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2009 Detroit Tigers: In Need of a Do-Over

BaseballEvolution.com 2009 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
March 10, 2009



Last year I wrote the Detroit Tigers preview and basically said this was going to be one of the all time great teams.
Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Edwin Jackson SP
Adam Everett SS
Ramon Santiago INF
Brandon Lyon RP
a
Departed Pos.
Edgar Renteria SS
Matt Joyce OF
Ivan Rodriguez C
No sooner than I had published my preview did I think to myself "But what about that defense?" I hate falling for conventional wisdom, but I did it last season, and the Tigers were undone by exactly the forces I should have predicted would be their undoing - aging, bad defenders and overrated pitchers.

So, 2009 is a chance for redemption. A mulligan. A do-over. In 2009, the Tigers hope to achieve what they should have but didn't in 2008 - dominance in the AL Central and a run at the World Series. Anything less will be a disappointment . . . except, not really, since their 2008 disaster has lowered expectations once again in Detroit.

While it seems like they've made changes in all the right places - upgrading at catcher, replacing Edgar Renteria with Adam Everett, adding pitching depth, and putting Brandon Inge back in the starting lineup where he belongs (at least on defense) - that pitching staff is still crazily inconsistent and hard to get excited about.

2008 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Chicago White Sox 89 74 .546 0 54-28 35-46 811 729 .549 58-54 31-20
Minnesota Twins 88 75 .540 1 53-28 35-47 829 745 .549 59-51 29-24
Cleveland Indians 81 81 .500 7.5 45-36 36-45 805 761 .526 60-58 21-23
Kansas City Royals 75 87 .463 13.5 38-43 37-44 691 781 .444 39-63 36-24
Detroit Tigers 74 88 .457 14.5 40-41 34-47 821 857 .480 48-66 26-22


Among the biggest moves, and surpringly most effective, came at Catcher, where the Tigers shipped
Projected Catcher
Gerald Laird
Matt Treanor

Last year:
Ivan Rodriguez

away one time franchise-saver Ivan Rodriguez. Though I-Rod led the Marlins to the World Series in his only year in Florida and helped Detroit get there within three years of his signing with the Tigers, it became clear over the last couple of years that Rodriguez was not adding benefit to this Detroit Tigers lineup with his bat or glove. In comes Gerald Laird and Matt Treanor, whose respective minor league credentials means that these guys will be auditioning for the role of Crash Davis-style mentor to Detroit's young pitchers.

The biggest undoing of the Tigers last season was their defense, where Carlos Guillen proved me wrong as the day is long in my assumption that bad shortstops could play a good First Base.
Projected First Base
Miguel Cabrera

Last year:
Carlos Guillen
Miguel Cabrera

Miguel Cabrera eventually proved that bad third basemen can play a serviceable first base, and the Tigers infield defense should be more stable this year with that lesson having been learned. Unfortunately, Cabrera joined the League of Ordinary Gentlemen in 2008, as his defense forced him to move to first base and he endured the worst offense of his career. He needs to lose weight, focus on playing first base, and stabilize fast. Cabrera is not a player Detroit can afford to not have perform like a superstar.

Projected Second Base
Placido Polanco

Last year:
Placido Polanco

Fortunately for Cabrera, the right side of the infield is shored up by the solid play of Placido "First Do No Harm" Polanco at Second Base. Polanco returned to earth on both sides of the ball in 2008 after an incredible 2007, which is to say he made some errors and he didn't hit .341. Polanco is no superstar, but he makes second base something the Tigers don't have to worry about. He should be able to do that for a few more years.

Wanna see something neat? Last year I said this about the Tigers' Third Base position:

Projected Third Base
Brandon Inge

Last year:
Miguel Cabrera
Carlos Guillen
Brandon Inge

"The Tigers are morons for putting Cabrera and his defense at third rather than sacrificing a little offense by putting Cabrera in the outfield,
Craig Biggio Award
Gary Sheffield
Will reach some milestones and get out of the way.
New Nickname
Dontrelle "The Bird" Willis
Nearly as novel; nearly as fleeting.
Brandon Inge at third, and benching Jacque Jones. Cabrera's defense will trump his offense, and keep the Tigers from winning the division."

Creepy, eh? Actually, I was kind of joking about not winning the division, but still. Jacque Jones sucked so bad he was released by the middle of May, and Cabrera had to switch positions anyway.

As luck would have it, Brandon Inge was to the 2008 Tigers what Ford has become to the City of Detroit - hey, he sucks, but at least he's doing better than the other guys. What the Tigers finally realized with Inge is that if you are going to have guys in the lineup who can't hit, they may as well be able to play defense.

Projected Shortstop
Adam Everett

Last year:
Edgar Renteria

At the end of the day, the problem for the Tigers really was that they had five guys who couldn't field their positions, and Brandon Inge, who couldn't hit well enough to crack the starting lineup. Thankfully, the Edgar Renteria Experiment at Shortstop, which went horribly awry last year, is over. However, I am not sure the Adam Everett Epiphany is any better. Don't get me wrong - Everett has forgotten more about defense than Renteria has ever known. But Everett hasn't played more than 66 games in the last two years. If he is healthy, this move is brilliant. If he isn't, well, at least they got rid of Renteria.

The good news for the Tigers is that the Craig Monroe-Jacque Jones Era has come to a close. The bad news is that shortstop's loss is the Outfield's gain in 2009, as Carlos Guillen tries out new position number three. The new answer to "How do we get Carlos Guillen in the lineup?" now appears to be "left field." I am not fan of converting aging infielders to left field - ask Chipper Jones and Craig Biggio a) how easy it is to play the outfield after being an infielder your whole life, and b) what it did to their offensive production.

Projected Outfield
Magglio Ordonez
Curtis Granderson
Carlos Guillen

Last year:
Marcus Thames
Magglio Ordonez
Curtis Granderson
Matt Joyce
Brandon Inge
Clete Thomas
Ryan Rayburn

Look, Carlos Guillen is a very good hitter who has done things that might be considered great. But it does no justice to Guillen or the team to put him in left field so he can wear out his already aging, frail body and undermine his pitchers in the process. At the same time, the combination of Marcus Thames, Ryan Raburn, and Clete Thomas doesn't have much upside.

It would be silly to blame Curtis Granderson's season-starting injury for the Tigers awful year, but he did miss the first 21 games of the 2008 season, and when he returned the Tigers were 8-13 and foundering. A key (not THE key, but A key) to a Tigers rebound will be Granderson getting off to a good start at the top of the Tigers order and patrolling centerfield.

Using Magglio Ordonez's last three seasons, let's play a game called "Spot the Anamoly":

Year G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO HBP IBB SH SF DP AVG OBP SLG OPS
2006 155 593 82 177 32 1 24 104 1 4 45 87 4 3 0 4 13 .298 .350 .477 827
2007 157 595 117 216 54 0 28 139 4 1 76 79 2 8 0 5 20 .363 .434 .595 1029
2008 146 561 72 178 32 2 21 103 1 5 53 76 3 2 0 6 27 .317 .376 .494 870

I see potentially two things to be taken from that - Either Ordonez is a lot more likely to be his 2008/2006 self than his 2007 self this season, or Curtis Granderson being "on" can positively impact the lineup in ways we don't always recognize.

Name to Remember
While it appears that the Tigers have too many hitters and not enough positions, minor leaguer Jeff Larish could put third base to bed for years to come. He is a former Eastern League Player of the Year and played some third for the Tigers in 2008.
Designated Hitter for the Detroit Tigers is like a logic problem: you have three players - Gary Sheffield, Marcus Thames, and Carlos Guillen. Of those three, which are the best two?
Projected DH
Gary Sheffield
Marcus Thames
Carlos Guillen

Last year:
Gary Sheffield
Marcus Thames

Sheffield and Guillen. And of the three, which two would you most want hitting for you? Sheffield and Guillen. But of the three, which do you most want in the field? Really, just Thames.

Basically, Sheffield can't play the field anymore, so he gets DH as long as he's capable. But really, Guillen shouldn't be in the field either, so he should DH if Sheffield is out of the lineup, and Thames will get some outfield time.

Tigers Team Capsule

4/1/10: Give Magglio His Due - I don't know about you, but I have always viewed Magglio Ordonez' time in Detroit as a huge disappointment other than his absurdly good 2007 season. Yet in some respects, he is one of the game's most consistent performers. In the 11 seasons since his rookie year, Magglio has only hit below .300 twice (once in just 52 games in 2004) and never below .292. His .312 career batting average ranks 8th among active players. Ordonez may not swing with as much power as he once did and he certainly will not justify the $18 million he is making this year, but he did hit .375 in 60 post-All-Star games last season and should be a big part of the Tigers' 2010 offense.   --KG


Projected Rotation
Justin Verlander
Armando Galarraga
Jeremy Bonderman
Edwin Jackson
Dontrelle Willis
Zach Miner
Nate Robertson
Rick Porcello

Last year:
Justin Verlander
Kenny Rogers
Jeremy Bonderman
Nate Robertson
Dontrelle Willis

If you would have asked me three years ago what the 2009 Detroit Tigers' strongest attribute was going to be, I would have said their Starting Pitching. Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman should be one of the best top two duos in baseball, and Nate Robertson, Andrew Miller, and Jair Jurrjens should be giving the Tigers and incredibly deep starting five. Instead, the starting pitching looks to be the thing holding the Tigers down.

Did the Tigers defense undermine its pitching in 2008? You betcha. The Tigers ranked very poorly in all your tell tale bad-defense categories - hits, defensive efficiency ratio, errors.

Did the Tigers pitching suck all on its own in 2008? You betcha times two. The Tigers also ranked very poorly in all your tell tale bad-pitcher-regardless-of-the-defense catgories - homeruns, strikeouts, walks, complete games.


Jeremy Bonderman
In 2009, the pitchers won't be able to blame the defense - it has gone from ridiculously bad to mediocre with the chance to be pretty good. Somewhere along the way, then, Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander must remember how to pitch. Armando Galarraga and Edwin Jackson must prove that their 2008 seasons were no flukes. Zach Miner and/or Nate Robertson must prove that one of them is good enough to be a number five starter. And Dontrelle Willis must not be allowed to pitch.

Dontrelle is beginning to look a lot like Rick Ankiel. The last time he had to hit regularly, in 2007, he hit .286 with two homeruns, seven RBI, a .508 slugging percentage, and a 121 OPS+ (which is better than half the guys the Tigers have batted in this decade). In 2008, Willis walked 35 guys in 24 innings. At this point, it must be said that this guy might be more valuable with a bat than on the mound. Something to think about.

The Tigers are allegedly giving Rick Porcello a look in spring training this season - not bad for a guy with no major league experience whatsoever. This says more about the Robertson/Miner/Willis trifecta than it does Porcello's readiness; the guy has one season of Single-A ball under his belt, and did not post dominating numbers there.

Part of the starting rotations struggles may be related to the incredible lack of support from their Bullpen. How it is that this team has endured Fernando Rodney for as long as they have is beyond me. Whether Joel Zumaya ever develops into a dominant pitcher may have to do with whether
Projected Bullpen
Brandon Lyon and a bunch of mediocre relievers

Last year:
Todd Jones and a bunch of mediocre relievers


the Tigers can keep Zumaya away from Rodney, but it may be too late. Between the two of them, they barely strike out more than they walk, which is actually kind of a disease in Detroit - Todd Jones didn't manage to strikeout more than he walked last year, and Clay Rapada, Zach Miner, Freddy Dolsi, and Casey Fossum all came a lot closer to 1:1 than to 2:1.

Somehow, the Tigers have contented themselves with Brandon Lyon as their 2009 closer. When one considers their recent track record - Lyon, Todd Jones, Franklyn German, Kyle Farnsworth, Ugueth Urbina - it becomes clear that Tigers management simply doesn't think a closer is that important.

Outlook for the Season

It is hard to know what to expect in the AL Central, which figures to see four solid but not great teams in 2009. By that measure, the Tigers have just as good a chance as any team. Despite getting their defense somewhat under control in 2009, the bullpen and the starting rotation are still incredibly iffy. While it is possible that all this team needed was a do-over, it is more likely that there are still major issues. They just seem like a mediocre squad.

Look for the Tigers to be in it as late as September, based only on the lack of dominant teams in the division, but not have enough gas to make it to the post-season.


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