The Detroit Tigers have a very interesting situation and are the definition of why I feel there should be a cap on draft spending before a cap is placed on Major League contracts. For the last two season's Tigers owner Michael Illich has handed head of scouting, David Chadd, a blank cheque.
This is, an excellent way to build a franchise, as a team can let it be known that they are willing to spend well over slot and thus draftees can scare away teams with crazy salary demands. Case and point, 2005 6th round pick Cale Iorg signed for first round money-$1.5M.
Even with the free spending ways in recent years, the Tigers are not as stocked as one might expect them to be. However, this could be attributed to trading away 4 of the clubs top 6 or 7 prospects last winter.
The Tigers system is not in terrible shape as the club is not desperate for contributors at the Major League level just yet. However, the Major League club is also at a crossroads. With an aging core, the Central's worst team needs to decide if they are going to continue to be buyers, or go into a mini sell mode. The problem then, is that all of the pieces the Tigers have to trade, while solid contributors, have hefty price tags and are at a stage in their respective careers where they cannot be considered as valuable trade chips.
To this point in the series, the Tigers have made two moves. The first, had Detroit acquire Ramon Hernandez from Balitmore for minor league middle infielder Scott Sizemore. This trade will fill the Tigers temporary need of a catcher while they give 22 year old, dimunitive catcher James Skelton another year to prove scouts wrong.
The second move saw the Tigers move rising toolsy outfielder Wilkin Ramirez to the Texas Rangers for 21 year old left handed pitcher Kasey Kiker. This move may be out of context, as apparently Detroit only like big pitchers who throw hard. However, Ramirez is still a ways away and without a direct path to the bigs. Kiker is an extremely talented young pitcher who has more then held his own at each level in the minors.
There has also been speculation of further moves occuring on the Tigers roster. The first, has Brandon Inge moving back to third base. The 'super-utility' player will need to further develop his patience at the plate after posting the best strikeout to walk ratio of his career. The second move takes Carlos Guillen being permantently removed from the infield. Offensively, Guillen has been an excellent Major League short stop, however, as a left fielder, Guillen will need to play exceptional defense to make up for his bat at a position which has higher offensive expectations.
With these moves in mind, what more should the Tiger do, and what should they avoid?
What the Tigers don't need:
Offensive help. The Tigers had Baseball's forth highest OPS which is arguably only going to get better given how Miguel Cabrera played after getting comfortable with the American League. Also expect improvements from Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, as well as positional improvements in left field and behind the dish.
Starting pitching. Despite having baseball's 25th ranked ERA among starting pitcher's, there's nowhere to go but down for this club. Between a disappointing season by Justin Verlander, and devastatingly bad performances from Dontrelle Willis, Kenny Rogers, and Nate Robertson, the Tigers can anticipate a rotation wide improvement withou adding a single arm. One issue of note, the Tigers need to be healthy in 2009 to allow top pitching prospect Rick Porcello another year of professional baseball to develop.
What worries me about this rotation is that they currently stand 5 deep. However, I would like to see them bring Freddy Garcia back. I don't consider this as an acquisition and thus not a 'need'.
Going into sell mode. There have been rumors swirling about both Willis and Jeremy Bonderman. With both coming off injury plagued seasons, having big contracts, and underacheiving, it seems unlikely that a team would desire either of these pitchers enough to send anything of substance. I would classify getting rid of one of these two as a 'need', but not desperation.
The same can be said about Magglio Ordonez and Polanco, both of whom have been subject of trade speculation.
Major League ready prospects. This is another area the Tigers can do without. Given that their roster is essentially filled with high calliber Major League veterans, bringing aboard a prospect to sit on the bench is useless.
What the Tigers need:
Relief pitching, obviously. This may very well be one of the best relief pitcher free agent classes in recent memory. The issue, then, is that there will presumably be more buyers then there are quality arms. The Tigers cannot make the same mistake they did in last years offseason where they only seemed to target gambles. With 2008's worst bullpen, the Tigers need to make a move to help this bullpen-however, spending money isn't always the trick.
While there are some nice arms currently in this bullpen, and another arm I intend to push from double A to the majors, the club is still lacking enough depth to be counted on for a team hoping to make the playoffs. Thus, I suggest the club hands out a few minor league/Spring Training contracts to the likes of Joe Borowski, Al Reyes, and Keith Foulke. Each of these pitchers has experience closing and may be a lightning-in-a-bottle type. Let them grind it out in Spring Training and make a decision how/if they can make it with the big league club in April.
Short stop. The team doesn't have one. Rumor has it Edgar Renteria is done with the Tigers, and rightfully so. The major issue here, however, is that the free agent pool for short stops is shallow, and subsequently going to be extremely over-priced. One option I would seriously consider would be Adam Everett. Everett is among the best defensive short stops in baseball, and while the last two seasons represent small sample sizes, he has improved his walk rate to the point where he approaches the league average.
Everett combined with Inge would create one of the best defensive left sides in the majors. However, with that, would also be one of the worst offensive left sides in the majors. If anyone can afford Everett's bat, it is the Tigers. Having one of the worst team defensive efficiencies in the league, only furthers the need for Everett's glove.
The question then, is Everett's glove that much better then Michael Hollimon's? Both players are going to struggle at the plate, and Hollimon's 2008 DZR (Defensive Zone Rating) sat at .909, albeit in limited action. A report from Baseball Prospectus' Nate Silver suggests that Hollimon is "a little stretched defensively at shortstop". The nod then goes to Adam Everett.
Offensively, as I mentioned, the Tigers are in great shape. Here's how they look on Opening Day:
CF - C. Granderson
2B - P. Polanco
1B - M. Cabrera
RF - M. Ordonez
LF - C. Guillen
DH - G. Sheffield
C - R. Hernandez
3B - B. Inge
SS - A. Everett
With the anticipation that better performances are had from Granderson, Polanco, and Sheffield, as well as behind the plate and in left field, the hits the club will take at third and short will hardly be noticed. If the club does lose a marginal amount offensively, it will more then be made up for in run prevention.
The bench will be made up of players who could be potential starters on almost any team in the majors. They would be weak starters, but starters nonetheless. DM Ryan, R. Santiago, M. Thames, and M. Joyce provide cabable bats to help relieve an aging core.
Similar to the bats, although from a different angle, the pitching rotation can truly only get better. There was hardly any positives to take from the 2008 season and subsequently, things can hardly get worse. While this is a fairly simplistic explanation of what to expect from the Tigers in 2009, it can logically work.
Here's how I see the pitching rotation looking coming out of Spring Training:
I initially had Dontrelle Willis as the 4th starter, however, his 8+ FIP shows that he simply was too far off in 2008 to be counted on in 2009. Give him some time out of the bullpen, and maybe he can right the ship.
Additionally, Verlander, Galarrage, and Bonderman give the Tigers a formiddable trio and could easily be one of the top 2 or 3 in the American League. However, they could just as easily be one of the worst 2 or 3 in the American League.
I mentioned that I would look into bringing in some close to expired veterans to fight for a spot in the bullpen. The only one of the trio whom I would truly give a look to would be Keith Foulke. Let's see how the bullpen works out:
CL - J. Zumaya
SU - F. Rodney
RP - F. Dolsi
RP - K. Foulke
RP - B. Seay
RP - Z. Miner
LR - D. Willis
There are a few things to keep in mind here. First, Willis is with the team, undeservedly, but because time in the minors clearly will not help him get things figured out. Second, Foulke makes the team if the club shows to need his experience in the bullpen out of Spring Training. If not, then my favorite Tigers prospect Guillermo Moscoso is on the club and given a major role out of the bullpen.
In addition to this, I keep an eye on Freddy Dolsi and see if he shows enough to move up the pecking order in the bullpen. Personally, I prefer him over Rodney and wouldn't hesitate to start him as the setup man.
This bullpen is still predominantly raw, however they are talented. Unlike the bullpen that the Tigers started 2008 with, that was both raw and untalented.
The Tigers have a few prospects with very high potential, the problem is, they are a few years away yet. Another issue of note is the lack of offensive prospects. If some of the clubs prospects (I'm looking at you Mike Hessman) were with other teams, they certainly have been given a shot, and who knows how they would perform.
That aside, it is the perfect time to be a low level, young prospect in this organization as the club will be able to nurture their prospects until they are definitely ready. Some of those prospects to watch are the obvious candidates such as Rick Porcello, James Skelton, and 2008 draftees Ryan Perry and, Alex Avila.
However, I'm also keeping an eye on second basemen Maxwell Leon, first base/designated hitter Ryan Strieby, and left handed starter Duane Below. In Leon, the Tigers have a player with Placido Palonco-type skills, he is a low strikeout hitter, with little power, but decent walks. In Strieby, a power hitter with swing and miss tendencies. And Below, whom needs to harness his control in order to take the next step, which will be a big one if he does so.
Next up - The Atlanta Braves