What I want to do is look at not particularly how this collapsed happened directly, but how this team landed here, and where it's going.
Alright, so the pre-season. We have some good things that happened. Let's look at them:
- SS Edgar Renteria - Didn't pick up his option, and the buyout on his contract was $3 million (option $12 million). Pretty obvious. Well he batted .250 with the Giants , and no one is surprised.
- Catcher Gerald Laird is signed as a free agent. You look at his batting average and can't quantify his worth. The guys at Fangraphs.com will tell you that his value compared to the average MLB catcher is +2.5 wins per game. It all comes from his defense, not the offense. The ability to block balls, etc. If you've watched, you know why.
- Rick Knapp is hired as pitching coach. Clearly one of the biggest free-agent acquisitions of the year, no? He turns a new pitcher into an ace, and helps court a rookie into a very productive first season. These two guys help carry the load and are the wild-card in a team that lacked stability in the starting rotation going into Spring Training.
- In December, OF Matt Joyce is moved to Tampa Bay for Edwin Jackson . Clearly, the most important move of the season. No Jackson, and the Tigers are a sub-.500 team. 12-7 record isn't even reflective of his impact.
- In January, Tigers sign Fu-Te Ni to a minor-league contract.
- Later in the month, Brandon Lyon is signed to $4.25 million deal.
Alright, so those are five real positive moves, albeit one real obvious ones. Now, the bad (or not so good):
- The Tigers signed Adam Everett to a 1-year, $1 million contract. You could argue that this one could go in the neutral pile, but the fact is that Everett was not what the Tigers had hoped for. His value is in his range. It's still better than most. But he made more errors (or a pace for errors over a full season) than in his whole career, and his UZR (fielding rating that encompasses everything) was far lower than in the past. The range is fine, but when you're providing barely above average offense on top of nearly nothing at the plate, it's a hole in the lineup.
- The Tigers released Gary Sheffield , who regardless is owed $14 million over the 2009 season. The Tigers claimed the move was made for flexibility reasons. Well, no one could have predicted have Sheffield would fair with injuries, but let's compare Sheffield with Thames:
Thames: 258 ABs, .252/.323/.453
Sheffield: 268 ABs, .276/.372/.451
There's no reason why Sheffield couldn't have been kept around. He not only hit for a better average than Thames, but he walks more, and he struck out far less than Thames. Oh yeah, and you're already paying him, so why not?
Alright, so we all know by now that payroll doesn't always equate to success. But it should if you spend your money smart, it should. At $115 million, the Tigers payroll clocked in at fifth overall amongst MLB teams. To put that into perspective, another $15 million and you've got double the Twins payroll. Easier said than done, but something to keep in mind.
To me, the starting rotation is nearly a scratch. Tigers management figured they had a middle-rotation starter in Armando Galarraga . In my fantasy projections, I had him pegged as far more safe and valuable than Edwin Jackson, if that tells you what a role-reversal they faced. Essentially, the whole equation looks something like -3 (Bonderman, Galarraga and Willis) +2 1/2 (Jackson and Porcello, and Jarrod Washburn 's corpse).
Bonderman's extension after the 2006 season was a little excessive at $12 million, but his extension is by no means an obvious blunder in the way that Willis extension ($10 million this year) was. It didn't make sense, period. Just way too much money for a wild-card. Having $22 million in pitchers that didn't really figure into the equation doesn't help. He shouldn't have been given that many years, but even if it were little more than half of that, maybe the Tigers can take on more payroll in adding depth to their rotation. Someone like Jair Jurrjens could have provided that kind of depth, but that's a mistake that's already been well-documented.
Ultimately, it just took too long to piece this offense together. As a Royals fan first and a Tigers fan second, going to Comerica Park several weeks ago and seeing the Royals, missing some of their perceived-preseason batters injured or missing from the lineup, with a lineup of comparable batting averages to the Tigers, is alarming. The Brandon Inge who was hitting for such a high average was an anomaly, and although the resurrection of Magglio Ordonez made this a little less disturbing, the low batting average and lack of batters that take a significant amount of walks. They were in the bottom-half of the American League in batting average, on-base percentage, and finished last in the league in stolen bases.
The pitching was pretty good for the most part. Brandon Lyon really struggled for one reason or another, potentially due to switching leagues, and got thrown under the bus by fans, but he turned in one of the better seasons. Jarrod Washburn, going from one of the best pitchers parks in the league to the Tigers, was a failed experiment, and although it was a low-risk gamble giving up French, that's why he came so cheap; this just didn't pay off. Zach Miner , in his few starts, was abysmal. Most of the guys who piled up starts not named Verlander, Jackson or Porcello were just porous in general, which made a big difference.
Fielding is always hard to measure, but the team looked like it was above average in defense. In terms of errors, Detroit was in the upper-half of the American League. Where they really excelled was on the mound, and behind the plate. The Tigers ranked right at the top in pick-offs, and were second best in SB allowed and runners caught stealing. Credit Gerald Laird there.
You have to blame management, though, in giving Jim Leyland this lineup to work with. You can't turn a handful of offensive pumpkins into sparkling carriages. It's too easy when pitchers have Brandon Inge, Gerald Laird and Adam Everett as a 1-2-3 at the end of the lineup, and a .250 average from your lead-off hitter.
So now here we are, no playoffs to show for it. Where does this leave 2010?
Just this month, the Tigers already made one of their biggest gambles for next year by bringing back Magglio Ordonez. The option costs them $15 million more than a buyout would. So instead of necessarily a $18 million contract, you have to say, is Ordonez worth $15 million next year? The White Sox essentially got OF Alex Rios as a present from Toronto. His stance looked like a reason for his decline at the plate, and his defense was sub-par, but in general Rios provides a good mix of power and speed, and in the past has been an excellent defender. He's overpriced, but actually a much better value than someone like Ordonez over the next five years.
The lineup looks like it's going to be fairly similar again next year. The Tigers are going to promote prospects into the middle infield, and that's going to go a long way in determining how the bottom half of the lineup looks. SS Cale Iorg has the name, but as of now, he's not looking like the top prospect that he's made out to be, so shortstop might not be a position that gets upgraded. Unless an unexpected prospect progresses in Spring Training, the lack of overwhelming power probably won't compensate for a lack of disruption on the base paths. It's probably going to be an average, or slightly above-average offense next year.
The pitching situation should be a little improved. Hopefully a year without any disruption from the World Baseball Classic will solve whatever problems Armando Galarraga has in getting ready for the regular season. Re-tooling Jeremy Bonderman 's repertoire is still a work in progress, and there's still some hope that a full-season healthy from Bonderman will be better than any other back-of-the-rotation starter.
My personal hope is that the Tigers don't throw Fernando Rodney a fiscally-astronomical long-term deal. A modest two-year deal would probably be good to prove that Rodney can sustain good production. Bringing back Brandon Lyon as insurance in the setup role isn't a bad idea, either. Ryan Perry may progress with another year under his belt, and there's no reason not to hope he can't be a good solution for long-term closer.
After a rough ending, it's tough to swallow, but for Tigers fans 2010 may not be significantly better than this year. Some trades worked out great and some haven't, but the fact is that organizational help in the minors isn't exactly at an all-time high. Another reason not to poor moor money into the bullpen is that the organization is drafting fairly well in terms of relief arms, which is the strength of the farm system.
Like this year, I'm still predicting that the White Sox are the favorites for 2010, particularly with the addition of Jake Peavy . Where the Indians fit is yet to be seen, but the Royals are going to continue to improve, and the Twins lose nothing and will likely improve next year. More breakouts are probably necessary for the team to make the playoffs. It's going to depend on how much money is spent this off-season, too.
How much money is spent off this off-season and the next going into 2011 will depend on the Tigers playoff outlook over the next few years.The Tigers are fortunate to have a good nucleus at the front of their rotation, and should have ample arms in the bullpen. With a number of dead-weight salaries coming off of the books this year, and then again in 2010, the Tigers can spend wisely and add some major pieces if they maintain this payroll to push to be a 100-win team in the Central. If they don't spend for the upcoming season, I'm tempering my enthusiasm to a second-place finish, and perhaps taking the division in 2011.