October 8, 2009
Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 79-83, third place
This one will be hard to get past.
Keith Law of ESPN.com's Take
What went wrong: Detroit's lineup looked like a contender's this spring (and last spring as well), but it turned out to be far less productive than management anticipated. The Tigers finished 10th in the AL in runs scored, and were worse after the break, scoring fewer second-half runs than Kansas City and Baltimore. They received virtually no production from four spots on the field, disappointing output from their DHs, and Curtis Granderson's inability to hit left-handed pitching was as bad as Gigli. The rotation was their strength for the season's first half, but Edwin Jackson's lack of command caught up with him, as he posted a 5.07 ERA after the break, also allowing 17 homers in just 92 innings. Trade deadline acquisition Jarrod Washburn imploded on arrival, throwing up a 7.33 ERA in eight starts. And yet, despite all of this, the Tigers had multiple chances to sneak into the playoffs, but Jim Leyland mismanaged his pitching staff through the one-game tiebreaker to the Twins, pulling Rick Porcello too soon and leaving Fernando Rodney in too long.
Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: Not to excuse Leyland's bumbling steerage on Tuesday night, but the Tigers' bullpen was shaky all year and two of their primary guys are headed for free agency in Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney. Rodney has the closer's mantle but not closer-quality command-and he has proven that he can't work four-inning stints, which is apparently something Leyland demands of his closers once in a blue moon. Ryan Perry has closer-level stuff and should eventually take on that role, but his control isn't there yet, and sliding him into the ninth inning just leaves a void in the seventh and eighth if Lyon and Rodney leave. They do have some power arms in their system, including Cody Satterwhite and Scott Green, but they'll need to add at least two arms to have a playoff-caliber bullpen in 2010.
The Baseball Prospectus Take
The Tigers took a page for the Rays' playbook by aiming at defensive improvements, adding shortstop Adam Everett and catcher Gerald Laird, and improving the team's D from the bottom 10 in Defensive Efficiency in 2008 to the top 10 in 2009. They also made like the Rays by going straight to the originals, shoring up their rotation by trading for a frustrating power right-hander. Just as Matt Garza proved to be an understated blessing for the Rays in '08, Edwin Jackson provided a breakout campaign, finishing with a .567 SNWP that was good for 25th in the majors, a mark that Dave Dombrowski and Jim Leyland would have broken out the Brut for if they knew before the season that's what they were going to get. They also reached down to A-ball to propel Rick Porcello into the rotation, and on the strength of their improved defense and their fearsome threesome in the rotation, the Motor City Kitties got out to a seven-game lead with 26 games left to go, seemingly with the White Sox dispensed with and the division theirs to lose. The Tigers had their share of bad luck down their final stretch, especially with the failure of the moves made in-season to prop up a decent club; trading for Jarrod Washburn didn't help once Washburn came over and promptly started breaking down, and lineup reinforcement Aubrey Huff'd in and promptly evaporated. The Tigers went 11-15 from that high-water mark, still enough to coast to a win in the AL Central-except that the Twins went on an incredible, improbable 11-1 kick right after shutting down Justin Morneau for the year.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
Key stat: .252
That's the team-wide Equivalent Average, tied for just the 11th-best offense in the American League. Since they finished 11th in runs scored per game, they can't blame their park. Rookie Alex Avila behind the plate came up too late to fix at least one the club's three major lineup sinkholes, as the Tigers next to nothing after the break from Everett (.207/.248/.287) and Laird (.205/.282/.265)-and Brandon Inge, who flailed at a .186/.260/.281 clip. The Twins have been criticized for having nothing in a third of their lineup, but the Tigers were no better, and when Washburn imploded and Edwin Jackson struggled, they had neither the Twins' rotation depth, or a star player as good as Joe Mauer.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
ESPN.com Rumor Central
Free agency: Buster Olney recently polled six GMs regarding what the Tigers might do regarding Type-A free agent Placido Polanco. The Tigers' second baseman is valuable, but at his level of production, it may be more of a fondness for the man than a valuation of his production that would keep him around. If they want to keep him, the Tigers figure to shell out between $6-7 million, a big chunk of change for a guy that won't sniff 10 home runs and figures to simply battle away at around .280 hitting second. The GMs were split, but we think there's a good chance Polanco walks.
Moves: When you have $18 million pegged to Magglio Ordonez and $12 million aimed at Dontrelle Willis, your flexibility is a bit stilted. The Tigers could lose both Rodney and Lyon from their bullpen, leaving a gaping hole in the eighth and ninth innings. That said, this is a franchise that rode the eminently-hittable Todd Jones to a World Series. They know closers gain value because the idea of a great one is overrated to begin with. With Bonderman back in the rotation, along with ace Justin Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello, look for the Tigers to mine their own system, or go out and grab some bullpen help on the cheap and have an arms race for closer in the spring.
Who 2 Watch 4: Scott Sizemore, 2B
An expiring contract could mean the end of the Polanco era in Detroit, as Sizemore is ready to step in and seize the second-base job. A fifth-round pick in 2006, Sizemore is one of those professional hitter types who might not be a future star, but after putting up a .308/.389/.500 year between Double- and Triple-A, scouts project him to be a well-rounded offensive second baseman who should be able to hit .280+ with 12-15 home runs, 60 walks and 15-20 stolen bases annually.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus
The Bottom Line
The Tigers have a lot of big-money contracts to live down, with no certainty about what they'll get for the money-Ordonez's option for 2010 vested, but there are also Carlos Guillen ($26 million for two years for a non-premium left fielder), Jeremy Bonderman ($12.5 million), Dontrelle Willis ($12 million), and Nate Robertson ($10 million), all of whom have had issues with staying on the roster. Those commitments handicap their ability to break out the big-game gun to reinforce a rotation that needs a quality fourth starter, or to improve a bullpen that was mediocre at best. Perhaps most depressingly, they lack flexibility to improve a generally-lean lineup. While in-house fixes like Sizemore and Avila will help, they need a major upgrade at DH or left if they're going to offensively afford themselves a luxury like a punchless plus defender at shortstop, let alone Inge's modest contributions.-Christina Kahrl, Baseball Prospectus
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .