Thursday, May 22, 2008

Hope lies with Dombrowski and $50 million

I don’t know if the Tigers are going to rebound from their early season malaise. Three weeks ago, I would’ve told you that it was only a matter of time before the bats fired-up and the pitching became more consistent. Now, the likelihood of that is probably less than 50/50. This season may very well end up being a waste in much the same way that last year was a waste. Fortunately, there is hope. It’s not short-term hope or quick-fix hope that will help this year. Rather, it’s kind of like being strapped for cash with no relief in sight and then getting a big, forgotten-about, refund from the IRS. The Tigers appear to be littered with underachieving players whose once promising futures appear to be uncertain (i.e. Verlander, Bonderman, Willis, Cabrera, Zumaya). With their futures in doubt, it’s difficult to get excited about direction this team is going. However, that should all change very, very soon.

Over the next two years, the Tigers are going to have roughly $50 million come off the existing payroll. Gary Sheffield, Ivan Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, Kenny Rogers, and Todd Jones will count for the bulk of that money. It would be nearly impossible for the Tigers to get less value for $50 million than they are getting with the above players right now. Sheffield has absolutely no power because of his maimed shoulder. Pudge is worthless. Rogers and Jones have looked their age. Renteria isn’t the worst player in the world but he certainly wasn’t worth Jair Jurrjens.

While the Tigers may look like a big pile of junk right now, a lot of the junk will be gone by September of 2009. The Tigers will be left with a core featuring Miguel Cabrera, Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello. Carlos Guillen and Placido Polanco should still be around and fairly productive which means the Tigers will still have the depth and talent to field a very competitive team. How good that team will be will almost certainly depend on how wisely Dave Dombrowski spends the extra $50 million. The Tigers—despite their $137 million payroll and resurgence as a factor in the baseball world—have still not been able to lure high-profile free agents to Detroit. All of Dombrowski’s work has come through trades, the draft, and by overpaying dinged-up stars. So, I’m not sure that he’ll be able to bring in the hot name in the off-season just because he has money to burn. Ideally, Dombrowski could just rely on his trading prowess. Unfortunately, the minors were depleted in last winter’s spending spree so there won’t be many enticing packages the Tigers can offer. Jeff Larish is raking at Toledo (AAA) right now with an OPS of .976 and 15 home runs in 48 games. With Cabrera at first, Larish’s future appears to be somewhere else. Eddie Bonine is a starting pitching-prospect who has also been phenomenal at Toledo (AAA) this year. His splits include an 8-0 record, a 3.79 ERA, and a 1.13 WHIP. Bonine will be 27 in June and Larish is 25 so their trade value is dwindling. The Tigers may be able to build a package around them but reeling in a big-name via a trade is still unlikely. There is a tremendous amount of talent in the lower-levels of the organization but that will take a few years to mature into viable trade bait.

The idea that the Tigers could have so much money to spend but not have anyone to spend it on is a depressing one. Maybe the work that Dombrowski and Mike Ilitch have done over the last few years has increased the Tigers profile enough to lure even the most sought after free agents. Miguel Cabrera sure didn’t seem to mind signing an extension to stay in Detroit for seven more years. If, however, Detroit is still not a desired-destination for the big-time free agents, then the Tigers will have to once again revert to overpaying and then that $50 million becomes more like $35 million.

For the time being, though, I’m going to assume two things…1). Mike Ilitch intends on using the $50 million rather than reducing payroll and 2). Dombrowski will be able to get fair value for his $50 million. The Tigers absolutely must find a left-fielder who can mash. Gary Sheffield in his prime would be a perfect fit. Unfortunately, he has turned into the king of infield pop-ups. The Tigers will be able to afford a bona-fide superstar left-fielder and they should be willing to splurge a bit to bring the best one available to Detroit. The two best left-field types available in the Free Agent class of '09 are Pat Burrell and Adam Dunn. Either would be a monumental upgrade over Sheffield at this point. Cabrera and Ordonez provide enough in the middle of the lineup that the offense could afford the addition of a high power/low average guy. Over the last four years, Dunn has averaged 100+ runs, 100+ RBIs, 100+ BBs, and 40+ HRs. Throw in the fact that he is a lefty and he could be a nice fit for the Tigers. Burrell hasn’t been as productive as Dunn but he is having his best season in ’08. Neither are perfect. Both are upgrades in left.

The other position that needs a major upgrade is the rotation. In the same irrational way Joe Dumars is in love with his starting five of underachievers, I believe that Jim Leyland—and probably Dombrowski to some extent—is in love with his rotation. He might not be in love with their production but I fear that he’ll stick with them beyond reason. While it is refreshing to see the team move Dontrelle Willis into the bullpen to keep Armando Galarraga—by far the Tigers’ best starter through two months—in the rotation, I don’t see Willis staying in the bullpen all season. So, don’t be too surprised if the brass stick with Verlander, Bonderman, Robertson, and Willis for the long-term. All but Verlander are signed through 2010 and the Tigers will certainly re-sign Verlander beyond his current contract. Fortunately, the team will have the opportunity to address the spot opened by Kenny Rogers’s likely departure. Rick Porcello might get the first-look there. There is a decent chance that Porcello will immediately be the most talented pitcher on the team. That would mean that Leyland and Dombrowski would have to pull the plug on one of the other underachieving pitchers in order to add Porcello and make the significant upgrade through free agency that is absolutely necessary to contend for a championship. The Tigers will have plenty of money available over the next two years to make a run at even the most expensive pitching-free agents. The key is not to overpay for the mid-level pitcher. Those bidding wars end up getting ridiculous and can often result in Mike Hampton making $15 per year. The trick is to either pay big money for the “cream”, sign a veteran (like Rogers), or go with one of your prospects. The Tigers need major upgrades at only two positions and the rotation happens to be one of them. So, going after the “cream” should be an organizational goal.

Unfortunately, the ’09 free agent class for starting pitching is weak. Only C.C. Sabathia and Ben Sheets would qualify as the “cream.” Every team in baseball with any financial flexibility will be after them. That shouldn’t stop the Tigers from making a run, though. Sabathia and Sheets are proven front-line starters that the Tigers desperately need. Sheets’s injury history might make him more affordable but it also makes him a risk. The Tigers have had plenty of injury issues in the rotation with Willis, Bonderman, and Rogers all having lengthy stints on the DL over the past two years. Still, Sheets is an ace-caliber pitcher who is still only 29. He is off to a strong start in ’08. Sabathia is, of course, a superstar. He won the Cy Young in ’07 and has been lights-out after a rough start in ’08. Adding Sabathia would have the dual advantage of crippling the rotation of the intra-division Indians.

With Carlos Guillen and Miguel Cabrera in the fold for the next few years, the Tigers are unlikely to have room for a first-baseman or a DH. Guillen might be a stop-gap at third for ’08 but the same fielding inconsistencies that plagued him at shortstop will catch up to him at third base. Granderson and Mags will occupy CF and RF for the next few years. Polanco is a great value at 2B which might mean an even longer stay in Detroit than his current contract runs. Shortstop and catcher are positions that will need to be addressed but the Tigers absolutely do not have to spend money for a “name” at either position. Heck, Brandon Inge might be Pudge’s replacement. Renteria will be gone after next year which will leave a hole at SS. The Tigers would be best-served putting all of their money into adding talent in LF and SP and allocating significantly less money to the catcher and shortstop positions. The Tigers will have enough power offensively with Granderson, Mags, Cabrera, Guillen, Polanco and a power-hitting left-fielder that they won’t need to overpay a catcher or a shortstop.

The only other position that the Tigers will likely have to address is third base. Cabrera has already been booted from the position. Guillen won’t last long. And nobody knows if Inge will even be on the team next year. Fortunately, the Tigers might have an answer in-house. Wilkin Ramirez is tearing it up AA Erie with a .942 OPS. Aside from Porcello, he is the #1 prospect in the organization and, unlike Larish, there is room for him in the organization. Two years from now, he’ll be 24 and more than due for a MLB promotion. That would also mean the Tigers could allocate bottom dollar to the third base position.

So, even though this was supposed to be the year where all of the pieces were put together for a run at the World Series, I actually think the best Tigers team—chemistry and talent-wise—is still two or three years away. In a year of such disappointment, that is something to get excited about.

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