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Twelve straight losing seasons has a way of breeding pessimism towards a team, and the Tigers have become one of baseball’s privileged few to be perennially overlooked. From that 1993 club, the last Tiger hanger-on was Travis Fryman, who was traded eight years ago. Ever since 1993, Detroit has played at a .408 clip, the equivalent of a 66-96 record. Dismissing the Tigers is a Grapefruit League tradition almost as routine as split squad games and sporting green caps on St. Patrick’s Day.

But is the ridicule justified this year? The AL Central isn’t the rest home it used to be, but can the Tigers claw themselves out of their presumed fourth place standing? Might they even vault into–gasp–contention? Here are three reasons it could happen:

  • Three incumbent starting pitchers–Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth, and Nate Robertson–are major breakout candidates. In fact, of the 59 hurlers that PECOTA has pegged to pitch 180 or more innings, these three respectively rank first, ninth, and tenth in breakout rate.
                Breakout Improve Collapse Attrition
    Bonderman      38%     76%      2%        1%
    Maroth         26%     64%     10%        0%
    Robertson      26%     63%      6%        2%

    (For further explanation of what these terms mean, visit the PECOTA section of the Statistics Glossary.)

    It’s not that PECOTA projects Herculean seasons from this trio; it simply likes their chances of putting it all together and barreling past their previously established levels of performance. If one of these three does so–the most likely scenario, since each pitcher’s breakout rate hovers around 33 percent–it will help the Tigers. If Detroit is fortunate enough for two or more breakouts, the jolt would be worth several wins.

    The rotation has significant upside beyond these three. The decision to commit two years and $16 million to a 41-year-old is questionable, but Kenny Rogers is merely being counted on to replace the steadily average Jason Johnson. Rogers is the antithesis of the three incumbents, with zero chance of a breakout and a 55 percent collapse rate. But Rogers and Johnson have pitched the same number of innings over the past two years–a span in which Rogers posted a 4.14 ERA against Johnson’s 4.71, despite their polar opposite home parks. The upgrade from Texas’ defense to Detroit’s will also help Rogers.

    Justin Verlander, one of the most promising young pitchers in baseball, enters Lakeland as the favorite for the fifth spot. Judging by ERA, PECOTA likes him better than any Tiger starter after Bonderman. The revolving door of fifth starters last year was terrible, so a healthy Verlander could be a massive difference maker.

    Notably, the Tigers gutted their coaching staff this winter. Altogether, Jim Leyland and the men appointed have no less than 63 years of playing, coaching, and managerial experience…in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization alone. (In case you’re wondering, his circle includes Gene Lamont, Rafael Belliard, Andy Van Slyke, Don Slaught, and Lloyd McClendon.) The one new staffer who isn’t a former Pirate, pitching coach Chuck Hernandez, might be the most integral to Detroit’s success. Without the rotation clicking on all cylinders, the Tigers don’t have a serious shot in the Central. Hopefully, Leyland will handle his young pitchers wisely.

  • Several of Detroit’s best hitters didn’t play full seasons in 2005. The Tigers lineup should be quietly productive, a very balanced group unlikely to feature a 30-home-run hitter.

    Curtis Granderson will relegate Nook Logan mostly to the bench, an enormous trade-off. According to PECOTA, Granderson rates as baseball’s top defender in center field, but the difference at the plate is much more significant. Chris Shelton also began 2005 in Toledo, but during his four months with the Tigers he zoomed to the top of the team VORP leaderboard. Acknowledging some likely regression to the mean, a full season of Shelton should help.

    Likewise, Placido Polanco raked after his June 8th acquisition. It would have meant a lot more to the Tigers had he been replacing Omar Infante, but Carlos Guillen‘s ACL flare-ups prompted the trade and shifted Infante to shortstop. Needless to say, 150 games each from Polanco and Guillen would be optimal, but Guillen remains a major health risk.

    Magglio Ordonez was still a good hitter when healthy. Not $15-million-per-year good–he lacked his standard power–but .302/.359/.436 isn’t shabby. Reportedly, his knee was not an issue last year, so he could provide another big boost over the course of 2006.

    Stay tuned–the Team Health Reports will kick off later this month. Good health is always critical to success, but the Tigers take this law to another level.

  • After years of nominal contributions from the farm system, real help has finally arrived. Verlander. Granderson. Shelton. Joel Zumaya has a career minor league K/9 ratio of 10.56 and should debut this year at age 21. PECOTA projects 22-year-old Kevin Whelan (drafted last June) as Detroit’s top reliever, and he could conceivably supplant Todd Jones by season’s end. And lest we forget, Bonderman just turned 23 this winter.

Who knows, maybe Ivan Rodriguez can even regain some of his OBP, which sank 93 points. The Tigers? Contending? If the breakouts come and the team stays healthy, it’s not crazy at all.

Dave Haller

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At this point, pretty much every baseball fan knows that the Mets have acquired Carlos Delgado, Billy Wagner, and Paul Lo Duca, and the Seo for Sanchez swap has received good coverage as well. But the Mets have also been busy picking up complementary players to fill out the 2006 squad. Let’s examine some of them in a little more detail.

Chad Bradford – Signed to a one year deal, Bradford doesn’t carry a lot of risk for the Mets, but he had a forgettable 2005, back injury or not. Bradford has never been one to give up the gopher ball, something that certainly won’t change in Shea, but what you see is what you get with Bradford. He’ll induce ground balls, but his unhappy marriage of a declining strikeout rate and a rising walk rate mean that Bradford has been skating on thin ice.

Endy Chavez – The man who made the last out ever as a Montreal Expo has never really developed into anything useful. Over 99 outs with the Nationals and Phillies last year, Chavez amassed .1 WARP, the very definition of replacement level. He is the fifth outfielder for the Amazin’s, and if he is used as anything other than a fifth outfielder and pinch runner, the Mets won’t be going very far.

Julio Franco and Xavier Nady – Nate Silver is running out of PECOTA comps for the ageless one. While Franco’s longevity is certainly admirable, and he likely has a great deal of wisdom to impart on the younger players, he’s not really an essential piece to a team. In 2005, he ranked 23rd in first base EqA. Franco is also the same type of player that Nady is, in that they are both right-handed hitters that are limited defensively, and will be most effective at first base. Given that Nady is younger, can spot at third and the outfield, he would be the better use of a roster spot. But if the Mets want to have a 40-year old on the roster for two straight seasons, they will have to stick with Franco, because the Pirates signed Roberto Hernandez to be their resident geezer. As for Nady, he is running out of time to impress, but his flexibility still makes him worthy of a roster spot.

Yusaku Iriki – The latest Japanese import, Iriki figures to be similar to a Keiichi Yabu swingman than a Kazuhisha Ishii starter. Iriki’s strikeout rate stands out in an otherwise modest untranslated Japanese stat line:

Iriki Japanese stats, 1997-2005
  G   GS      IP    ERA   H/9   HR/9   BB/9   SO/9   SO/BB
212   73   775.0   3.73   8.3   1.08   3.43    7.8    2.28

The Yomiuri Giants’ number one pick in 1997, the 33-year old Iriki features five pitches, four standards–fastball, curveball, slider, changeup–and the “shuto,” a “two-seam pitch that breaks outside and down to right-handed batters.”

Jorge Julio – This is the type of pitcher who could end up being successful for the Mets. Julio maintained a high strikeout rate last year, while lowering his walk rate. Unfortunately, a lower walk rate meant more balls hit into play, which resulted in more hits, and more home runs. While the BABIP may or may not fluctuate, the home runs should certainly decrease in the move to Shea Stadium.

Jose Valentin – Likely to serve as a backup to Jose Reyes and David Wright:

Jose Valentin statistics
              AB    AVG    OBP    SLG
2000-2002   1480   .261   .331   .493
2003-2005   1100   .219   .305   .441

Even after showing improvement with the glove in Chicago, Valentin regressed back to the form of his Milwaukee days, and was a disappointment all across the diamond in 2005. Perhaps with improved health Valentin will bounce back, but his better days are behind him.

The Mets figure to give the Braves a run for their money in the NL East, but overall still appear too top-heavy. Should they get effective contributions from the majority of these players in their designed roles, the Mets could well be on their way to a post-season berth. However, all of the above players have their question marks, and as such, so does the Mets 2006 season.

Paul Swydan

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1969. If you believe Bryan Adams, that was the year he first picked up a “real six-string,” unwittingly setting loose great sorrow upon the world. More pertinent to the Pirates, it’s also the year that the fruits of their off-season free-agent shopping, Jeromy Burnitz and Joe Randa, first came into the world.

This veteran duo–Randa just turned 36 in December, Burnitz turns 37 a couple of weeks into the 2006 season–would have been real hot stuff back in 1999, when each of them had their career years (Randa was worth 6.5 WARP, his only time above five, and Burnitz posted a 6.8 WARP, one of his three time above six). Even seven years later, both are still contributors, albeit with caveats. Each was nearly a five-win performer in 2005 (4.6 for Burnitz, 4.7 for Randa), and while neither signing is a bargain–the Bucs are spending a cumulative $10.7 million for Burnitz and Randa’s services next season–the cost isn’t prohibitive. Taking a closer look at both players’ performances, over the past four years:

            Randa                      Burnitz
        EqA    AVG/OBP/SLG         EqA    AVG/OBP/SLG
2002   .256  .282/.341/.426       .246  .215/.311/.365
2003   .265  .291/.348/.452       .266  .239/.299/.487
2004   .254  .287/.343/.408       .284  .283/.356/.559
2005   .273  .276/.335/.452       .258  .258/.322/.435

Their performances have very different shapes, but similar results. Randa’s performance is based on good batting averages and moderate power, Burnitz is a low-average, low-OBP swing-from-the-heels type. Both have hovered around league average over the past four years, each padding their performance with some time in a hitter’s haven–Burnitz’s 2004 was spent at Coors Field, while Randa spent the first part of last season while operating out of the Great American Ballpark (.843 OPS there in 2005, against a .787 OPS overall).

The tale the statistics tell is one of profound mediocrity. Neither Randa nor Burnitz seems in line for an out-and-out collapse, despite both men being of an age where players fall off the map very quickly. The newly-released PECOTA projections (if you haven’t picked them up by now, you have more willpower than I do) have Randa tagged for a .254 EqA in ’06, and Burnitz taking a true shine to the lefty-friendly confines of PNC Park with a .270 EqA. Both figures are short of the positional averages at third and in right field, but things could definitely be worse in each case.

The meme when a young team like the Pirates makes moves for veteran mediocrities like these, and like the earlier acquisition of Sean Casey, is that the vets are needed to teach the young turks how to win. This is the type of idea we’ve dismissed out-of-hand in the past, but which probably deserves a little more respect than we’ve given it.

Nonetheless, the idea doesn’t hold here, because this crew of veterans that the Pirates have brought in is distinguished by their lack of winning, and their dearth of postseason experience. Between Burnitz, Randa and Casey, none has spent a whole season with a division-winning club. The only one of these guys to see a postseason plate appearance was Randa, who played in the Division Series last October after being a deadline acquisition by the Padres. He did a pretty nice job–four for eleven with a walk and a double…in a three game sweep by the Cardinals.

The 2005 Padres (final record 82-80) were only the second winning team Randa had ever been on. In ten full seasons in the Show, his teams have finished last in their division five times. In his eight full seasons, Casey’s Reds finished under .500 six times. After beginning his career with the 103-loss 1993 Mets, Burnitz almost made it to the playoffs in the 1996 season with the 99-win Cleveland Indians…before he was dealt away to the Brewers, at the August trade deadline, for Kevin Seitzer. All told, ten of Burnitz’s 12 full seasons have been spent on under-.500 teams.

This isn’t meant to minimize these fellows’ achievements in the majors. One of the points we frequently raise here is that winning players aren’t better people than the guys that came up short. It’s just that if these guys are supposed to teach the youngsters to win, it should be pointed out that these veterans might find winning a novel experience, themselves.

After all, when the going gets tough this season, what’s the inspirational speech they’re supposed to give their young teammates? “When we were losing 100 games back in 2002, we could have given up…”

But then again, that just might be the point. Casey, Randa, and Burnitz probably aren’t familiar with the mechanics of splitting up World Series shares, but they certainly have seen their share of losses. We don’t know if former champs can teach young players how to win, but you can’t dismiss the thought that maybe guys who have seen and survived a number of losing seasons might be able to help youngsters learn how to cope with losing.

Hopefully, their services won’t be needed. But it has been 13 straight seasons of losing in Pittsburgh.

Derek Jacques

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