Flying Tigers: Waiting for Takeoff

A month into the season, the Detroit Tigers sit atop the tightly bunched AL Central with a tenuous 12-9 record. The team, guided by first-time manager Brad Ausmus, looks and feels much different than it did over the last two years. Whether due to the change at the helm or a not-quite-coherent set of offseason moves, the 2014 Tigers appear to have traded identity for tactics and strategy. Thus begins Flying Tigers,* our third Detroit baseball series.

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When Jim Leyland announced his retirement following the end of the 2013 season, we knew Motor City baseball would be different in 2014, but we didn’t realize just how different it would be.    

Everyone figured Jhonny Peralta would be gone, and sure enough, off he went to St. Louis in free agency. (Two other notable free agents also departed without a fight from the Tigers: second baseman Omar Infante, who stayed in the division with Kansas City, and reliever Joaquin Benoit, who joined the Padres.) At the time, the Peralta departure wasn’t too controversial, because Detroit thought it had the second coming of Ozzie Smith, Jose Iglesias, ready to replace Peralta at short. Iglesias’ good 2013 offensive production in limited action wasn’t expected to last across a full season in 2014, but his defensive wizardry would more than make up for a weak bat, and hitting already was an obvious strength for the Tigers, right? By the time spring training rolled around, though, Iglesias wasn’t ready to go. Before the season even started, Peralta’s replacement was lost, likely for the year, due to injuries in both shins. Still scrambling to replace the replacement, Detroit has used a mix of Alex Gonzales, Andrew Romine, and Danny Worth.

Two departures were surprising, even shocking, however. The first was Prince Fielder, traded to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler, Infante’s replacement at second. I wrote about the Fielder trade here when it happened and won’t reprise that now. The second was starting pitcher Doug Fister, traded to the Washington Nationals for a pile of scraps named Steve Lombardozzi, Jr., Ian Krol, and Robbie Ray. I also wrote about that trade here when it happened, and I similarly won’t reprise that material now except to note that, on Baseball Prospectus’ list of the worst offseason moves, the Fister trade appeared twice.

The Tigers lost two other notable players to injury: hard-throwing young reliever Bruce Rondon, out for the year following elbow surgery, and left fielder Andy Dirks, out until June or so due to back surgery.

If things are sounding grim to you right now, I’ve done my job.

For additions, aside from Kinsler, there are just two names to mention: veteran closer Joe Nathan, who fills Benoit’s vacated spot, and speedy outfielder Rajai Davis, who was supposed to platoon with Dirks in left but has taken over the position full time while Dirks recovers.

Before trying to make sense of all of this, there are two final personnel events to note: Max Scherzer decided to test free agency after the current season rather than accept a lucrative contract extension offer from the Tigers, and, a few days later, GM Dave Dombrowski extended Miguel Cabrera’s contract ten more years, making the slugger the highest-paid player in baseball.

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The events chronicled in the foregoing section left Tigers fans’ heads spinning, and it had those fans asking, in frustrated tones, “What just happened?” It’s difficult to evade the feeling that Detroit failed to achieve its primary offseason goal while getting worse in the process.

That primary offseason goal was to sign Scherzer, the defending Cy Young winner, to a contract extension before another team backs up the Brinks truck and carts him off in a pile of cash after this season, when he becomes a free agent. While Dombrowski’s moves don’t make a lot of sense in isolation, they make more sense when viewed as components of a coordinated effort to free up resources to pay Scherzer to stay in Detroit: Fielder and Peralta were going to be very expensive this year; Infante was going to command more money coming off a strong season; and giving away Fister for nothing was an obvious salary dump.

As frustrating as it is that Scherzer did not accept the Tigers’ offer, it’s as baffling that Dombrowski reacted quickly by signing Cabrera to a ten-year extension under the most expensive contract in baseball. It isn’t that Cabrera doesn’t deserve to be paid, but he was a full two years away from free agency, and are we just pretending that the whole Albert Pujols thing didn’t happen? The bigger short-term question is whether the Cabrera contract extension really is the best use of the money originally freed up for Scherzer.

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Setting aside the broader questions of team direction, how has the team looked on the field so far? My answer as of today is, sort of like last year’s team, but faster and worse.

In isolation, the Fielder and Fister trades do look weirdly prescient. No sooner did Fister arrive in D.C. than his elbow caught on fire, and not in a good way. That’ll be a short-lived “success” from the Tigers’ vantage point, though, as Fister’s already made a successful rehab start and could be in the Nationals’ starting rotation as soon as next week. Meanwhile, Krol is living up to Dombrowski’s prediction that he could be the team’s number one lefty reliever. That’s a bad joke, though, because the Tigers only have two left-handed relievers, and the fact that Krol’s the only one of the two who could even pretend to tell anyone with a straight face that he belongs in the major leagues only makes him the “No. 1 lefthanded reliever” by default. So far, he’s given up three homers in eight innings of relief work and has a FIP of 6.83. That’s very bad.

Kinsler has provided some real spark, though. Looking at the right side of this graph, you can see that, while he and Prince posted similar batting averages last season, Kinsler has kept the pace this year, but Prince has dropped off sharply with the Rangers.

chartWhile Fielder has the edge in on-base percentage, probably due to his ability to draw walks (of the intentional and unintentional varieties), Kinsler’s hitting for more power (.133 ISO vs. .121 ISO) and is posting a better wOBA— a catch-all offensive metric– than Fielder (.319 vs. .277). They also have the same number of home runs (two), with Kinsler driving in nearly twice as many runs as Fielder (14 vs. 8), while stealing three bases (to Fielder’s zero, obviously).

It would be great if Kinsler kept up his offensive clip, but it also would be pretty surprising if Fielder didn’t get his batting act together as the season develops. This may be a short-lived “success” for Detroit too.

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Then there’s the bullpen, which somehow seems way worse than last year. These guys aren’t worth my words or your time, but if I’m Scherzer, Justin Verlander, or Anibal Sanchez, I’d think about leaving Detroit for less money, because no lead is safe when one of the Tiger aces comes out of the game. When you breathe a sigh of relief because your team’s bullpen surrendered only four runs in a single inning, and an April rainout in Minnesota feels like a blessing . . . your team might have an awful bullpen. With the team continuing to insist on using Drew Smyly as a starter– keep an eye on him the second and third times through the opposing team’s batting order– Detroit cannot last much longer without bullpen reinforcements.

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Davis, Victor Martinez, and Austin Jackson all have been bright spots, but as off April 28, this is a decidedly incomplete team. Timing may make that statement a ridiculous one, the season being just thirteen percent complete, but it’s tough to avoid worrying when there does not seem to be help on the way.

* I am aware that Detroit has a minor league affiliate named the Flying Tigers, but we’re already into the season, and I couldn’t come up with a better name that worked in the context of the past two, so I’m going to stick with it barring a dynamite suggestion from a reader or a flash vision burnt across the clouds.

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11 thoughts on “Flying Tigers: Waiting for Takeoff

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