This was a replacement-level team and we all have seen every side of every angle of every analysis. Instead, like the team will try to do, let’s move on. The Tigers went out and tried to spend what one writer called “stupid money” on at least one top-tier free agent. Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Tejada, and others passed before Ivan Rodriguez came in to take a contract that was exactly what Scott Boras was asking for. Adding Vina, White, and Guillen have made this team look good on one side of the ledger, but according to PECOTA, they’ll give up far too many runs to be respectable.
Some of the players that the Tigers brought in have some risk to them. Bobby Higginson may not have a light, but he does have a history. He’s another of the Pilates and core performance proponents, but his problems have been in his legs. Dmitri Young has had minor problems, including his back and both Achilles tendons, but again, he’ll be protected since he’s one of few true threats in the lineup. Even Carlos Pena has had problems, but the mysterious sluggingfirstbasemanitis of the wrist hasn’t affected him over the past few seasons. And that’s just the green lights…
All of the acquisitions come with some significant risk. Bo Hart was only allowed his 15 minutes because Fernando Vina’s hamstring seized up and nearly ended his 2003 season. Serious hamstring injuries like that seldom don’t become chronic problems, and Vina’s range will be tested. He’ll need spotting occasionally, but the backup options aren’t much. Carlos Guillen has had everything from a simple strained groin to pelvic inflammation and even the bizarre tuberculosis infection. He’s more likely to play 120 games than 150, and again, the backup options aren’t great. Oddly, Alan Trammell has discussed using Brandon Inge up the middle, which simply stupefies me.
In the outfield, Rondell White is a known case, even if the team he plays for is a bit tough for me to pin down. I’ve often said that it’s perfectly all right for teams to sign these types of players as long as they have a Plan B for the inevitable periods where Plan A is resting or on the DL. Behind White (and the rest of the outfielders), the Tigers have a pure lefty-killer in Craig Monroe. Some of Higginson’s problems can be blamed on his back. A lack of flexibility has led to lower back and hamstring problems. This duo of destruction has caused him to miss time and pushed his once respectable offensive numbers down. Don’t expect the trend to be broken. Alex Sanchez is also a known quantity. He’s a speed merchant with a bum wheel and a knack for staying off the basepaths. Leg problems will bring him down eventually, but he did make an amazing recovery from his ugly ankle injury at the end of 2002.
The biggest acquisition–the “stupid money” pickup–was Pudge Rodriguez, who carries his own yellow light. Pudge battered the caution I put on him last season, putting up great numbers and coming away with a ring, something he surely couldn’t have expected when he signed in Florida. A second ring must seem a long way off, but the back injury that concerns everyone is fading away too. Pudge has taken to stretching and core strengthening like few others. During the NLCS, the only thing that stopped him from signing more autographs was his commitment to his core workouts. I stood 10 feet away as he apologized and said to the fans, “I’ve got to go take care of my core.” Patting his stomach, he raced off.
Off topic, but adding to the myth of Pudge, I watched him as he warmed up in the pen before Game Seven. He was loosening up, throwing back and forth with the pitchers. On one pitch, he paused, came set, and unleashed a pitch that Tim Marchman of the New York Sun and I both guessed at 90 or more. On flat ground. Wearing catcher’s gear.
On the pitching staff, they acquired Jason Johnson to take a bit of the load off a staff that was overworked and over its head last season. Johnson had some shoulder problems at the midpoint of the season, but it’s his control that has some observers worried. He has some violent mechanics that should ease with some attention from Bob Cluck. Jeremy Bonderman gets his yellow based on age alone. The Tigers wisely shut him down last year, but I’m hoping they use similar caution with him this season. He could add 40 innings without problem, knocking on the door of 200, but again, Cluck’s great coaching should help.
With Maroth, I’m less worried about his arm than his psyche. He did have an increased workload last season, but putting up 21 losses has to be hard, even for a player as intelligent and grounded as he is. I got some reports that he’s overthrowing this spring and looking to do a little too much on his own. That puts him at some risk, but again, I’m not terribly worried, and this yellow light is dim.
The Tigers remain a bad team, but as the essay in BP04 points out, this isn’t a normal rebuilding effort. In many ways, this might be more of a challenge for Dombrowski and his front office–which is really one of the most intelligent in baseball–than the job he did that helped Florida come away with a ring. How smart can a 120-loss team be? My favorite sleeper this season is Chris Shelton, stolen from the Pirates in the Rule 5 draft and hitting better than .500 this spring. Sometimes, the difference between the smart teams and the not-as-smart is hard to see, but very plain when you do spot it.