field. Lombard probably isn't a CF and doesn't hit enough for the corners. Shane Halter and Omar Infante will challenge Ramon Santiago at SS. No one in the rotation really seems a lock. It's a roster in flux, much like the team--mix and match mediocrity.

To an athletic trainer, there's something both terrible and wonderful about injuries. In my college days, we would stand on the field and prove that a great mind can hold two conflicting thoughts simultaneously. We would hope that everyone stayed healthy while also hoping to see some gruesome injury that would test our abilities. Palmer had one of those injuries that trainers talk about for years. When he tore his biceps, even on ESPN, one could see the muscle roll up to the attachment like an old set of blinds. Palmer managed to come back, but he's never been the same. For the last two seasons, he's been a shell of himself, battling shoulder injuries that led to surgery, then cervical fusion. The fusion wiped out his 2002, but he should be able to come back from this increasingly routine procedure. (Craig Counsell of the Diamondbacks is pushing the rehab envelope in his recovery.) Palmer is one of those red light players with enough upside that if you're not like the Tigers, and paying far too much for his past, you'll end up with some interesting upside.

Dmitri Young was brought over from the Reds to solidify both the on-field and clubhouse mix. Due to injury, he was able to do neither. Young had a hernia diagnosed early in the season that set off a strange dance with the team medical staff. First, it seemed that Young wanted surgery, but that the team was asking him to play through the injury. Just a few weeks later, the script had flipped, with Young avoiding surgery while the team seemed reluctant to allow him to continue playing.

The injury clearly affected almost everything Young did, including, apparently, his attitude. Young was less than pleased with suggestions he move to third. New manager Alan Trammell seems to have smoothed things over, and Young hasn't publicly complained about his move to left. Young should have no real trouble coming back from the hernia, but I'm giving him a cautionary yellow based on his odd injury history. I'll also give Young a ton of credit for one of the best injury quotes all year. Asked by the press about his hernia, Young replied: "Everything's peachy."

Overpaid, unhappy and injured sums up Bobby Higginson's 2002 campaign. The Tigers can't deal him due to his contract's size and a pesky no-trade clause, but Higginson is vocally unhappy playing for a losing team. He missed a month of playing time and a good bit of power to a hamstring injury, one of a series of such muscular problems he's had since turning 30. He seemed happy with Trammell's hiring and he's young enough to have a few productive seasons left in him. Higginson gets a yellow based on his injury history, but remember he'll have less ground to cover in left this season.

It's one thing when a trade can give you a great prospect or two that shoots to the top of your charts. The Tigers did this in the Weaver trade, picking up Jeremy Bonderman and Franklyn German. Less fortunately, the Tigers picked up failed Brave George Lombard, then tossed him into the starting lineup. As a Brave, he had numerous leg and foot injuries that make me wonder how well he'll be able to play in center--even the shrinking of Comerica National Park may not help much. Lombard's a yellow, and not a guy you want in the starting roster.

Santiago grabbed the SS job that Infante's name on it. Infante will take another shot at the job this year, but Santiago was able to get the slot despite some hand and wrist problems. Santiago missed just over a month after having part of his hamate bone removed. This surgery is much less serious than it sounds and has no long-term negative connotations, but Santiago's inability to stay healthy does. He gets a dim yellow light, but his job will go to Infante if more time is lost to the List.

Is it possible that having a rotation with no major injury worries can be a negative? On most teams, no, but with this staff, it could be. Steve Sparks will lead the staff. It's a good thing to have a knuckleballer on a staff--and it's a wonder there aren't more teams trying to teach it--but you don't want that knuckler as your ace. The Tigers go into the year without a single above-average pitcher, though none face enough injury risk to warrant a yellow light.

An open question on any power pitcher coming back from arm trouble is what happens if he comes back at 95%? Or worse, 80%? For some, there's some margin for loss, some skills that will allow them to continue to compete. These are the types of pitchers that can "win without their best stuff." Sure, it's cliché, but other than Tommy John survivors, few pitchers come all the way back from arm or shoulder problems. The injury Anderson had--a torn teres major--has a very good comparable to give us some idea. Last year, Tom Gordon had an extremely similar injury and was able to come back in about four months with 90% of his velocity. Anderson came back in just a bit more than four months and was clocked at 93 mph at the end of last season. Given a five percent loss (I'm giving him a couple extra mph since he's had more healing and rehab time), can Anderson still be effective? That's an open question. For the Tigers, they'd love him to look good early and dump his contract to open up the slot for Franklyn German.

Tigers' management has been brutally honest about this team. I was almost sorry that Dave Dombrowski backed off from some of his off-the-cuff remarks, because most were dead on. He and his staff have a great track record, but given the size of the hole he inherited, any winning plan will have to be long term. At least for the most part, health won't be another obstacle.

Will Carroll is an author of Baseball Prospectus. You can contact him by clicking here.

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