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December 16, 2010

Transaction Analysis

Tiger Beat

by Christina Kahrl

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DETROIT TIGERS
Team Audit | Player Cards | Depth Chart

Re-signed 3B-R Brandon Inge to a two-year, $11 million contract, with a $6 million club option for 2013 ($500,000 buyout). [10/21]
Re-signed INF-R Jhonny Peralta to a two-year, $10.75 million contract, with a $6 million club option for 2013 ($500,000 buyout). [11/8]
Signed RHP Joaquin Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million contract. [11/17]
Signed C/1B-S Victor Martinez to a four-year, $50 million contract. [11/24]
Designated RHP Zach Miner for assignment (and let him depart as a free agent). [11/29]
Released RHP Alfredo Figaro. [12/14]

By way of introduction to taking a look at Dave Dombrowski's Hot Stove scorecard so far and where it puts the Tigers in the always-interesting AL Central race, first let me provide a reminder that I've already written about the decisions to retain both Inge and Peralta here. We'll revisit this.

First, let's deal with signing Benoit. It may seem like a lot of money for a guy who missed all of 2009 recovering from surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, but Benoit provided ample reminder that his 2007 breakthrough before his injury-affected 2008 was no fluke. The other important consideration is that while the Tigers have plenty of power in the pen, they nevertheless finished just 17th in team ARP last year, and 21st in WXRL.

The outcome might be a bit of a surprise if you're a gun junkie. The names involved as far as who's already on hand are familiar enough. Jose Valverde remains an effective closer, averaging 95 on his fastball, but he was hardly a dominant relief asset within his role, finishing 31st in the majors in WXRL last year. Ryan Perry throws as hard or harder, but guys could sit dead-red on him and drop the hammer and get a base hit. And Joel Zumaya, while healthy, threw even harder still, leading the AL in triple-digit pitches per BIS before breaking down. Zumaya is supposedly going to be healthy and ready to go next spring, but it makes for a strange conjunction of results not measuring up to the regard for their stuff. Daniel Schlereth should be sticking around to give them a power lefty in what might have already rated as the hardest-throwing bullpen in baseball.

As another guy whose fastball sits in the mid-90s, where does Benoit come into a group of "can you top this?" flame-throwers? As the one with two key differences in terms of his performance record. First, when he's been healthy he does more than pour gas, mixing in effective off-speed stuff because of a slider and changeup that he can use equally effectively. Second, he was one of the game's true firemen last year, ranking in the top 10 in inherited runs prevented, which led to a top-20 finish in WXRL, not all that different from his finishing 22nd in 2007.

In short, he's a guy you want if he's sound, and he appears to be going forward. If Perry and Zumaya and Schlereth all come through, Dombrowski might think twice about necessarily picking up the clubs's $9 million option on Valverde for 2012. But if those three all come through, it'll be earlier in ballgames, because Benoit and Valverde will get most of the high-leverage situations in the eighth and ninth. The real payoffs are logistical and operational. Logistically, Leyland won't have to worry about pushing any one member of a crew this deep into many extended outings on consecutive days, and that much depth makes it easier to accept that losing any one of them to injury in-season is perhaps inevitable, without it derailing their bid at contending. And as far as in-game management, this much bullpen depth makes life with the young rotation easier, since Leyland can afford to go with a much quicker hook with the young non-Verlanders in the front five.

That much relief help means you ought to be able to protect narrow leads for longer stretches, which is a good thing, considering the Tigers' lineup selections so far suggest narrow leads might be the kind they consistently generate. To recap my take on the Inge and Peralta pickups, the short form:

Peralta is an infamous performance flake, achieving Oprah-like variations in a few too many dimensions for anyone investing in him to be entirely confident about the contents of the package just purchased. ... Getting angry over Inge is an equally reasonable response, but signing him as quickly as the Tigers did represents a confession that conjuring up an alternative for 2011 would be hard, while this was easy. Inge's merits remain much as they've always been: he's a quality fielder and he can bop a bit against lefties. Although that's a pretty penny to pay for that sort of adequacy, Inge didn't wind up that far below average in 2010, posting a .261 TAv to a third-base position average of .268. The problem is that the Tigers aren't going to get 2010, they're going to get the age-34 and -35 seasons of a guy for whom 2010 represents a highlight, because it was his best year since 2005.

In between then and now, Colin Wyers delivered his initial work on nFRAA, which confirms that even afield, Peralta has been inconsistent across the last three years, at short and elsewhere, but it also suggests he's been playable enough at short to make using him seem like a more reasonable proposition than it looked when we might have just relied upon Total Zone or Plus/Minus. By way of explanation as we look at the nFRAA interpretation of his work at short the last three years, PAA stands for Plays Above Average, MOE_P is the Margin of Error for PAA, RAA is Runs Above Average, and MOE_R is the Margin of Error for RAA:

Year
Chances
PAA
MOE_P
RAA
MOE_R
2008 3873 -3.8 18.2 -3.1 15.0
2009 1010 5.6 9.3 4.6 7.6
2010 1141 3.7 9.6 2.9 7.7

Of course, what that info suggests is that Peralta was lousy in a full season, but did all right in smaller chunks of time since. That isn't the same thing as saying he's a lock to be good over a full campaign. But let's say for the sake of argument that Peralta is a playable mediocrity afield and at the plate as their shortstop, while Inge is an unquestioned defensive asset at third. That might make for a pretty tight infield defensively, the kind that might keep close games close. But neither is going to be a major offensive asset, and the Tigers aren't loading up on boppers in traditional high-offense slots of the outfield corners. Pending any subsequent additions, if the Tigers stick with their current outfield corners mashup of Brennan Boesch and Ryan Raburn atop a pile that includes Casper Wells, Clete Thomas, and Ryan Strieby, you can hope for some productive platooning, but if Boesch's second-half slump was career-defining, I don't think we should pre-book those Gary Roenicke/John Lowenstein touts just yet.

Dombrowski's solutions to what might be an offense too weak to make good on that pen and defense and the two units' potential to turn mid-game leads in a Miguel Cabrera-led offense into wins involves something old and something new: Carlos Guillen, again, and Victor Martinez. Will it be enough? I'm a bit doubtful, on both counts.

Their latest plan for Guillen remains the same as last year's, in that once he's back from his latest injury (to his knee), he's their starting second baseman. Different metrics say very different things about Guillen's performance, with Total Zone and Plus/Minus leaning heavily negative, but nFRAA winding up mildly positive. If he can manage to play out the last year of his deal manning the keystone while hitting as well as he did last year, though, he'll be a roughly average offensive contributor at second, with a TAv in the .260s, not exactly good news when that's about what they may have to settle for from Inge and Peralta, not to mention the full outfield gaggle. And if he breaks down? The best-case scenario is that whatever combination of Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, and Danny Worth yields up someone capable of mediocrity.

Which puts Martinez on the spot, as their primary DH, but also doubling as their backup catcher and the guy who spots for Cabrera during the perennial MVP candidate's days off. That doesn't sound too shabby on the face of it. Behind the plate, Alex Avila will essentially get to play Spanky Lavalliere to V-Mart's new and improved Sluggo in a job split sure to improve their offensive production behind the plate, while making Leyland feel 20 years younger if he's so inclined. (Martinez's career rate against lefties is at .301/.379/.482, while Don Slaught finished at .301/.358/.446.) So the Tigers will accrue some significant offensive value over their previous reliance upon Gerald Laird.

But is Martinez enough of a major offensive cog to be Cabrera's second banana? So much of the perception of his value was tied to his being a regular catcher. Last year, he managed to produce a .292 TAv, consistent with his .289 career clip. That's awesome for a catcher, but if you use first-base production as a proxy for what you want from your DHs, Martinez doesn't look very special: last year, major-league first basemen managed a .288 True Average, so on a spectrum that runs from Albert Pujols to Casey Kotchman, Martinez is nothing more than adequate. It's cool that having him around might buy back the roster spot normally wasted on Laird or the like, but that's assuming Leyland doesn't carry a third guy who can catch. (And not Inge, so let's not start that.) Was the price right for that sort of utility? That might seem doubtful, but it's handy, and Dombrowski did also acquire the relative certainty that comes with employing Martinez instead of having to lurch from a Jim Thome season here and a Johnny Damon campaign there, and risking a genuinely bad year from an old man somewhere along the line.

So what does all of that add up to? In the broad strokes the lineup looks like it might get position-average production at the eight non-Cabrera slots. If short and catcher and left field were decidedly sub-standard last year, this year might see improvement at all three, even though I worry a bit about whether second becomes a problem or whether their current crew of corners in the outfield will fly. Last season's offense finished in a tie for fifth in the league in True Average, and set up this way, I could see how they could remain around mid-pack in the AL in 2011. Attach that to an incredibly deep pen and a young rotation with some upside potential. While I'm still not wild about Inge and Peralta, Benoit and Martinez look like depth-minded pickups who will shore up a fairly competitive team... as long as the AL Central's standards stay in the 85-win range. They should be able to renew a 2009-like bid for the division title if the White Sox don't ape the 2010 Twins and run away rom the pack, especially while the Twins seem happy to do nothing to retain their top-dog status.

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

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