Monday, January 10, 2011

3 Questions: Detroit Tigers

Determined to jump back into things in 2011 after dropping from first to third in 2010, the Tigers have gone out and spent a ton of money in the last couple months.  They've added while the Twins have subtracted.  But, of course, the White Sox are out there too.

1. What did they buy with all that money?
They've resigned Magglio Ordonez, Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Inge to pretty nice deals, but this is about the new guys, two players to whom they've committed $66.5 million dollars (not all this year, though, that would be a record).

Victor Martinez, who just turned 32 before Christmas, signed a deal that will pay him either $12 or $13 million for each of the next four years.  He's been an eerily consistent, very good hitter over his last six healthy seasons, posting wRC+es of 121, 129, 126, 130, 130, and 126.  And for at least the next year or two, there's no reason to expect him not to just keep doing that.

But while that was very, very valuable as long as he was able to serve as a catcher, for some reason the Tigers decided they wanted him to primarily be a DH, and he agreed.  Martinez is one of two or three catchers in MLB that hits well enough to have any value at all as a DH, but how much value?  The answer, it seems to me, is...some, but not as much as they paid for.  The Tigers' DHes last year, headlined by Johnny Damon, hit a pretty feeble .259/.341/.373.  Martinez, if healthy, will certainly do better than that.  But just using the same guys again would likely lead to a better result than that, too.  And they've got a few outfielders (especially Ordonez) and a first baseman who are all probably better suited to DH.  Martinez is an improvement, but not the huge one they're paying for.  If current starter Alex Avila gets off to a bad start, I'd be shocked if Martinez wasn't the full-time catcher by May or June.  Which brings up question 1a: should Tigers fans be hoping Avila bombs?

The other guy is Joaquin Benoit, 33, who somehow got a three-year, $16.5 million contract out of sixty really good innings (after missing all of 2009 with an injury and a 5.29 FIP in 2008).  Even if he does exactly what he did in 2011, pitchers who pitch 60 innings aren't difference-making players.  They both certainly improve the team at least a little, but it was an awful lot of money to spend on what they got.

2. Is that Austin Jackson kid any good?
I think Jackson ought to have been Rookie of the Year, but that speaks more to the weakness of the AL rookie class than to Jackson's abilities.  Jackson got off to a great start to his Major League career, batting .364/.422/.495 in April while also leading the league in strikeouts thanks to an astounding .530 batting average on balls in play.  That's not sustainable, of course.  In the end, Jackson hit .293/.345/.400, leading the league with 170 strikeouts and a .396 BABIP.  He also tied for the league lead in line drive percentage, which is conducive to maintaining a very high BABIP, but not nearly that high.  Given average luck, you might be looking at a true talent of something like the .254/.305/.381 he hit in September and October (with a .322 BABIP).  Even with good defense, that's...not good.  Kind of Carlos Gomez-like. Another way of looking at this: does V-Mart improve the Tigers' offense enough to offset the amount that Jackson is likely to drop off?

3. Does anything rhyme with Verlander or Scherzer?
I ask because while Justin Verlander is one of the best pitchers in the league (and is becoming underrated now) and Max Scherzer made incredible strides in 2010 and looks poised to join him, those are the Tigers' two current MLB-quality starting pitchers.  The 1948 Braves had "Spahn and Sain and pray for rain" (actually a paraphrase of a much longer poem; why don't sportswriters write poetry anymore?), but the Tigers' pair has two hard names to rhyme with.

Rick Porcello is the number three starter.  After what looked like a promising first year -- 3.96 ERA in 171 innings as a 20 year old in 2009 -- Porcello seemed to take a step back, posting an ERA of almost 5 in 163 innings.  The good news is that that's all a mirage; Porcello actually pitched better in 2010 than in 2009, cutting his walk and home run rates.  The bad news is that his actual performance hasn't been particularly good either year, and he's going to have a very tough time being even an average mid-rotation starter if he can't up that strikeout rate from where it's currently hovering at a bit below 4.7 per nine innings.

The number four starter right now is Phil Coke, who was primarily a starter in the minors but has made only one start among his 158 big-league games.  That came in his most recent game (and the Tigers'), and it did not go well.  As Dave Cameron pointed out when this was being discussed last year, one of Coke's biggest strengths is his ability to get lefties out, and making him a starter means he'll certainly face fewer lefties.  If they like his arm enough, it's certainly worth a try, because even an average starter beats all but the very best relievers.  It's just hard to expect a ton, especially this season.

The fifth starter is Armando Galarraga, for now.  It's sad, but while Galarraga will always have the most memorable and possibly greatest game of 2010, he's just never been a real big-league quality pitcher, and his strikeouts have dropped every year he's been in the bigs.  Understanding these things, the Tigers are rumored to be in the market for another option.  The names you hear bandied about, though -- Freddy Garcia, Brad Penny, a return trip from Jeremy Bonderman -- are hardly more inspiring.

Even with perfect health and the rainiest year in Detroit history, Verlander and Scherzer can start only 40% or so of the Tigers' games.  Can this offense -- which, while it would be improved by Martinez and a full, healthy season of Ordonez, is still quite heavily Miguel Cabrera-centric -- score enough to win more than a handful of that other 60%?

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