Having dropped 10 of their last 13 ballgames, the Tigers have gone from longshot to no shot, with now barely more than a three percent chance of reaching the playoffs. While the Tigers have not officially waved the white flag, I am going to do so for them, by unveiling our first “Tufte Takes On…” piece of the season.
For those of you who are new here, the ground rules are essentially unchanged from the original edition. We will evaluate a club’s roster from top to bottom, analyzing the players that are under team control for each of the next seven seasons. Players are rated on a five-point scale from “Superstar” to “Non-Asset”; these ratings are designed to correspond to the equivalent categories on the PECOTA Stars & Scrubs Chart, but have been tweaked to reflect 2008 performance and my own guesses and intuitions. A ‘P’ indicates a protected contract-a player who has time remaining on his arbitration clock and is thereby under team control-whereas the dashed lines indicate a team option year:
The decision to move Brandon Inge back to catcher was smart-one of those commonsensical things that other organizations don’t do enough of. Inge has always been a pretty good backstop, and if you can set aside the low batting averages, should provide league-average production through the duration of his contract. The Tigers have a couple of mildly intriguing prospects in Dusty Ryan and James Skelton who might be ready once Inge is done.
Any time you have two true superstars on the roster, you’re going to expect to be competitive more often than not, and the Tigers have them in Miguel Cabrera and Curtis Granderson. Second and third base also look to be in good hands for at least the next few years, although it wouldn’t kill the Tigers to draft or acquire a third-base prospect.
The question then, is what to do at shortstop. I’m probably being generous by rating Edgar Renteria as a league-average player. He has a club option next year at $11 million, with a $3 million buyout. That means the Tigers will need to determine whether he’s worth a marginal $8 million. The answer is very probably not; PECOTA had projected a 2009 MORP of just over $5 million for Renteria before the year began, and that was before accounting for his awful season.
If they don’t re-sign Renteria, the Tigers have quite a number of alternatives, including Rafael Furcal and Orlando Cabrera from among this winter’s free-agent shortstops. But the Tigers could also opt for an in-house solution. Michael Hollimon is a little stretched defensively at shortstop, but his bat may be good enough to make him a worthwhile near-term fix. Or the Tigers could give their pitchers a break and go with Ramon Santiago, or sign someone like Adam Everett. For my money, the Hollimon solution makes the most sense, especially if he can be platooned with someone like Santiago when there’s a ground-ball pitcher on the mound.
The other decision is at the DH slot-but it’s a pretty easy one. There is no evidence at this point that Gary Sheffield is any better with the bat than Jeff Larish. If the Tigers can get anything at all for Sheff in trade, it would behoove them to do so.
Center and right field are set. If Magglio Ordonez declines faster than anticipated, the Tigers’ risks are well-hedged, as they have club option years in both 2010 and 2011. I don’t know exactly what to make of Matt Joyce-there’s a little too much Phil Plantier in that batting line for my taste-but at the very least, he and Marcus Thames should make for a rather effective, old-school platoon. Ryan Rayburn and Brent Clevlen are also around and won’t kill you if you play them, and watch out for Wilkin Ramirez, a toolsy prospect who has suddenly begun to hit for power. This is a good group of players, and should require no outside help.
The starting pitching situation is better than it looks, but certainly falls into the high-risk, high-reward category. Justin Verlander can’t be thought of as a superstar, but his peripherals are really no worse than they were in 2006 when he had a 3.63 ERA. Nate Robertson has been victimized by terrible luck on balls in play, and is still a fairly reasonable third or fourth starter in a rotation. Armando Galarraga is the reverse case, in that his results have been far better than his peripherals suggest he should be doing, but he’s certainly been a very nice find.
The question is how well Jeremy Bonderman will recover next year, and what if anything the Tigers will get out of Dontrelle Willis. I am not an optimist on the latter question; Willis is now two years removed from his last good season, and three years away from his last great one, and his performance during his minor league exile has not been especially inspiring. When coupled with the fact that there’s relatively little organizational depth at starting pitcher-even top prospect Rick Porcello has had a disappointing year-the Tigers are probably going to have to go out and sign a mid-rotation starter.
Is there anyone on this staff who you can really trust to close out games? The Tigers need to be careful not to fall into a sort of Mark Prior Syndrome with Joel Zumaya, where they keep banking on a return to health that may never really come, and failing to make contingency plans as a result.
Francisco Rodriguez will be a free agent this winter, but will probably be way overpriced after challenging and/or breaking Bobby Thigpen‘s saves record. There are, however, a couple of mildly intriguing middle-relief alternatives in the form of Juan Cruz and Jeremy Affeldt. For the price of an F-Rod, the Tigers could easily sign both of those guys and still have some money left over to spend on a starting pitcher. They could then have a spring training battle between Cruz, Affeldt, Rodney, Zumaya (if healthy), and perhaps even Dontrelle Willis, as pitchers with command problems and complicated mechanics often benefit from moving to the bullpen.
Outlook and Recommendations
Bad years happen to good clubs. The key for the Tigers will simply be not to panic, nor to try and save face with guys like Renteria and Willis whose projections don’t really warrant it. The Tigers need to budget somewhere between $15-$20 million for perhaps three pitchers next year, but with the contracts of Renteria, Todd Jones, Kenny Rogers, and Ivan Rodriguez all coming off the books, they can easily afford to do so without increasing payroll.
There are ample opportunities to take advantage of the depth of their position-player roster at spots like shortstop, DH, and left field. On the other hand, while the system has produced a lot of league-average talent, it is short on high-upside guys, and the Tigers must absolutely resist the temptation to deal someone like Wilkin Ramirez. To the extent that the Tigers can pull in minor league talent for Gary Sheffield, or re-flip a Kyle Farnsworth, it is past time for them to do so.
This has been a frustrating season in Detroit, but hardly a disastrous one in terms of the club’s long-term fortunes. There have been several pleasant surprises this year in Galarraga, Joyce, and Brandon Inge’s smooth transition back to the catcher position. From top to bottom, the Tigers still rank somewhere in the top ten in the major leagues in terms of their overall talent pool, and they should be on track to return to contention with some relatively common-sense fixes.