Winter report card: Detroit Tigers
With just a few weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we’re checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there’s still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2012, and I’ll revisit and adjust their grades to account for late-winter deals as spring training begins.
2012 Results: 88-74, 1st place in AL Central (Hot Stove Preview)
Key departures: C Gerald Laird, LHP Andy Oliver, 2B/OF Ryan Raburn, LHP Daniel Schlereth, RHP Jose Valverde, OF Delmon Young
Key arrivals: OF Torii Hunter, LHP Kyle Lobstein, C Brayan Pena
Six American League teams won more games than the Tigers in 2012, but it was Detroit that got hot at the right time, shutting down the A’s and Yankees en route to their second pennant of the Jim Leyland era. Though their roster hasn’t experienced tremendous turnover since they were swept by the Giants in the World Series, general manager Dave Dombrowski hasn’t exactly been sitting on his hands this winter.
Dombrowski’s biggest expenditure this offseason has been to retain Anibal Sanchez, whom they acquired from the Marlins in late July, via a five-year, $80 million deal — the third-largest contract handed out this offseason behind Zack Greinke (six-years, $147 million) and Josh Hamilton (five years, $125 million) and one that plays him the same average annual salary as Justin Verlander. The going-on-29-year-old Sanchez has shed the injury-prone tag to average 196 innings with a 3.70 ERA and 8.1 strikeouts per nine over the past three seasons, numbers not all that dissimilar from Greinke’s in that span (201 innings, 3.83 ERA, 8.7 strikeouts per nine). Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR has Sanchez as slightly more valuable than Grienke, 3.0 wins per year to 2.6; that said, he has never put together anything close to Greinke’s Cy Young-winning 2009 season, which raised the latter’s price tag.
Sanchez doesn’t have to be the ace hin Detroit. He’ll round out a formidable front four along with Verlander, Max Scherzer and Doug Fister. Meanwhile, fifth starter Rick Porcello, who’s still just 24 years old, is starting to get expensive ($5.1 million for 2013) and has yet to advance significantly beyond his rookie showing. Coming off a 4.59 ERA and just 5.5 strikeouts per nine in 176 1/3 innings in 2012, he could be dealt to make room for 23-year-old lefty Drew Smyly, who was more effective and less hittable (3.99 ERA, 8.0 strikeouts per nine) in 99 1/3 big league innings across 18 starts and five relief appearances last year.
The Tigers’ other big free agent move was to sign Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million deal, a very reasonable short-term move — a 28 percent pay cut, annually — for a 37-year-old coming off an excellent season (.313/.365/.451) and four good ones out of five in Anaheim. The move gains even more luster when one considers that Detroit got an anemic .235/.285/.357 showing from its rightfielders (mostly Brennan Boesch), accompanied by glovework that was 17 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved. Given that Hunter was 15 runs above average by that measure, it’s not a stretch to suggest that this could be a five-win swing at a single position even if he can’t quite match that.
Furthermore, Hunter’s arrival frees up Avisail Garcia to join a leftfield platoon with Andy Dirks, at least eventually. The Tigers may opt to farm out the 21-year-old Garcia, who played just 55 games in Double-A before his 23-game stint in the majors. In time, the likelihood is that the lineup will improve upon the .275/.326/.409 they received at that position last year as well.
The offense will receive one additional upgrade via the departure of Young and the return of 34-year-old Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season after undergoing microfracture surgery in his left knee. Young contributed to the left field mess but was even more responsible for the .257/.291/.395 line the team received from their designated hitters, filling that slot roughly three-quarters of the time. Martinez, a career .303/.370/.469 who bettered those numbers in 2011 (.330/.380/.470), his first year of a four-year, $52 million deal with the Tigers, probably won’t see much time in the field. Even so, he could represent at least a three-win improvement from the DH slot.
Unaddressed in Dombrowski’s winter machinations is the infield defense from a team that ranked second-to-last in the AL in Defensive Efficiency at .678. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder aren’t moving off third and first base, respectively, anytime soon, and both shortstop Jhonny Peralta and second baseman Omar Infante are back as well; the former had his $6 million option picked up while the latter is under contract for $4 million. Neither of the latter two had a good year with the bat — .239/.305/.384 for Peralta, .274/.300/.419 for Infante including his time with the Marlins — and the keystone was actually the biggest sinkhole of the Detroit lineup as a whole (.213/.275/.301). If Porcello is dealt, look for one of those positions to be addressed; Infante’s experience at shortstop, third base and in the outfield could make him a better utility player than a regular anyway, particularly if his problems against righties (257/.287/.369 in 418 PA last year, compared to 317/.331/.540 in 170 PA against lefties) are more than a one-year aberration.
Lobstein, 23, is a Rule 5 pick from the Rays (via the Mets) who put up a 4.06 ERA while striking out 8.1 per nine with Double-A Montgomery. Fringy stuff and a penchant for mechanical inconsistencies could keep him from sticking around, but the Tigers will take a look. Pena, 31, is the replacement for Laird as the backup to Alex Avila; he’s not much of a hitter, with a .236/.262/.321 line in 226 PA with the Royals last year and a general trend of declining performances with increased exposure. Martinez isn’t likely to be part of the catching corps given his knee woes.
Unfinished business: Closing time? Due to mechanical woes, Jose Valverde’s ERA ballooned and his strikeout rate shrank relative to his stellar 2011 season, and the Tigers didn’t even wait until his contract had expired to displace him from the closer role. His postseason hiccups led Leyland to use Phil Coke to close out the last three games of the ALCS. He’s gone now, and Dombrowski has stayed out of the closer market this winter, bypassing pricey proven closers such as Rafael Soriano, Jonathan Broxton, Ryan Madson and Joakim Soria in part because they come with their own dings and dents.
Dombrowski’s stated intent is to give 22-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon first crack at the ninth inning job. Rondon is an imposing (6-foot-2, 265 pounds) flamethrower whose fastball was clocked at 102 mph in the Futures Game; last year, he struck out 11.2 per nine in 53 innings split between three levels, though just eight of those innings came in Triple-A. The knock on him besides his youth and lack of major league experience is that he’s a one-trick pony, as he struggles to command his slider at times. That said, he did cut his walk rate from an unsustainable 7.6 per nine in 2011 to 4.4 per nine last year; it was under 4.0 save for those innings at Triple-A.
If Rondon can’t convince Detroit he’s ready, Dombrowski may deal for an arm during spring training, but he has sounded confident that his current bullpen offer ample backup. Coke and Octavio Dotel, the most experienced closer on the roster with 109 saves, both have wide platoon splits but could be deployed in tactically appropriate spots, while top setup man Joaquin Benoit has closer stuff and could slot into the role as well. The latter’s 1.8 homers per nine last year does represent something of a concern, but it may be waved off as a fluke after he allowed just 0.8 homers per nine in the previous two seasons. A healthy Al Alburquerque could also represent another option, though he was limited to just 13 1/3 innings last year due to offseason surgery to repair a stress fracture in his elbow.
Preliminary grade: B+. The roster may not have changed much, but the defending AL champions are a significantly improved team over last year. The middle infield and closer situations bear watching, though the presence of Porcello as a trade chip gives Dombrowski an obvious route via which he can upgrade with the right deal.
An earlier version of this article erroneously omitted the paragraph about Young and Martinez.