Tigers Take A Step Back


Although the White Sox were arguably a few Robin Ventura blunders away from taking the AL Central in 2012, it has been Detroit’s division to lose for the last three years. Last year, Cleveland and Kansas City closed some of the gap, but Detroit had every reason to assume they would be the favorite in 2014 heading into this offseason.

Then this offseason happened.

The Prince Fielder – for – Ian Kinsler swap is obviously the biggest move. People point to the money the Tigers save in the deal, but with the $30 million the Tigers send to Texas, the Tigers don’t really see any savings until four years from now. And sure, it’s great to save a ton of money on the back end of a deal like Fielder’s, and yes, Miguel Cabrera desperately needed to take 1B or DH moving forward. But in four years when the savings start to kick in, Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera will be 34. The Tigers’ window to win a title is clearly now.

As far as purely on the field considerations, Ian Kinsler is definitely a nice player and an upgrade over the other options at 2B for Detroit. However, Kinsler turns 32 next year. Although he has largely put his durability issues behind him, his fielding ability has deteriorated, and to quote Jonathan Bernhardt: “Second basemen play the highest-stress position in the game outside of catcher, and as a general rule, they see swift and harsh decline in both their ability to play and their ability to stay healthy as they move through their early 30’s due to that stress.”

Trading 2 years of a cost-controlled #3 starter for a utility infielder is probably bad.(Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports)

Even if Kinsler holds his offensive value where it is, the past three years he has posted a .262/.341/.438 line playing half of his games in an extreme hitters park. That’s nice. It would be superb for a White Sox hitter. But this is a huge step back from Prince Fielder. One wonders how much of this decision stems from Fielder’s postseason struggles of late, which strike me as flukey bad luck more than any inherent flaw on the part of the player. Besides, it’s hard to hit badly in the playoffs if you don’t even get there.

So, Fielder for Kinsler – bizarre, probably a step back, but there is a logic to it. Trade from a surplus to meet a need, streamline the roster, etc. etc. Okay. The common speculation is that it would free up money to extend Max Scherzer, which I suppose is possible, but this is an odd time for the Tigers to pinch pennies given their prime positioning to compete for a title and Mike Illitch’s demonstrated willingness to turn his pizza empire into a baseball empire. And besides – it’s been weeks now and it hasn’t happened yet.

There has been other roster attrition. Gone are Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante. Were they likely to repeat their 2013 performance moving forward? Unlikely, but when measuring the gap between the 2013 and 2014 Tigers squads, one has to look at the production from last year that will be lost. Peralta’s .303/.358/.457 line at shortstop, albeit with limited range, is extremely hard to find. The pitching staff will benefit from a full year of Iglesias’ glove, but I am extremely skeptical that an extreme strikeout staff is really going to profit more from some extra plus plays on grounders than the ~.200-250 points of OPS they’re going to lose at the position. It’s also unlikely that Kinsler matches Omar Infante’s .318/.345/.450 line moving into 2014.

There also looks to be other general performance attrition on the roster. Torii Hunter has defied aging in admirable fashion, but time is going to outlast him eventually. Moving into his age-38 season, it is hard to imagine him improving on his 2013 performance.

Likewise, I do not think Anibal Sanchez will pitch arguably the best 180 innings in the majors again next year. His injury history is terrifying, and there is not much evidence to suggest that he is a sub-3.00 ERA guy.

More importantly, Doug Fister is inexplicably gone, exchanged for a utility infielder and some extremely dubious prospects. The Tigers turned around and used his payroll space (and then some) on Joe Nathan – who is great, but not without risk. What’s more, one can argue that their bullpen – the team’s Achilles heel in 2013 – will be worse anyway next year. Nathan roughly approximates the production of the departed Joaquin Benoit. Moreover, Drew Smyly is now going to have to move into the rotation to try to replace Fister. Smyly’s stuff will likely play way down in a starting role, and the odds are against him being more productive than 2013 Fister.

The offseason is not yet over, although with Shin-Soo Choo signing with the Rangers, the attractive options are diminishing.

The Tigers are probably still the favorites for the division in 2014, but they suddenly look much more vulnerable, losing 3 impact bats, a very good starting pitcher, and treading water in relief. I don’t think the improvements to the left side of the infield defense are going to offset these losses. There aren’t a ton of internal options that appear ready to improve the team, and there were a number of performances last year that look like the high water mark for those players moving forward.

Something to keep an eye on for 2014, and absolutely something to keep in mind when thinking of the relative health of the organizations in the AL Central moving into 2015 when the White Sox look to hopefully be relevant again.