Tigers in ’04.

Tigers in ’04?

Tigers in ’04!

Yesterday’s signing of Ivan Rodriguez means that you have to at least consider the Tigers’ chances of making noise in the American League Central this year. Although they’re coming off a 43-win season in which they chased some of the game’s most ignominious numbers, they’ve upgraded four positions over the winter and added a credible mid-rotation starter.

It’s easy to look at a team like the Tigers and evaluate them just in terms of how much better they’ve become. For example:

                    2004 PECOTA                       2003 performance
                AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP                 AVG  OBP  SLG  VORP
Ivan Rodriguez .285 .347 .465  35.4  Brandon Inge  .203 .265 .339  -9.9
Fernando Vina  .265 .318 .363  12.4  Warren Morris .272 .316 .373   8.4
Carlos Guillen .258 .336 .380  21.4  Ram. Santiago .225 .292 .284 -10.9
Rondell White  .264 .321 .429  10.4  Craig Monroe  .240 .287 .449   2.0

                  IP    ERA    VORP                  IP    ERA     VORP
Jason Johnson  158.0   4.83    11.8  Gary Knotts   95.3   6.04    -11.3

Those comparisons aren’t perfect; Gary Knotts didn’t pitch as much as Jason Johnson is projected to, for one, and none of the Tigers’ new players is projected to qualify for the batting or ERA titles. If Fernando Vina, Carlos Guillen and Rondell White persist in missing parts of the season, as they usually do, the playing time they don’t use will be handed to the sub-replacement-level players they’ve been brought in to replace.

Still, by this standard the Tigers could be as much as 11 wins better just based on these upgrades. Keeping in mind that they were a "true" 49-win team in 2003 (falling six games short of their projected, or Pythagorean record, based on runs scored and allowed), you can project 15-20 games of improvement even before considering the possibility that the returning players will get better.

That’s certainly a worthy achievement, but it’s more important to evaluate the Tigers in terms of what they are now, comparing them not to their wretched performance of a year ago, but to their competition. Are the Tigers really comparable to the Twins, White Sox, and Royals, or even the Indians?

The Tigers might have the best position player in the division at as many as four spots, and their lineup and top bench guys compare reasonably well to what the rest of the division is running out there:

        Tigers       Royals       Twins       Indians       White Sox
C    Rodriguez     Santiago      LeCroy      Martinez           Olivo
1B        Pena      Sweeney   M'kiewicz     Broussard         Konerko
2B        Vina     Relaford       Rivas      Belliard          Harris
3B      Munson        Randa      Koskie         Blake           Crede
SS     Guillen       Berroa      Guzman       Vizquel        Valentin
LF       White       Stairs     Stewart        Lawton             Lee
CF     Sanchez      Beltran      Hunter       Bradley          Rowand
RF   Higginson     Gonzalez       Jones         Gerut         Ordonez
DH       Young       Harvey     Cuddyer        Hafner          Thomas
Bench1  Monroe   Graffanino        Ford       Ludwick           Uribe
Bench2 Shelton    Pickering     Morneau         Crisp          Benard

VORP*    176.6        145.8       200.0         146.6           186.2


Four? Give them Rodriguez, and reasonable arguments at second base and shortstop in a division that doesn’t have even one good double-play tandem. Dmitri Young out-hit Frank Thomas last year, so it’s not unreasonable to think he can do it again.

That’s only half the game, of course.

        Tigers       Royals       Twins       Indians       White Sox

SP1     Maroth          May       Radke      Sabathia         Buehrle
SP2    Cornejo     Anderson     Santana         Davis          Loaiza
SP3    Johnson       Appier       Lohse           Lee         Garland
SP4  Bonderman      Affeldt     Balfour      Stanford     Schoeneweis
SP5  Robertson       Gobble        Mays     Westbrook           Rauch

RP1     Rodney     Sullivan      Nathan         Riske           Marte
RP2     Levine     Leskanic      Romero    Betancourt            Koch
RP3     German    MacDougal      Rincon       Stewart          Wunsch

VORP*     56.7       120.6        138.6          96.9           138.0


Total    233.3       266.4        338.6         246.5           324.2

Whoops. Even with the addition of Jason Johnson and some projected improvement by Jeremy Bonderman, the Tigers look to have the worst pitching in the division, and it’s not terribly close. It’s enough of a deficit to make them look, once again, like the division’s patsies.

They’re not going to make up that ground with glovework. The Tigers have a pretty good defensive infield, especially if Guillen and Vina can play 140 games each. The outfield, however, is hampered by having Alex Sanchez, a fast man who doesn’t track balls well or have a good arm, in center field. Their defense should be in the middle of the pack in this group, not nearly enough of an edge over the White Sox to make them a factor in the race, although it’s good enough to perhaps close the gap between them and the division’s second tier.

So the question is, if the Tigers can’t reasonably be expected to make a run in ’04, what was the point? Why commit so much money to the pursuit of 70 wins?

Sometimes, what makes the most sense for the long-term aspirations of the baseball team has to take a back seat to the need to run the business. The Tigers have put four lousy baseball teams into Comerica Park, watching attendance dwindle each season as the honeymoon ended and Detroit’s baseball fans abandoned a noncompetitive, boring team.

By spending some money, and acquiring major league-caliber players, the Tigers have made a good-faith effort to bring people back to the park. Of their new acquisitions, only Rodriguez required more than a two-year commitment (and even his deal has buyouts strewn through it), and none of the new players are blocking top prospects. The shame of the Randy Smith era isn’t the Tigers’ lack of competitiveness throughout the post-strike era; it’s the fact that in 2004, the Tigers can sign Vina and White and Johnson and Rodriguez and have them not be blocking anyone of note.

If those players can just meet expectations, the Tigers will be much easier on the eyes. Maybe this team still isn’t as good as the Twins, White Sox and Royals, but it’s good enough to provide the blessed "hope and faith" to its fans. I can see the Tigers hanging around .500 for a while, maybe getting to the All-Star break within a half-dozen games of first place. That would make them a heck of a story, and perhaps energize the fan base for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, when center fielder Curtis Granderson, right-hander Joel Zumaya, and 2003 #1 Kyle Sleeth could be ready for the majors.

Tigers in ’04? Probably not, but give Mike Ilitch and Dave Dombrowski credit for at least forcing people to consider the notion, just four months after their team set the American League record for losses.