MLB Breakdown: Detroit Tigers

by Bill M on March 11, 2013 · 0 comments

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The Tigers won the AL Central for the second straight year in 2012, but did it with just 88 wins.  They broke the bank to sign Prince Fielder prior to 2012, they had the best pitcher in baseball, a strong rotation all the way around, and of course, they received the first Triple Crown since 1967 from Miggy Cabrera.

The fact that this team only had 88 wins put Manager Jim Leyland on the hot seat.  The Tigers made it to the World Series, which pretty much saved old Jim’s job despite being swept by the Giants.  Still, the heat is right back on for 2013.  If the Tigers get off to a sluggish start, I would not be surprised to see Leyland jettisoned.

So, let’s see what the chances are that this happens.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE

Projected lineup (from MLB Depth Charts):

1

CF

Austin Jackson

2

RF

Torii Hunter

3

3B

Miguel Cabrera

4

1B

Prince Fielder*

5

DH

Victor Martinez**

6

LF

Andy Dirks*

7

SS

Jhonny Peralta

8

C

Alex Avila*

9

2B

Omar Infante

BENCH

C

Brayan Peña**

IF

Ramon Santiago**

OF

Quintin Berry*

OF

Brennan Boesch*

(*indicates left-handed batter **indicates switch-hitter)

Austin Jackson made a swing change from a stride to a toe tap and with it came dramatic growth in his indicators and overall performance.  He improved his contact rate from 69% to 75%.  That’s still on the poor side, but it represents significant growth.  He also bumped his BB rate to 11%.  His BABIP of 0.371 was high, but he is very fast, so the rate is understandable.  I’d expect some regression, but even at 0.340 he’ll have good on-base skills for a leadoff hitter to go along with above average pop.  He doesn’t steal bases because of the criminally conservative Jim Leyland (only 12% SB opportunity rate).  With more opportunities he could steal 30-40 bases with his speed.  The Tigers are well taken care of in the leadoff spot.

Much has been said about Torii Hunter’s 0.398 BABIP in 2012.  He has a career BABIP of 0.307, including the outlier of last year, so these concerns are most definitely valid.  He will turn 38 during the season, so expecting much more than he provided in 2011 is being overly optimistic.  He would still be serviceable at that level, but not an ideal #2 hitter.

Miguel Cabrera produced the first MLB Triple Crown since 1967 last year, and it earned him his first MVP Award.  It was well deserved (with all deference to Mike Trout fans), especially when you consider he did it while re-adjusting to his original defensive position 3B.  The move across the diamond is a difficult one, and while Cabrera was brutalized for his range, FRAA didn’t kill him (-2.3) and he only made 13 errors.  Miggy will be just 30 years old this year, so he should have another 4-5 MVP caliber years in him.

Prince Fielder was the second most hyped free agent last offseason, and the Tigers swooped in out of nowhere to sign him to a 9-year/$214M contract after DH Victor Martinez went down with a season ending knee injury.  Fielder was overshadowed by Cabrera’s Triple Crown, but he was no slouch, having an OBA over 0.400 and OPS over 900 for the second straight season.  His power was slightly down, but his contact rate was a career high 86%, which is excellent for a power hitter.  If he brings a little more aggression to his approach, he could regain the power and some OPS points, but even this player is highly valuable.

Victor Martinez is coming back from micro fracture surgery in his left knee.  There is some evidence that he may not regain his power stroke until later in the season, but power has never been the highlight if his talents.  He’s just a pure hitter.  He puts the ball in play (86-91% contact rates throughout his career) in ways to score runs (4 career 100 RBI seasons).  He’s 32 now, but there is no reason he cannot get back to where he was, especially without the wear and tear of playing in the field anymore.

Andy Dirks seems to me to be the weakest link in this lineup.  He had some flukishly good numbers in in small samples sizes in AAA and then a 0.365 BABIP fueled MLB season in 2012.  I really don’t see him being able to hold onto a starting corner OF position all season, and he’ll have Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch waiting in the wings for his demise.  They are both equally flawed players, but the at bats will likely be spread around.

Jhonny Peralta has had a couple of good seasons that lead people to believe he’s an above average offensive SS, but the reality is that those were the outliers.  He’s really about average offensively for a SS, meaning well below league average for all players.  He’s been a lot more like his 2012 numbers (688 OPS) than his career year of 2011 (827 OPS), so expect a 2012 repeat.  Anything else is gravy.

Alex Avila is a prime example of why it’s hard to play catcher, but he’s also a lesson in paying attention to skill indicators.  He had a phenomenal first year as a regular in 2011, hitting 19 HR with an 898 OPS.  Looking at the indicators, however, he had a 72% contact rate and a 0.366 BABIP.  Both of these tell you that it’s very unlikely that he could maintain the 0.295 BA, and each number less in BA takes at least two points off the OPS.  He does walk at a brisk 14% rate, so he has on-base skills, but don’t expect a BA over 0.260.  He also had a power outage in 2012, falling to 9 HR, and the biggest factor in this number is that his FB rate fell from 40% to 30%.  They don’t go over the fence if they’re on the ground.  If he can get some loft back, I can see him providing above average offense again, just not what he did in 2011.

Omar Infante is in his second stint with the Tigers and he’s coming off of a season with spikes in power (12 HR) and speed (17 SB).  These numbers were most likely just blips, however, since he’s had similar one-season power spikes and the SB came from higher opportunity in MIA which won’t be there with Leyland.  He makes great contact (88%) but doesn’t have much patience (4-6%).  As a result, even if he has a good BABIP season and bats close to 0.300, he still doesn’t get on base much.  His worth, to me, lies in his positional flexibility, not as a regular, but he’s not a bad option as the #9 hitter.

ROTATION

1

RHP

Justin Verlander

2

RHP

Doug Fister

3

RHP

Max Scherzer

4

RHP

Anibal Sanchez

5

RHP

Rick Porcello

Justin Verlander is the best pitcher in baseball.  I don’t care that David Price won the Cy Young last year, Verlander is the most dangerous pitcher year in and year out.  He gets better at his craft each year, learning more about getting guys out without his best stuff.  He usually starts games throwing in the low 90s, gradually increasing to the mid 90s in the middle innings, and then becomes his own closer pumping it up to the high 90s in his final innings.  It’s really a treat to watch him pitch, and I’m looking forward to it in 2013 again.

Doug Fister gets guys out despite averaging under 90 on his fastball with a deep arsenal (throws 5 different pitches at least 13% of the time), keeping it on the ground (51% GB rate), and limiting free passes (2.1 BB/9).  His approach is a lesson to all of those guys out there that can’t throw it through a wall.  He’s proven himself to be a legitimate low to mid 3s in ERA pitcher.

As much as I respect Fister’s ability to do more with less, he’s not really the #2 pitcher in this rotation.  Max Scherzer’s breakout second half last year married his off the charts stuff with learning what to do on the mound, and he is on the cusp of becoming a second legit Ace on this staff.  He’s shown glimpses into his potential most of his career, but he stepped up his K/9 from between 8-9 to an elite 11.1 rate last year while maintaining his sub 3.0 BB/9 that he gained in 2011.  He’s still more of a fly ball pitcher (41%) than he’ll need to be to make that final leap to Ace, but he’s a stat geek himself, so he’ll probably figure that out.  My pessimistic forecast is an ERA in the low 3s, but I could see him dipping under 3.

Anibal Sanchez came over with Infante from the ill-fated Marlins at the deadline.  He’s established himself as a reliable mid-3.00 ERA pitcher in his three healthy seasons from 2010-12.  What I find intriguing is that he’s done it while at different times showing major skill grown in both dominance and control.  He had a K/9 of 9.3 in 2011 with his career norms being in the 7s.  Then last year his K/9 reverted closer to career norms, but he lowered his BB/9 to 2.2 and lowered his FB rate to 32%.  It may be wishful thinking, but if he’s able to put all of these extremes into one season, he’d be monster.  We’re talking sub-3 ERA Cy Young contending monster.  I’m not counting on it, but it’s a possibility to dream on.

Rick Porcello joined the Tigers rotation at the ripe age of 20 in 2009 with great expectations.  Unfortunately, he’s yet another pitcher blessed with a 92-93 mph fastball that can’t miss bats.  He boasts a ground ball approach (>50%) and good control (career 2.3 BB/9), but with a slim margin for error.  As a result, he has routinely underperformed to his FIP.  If the light every turns on, you can expect ERAs in the high 3s or low 4s rather than mid 4s.  There has been a lot of trade rumor talk surrounding him though, since he’s being paid $5.1M with free agency pending and they have cost controlled Drew Smyly waiting in the wings.

Smyly doesn’t throw as hard as Porcello, but he breaks 90 and has better indicators (8.5 K/9 and 3.0 BB/9).  He could probably step in and provide a sub-4 ERA right now.

BULLPEN

CL

RHP

Bruce Rondon

SU

RHP

Joaquin Benoit

SU

LHP

Phil Coke

MID

RHP

Al Alburquerque

MID

RHP

Octavio Dotel

MID

RHP

Brayan Villarreal

LR

LHP

Duane Below

For a team with big aspirations, the plan of going with rookie Bruce Rondon at closer does not compute.  Rondon has legitimate triple-digit ability, but he’s thrown exactly 8 innings at the AAA level and only 29.2 above single-A.  He has a career BB/9 of 5.1 in the minors, so no matter what the radar gun says, it’s folly to expect him to be able to do what the Tigers are asking him to do.  I expect the Tigers to make a trade before the end of Spring Training.

Joaquin Benoit throws hard with good control and routinely has made lists of “best RP not closers,” but he has a horrific 32% conversion rate when he’s gotten save opportunities throughout his career.  He’s fine in the 8th, but they can’t trust him in the 9th.

Phil Coke is a hard throwing lefty (93+), but he also has a terrible save conversation rate of 29% when he’s been given a chance.  He had a ridiculous 0.388 BABIP in 2012, so expect him to be closer to 3.50 ERA than 4.00.

Al Alburquerque is actually the most talked about internal option to take over closer at this point.  He throws 95-96, but he has limited major league experience and a 5.9 BB/9 rate in his small MLB sample.  Octavio Dotel is nearing 40 years of age, but he hasn’t lost a tick the last three years.  His K/9 fell below 10 for the first time in 5 years, but he lowered his BB/9 under 2.  He has closing experience, but he’s not a solid option at this time in his career.  Brayan Villarreal was fantastic in 55 IP last season.  He throws even harder than Alburquerque at 97 mph, and he also has had control issues.  Duane Below, as most long relievers, is just a guy.

CONCLUSION

Unless something goes haywire with injuries, this team should be great right out of the gate.  They have one of the more talented offensive teams I’ve reviewed so far, and I absolutely love their rotation.  I think they have two Aces and two solid #2s.  I am also confident that they will sort out the closer situation before the season starts, and the rest of the pen looks really good.

So, quite frankly, if this team struggles at all, Leyland should be sent packing.

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