Thursday, March 04, 2010

10 Things We'll See from the Tigers in '10

1). Johnny Damon will be injured early and often.

While there is no question that Damon has been one of the most productive top-of-the-order hitters in baseball throughout his career, there is even less of a question regarding his status as an injury machine. Perhaps only the fragilely fragile Chipper Jones can compete with the awesome variety of Damon’s injuries. Here is an abbreviated list of injuries that have caused Damon to miss games over the last four seasons…

I feel stupid for not knowing that “fluttering eyes” was an actual condition. Damon has played in an average of 146 games over the last seven seasons. Just to compare, Ichiro—another aging, top-of-the-order, lefty—has averaged 159 games over the last seven seasons. Damon hasn’t played over 150 games in a season since 2002. He hasn’t played fewer than 141 games in that same timeframe, either. So, there is a very good chance that Damon will miss between 12 and 21 games in 2010. The good news is that, despite his litany of injuries, he has only been placed on the IR once in his career. The bad news is that Damon’s presence in the lineup on a regular basis is unreliable at best. Plus, he has spent 92 games as a DH over the past four seasons and I’m sure that a good portion of those DH starts involved playing around injuries. That means the Tigers will have to plan on Damon occupying the DH spot more than you’d expect from a starting outfielder. With Carlos Guillen already slotted as the DH because of defensive and injury issues of his own, the Tigers may have a hard time keeping Damon and Guillen in the lineup at the same time.

2). Jeremy Bonderman will not be an effective starter.

The Bonderman Experiment is going on its eighth and possibly final season. When Bondo was a 20-year old fireballer with a wicked slider, the sky was the limit. By most accounts, he was just two steps from becoming an elite pitcher; 1). Harness command and 2). Develop a third pitch. Since those steps tend to come naturally to maturing pitchers, Bondo’s future looked promising. Eight years later, he hasn’t made any headway on either front. Bondo is the equivalent of a professional “Paper, Rock, Scissors” competitor who can only throw down “paper.” Eventually (or more likely immediately), opponents will realize you can only throw “paper” and will simply choose “scissors.” Bondo has a meaty fastball that hitters daydream about. If he doesn’t get a strikeout, very bad things happen. He can’t throw his out-pitch (the slider) for a strike which means disciplined hitters are basically extended a welcoming invitation to first base. He also struggles to find the plate in 3-ball counts which, of course, is a recipe for disaster. His career WHIP is a horrid 1.40. However, despite all of those unfavorable statistics, Bondo—when healthy—has managed to survive as a decent starting pitcher because of his strikeout rate. Considering his recent injury history, however, it’s reasonable to assume that his K/9 will drop precipitously from his career best of 8.5 in ‘06. It has already dropped in each of the past four seasons. Since that was his livelihood as a pitcher, a Bondo renaissance is less likely than a fair and balanced story from the Detroit Free Press.

3). The bullpen will be a strength.

The bullpen probably looked a lot better than it actually was last season. Nobody was truly horrible in the ERA department but it was an unreliable bunch. Most of the primary players had putrid WHIPs and BB/9. Fernando Rodney, Ryan Perry, and Zack Miner all had WHIPs over 1.46. That level of inconsistency at the back of the bullpen is a disaster waiting to happen. This year’s cast should be much better. Perry—with a year under his belt—should be more reliable. Jose Valverde—Rodney’s long awaited replacement—has been far less precarious with late-inning leads. Bobby Seay—despite a less-than-stellar ’09 campaign—has been the Tigers most reliable reliever over the past three years. Phil Coke was a solid reliever for the World Champion Yankees and there’s no reason to think he won’t be one for the Tigers in ‘10. I don’t want to factor in Joel Zumaya and Nate Robertson too much considering how inconsistent and/or downright horribly they have pitched. However, if either can put together a productive 2010, then the bullpen could easily be the strength of the team.

4). The offense will be better than last year (if it can remain healthy).

At any given time, the Tigers seem to be one hitter away from having the best offense in the AL and one hitter from having the worst offense in the AL. When Gary Sheffield was healthy in 2007, the Tigers were an offensive machine. When Sheff went south the next season, the offense was putrid. As much as I enjoyed rooting for Curtis Granderson and as much as I respect what he is capable of as a player, the Tigers need Johnny Damon more than they need Granderson. Damon’s bat—most notably his ability to hit lefties and righties equally—is going to be a godsend for the Tigers. Damon’s eye will be, too. It’s not that he walks more than Granderson—they’re pretty much a wash there—it’s that he strikes out far less. Damon has never struck out 100 times in a season. Granderson has never struck out fewer than 111 times in a season. Those extra balls in play should make a big difference. Scott Sizemore should give the Tigers more activity on the base paths considering he walks more and steals more bases than Placido Polanco. All of that should set up nicely for Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen to drive in more runs than last season. Of course, this is all on paper. If/when Damon and Guillen start falling apart limb by limb, this offense could get bogged down in a hurry.

5). Austin Jackson won’t last six weeks at leadoff (if that).

Jackson was the highest rated player in the Yankees system so clearly he has promise. I just don’t think that “promise” is meant for 2010. Jackson doesn’t walk and he strikes out in bundles. Those happen to be the first two “rules” of how not to be a successful leadoff hitter. In fact, those are exactly the reasons the Tigers were so willing to part with Curtis Granderson. I have no idea why Jim Leyland would even entertain the idea of Jackson as the leadoff man. Maybe I’m an idiot. Maybe Jackson is about to become the second coming of Ichiro. Until that happens, though, I’m calling this experiment a terrible idea.

6). Magglio Ordonez will be much better playing for another contract kicker.

It’s déjà vu all over again. Mags has another kicker in his contract that puts him on the books for $15 million in 2011 if he reaches 562 play appearances in 2010. When his “guaranteed option” started looking precarious last season, Mags turned up the heat at the plate. I’m not gullible enough to think it was a coincidence. He put up a .961 OPS in August and a 1.057 in September after looking like Rob Deer for the first four months of the season. This time around, though, Mags needs to be in the lineup virtually every day to vest his option. He can’t afford to be benched for extended periods of time like last season. Mags is motivated by money. He’ll be back in 2010.

7). The Tigers will be at least five games below .500 on May 25.

The Tigers have a fortuitous nine-game stretch to start the season that includes six games against Kansas City and three against Cleveland. Hopefully, they’ll be over .500 heading into game #10. Unfortunately, that’s when the schedule gets brutal. The Tigers immediately head out west for an 11-game road trip against Seattle, Los Angles, and Texas. Then comes another brutal stretch of six games against Minnesota and three against the Angels. They follow that with a three-game breather in Cleveland immediately followed by a four game series against the Yankees and a three-game set against the Red Sox. It doesn’t stop there. They immediately start into a two-game series against the White Sox and then after two games against Oakland, they have to play the Dodgers and Seattle. Starting on April 16, the Tigers play 32 of the next 39 games against teams that were above .500 in 2009. The schedule is much easier after May 25 so if the Tigers are anywhere near first place entering June, then odds of a division title increase considerably.

8). Minnesota will own the Tigers in 2010.

The Twins owned the Tigers in 2009 which is why they made the playoffs and the Tigers didn’t. Detroit was just 7-12 against Minnesota including the one-game playoff in the Metrodome. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s dominance over Detroit will continue again in 2010. The Twins went out and signed the Tiger-killer, Jim Thome, to give them three lethal left-handed bats in the middle of their order. Thome has more home runs and a higher OPS against the Tigers than any other team in the American League. As if the Mauer-Morneau-Thome combination isn’t bad enough, the Twins can put together a lineup with seven lefties which is a nightmare for Detroit’s all-righty rotation.

9). Justin Verlander will be even better in 2010.

Justin Verlander was stellar in 2009. He finished 3rd in the Cy Young voting and had, by far, the best season of his career. However, it would’ve been even better if it weren’t for some bad luck. In his first three seasons, his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BAbip) was in the .280-.290 range. Last season it jumped to .323. BAbip is considered to be a measure of “luck”, meaning that pitchers have little control over the outcome of a ball put in play. JV became a bona fide elite pitcher in 2009 as he posted career bests in both K/9 and BB/9. The only thing missing was “luck.” Look for “luck” to either be on his side or a non-factor in 2010.

10). Better team=Worse record.

Bill James created a formula called the “Pythagorean expectation” that predicts the number of wins a team should have based on runs allowed and runs scored. Using that formula, the Tigers should’ve gone 81-82 last season. Instead, they went 86-77. Unlike the “bad” luck that Justin Verlander dealt with in 2009, the Tigers as a team had pretty good luck. In fact, of the 30 teams in MLB, only four had more wins above their “expected” total than the Tigers did. In short, the Tigers probably weren’t as good as their record which should surprise nobody. There’s a pretty good chance that the Tigers are going to be a better team this season based on expected improvements offensively and in the bullpen. As a result, I wouldn’t be surprised to see their “expected” win total to be better than it was last season. However, it would also not surprise me to see their actual win total be lower.

10.5). One final thought…barring major injuries to elite players in the AL, the Tigers have a 0% chance of making the playoffs in 2010. They cannot and will not beat the Twins in the Central and there is no way that they’ll finish with a better record than both Boston and New York. This won’t be a lost season, however. Rick Porcello, Ryan Perry, Max Scherzer, Scott Sizemore, and Austin Jackson are vital to the future success of the organization. Tracking their progress will make 2010 worth watching not to mention expected Cy Young and MVP runs by Verlander and Cabrera, respectively.


Bob said...

I certainly respect someone who makes very bold and specific predictions because at the end of the year you will either look like a genius or an idiot. My crystal ball does not work nearly as well as yours, but I do have a couple of comments.

1) Juan Gonzalez and Chipper are fragile. Chipper has only 1 season of the last 6 over 140 games and Juan Gon only accomplished that 'feat' in 6 of his 17 seasons. With Guillen/Raburn/Thomas/etc available to play LF I don't see this being a big problem. It is LF after all.

2) The Bonderman experiment is primarily about health, not talent. In 2007 his so/bb was solid for the 1st half and bad in the 2nd, when he injured himself yet again. Best case, the blood clot was the source of his problems and he looks like healthy 2006/2007 Bondo. Otherwise he likely gets hurt yet again and we only get a few weeks/months out of him. Either way his the #4 pitcher, so the upside has a bigger impact than the down.

3, 4 ) Agreed, nice summary.

5) Nobody knows how this will work out, but it worked with Granderson in 2006. Maybe lightning strikes twice. Not a big deal with Damon on board.

6) I think Mags will also have a decent (like 2008) year. However, I think his pathetic 1st half had more to do with his wife's cancer than his contract.

7) I hope not, but you make a sound case.

8) We will see. Remember the Twins went 8-2 in the dome and only 4-5 at Comerica. Also, the Twins grow great talent but free agency doesn't seem to work out for them nearly as well.

9) Agreed

10) Makes sense, but I hope not. Last year the Tigers seemed to give up a lot of later inning leads, with the better bullpen the runs against should go down.

Anonymous said...

My only problem with any of these is I wouldnt be so sure the Twins are going to own us. While they have in previous years, one thing you are overlooking is the loss of the Metrodome advantage that the Twins have had over every other team in baseball. I'm not certain how much of an affect this had on opposing teams but I'm interested to see what kind of differences the stadiums make this year.

Jake said...

I hope you guys are right about the Twins. I know it has been assumed over the years that they have benefited greatly from the Metrodome's carpet. I'm more inclined to attribute their success to having multiple MVPs who are still in their prime to go along with a solid supporting cast of lefty contact hitters. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Dan said...

Any thoughts on Willis coming back to the team?

Jake said...

I have no expectations for Willis whatsoever. In 14 starts over the last two years, he has an ERA over 8.00 and a WHIP over 2.00. In that time, he walked 63 batters in 57.2 innings. I wish him well but shedding his contract from the payroll is all that we're going to get out of him this season.


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