Five Questions:  Detroit Tigers

On August 23, 2005, the Tigers beat the Oakland Athletics for their fifth straight win, improving their record to 61-62. The team was seven and a half games behind the Cleveland Indians for the American League Wild Card, and while no one really expected the Tigers to bridge that gap, many were talking about the Tigers having a chance to finish with a winning record for the first time since 1993.

The Tigers went 10-29 over the last 39 games of the season. Not only did they not come close to finishing with a winning record, they didn’t even top the 72 wins they accomplished the year before. Players began to speak out against manager Alan Trammell, and shortly after the season ended, Trammell was fired. He was replaced by Jim Leyland, who had worked for team president Dave Dombrowski for the Florida Marlins when that team won their first World Series in 1997. Now Leyland inherits a team in a city that hasn’t seen a winner in a long time. Maybe after answering these five questions, we’ll have a better idea as to whether the Tigers will finally be able to turn things around.

1. Did the moves that the Tigers made this offseason put them in a more competitive position in the American League Central?

When the Tigers opened up their 2005 season, the bullpen was one of their strengths. Ugueth Urbina was coming off of a solid 2004 season, and the Tigers added Troy Percival, a premier closer who appeared to be on the decline, and Kyle Farnsworth, the fireballer from the Chicago Cubs. By the trading deadline, all three of those relievers were gone. Percival was injured and his career now appears to be over, while Urbina and Farnsworth were both traded during the season. Fernando Rodney did a modest job of closing games, but it appeared that once again, the Tigers would be in the market for some relief help.

Enter Todd Jones. After winning the American League Rolaids Relief award for the Tigers in 2000, Jones was run out of town after a tough season full of blown leads in 2001. He was traded to the Minnesota Twins at the trade deadline for Mark Redman in 2001, and he then bounced around and played for four different teams from 2002 though 2004. During that time he was mostly used as a mediocre middle reliever, and he even managed to put his foot in his mouth at least once. Then in 2005, he signed on with the Marlins, and when closer Guillermo Mota went on the disabled list, Jones took over as the team’s closer and went on to have a career year. He set career highs in ERA (2.10), WHIP (1.027) and Runs Saved Above Average (RSAA 15).

In December, with B.J. Ryan and Billy Wagner already wrapped up by the Toronto Blue Jays and New York Mets respectively, the Tigers signed what they thought was the next best thing: Todd Jones to a two-year, $11 million contract. Rather than allow Rodney to build on a solid second half of 2005, the Tigers went with a known commodity, whether he was a one-year wonder or not.

Earlier that month, the Tigers signed Texas Rangers starter Kenny Rogers to a two-year, $16 million deal, and in the process they gave up on Jason Johnson. Rogers was not a local favorite in the 2005 All-Star game held in Detroit because many local fans felt Jeremy Bonderman should have been given the nod instead. Rogers was in the middle of an appeal of his 20-game suspension for shoving a camera man, which added insult to injury on the perceived snub of Bonderman. Now he’s the Tigers’ “ace” and I use that term very loosely. Despite posting the lowest strikeout rate of his career (4.01/9 innings), he finished the 2005 season 14-8 and had a respectable, but unspectacular, 23 RSAA.

Arguably, these are two quality pickups. The problem is that the Tigers didn’t do nearly enough in an improving division. The Chicago White Sox improved their team by trading for Javier Vazquez and Jim Thome, while the Indians will field one of the best young teams in the league. Even if the Rogers and Jones signings result in a 10-game improvement over last year, which they most likely won’t, the Tigers still won’t be close to being in the playoff picture in September.

2. Will Jeremy Bonderman finally break out and become the ace pitcher that everyone thinks he’s capable of being?

The last time a Tiger pitcher won 15 games was 1997. In 2005, Bonderman and Mike Maroth each won 14 games, and while Maroth put together another solid season, it’s always Bonderman who’s mentioned as the future ace. So far, Bonderman hasn’t lived up to that billing. He’s had two decent years after a rough rookie campaign in 2003, but nothing would lead me to say that he’s one of the top pitchers in the league. In some ways he improved in 2005, and in other ways he took a step back.

His strikeout rate in 2005 (6.90/9 innings) dipped quite a bit from the mark he established in 2004 (8.22). Fortunately, his walk rate also dropped from 3.57/9 innings in 2004 to 2.71 in 2005. Unfortunately, while he gave up almost one less walk in each of his nine innings, he gave up more than one additional hit. He also failed to top 200 innings again after being shut down in September because of a sore elbow.

Bonderman is the one guy on this team where expectations are greater than what’s been delivered to date. Nobody expects Maroth or Nate Robertson to win 18 games unless they have a top-notch offense behind them (which the Tigers don’t have). In terms of RSAA, Bonderman has improved in each of the last two years. He went from -23 in 2003 to -9 in 2004 then -6 in 2005. The problem isn’t that he hasn’t improved, it’s that the improvement is negligible. In order to begin establishing himself as an ace in the making, I’d expect Bonderman to win 16-18 games, strike out 180 batters and finally cross that 200 innings-pitched threshold for the first time.

3. Will the young pitching prospect duo of Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya make an impact on the team in 2006?

Right behind Bonderman in the “high expectation” category is Justin Verlander. After holding out on the Tigers after being drafted in 2004, the team finally got the pitching prospect signed, and he dominated at both Single-A Lakeland and Double-A Erie. Between those two stops, he racked up an 11-2 record and struck out 136 batters in 118.2 innings. In fact he had such a good season that minor league guru John Sickels named Verlander THE top pitching prospect in the entire league, just behind the Twins’ Francisco Liriano. Verlander is fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation. So far this spring, nobody has really stepped up and grabbed the fifth spot, so I’m thinking Verlander will get it by default.

Joel Zumaya shined in stops at Double-A Erie and the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate, the Toledo Mudhens. He finished the season with 199 strikeouts in 151.1 innings and a sub-3.00 ERA. Zumaya is also fighting for that fifth spot in the rotation, although he’s said he wouldn’t mind coming out of the pen. He definitely has the tools on the mound to become a solid relief pitcher for the Tigers, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Zumaya’s setting up Rodney or Jones late in the season.

I think both players will have roles in 2006, although to expect either player to break out and become a star this early in his career is a little optimistic. If Verlander secures the fifth spot in the rotation, I’d be happy with a 10-12 record with a 4.75 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP. If he does better than that, I’d say he had a successful rookie year. Zumaya’s a little tougher to predict because he could see time both as a reliever and as a spot starter. In addition, both of these guys were shut down at the end of 2005 for precautionary reasons, so to expect either or both of them to come out the gate and throw 200 innings is asking a bit much.

The good news is that the Tigers have a nice core of young pitching that they haven’t had since the 1970s. Having a rotation of Bonderman, Verlander, Zumaya, Maroth and Robertson doesn’t sound like much now, but wait until 2007 or 2008.

4. Will Magglio Ordonez live up to the contract he signed last year?

This is an easy one. Unfortunately, Magglio Ordonez will never live up to the $15 million per year that he’ll be making over the life of his current contract. In order to make it worthwhile, I’d expect at least two years of Ordonez finishing in the top five of the MVP voting and then 35-40 home runs and 120 RBIs each and every year that he’s a Tiger. He’s already a year behind because last year he played in only 82 and had his lowest OPS (.795) since his first full season in the league.

A lot of people point to his .302 batting average in 2005 and say that at least he hit the ball well. He also had 30 walks against only 35 strikeouts, which is an encouraging sign. Eight home runs in half a season doesn’t cut it though, especially for that kind of money. This looks like yet another signing where the Tigers are late to the party, because it looks like Ordonez’s days of hitting 30 home runs are behind him. And while 20-25 in 2006 would give us an upgrade over what we got last year out of our right fielders, it’s still not worth the money we’re throwing at the position.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.
5. Will the Tigers break the .500 mark for the first time since 1993?

This is another easy one. While I think the Tigers will do a little better then they did last year, I see the team falling just short of 81 wins. I’m not very good at the prediction game, but if I had to throw out a number, I’d go with 79 wins. They’ll probably finish either just ahead or just behind the Minnesota Twins and well behind both the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox. I just don’t see this team being that much better then last year’s team. Rogers isn’t that big of an upgrade over Johnson and Jones isn’t that much better than half a season of Farnsworth and another half a season of Rodney. I think Ordonez and Carlos Guillen will play more than they did last season, and having a full season of Placido Polanco will be a bonus, but none of that equates to a 10-win improvement in my opinion.

References & Resources
Lee Sinins’ Sabermetric Baseball Encyclopedia

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