After a disappointing 2015 season, which included some odd maneuvering at the trade deadline, the Detroit Tigers entered the offseason with a significant to-do list. They’ve already made acquisitions designed to address needs in the bullpen and starting pitching rotation, but, with three months until opening day, the team still has one major hole to fill.
As of today, the Tigers’ roster lists the following outfielders:
|63||Wynton Bernard||R-R||6’2″||195||Sep 24, 1990|
|18||Tyler Collins||L-L||5’11”||215||Jun 6, 1990|
|12||Anthony Gose||L-L||6’1″||190||Aug 10, 1990|
|28||J.D. Martinez||R-R||6’3″||220||Aug 21, 1987|
|Cameron Maybin||R-R||6’3″||215||Apr 4, 1987|
|33||Steven Moya||L-R||6’7″||260||Aug 9, 1991|
Wynton Bernard has been stuck in the low minors and isn’t an MLB option. Same for Steven Moya, who even optimists place as, at best, a major-league “bench bat.” If Tyler Collins didn’t hit from the left side, he would have even less experience in the majors than what little he has (seventy-eight career games and a 100 OPS+ across two years).
That leaves J.D. Martinez, Anthony Gose, and Cameron Maybin. Martinez has been one of baseball’s breakout players over the past two seasons, and he’s just now entering his physical prime. His strong bat ensures he’ll have a place in the lineup, and his underrated defensive abilities make him a lock in right field for the 2016 Tigers. Gose has the speed to make him a good defensive centerfielder and a threat on the basepaths, when he can get aboard. In a lineup that tilts heavily toward right-handed bats, its nice that he swings his from the left side, but below-average offensive production leaves his roster spot a bit tenuous on a daily basis.
Maybin now returns to the team that once drafted him tenth overall following something of a resurgence in 2015 as a member of the Atlanta Braves. Entering last season, Maybin’s story was one of a highly touted prospect who failed to realize his potential due to myriad injuries, but some saw reason to remain hopeful. Hidden among the various nuggets in last year’s Baseball Prospectus annual was this note on Maybin:
Injuries have derailed his development and last July’s suspension for amphetamines didn’t help. If you catch Maybin at the right moment, you’ll swear he’s the best player on the field. He’s a brilliant center fielder who runs the bases with grace and can hit baseballs very far, although the numbers don’t show it. There’s still time for a happy ending, but Maybin keeps veering toward the Ruben Rivera Memorial Highway of Disappointment.
Maybin’s measured success last year offers a rational basis to hope that he can continue his improvement trend this season. Still, what the Tigers probably would like to do in 2016 is platoon Maybin and Gose, their two talented-but-flawed centerfielders, and find someone else for the resulting vacancy in left field, offensive prowess preferred.
Fortunately for Detroit, the current free-agent market has some good options, including Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, and Denard Span.
Cespedes’ name has been the one on the lips of most hopeful Tigers fans this winter, probably because he spent much of the 2015 season as a Tiger. All he did in Detroit last year was post the best numbers of his career before a down-to-the-wire deadline trade sent him to the Mets, and, despite a general perception to the contrary, he performed even better during his two months in New York:
Thirty-five home runs and a cannon arm on a guy who already spent time in your organization sounds like a pretty ideal pickup for left field, but the caveats of cost and regression deserve note here. First, Cespedes is likely to command an expensive contract in free agency. The Tigers’ payroll already is spread fairly thin, and although owner Mike Ilitch generated headlines when he said in December that he was willing to exceed the luxury-tax threshold to build a winner in 2016, the team has shown no actual indication that it will do that. Second, while Cespedes’ strong 2015 was an exciting indicator from a player some thought had disappointed after a very strong rookie MLB year in 2012, presently available projections probably correctly anticipate a not-insignificant falloff in 2016, Cespedes’ age-thirty season. Someone will pay Cespedes as if his 2015 performance represents the true-talent level at which he can be expected to continue to perform. Mr. I should not be that person.
FanGraphs’ Dave Cameron thinks Detroit is out of the market for Cespedes and Justin Upton, the two priciest left-field free agents, but he sees Gordon, the career Kansas City Royal, as an option for the Tigers. Gordon is two years older than Cespedes, and while he is a good hitter, much of his value has come from top-flight defensive capabilities. Gordon also has some injury history. A groin injury kept him out of forty-eight games last summer, and he missed seventy-nine games in 2009 with a hip injury. Signing Gordon could be doubly beneficial for the Tigers, because it also would keep the all-star/gold glove/down-ballot MVP-caliber player from contributing for the division-rival Royals, but Detroit probably would prefer someone who, on balance, offers more on the offensive side of the profile than Gordon for the contract Gordon is likely to receive.
Span may be the Tigers’ Goldilocks. Born about a week before Gordon, he’s the oldest of the bunch, and without Cespedes’ offensive power or Gordon’s championship-bolstered accolades, he’s likely to be cheaper than his competition this offseason. Span’s brand of well-roundedness could be exactly what Detroit needs, however.
The following graphs compare Cespedes, Gordon, and Span across a variety of offensive metrics:
The ISO numbers confirm what we thought: Yo’s got homers, Gordon has about average power, and Span is not a power guy. That spike on Cespedes’ line in 2015 is a good illustration of the high risk and reward pitmaster.
Span may not park baseballs as often as Cespedes or Gordon, but he does know how to park himself onto the basepaths, as these OBP and walk/strikeout ratio numbers show. With Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez, the Tigers should be in decent shape in the power department, and a more consistent on-base guy like Span should work as a nice compliment to those big boom/bust bats.
To make up for his absence of power relative to Cespedes and Gordon, Span could contribute to the offense in other ways, such as by stealing bases once aboard. He’s the clear leader among this group in that category, although his numbers cratered last year (as did Gordon’s):
Sick leave likely explain those drops in total stolen bases in 2015 for both Gordon (as mentioned above) and Span, who played in just sixty-one games (.301/.365/.431 with five homers and eleven stolen bases) last year due to a hip injury that required surgery. (Projecting that stolen-base rate across a 162-game season would have him close to his 2014 peak.) Across baseball, stolen bases hit a forty-year low in 2015, but, assuming he recovers well from his hip injury, Span would join a team in Detroit that recently has ramped up its base-stealing efforts.
Like Gordon, defense is a strength for Span and, as indicated, health may be a concern. (In addition to the recent hip surgery, he missed eighty-four games in 2011 due to a concussion.) A recent assessment of that subject:
Span will spend [the offseason] recovering from late-season surgery to repair the labrum in his left hip. He’s expected to sit out 4-6 months after going under the knife in September, so the higher end of the timetable could cost him most of spring training. Span turns 32 in February and is likely in the decline phase of his career, but he’s also just a year removed from a 5.7 WARP campaign, and could wind up a bargain if he makes a speedy recovery.
In November, BP ranked Span fifteenth on their “2016 Free Agent 50” list:
One of the best leadoff hitters in baseball, Span combines a disciplined approach with high-caliber bat-to-ball skills, which allow him to flirt with .300 on an annual basis. Once on base, he leverages his borderline-elite speed into quality baserunning: He’s succeeded on 83 percent of his steal attempts over the past three seasons. Oh, and Span does all this while playing good defense in center. So why is he ranked this low? Because he missed most of 2015 due to various injuries, including season-ending hip surgery to repair a torn labrum. Otherwise, would be a few spots higher.
Sounds like exactly what the Tigers– who have a serviceable, but not ideal leadoff hitter in Ian Kinsler– need, and at a price cheaper than Cespedes, Gordon, Upton, and Dexter Fowler. Oh, and he hits left-handed.
Sure the outfield free agent market has been slow (although rumors of Fowler to San Francisco are swirling as I write this), but that’s all the more reason to jump the crowd of buyers and snap up Span just like they did with his former Nationals teammate, Jordan Zimmerman.