This is one of a series of posts in which we castigate each team for their offseason blunders and praise them for their wily maneuvers.
One year ago the Detroit Tigers were being praised far and wide, having made headline-grabbing trades for Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cabrera, and Dontrelle Willis, and many prognosticators were predicting a return to the World Series.
One of the few to disagree however, was UmpBump’s own Sarah Green, who presciently pointed out that the Tigers had not done enough to shore up their weak pitching. Sure enough, the Tigers pitching staff imploded last year, both in the rotation and the bullpen, and Detroit finished last in the AL Central with a woeful 74-88 record.
Compounding Detroit’s problems heading into the offseason, years of poor drafts, type-A free agent signings, and last years trades had gutted the farm system, which is presently among the most barren in the majors, meaning that a rebuilding project would be unlikely to bear fruit for several years at best. At the same time, Detroit already had the third highest payroll in the majors, at $138 million, meaning that doubling down with more pricey free agents was also out of the question. This meant that the only course open to the Tigers this winter was to try to retool by tinkering with the parts they already had.
All was not lost however. Just as the Detroit staff was not nearly as good as they looked in 2006, they are also not nearly as bad as they looked this past season. Moreover, while the AL Central is filled with several good teams, there is no particularly great team, meaning that 86 or 87 wins could be enough to win, and given that the Tigers’ Pythagorean record actually suggested they were good enough to win 78 games last year, they are not that far from contention.
Perhaps more importantly, the Tigers still have a strong core on offense, having ranked 4th in the AL in runs scored last season. What killed them last year was the aforementioned pitching, and maybe even more so, an atrocious defense, 24th in the majors in defensive efficiency, which made the pitchers look even worse than they actually were.
Not surprisingly then, the Tigers focused on pitching and defense this offseason, and in a series of crafty moves, significantly improved both. First, they announced that Carlos Guillen would be permanently moved to left field for the 2009 season. This allows iron-gloved Miguel Cabrera to settle in at first base, where his defensive deficiencies can be most effectively minimized, and also allows Brandon Inge, a superior defender, to return from to third base from catcher, with catching duties now falling into the league-average hands of Gerald Laird, who was acquired from the Rangers for a couple of fringy minor leaguers, and backed up by free agent signee Matt Treanor and his hot baseball wife Misty May.
The Tigers now had a glut of outfielders, so they shipped Matt Joyce to the Rays for Edwin Jackson, a reasonable facsimile of a no. 3 starter. They also let Edgar Renteria, a disappointment both at the plate and in the field last season, to go to the Giants as a free agent, signing all-glove no-bat Adam Everett to replace him.
Finally, the Tigers went out and used what little cash they had available to bring in Brandon Lyon as their new closer, allowing Fernando Rodney to shift back to the 8th inning where he seems much more comfortable.
Essentially, what the Tigers have done, in other words, is cashed in some of their area of strength – hitting – in exchange for improving their areas of weakness – defense and pitching.
If they wish to have a shot at contention, the Tigers are still going to need some of their pitchers to bounce back – Rodney, Joel Zumaya, and Jeremy Bonderman from injury, Justin Verlander from mysterious mediocrity, Willis from bewildering wildness, Nate Robertson from total and utter suckage – but the good news is that it seems likely that at least some of these bouncebacks will happen, and that just might be enough.
Overall, the Tigers are looking much better heading into 2009 than they did at the end of last season. The emergence of Armando Galarraga, the surprising late-season surge of Zach Miner, and the offseason addition of Edwin Jackson mean that the Tigers are no longer heavily relying on contributions from Willis and Robertson, so any contributions they can make would be bonuses.
Dave Dombrowski and company have done a reasonably good job this offseason to retool the squad from within the constraints that they themselves had constructed. No question that Adam Everett is going to be a black hole on offense, but he is a wizard with the glove, and will make his pitchers better. And while Brandon Lyon is not exactly a bullpen ace, he will certainly be better than Todd Jones/Fernando Rodney, especially if pitches like he did the first half of last year (2.43 ERA). Run production should still be fairly strong overall, but run prevention should be significantly improved.
Offseason Grade: B+
Acquisitions: Edwin Jackson, Gerald Laird, Brandon Lyon, Adam Everett, Matt Treanor
Losses: Matt Joyce, Edgar Renteria, Kyle Farnsworth, Kenny Rogers, Freddy Garcia
Projected Lineup, Rotation, and Closer:
CF Curtis Granderson
2B Placido Polanco
LF Carlos Guillen
RF Magglio Ordonez
1B Miguel Cabrera
DH Gary Sheffield/Marcus Thames
3B Brandon Inge
C Gerald Laird
SS Adam Everett
SP1 Justin Verlander
SP2 Jeremy Bonderman
SP3 Edwin Jackson
SP4 Armando Galarraga
SP5 Zach Miner/Nate Robertson/Dontrelle Willis
CL Brandon Lyon