2008 Detroit Tigers

Tuesday, March 18 2008 @ 07:07 PM EDT

Contributed by: Dave Rutt

I don't need to tell you what the Tigers have been up to this offseason. GM Dave Dombrowski made the biggest news of the winter not involving anyone named Barry, Roger or Johan by trading a bevy of prospects and Mike Rabelo for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. They promptly locked D-Train up through 2010 for $29mil. Cabrera remains unextended, but he isn't a free agent until after 2009, so there's still time.

I won't analyze the trade too thoroughly. Here's a quick breakdown, with prospect grades courtesy of John Sickels' Marlins' Top Twenty. Florida gets two premier prospects: Cameron Maybin (#1, A-), a 5-tool center fielder who was rushed last year but is a future star nonetheless, and Andrew Miller (not a rookie, so unranked), a lefty starting pitcher who was the #6 pick in the 2006 draft, considered by many to be the best player in the draft. This trade is a testament to the effectiveness of Detroit's "draft the best player available" philosophy - both Maybin and Miller presented signability concerns at the time of their eligibility, but Detroit was able to sign both of them and turn them into a great trade.

The Tigers also sent Eulegio De La Cruz (RHP, #8, B-), Dallas Trahern (RHP, #13, C+), Burke Badenhop (RHP, #18, C) and Mike Rabelo, a 27 year old catcher who PECOTA projects to a 678 OPS.

As far as the players Detroit got in return, Miguel Cabrera has been a model of consistency - consistently one of the best hitters in the game, that is - with an OPS+ in the 150s the last 3 years while staying healthy. The same can't be said for Dontrelle Willis (the consistency part I mean... I wouldn't be too surprised if his OPS+ was in the 150 range), whose ERA+ over his first five seasons has gone 127, 102, 151, 112, 83.

The general consensus seems to be that the trade was a win for both teams, and I would agree with that assessment.

Detroit also picked up Edgar Renteria from Atlanta for Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez, y'know, that guy who stole the MWL MVP from Travis Snider. Renteria has now played 12 (!) full seasons in the bigs despite being only 31. He's coming off one of the best seasons of his career, so it's reasonable to expect a regression to approximately league average hitting, which is above average coming from a shortstop. He also plays average or a bit better defense, which is better than Carlos Guillen can say.


One of the most exciting parts of the long wintry offseason for me is when teams announce one or more of their players are changing position, like what the Milwaukee Brewers did this off-season. They've improved their team, possibly by quite a bit, without making many external transactions - Mike Cameron is the only part of the equation that is new, but the added value to the team of moving Braun to LF and Hall to 3B is greater than just Cameron's addition. (By the way, Dan Szymborski goes one step further, suggesting Hall->SS, Hardy->2B, Weeks->somewhere - maybe RF, with Hart->CF... or maybe Hart->3B? He was a third baseman for his first 2 minor league seasons. And what about fitting the bat of Joe Dillon in? How bout some long term planning, what about Matt LaPorta? I've had a lot of fun going over all the possible scenarios in my head. Great time to be a Brewers fan.) This kind of defensive overhaul makes me feel that the powers that be are genuinely committed to doing all they can for the good of the team and aren't afraid to bruise a couple of egos here and there.

What does all this have to do with Detroit? Well, as we all know, the Tigers recently acquired one of the best hitting and worst fielding third basemen in baseball - Miguel Cabrera. There are a significant number of people who feel Cabrera should be moved a la Braun, but Detroit management doesn't seem to consider that the remotest possibility. It truly is a shame, but just because Detroit doesn't consider it a possibility doesn't mean I can't, does it? Let's try an exercise - bear with me for a few paragraphs here.

Marcus Thames and Brandon Inge crush lefties. Jacque Jones is the opposite. How about this scenario (career OPS against handedness of pitcher shown in brackets):

Against RHP: Jones (825) in left, Cabrera (910) at third, Guillen (820) at first.
Against LHP: Thames (845) in left, Inge (806) at third, Cabrera (1001) at first.

For this analysis, I'll use the following PECOTA projections:

Name	        Pos	OBP	SLG
Ivan Rodriguez	C	0.294	0.389
Carlos Guillen	1B	0.362	0.465
Placido Polanco	2B	0.353	0.402
Edgar Renteria	SS	0.343	0.393
Miguel Cabrera	3B	0.376	0.515
Jacque Jones	LF	0.318	0.38
Curtis G'son	CF	0.339	0.467
Magglio Ordonez	RF	0.376	0.485
Gary Sheffield	DH	0.372	0.46
Marcus Thames	LF	0.321	0.48
Brandon Inge	3B	0.316	0.407

Okay, let's start with a basic line-up: the above 11 minus Thames and Inge. According to David Pinto's Lineup Analysis, the worst case scenario scores 5.002 runs per game. I'll take 810 runs from the worst possible line-up, thanks. That would have been good for 7th in the AL last year. The projected batting order (Granderson, Polanco, Sheffield, Ordonez, Cabrera, Guillen, Renteria, Rodriguez, Jones) scores 5.244 runs per game, good for 850 runs. (In case you're interested, the best line-up has Sheff and Maggs in the 1-2 spots, and results in 5.344 runs per game).

Okay, now let's overcomplicate things. That's what this kind of analysis is all about, right? I'd like to try the platoon-based arrangement from above, meaning I'll be inputting two different line-ups into the tool. I won't change the OBP and SLG values for players who play all the time (Granderson, Polanco, Sheffield, Ordonez, Cabrera, Renteria, Pudge), but some adjustment is necessary for those whose playing time depends on the handedness of the pitcher. Unfortunately, PECOTA doesn't project splits, so I'll estimate 2008 splits thusly:

Projected Platoon OBP = (Career Platoon OBP/Career OBP) * Projected OBP (PECOTA)

Same thing goes for projected platoon SLG. This is clearly not a very complicated formula but hey, Marcel projections are almost as good as all the other fancy schmancy ones, right?

Name	        pSplit OBP    pSplit SLG
Brandon Inge	0.361	      0.474
Jacque Jones	0.331	      0.403
Marcus Thames	0.385	      0.493
Carlos Guillen	0.370	      0.469

Making some assumptions about the batting order against RHP and LHP, we get 5.305 runs per game against RHP, and 5.470 runs per game against LHP. Last year 76.7% of Detroit's plate appearances came against RHP. Putting it all together, the platoon-based line-up yields 5.343 runs per game, or 866 runs over a full season.

Okay, so not a huge difference in runs. But the real differences comes at third base. Brandon Inge is way, way better than Cabrera at the hot corner. According to Chris Dial's defensive ratings, the difference between Detroit's and Florida's 3B defense in 2007 (essentially Inge vs. Cabrera) was a whopping 47 runs (19 to -28).

If Inge played 23.3% of the time at third base rather than Cabrera playing all the time, that would save about 11 runs in defense. If you were Jim Leyland, and I came up to you and told you that I could improve your team's run differential by 27 runs (16 in offense, 11 in defense) simply by mixing up the line-up a bit, what would you say? Oh right, I forgot, you're Jim Leyland, and you're not very good at math.

Alright, that was a little unfair. I'm sure Leyland is sufficiently apt to know that 27 runs could, um, help a little bit.

And what about Cabrera vs. Guillen at third base? Nobody seems to be considering that possibility, maybe because Guillen didn't exactly have a great reputation at short, but third base is a couple rungs down the defensive ladder. What about Gary Sheffield? Is he a better first base option than Thames and/or Guillen and/or Cabrera?

Just like the Brewers, there are endless questions/possibilities regarding the defense, but unlike the Brewers, the Tigers don't seem to be looking into those questions. In a strong division in the stronger league, Detroit should be doing anything to gain any advantage they can.

Now, before you go pointing out all the flaws in that analysis, of which I'm sure there are more than there are validities, let me say that I wasn't trying to precisely predict run differentials. Sure, I made a lot of probably baseless assumptions, but I don't think I was particularly biased, so even if I was way off, there's just as good a chance I was way off in the direction of the point I'm trying to make as the opposite way. Plus, I merely wanted to point out that this is the kind of analysis that should be happening in Detroit. This is just one possibility among the thousands.

The Pitching

The rotation is headed by super-stud Justin Verlander. Verlander followed up his rookie of the year season by upping his innings (186.7 to 201), K's (124 to 183) and cutting his WHIP (1.328 to 1.230). Though his ERA remained almost exactly the same, the peripheral improvements bode well for his future. (Strangely, though, he more than tripled his HBP count, from 6 to 19, and threw 17 wild pitches compared to 5 in 2006. I'm not sure why this happened or what it portends for his future, but those seem like some pretty high numbers that probably shouldn't be ignored.)

After JV comes Jeremy Bonderman who, despite all his stuff, has only once put up an ERA+ over 93. He's only 25 this year though, so my hopes are still high. He also seems to be fairly durable. Speaking of durability, the two aforementioned righty flamethrowers are followed in the rotation by three durable, left-handed, non-power pitchers. Dontrelle Willis has thrown 197+ innings each of the last four years, and despite his poor showing last year, he's only 26, and PECOTA likes him to put up a 4.55 ERA in 194 innings, which I'm sure the Tigers would be happy with. Nate Robertson is a little older (30), a little less durable (177.7 IP last year, but 196+ from 2004-2006), and a little... well, worse. He's consistent though, and PECOTA actually likes him better than Willis, marking him down for a 4.42 ERA in 173 innings. There is a cause for concern with Nate, though as his major peripherals all worsened a bit last year. Finally, we come to Kenny Rogers, who is even older (43) and even less durable (63 IP last year, 195+ from 2002-2006). PECOTA doesn't have high hopes for Rogers, projecting only 57.7 innings. This seems a little pessimistic to me, considering how many innings he logged in the five years previous.

Last year's bullpen had a 4.37 ERA, 23rd in the majors, and figures to be about the same this year: Todd Jones returns as the closer, and Fernando Rodney, Tim Byrdak, Zach Miner, Jason Grilli and Bobby Seay are back as well. Joel Zumaya is on the shelf until at least mid-season. Newcomers to the 'pen include Francisco Cruceta, who pitched decently at Texas' AAA affiliate last year but hasn't sniffed the bigs much, and Yorman Bazardo, a highly touted 23 year old who impressed in a couple of stints with the team last year. Bazardo features a 92MPH sinker, as well as a slider and a change, and has primarily been a starter in his career. With the departure of Andrew Miller, Mike Maroth, Jair Jurrjens and Chad Durbin, Bazardo could see some action in the rotation if one of the starters goes down.

The Defense

Detroit had an excellent defense last year. First base (Casey), third base (Inge) and right field (Maggs) were major strengths, with the only weakness being shortstop. As previously mentioned, the 2008 Tigers will take a big hit defensively with the addition of Cabrera (and loss of Inge). First base is likely to be a downgrade too, though mostly because Sean Casey was pretty good - we'll have to wait and see how Guillen does, but you've gotta think a shortstop turned first baseman will be at least average. Renteria will provide an upgrade at short, but it won't be a huge one, as Edgar is only about league average himself.

Putting it all together

Detroit scored 887 runs last year, 3rd in the bigs. On the surface, 887 runs + (Cabrera + Renteria + Jones) - (Inge + Monroe + Casey) looks like a huge improvement. Among other high praises, I've heard "best offense in baseball" and "1000 runs" thrown around. However, I'm not entirely convinced.

Another quick test with the line-up tool shows that the production Detroit got last year was expected to score 880 runs - and that line-up doesn't include pitchers and pinch hitters. Throw in 26 at bats of .189 OPS from the pitchers and 59 at bats of .722 OPS from the pinch hitters and it looks like the offense overachieved by a bit. Not a huge amount, but a bit. And we know from the exercise above that PECOTA thinks the offense is only good for 850 runs this year. So what gives?

Well, not only did Detroit's offense overachieve a bit as a whole last year, but my good friend PECOTA believes that every single returning regular was playing above his head last year. It projects the following drops in OPS: Maggs (168), Granderson (107), Polanco (91), Guillen (32), Pudge (31) and Sheff (8).

Now this has all been very mathy, but I just can't bring myself to believe that the offense is going to be worse than last year. I mean, they're replacing Brandon Inge, he of the 80 OPS+, with Miguel Cabrera. But the facts don't lie - so I'm going to combine my gut with math, which usually results in some sort of ulcer, and say this offense will replicate their performance last year by scoring 887 runs.

As far as the defense goes, the upgrade at short will provide a little relief, but overall will do little to offset the decline at first and especially third. It looks like the defense is going to be worse this year unless Jim Leyland is reading this and decides to try shifting things around a bit.

I see the pitching improving this year. Willis will provide an upgrade over Chike Marbin, Verlander and Bonderman will take steps forward, Robertson will hold steady, and if Kenny Rogers only pitches 11 games - well that's okay, that's how many games he pitched last year. The rotation doesn't have nearly as much back end depth as it did last year, which could be a big problem if more than one starter goes down, but as I've mentioned, this is a pretty durable bunch of guys. I see the bullpen performing about the same as it did last year - maybe a bit better, simply because relievers are unpredictable and they sucked last year.

Throw the rotation, bullpen and defense into a blender with some bananas and yogurt, and you get a healthy (no pun intended... okay, it was intended) 797 runs allowed, same as last year.

Hmm, so I'm predicting that Detroit's run differential is exactly the same as last year? Am I allowed to do that? Maybe a better question would be: what did I just do all that analysis for???!! Anyway, I give you your 2007, I mean 2008 Detroit Tigers: 887 runs scored, 797 runs allowed, an 88-74 record (below their Pythag Expectation by 1 because of a weak back end of the bullpen... also to keep up the whole 2007 thing). Only this time, Cleveland sustains some major injuries and bad luck and the Tigers take the division.