In 2006, after years of losing, the Detroit Tigers made it all the way to the World Series before losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. The team had plenty of great pieces, but as a whole, and looking at it in hindsight, the Tigers seemed to play above their heads.
In addition, their success seemed to go to their heads. They traded for an aging Gary Sheffield and signed him to a contract extension shortly after that World Series, and after falling short to the Cleveland Indians in 2007, they traded for Edgar Renteria (lose), Dontrelle Willis (lose) and Miguel Cabrera (win). They also signed 2006 rotation mainstays Nate Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman to three-year deals, and when they brought over Willis, he was also locked up for three seasons.
All of those moves, with the exception of getting Cabrera, didn't quite pan out, and the Tigers were never able to recapture that magic. What worked in 2006 didn't work in 2007 or 2010. They were close at times but couldn't quite seal the deal.
Until 2011 that is. Those three pitching contracts came off the books at the end of 2010 (Of the three, only Willis pitched in a big league uniform, and that was only for part of the season with the Cincinnati Reds), and the Tigers were able to spend again. Victor Martinez came over from the Boston Red Sox, and then the Tigers also inked a deal with Joaquin Benoit.
After a neck-and-neck three-team race heading into the final couple of months, the Tigers also dealt for Doug Fister—who did his best Doyle Alexander imitation—and Delmon Young. Without really great options at third base or second base, the Tigers began an offensive/defensive platoon in which manager Jim Leyland was able to shuffle guys in and out, getting a solid enough hitting lineup in the game early and then his best defensive guys on the field late.
Come playoff time, the Tigers' weaknesses were exposed. Riding one catcher for two months means you had a guy hobbling up to the plate for each at-bat. (It actually hurt me to watch Alex Avila go out there because you could see how tired he looked.)
A lack of bullpen depth was also exposed, and in some ways that was what cost the Tigers in their series with the Texas Rangers. And having two mediocre hitters with one being a better defender usually only does you well if you take a lead into the later innings.
In short, the big question is, will the Tigers make the mistake they made after 2006 and basically say, “Hey, it worked last year,” or will they make the necessary adjustments to take the next step. Just because something works doesn't make it right, and that's something the Tigers haven't picked up in the past couple of years. If they can avoid repeating that mistake, Detroit will back into the postseason in 2012.
Here is a rundown of the Tigers weaknesses and what they are most likely to do about them.
Second base – platoon number one
The Tigers have been without a full-season starter at second base since they pushed away Placido Polanco after the 2009 season. In 2010, Scott Sizemore was the deemed the second baseman of the future, and he lasted less than two months. Wil Rhymes showed some promise with a hollow .304 batting average in 54 games, but he fell flat at the beginning of the 2011 season.
In all, six different players got time at second base in 2011, but in the final two months of the season, the Tigers ran with a platoon of Ryan Raburn (the hitter) and Ramon Santiago (the fielder).
With a second baseman at the top of the Tigers' wish list heading into the off season, free agent after free agent signed elsewhere. At this point, the options are pretty thin outside of making a trade, so it looks like the Tigers will be going with the Raburn and Santiago platoon again.
Raburn has first-half issues (his career OPS in the first half is .689 versus .847 in the second half), and if that trend continues, it could be more of a roller coaster at second base. The problem is, the Tigers really have no solid options coming up through the system, though a midseason trade is always a possibility.
Third base – platoon number two
Third base is another position where the Tigers need help, but after Aramis Ramirez signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, it's looking more and more like the Tigers are standing pat with their Brandon Inge (the defense) and Don Kelly (the offense) platoon, a la 2011.
Inge was designated for assignment in July of 2010 and actually took the minor league assignment. In his first game back with the Tigers on Aug. 20, 2010, he belted a home run, but his offense was pretty bad overall the entire season, as he finished with an OPS of .548. The problem is, unlike Raburn, who has had flashes of offensive brilliance, Kelly is a pretty mediocre hitter, as well.
One of the reasons the Tigers probably are hesitant to sign a big bat at third is because one of their better prospects is a third baseman. Nick Castellanos is still probably two years away, though, so the Tigers have to figure out what they're going to do in the meantime. A more immediate solution would have been Francisco Martinez, but he was dealt to the Seattle Mariners in the Doug Fister trade.
Finally, the Tigers have recently been rumored to be in on signing free agent Jimmy Rollins. I'm not sure how serious this is, but if they pick him up, it probably would mean shortstop Jhonny Peralta would slide over to third and upend the platoon apple cart. Rollins is looking for a five-year deal, though, and given that, I hope the Tigers go with what they have.
Outfield – too many holes
Outside of Austin Jackson in center field, the Tigers outfield is in a state of flux. Delmon Young came over from the Minnesota Twins in August last year, and he'll most likely be the starting right fielder, but the Tigers seemed to have been hesitant to name him the starter. The Tigers have a perfect record in not going to the arbitration table since Dave Dombrowski has been in the front office, but that perfect record could be tested by Young this year.
Magglio Ordonez was the starter in right, with help from the likes of Don Kelly (yes, he plays outfield as well, as does Ryan Raburn) and Brennan Boesch. For now, it's looking like Boesch is being penciled in as the starter, but he missed a lot of time in 2011 because of a thumb injury. He's expected to be ready for spring training, but we'll see how ready he is come February.
Odds are, when these three guys aren't in the lineup, you'll see either Raburn or Kelly filling in, which will allow their infield platoon mate a chance to start at their respective positions.
The Tigers have been one of the teams that has been looking at Yoenis Cespedes. He's technically not a free agent yet, but he's 26 and a definite power bat. There's also no limit on the signing bonus they can pay him, so if the Tigers want to take a chance and spend some of the money that came off the books, he definitely would be a solid option.
Catcher – backup signed
Alex Avila caught 133 games in 2011 and from Aug. 5, 2011 to the end of the season, he caught all but two games, and those were both in doubleheaders. By the postseason, Avila was wreck. The big problem was that injuries prevented Victor Martinez from catching in the final two months, and the Tigers' only other option was to bring up Omir Santos (who had five singles and no walks in 22 plate appearances).
This was part of the problem with having your full-time designated hitter as the team's backup catcher when he can't get behind the plate.
The Tigers actually filled this hole pretty quickly when they signed Gerald Laird. The veteran backstop is a solid defensive option, and he's a familiar face because he was the starter in Detroit in 2009 and 2010. (In 2010, Avila was his backup for most of the season). Laird is never going to win a batting title—he's a career .241 hitter—but he's a plus defender and, more importantly, will give Avila a break one or twice a week.
The rotation – one spot to fill
The front four in the Tigers' rotation appear to be set. Last year's Cy Young and MVP winner, Justin Verlander will anchor a staff that will include Max Scherzer, Fister and Rick Porcello. It'll be interesting to see if Fister can replicate what he did in 2010, and if he can't, it could ripple through the rotation.
A former blue chip prospect, Scherzer looks unhittable at times, but then he can get shelled the next, so the consistency isn't quite there, though the stuff is. Porcello is the one wild card. He was also once a top prospect and, despite being able to get into the high 90's, he pitches to contact way too much. He has had two rough seasons since his decent rookie campaign back in 2009.
That leaves one last spot to fill. When the Tigers needed another starter late in 2011, they went with top prospect Jacob Turner. I'd expect him to be the favorite to be the fifth starter, but he's still only 20 and probably could use another season down in the minors. Andrew Oliver, who I thought would eventually secure a rotation spot in 2011, fell flat, and his stock is down. And I doubt if the Tigers bring Phil Coke back into the rotation after that failed experiment in 2011.
The Tigers still could sign a veteran. There was talk Detroit was in on Mark Buehrle, but he ended up going to the Miami Marlins. Oddly, probably the best starting pitcher left out there is former Tiger Edwin Jackson. I doubt if the Tigers make a run at him, though.
The pen – putting the pieces together
Against the Rangers in the ALCS, the only two relievers who seemed to be able to get hitters out with any consistency were Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde. Both of those guys were worked hard and, eventually, Valverde had a rough inning that turned the series in the Rangers, favor. The Tigers bring back most of their pen from last year, but the question is, why go in the same direction if they didn't get the job done late in the season?
One nice move the Tigers made was picking up aging right hander Octavio Dotel. It's a low-risk, one-year deal, and Dotel is coming off a solid 2011 season. He is getting up there in age (he just turned 38), but he still looks to be good for 50-60 innings. Dotel is tough on righties (.637 OPS against) and he'll complement the Tigers primary lefty out of the pen, Coke.
The Tigers also traded one-time closer-of-the-future Ryan Perry to the Washington Nationals for Collin Balester. Perry became expendable when the Tigers traded for Dotel, and it'll be interesting to see if either Perry or Balester breaks out because of the change of scenery.
After that, the Tigers have a mishmash of farm hands. Daniel Schlereth is another left-hander who hasn't quite lived up to his billing, and while the strikeouts are there, the walks need to come down. Duane Below was the only other reliever with more than 30 innings, and he had a pretty mediocre rookie campaign (14 strikeouts, 29 innings).
The Tigers may pick up another arm, but my bet is they're done because they're content with the front four guys in the pen. The rest are moveable parts that can be replaced with guys from the minors.
While a big splash like they made in 2010 isn't in the works, the Tigers still should be competitive in the American League Central in 2012. Once again, it's look like a weak division, and Detroit should be in the mix to win it. It will just be interesting to see how all of their “problems” play out during the season.
Brian Borawski is a member of SABR's Business of Baseball Committee and writes about the Detroit Tigers at his own website, TigerBlog. He welcomes comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail.
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