April 24, 2008
The Missing Contender
Detroit's Slow Start
No team has been a bigger disappointment in the early going of the 2008 season than the Detroit Tigers. Owner Tom Illitch opened the checkbook over the winter and general manager Dave Dombrowski seemingly built a juggernaut as he traded with Florida for its two best players--third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis--while also dealing with Atlanta for shortstop Edgar Renteria and the Chicago Cubs for outfielder Jacque Jones.
With a payroll of $138 million (second in the major leagues behind the New York Yankees), the Tigers were not only supposed to overtake defending division champion Cleveland in the American League Central, but make a serious run at their second AL pennant in three years. Yet, the Tigers lost seven straight games to begin the season and now find themselves at 9-13.
"People make a deal about our payroll and I understand that but I've also never seen a team win a game because of a payroll," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "Regardless of your payroll, you've still got to do certain things to win ballgames and we're not doing that. We really haven't clicked on all cylinders all year. I know we're capable of playing better than we have but it just hasn't happened for us so far."
Because of what they added to a lineup that already included Ivan Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, and Gary Sheffield, many observers predicted the Tigers to become only the eighth team in major league history to score 1,000 runs in a season this year after the off-season shopping spree. PECOTA didn't agree with the 1,000-run talk, though, projecting the Tigers to score 849 runs, and currently they're just 10th in the AL in runs scored with an average of 4.4 a game. The Tigers have also had to make some additional adaptations to their defensive alignment: Guillen and Cabrera will swap infield corner positions starting Thursday night, as the Tigers feel Cabrera is better served at first base and Guillen at third in the long run.
Guillen is off to a good start with a .342 EqA and Cabrera has lifted his mark to a respectable .284 mark, while Ordonez is at a mediocre .275. New shortstop Edgar Renteria has a .274 EqA. Those are the highlights, as the rest of the offense's EqAs are lower, including Rodriguez (.262), Sheffield (.262), Polanco (.174), and Jones (.126). "We just haven't swung the bats the way I know we can," Leyland said. "It seems like guys are pressing. There were a lot of great expectations on this offense, and it seems like everyone in the lineup is trying to take it all on his shoulders. I know we're going to score runs. If we don't, I'll be the most surprised man in the state of Michigan. At some point, we're going to break out and break out big. Not just for a game like we have been, but for a prolonged period." The Tigers haven't reached that point yet but maybe Wednesday night was a start in the right direction, as they pummeled the Texas Rangers 19-6.
Part of the reason for the Tigers' slow start is they have been without Granderson up until last night, as their young center fielder had previously been shelved with a finger broken on a hit by a pitch in spring training. With Granderson out, rookie Clete Thomas and former third baseman Brandon Inge split time in center field, but nothing they could do matched Granderson's value to the lineup last season. Granderson had a .315 EqA and 67.3 VORP last season, and he also became only the second player in major league history--and the first since Wildfire Schulte in 1911--to have 30 doubles, 20 triples, 20 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in a season. Granderson was a big reason the Tigers were second in the AL in runs scored with a 5.5 average in 2007.
"I don't usually talk about guys on the disabled list because it's pointless. They're not here to help, so what's there to talk about?" Leyland said. "But I think we obviously have missed Granderson. Take Cleveland for example. If you take their leadoff hitter, Grady Sizemore, out of that lineup then the Indians are a different team. It's the same with us. We're a different team without Curtis. That's not an excuse, just a fact."
Meanwhile, as Leyland mentioned, the Tigers hitters have seemed to be pressing all year. One player who admits to doing that is Cabrera, who signed an eight-year, $152.3 million contract in spring training after coming from the Marlins in an eight-player trade. Cabrera confessed that, "I've been swinging at pitches I don't normally swing at. I've been trying too hard to show that I belong here and that the Tigers made the right decision by trading for me and giving me the contract. I know I need to relax but the team is struggling and I'm trying to do everything I can to help us start winning consistently. I know we have a good team and I know we're going to score a lot of runs. We just need to all relax and just swing the bats like we know how."
Whether the Tigers will be able to prevent runs is another story. They were ninth in the AL in runs allowed per nine with 4.92 last season, and are last so far this year with 5.71. Rookie Armando Galarraga is one of only two Tiger starters with a positive SNLVAR (0.7) while Willis has a 0.1 but has been sidelined since his second start with a hyperextended knee.
An equally significant concern for Detroit is the bullpen. Closer Todd Jones is an iffy proposition in the best of times, top set-up man Joel Zumaya is likely out until the All-Star break as he recovers from off-season shoulder surgery, and Fernando Rodney, another key set-up man, has yet to throw a pitch this year because of a sore shoulder. In fact, Detroit's pitching VORP leader is journeyman reliever Aquilino Lopez at 7.9.
However, the skipper puts a better face on the situation. "Everyone talks about the bullpen being a soft spot but I don't think it's fair to say that yet," Leyland said. "It's not like they have been blowing leads. Heck, we haven't had leads to blow. We need to start scoring runs first and building some leads, then we'll worry about the bullpen or anything else."