Five Questions: Detroit Tigers

At this time last year, the Tigers were coming off of one of the worst seasons a team has ever had. Whenever your team is mentioned in the same sentence as the Cleveland Spiders, you know you’ve had some sort of calamity on your hands. In an effort to never let this happen again, owner Mike Ilitch went on a mini-spending spree the likes that have never been seen in Detroit. While being told by Vlad Guerrero’s agent to “not bother,” the Tigers went on to begin filling holes with aging veterans who have at least had good seasons in the past.

Before you knew it, Rondell White and Fernando Vina were Tigers. Both were injury prone and both were years removed from their prime. The Tigers also made an innocent looking trade, sending two minor league shortstops to the Mariners in exchange for Carlos Guillen. In comparison to the AAA+ team the Tigers fielded the year before, these players were looked at as significant upgrades. It wasn’t until the Hot Stove League was winding down that the Tigers made their big move by signing a bona fide, yet snubbed, superstar in Ivan Rodriguez. With a contract laden with injury clauses, the Tigers did their best to protect themselves against Pudge’s past back problems.

The end result was 29 more wins then the year before. Dave Dombrowski put together a team that on most days had a 50/50 chance of winning despite having a horrible starting point. The next step was to build a contender and they got off to a quick start by signing Troy Percival. Percival was one of the most dominating closers in the game, but hip problems and age have limited him to less then 50 innings the last two seasons.

Then, in what turned out to be an agent’s dream, the Tigers ended up being “players” for just about every major free agent available. Carl Pavano, Troy Glaus, Steve Finley, Adrian Beltre, and Carlos Beltran were all players that the Tigers had negotiations with, only to see them sign on with the team that was most likely their first choice. Snub after snub caused them to become desperate, as they once again pursued the unfavorable and signed Magglio Ordonez to what could turn out to be a seven year, $105 million contract. That leads us to question number one…..

1. What impact will Magglio Ordonez have on the Detroit Tigers?

There’s no question that the Tigers overpaid for Ordonez. Whether it’s the price of having one of the worst seasons in the entire history of the league or being located in an undesirable city to live in, the Tigers have been forced to pay a premium of some sort just to sign injury prone, over the hill, former superstars. If the Rodriguez signing appeared bold, the Ordonez signing seems almost foolhardy.

Last year, Bobby Higginson spent the bulk of the season as the Tigers rightfielder. While he’s turned into a patient hitter who will take pitches and draw walks, Higginson’s power has all but evaporated. Craig Monroe spent about one third of his time in right field and probably would have gotten the bulk of the time in right field this year had the Tigers not signed Ordonez.

Last year, Magglio Ordonez logged two RCAA in the 52 games and was shutdown in late July because of a knee injury. While we can’t completely ignore last season, it did break a trend of high quality offensive production. In 2002 and 2003, Ordonez had 46 and 39 RCAA respectively, but he’s now moving into a pitcher’s park. Ordonez has a career .669 OPS in 135 at bats at Comerica Park and that was against some pretty poor pitching. Since the Tigers moved in the leftfield fence, Ordonez’s OPS has spiked to .929, but that was over only 33 at bats (all of which were in 2003) and was due in large part to having a .394 batting average against the worst non-expansion team ever.

If I were a betting man, I could realistically see his batting average and on base percentage staying where they’ve been over his career, with a slight decrease in power. If Ordonez can log 26-30 homers and a .310/.380/.530 line, the Tigers will be pretty happy. While that kind of production will never warrant $15 million a year, Ordonez should provide a significant upgrade at the position in 2005.

2. Will the Tigers revamped bullpen equate to more wins?

A lot was made of the Tigers 12-27 record in one run games. It got to the point where most people felt shoring up the bullpen should be the Tigers number one priority. The Tigers top four relievers in Innings Pitched, along with their Win Probability Added (WPA, from The Hardball Times Bullpen Book) are listed below:

                 IP    WPA
Esteban Yan    87.0   0.68
Al Levine      70.7  -1.19
Jamie Walker   64.7  -0.83
Ugueth Urbina  54.0   0.25

Total         276.3  -1.09

That’s not good. It basically means your bullpen is giving you less of a chance to win when they’re taken out of the game then when they entered the game. Yan, who led the team in WPA, is now with the Angels. Walker and Urbina are still with the team but if we replace Levine and Yan with Troy Percival (49.7/0.74) and Kyle Farnsworth (66.7/-.018) we’d have a total WPA of -0.02 amongst the four.

What that figure doesn’t take into account is that Urbina will now get put into more high leveraged situations as the setup man. If he pitches as well as he did last year, you would expect his WPA to increase. Farnsworth is another pitcher who underperformed and if we see numbers similar to what he put up in 2003 (76.3/0.52), it should also provide a positive result in the win column.

So what does all of this mean? The Tigers underperformed their Pythagorean Win/Loss by seven games. With the gains in the bullpen, I think we should expect the Tigers to finish closer to, if not better then, their Pythagorean Win/Loss.

3. Who will fill the hole left by Alex Sanchez’s release?

In what was a surprising move to the mainstream media, the Detroit Tigers released Alex Sanchez last week. The move was made despite the fact that the Tigers had no immediate successor to Sanchez, either in centerfield or at the leadoff spot. This was definitely a case of addition by subtraction, as Sanchez had probably the most hollow .322 batting average ever (.721 OPS and -7 RCAA in 332 at bats). He also finished dead last among center fielders in the American League with a Fielding Win Shares/1000 of 1.87. The only player in baseball who finished worse was Ken Griffey, Jr. with 1.70.

Management tried to squash rumors of a deal for Mike Cameron shortly after Sanchez’s release. It seems for the time being, Craig Monroe will get the nod as the starter. Known more for his bat then his glove, Monroe finished last among left fielders in the American League with 1.17 Fielding Win Shares/1000. While the defense might slip, or at best be a wash, Monroe was third on the team with 10 RCAA, and he had a post-All Star Break OPS of 1.007 in 196 at bats.

Hopefully, Craig Monroe is simply a stop gap, as mid-tier prospect Curtis Granderson was designated to Triple-A. If Monroe is still the starting centerfielder after the All Star Break, it means he’s either tearing it up at the plate or the Tigers are already long out of it to warrant rushing Granderson up to the big leagues.

4. Will the double play duo of Carlos Guillen and Omar Infante be able to replicate their offensive production in 2005?

Carlos Guillen was one of the biggest surprises in the entire league in 2004. Despite missing the final three weeks of the season with a knee injury, Guillen led the team in RCAA (36) and OPS (.921), and his performance warranted more then the two votes he received for the American League MVP. Unfortunately, this season screams career year. Guillen’s previous career high OPS was .753, and in most seasons, he hovered right around the .700 mark. The good news is, he’s started playing in the field and might be ready for Opening Day. The bad news is that he has to put up some really nice numbers just to meet expectations.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Omar Infante is a much more intriguing player. Lost in the shuffle of the 2003 debacle, Infante found himself going from a highly touted prospect (at least within the organization) to a goat, all in the course of a single season. His .536 OPS in 221 at bats was more the norm on the 2003 Tigers then it was the exception, so it was interesting to find Infante back in the starting lineup when Fernando Vina went down with what could be a career ending hamstring injury. He made the most of his time by breaking out and hitting 16 homeruns in 503 at bats, and while his OPS of .766 isn’t anything to write home about, it does provide the Tigers with one less hole to fill.

And while Guillen broke out when he was 29, Infante is still only 23. His On Base Percentage isn’t spectacular (.317 in 2004), but given time and proper instruction, we can hope his batting eye will improve. I think Infante has a much better chance of coming close to what he did in 2004, if not topping most of his career numbers. Guillen, on the other hand, has a tough hill to climb in that respect.

5. Will the Tigers young rotation allow the Tigers to compete for the AL Central title?

For better or for worse, the Tiger’s rotation is relatively intact from 2004. Gary Knotts will most likely be relegated to the bullpen, while upstart Wilfredo Ledezma will get his chance as the fifth starter. With that said, The Tigers will field a rotation where four of their starters will be 27 years or younger. Only Jason Johnson, at age 31, is the exception.

The Tigers will also have a rotation where only one starter (Maroth) has ever logged 200 innings in a season. Jason Johnson and Nate Robertson got off to nice starts last year, only to see their ERAs balloon in the final months of the season. When the season ended, this is how the Tigers primary starters ended up based on Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA):

Mike Maroth         3
Jeremy Bonderman   -9
Nate Robertson    -10
Gary Knotts       -12
Jason Johnson     -15

The negative numbers are pretty troubling and while Ledezma should be an improvement over Knotts, he’s also relatively untested. It seems like a lot of people have high hopes for Jeremy Bonderman, however he’s thrown a lot of innings at a very young age. Maroth is your prototypical fourth or fifth starter/innings eater.

If anything, the rotation will be the one thing that prevents the Tigers from contending for the AL Central. They have an outside chance if Ordonez has an All Star season, and if Carlos Guillen is back to his 2004 form, and if the rotation and bullpen can keep the Tigers in ballgames. But the odds of all of those things happening are pretty slim. If they have a meaningful series with the Twins in mid-September and finish north of the .500 mark, this Tiger fan will be happy.

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