Five Questions: Detroit Tigers

Last season, we heard ad nauseum how the Tigers were the worst team in the history of major league baseball (they weren’t, but it was close). For perspective, their pitching staff turned the average AL offense into the 2001 Mariners. Their offense made an average pitching staff look like the 1998 Braves (in addition to the Big Three, Neagle and Millwood were also good that year).

This is obviously a huge hole to climb out of, but is it as bad as it looks? First, the Tigers’ pythagorean record (using PythagoPat) was 48-114 (they were outscored (928-591), not 43-119. As is usually the case when a team appears to be exceptionally bad (or exceptionally good), lady luck exacerbates it a little.

Also, based on their batting events, the Tigers could have been expected to score 601 runs (+10) and their pitchers could have been expected to allow “just” 901 runs (+27). If you plug those into the pythagorean method, you get a team whose talent level is more like a team that should have been 51-111. I think that’s the base we’re working from here. Don’t get me wrong, they were still terrible, but they weren’t nearly as bad as it first looks.

Let’s explore some of the big questions surrounding this disas . . . err, uh team; are things looking up?

Just ask Rondell White, who said, “With [Ivan Rodriguez] signing, automatically we’ve got a chance to win the Central, I don’t think there’s no one to overpower us.”

Please don’t go to Vega$ with Rondell’s advice! Sorry, but you don’t have a chance to win your division Rondell. The White Sox and Twins (Royals?) will certainly “overpower” you. But you will be a lot better than 43-119. This leads us to question one:

1) Does the Ivan Rodriguez signing make sense for this team?

There are many ways to defend the contract. For one, the Tigers’ catching situation was among the worst I can remember – their catchers earned six Win Shares. The average major league team picked up 17 WS from their catchers in 2003. Rodriguez had 23 WS. Add in Detroit’s expected 3-4 WS from backups this year, and it looks like a 6-7 win improvement.

There is a clause that allows the Tigers to void the contract for $5 million (after 2005) if he’s on the DL for 35 or more days, during the next two years, with a lumbar spine injury . There is a similar clause if he suffers the injury in 2006. That’s quite creative and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski deserves kudos for working that in, though it doesn’t look like other injuries are included.

We all know Ivan Rodriguez is a very good player. Other than an exceptional half-campaign in 2000, Pudge has consistently hit for an OPS+ in the 120s and been the best defensive catcher in the game. But he’s now 32 years old and this contract will take him through his age-35 season. The track record of 32-35-year-old catchers is not very good. Let’s compare Rodriguez to a few of the great catchers of the last 35 years.

The first Pudge – Carlton Fisk – is the exception, but he caught just 15 major league games before his 24th birthday. Fisk exceeded 135 games caught in a season just twice, in 1977 (151) and 1978 (154). It’s not a coincidence that his OPS+ dropped to 96 (from 126) in 1979.

Detroit’s Pudge caught 564 games before his 24th birthday. He exceeded 135 games caught in four consecutive years (1996-1999), though he wasn’t abused like Fisk was in 1977-78. Bill James has postulated that the limit is about 1,800 career games caught before virtually all catchers break down. I-Rod is at 1,564 and climbing.

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the most similar player to Rodriguez is Ted Simmons. Simmons had a career OPS+ of 118 and Rodriguez’s is 114 (before the decline phase of course, Simmons was a better hitter). Compared to their environment, Rodriguez has more power, while Simmons was on base more, but they are comparable – especially because Simmons was a regular at age 20, Rodriguez at 19.

Simmons was done as a catcher by the time he was 33. After catching 1,721 games through 1983, he caught 50 games over the rest of his career, while playing an assortment of other positions. The move didn’t help his offense either. After posting a 127 OPS+ in 1983, his last as a regular catcher, he was never the same player. That’s what catching does to you. By the time you realize you have to move, it’s too late.

Joe Torre was moved off catcher after just 903 games (he didn’t catch a game after his 30th birthday) and he was still finished by the time he was 36, despite posting a 123 OPS+ at age 35 in 340 AB. The tail end of his career doesn’t show a loss of effectiveness, it shows a good player who couldn’t stay in the lineup.

Johnny Bench, was also a regular major league catcher at the age of 20. Through 1980 (age-32), Bench had caught 1,729 games. Moved to 3B in 1981, he had a great year with the stick (don’t forget the season had a 2-month break for the strike). But he fell off a cliff after that and was out of baseball after 1983.

Simmons did have a bad year in 1981, but bounced back in 1982-83. There was nothing going into 1984 that suggested he would nosedive offensively. Same for Bench in 1982. Both had already been moved as a “pre-emptive” strike to extend their careers, but it was too late.

Rodriguez has requested action at 1B or 3B on days when he isn’t catching. This is a great idea, maybe he’ll only catch 110 games if that comes to pass, which could buy him an extra year or two. The Tigers won’t be good, so letting Mike DiFelice and/or Brandon Inge catch 50 games isn’t an issue, if it reduces the wear and tear on the star.

The more likely scenario has Rodriguez catching 130 games each of the next two years (Alan Trammell is saying 140 max). He’ll be where Bench was after 1980, or Simmons in April of 1984. It’s possible we’ll be talking about how good this contract was and how Rodriguez will be “in the best shape of his career”, and people will be absolutely “shocked” if he too falls off a cliff.

The signing sparked local interest in the Tigers, as Pudge’s signing day was the Tigers’ best single day ever for ticket sales. But is this the type of player a rebuilding team should be signing? I just don’t understand it. Pre-Pudge, the best case scenario for this team was 70-75 wins, and that would have taken a lot. Maybe this will push it to 78-83 wins, if he has a great year. So what?

Aside from Rodriguez pulling a Fisk and catching 2,000 games before breaking down, there are two ways I can see this deal being positive. The best way for the Tigers would have them springing to 70-75 win status immediately. The youngsters (Carlos Pena, Eric Munson, Chris Shelton, Omar Infante, Craig Monroe, Cody Ross) develop, you’ve got a solid nucleus and a team that suddenly reaches a critical mass, like the 1978 Tigers did. In that scenario, already having Rodriguez in place – especially in a weak division – gives you a chance, possibly as early as next year.

The other scenario is that the team is terrible – but Rodriguez has a great year. In that case, despite the no-trade clause (everything is negotiable), you move him for a group of good prospects (I trust Dombrowski’s judgement there). The Cubs and Astros both have weak catchers and strong farm systems – maybe Rodriguez will change the balance of power in the other Central?

The worst-case scenario (regarding Pudge) is this: The Tigers muddle through the next two years, winning 65-75 games, and Pudge excels. By 2006, the youth movement is starting to pay dividends, and the Tigers finally expect to make some noise. For those of you who don’t think this is possible, I give you the 1988 Braves (54-106), who had a couple of young pitchers that were getting hammered (John Smoltz and Tom Glavine) and a farm system with guys like David Justice, Ron Gant, Jeff Blauser and Steve Avery. Anyway, at this point, Rodriguez is counted on as the leader of the team – the Terry Pendleton figure – and presto! . . . he suddenly stops hitting and the team comes up short.

At the center of said youth movement is a young pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman, which leads us to question two:

2) Will getting clubbed like a seal in 2003 have a negative impact long-term on Jeremy Bonderman’s career?

Just 20 years old and jumping up from the California League, Bonderman was absolutely not ready for the majors last year (6-19, 78 ERA+). But there were signs of hope, and if you’re losing 119 games, you may as well let your phenom spend that year learning and adjusting to the majors. Bonderman only walked 58 batters in 162 innings and he struck out 6.0 per 9 IP. The Tigers didn’t abuse him, giving him just 28 starts and 747 batters faced.

The season is similar to Greg Maddux circa 1987 (6-14, 76 ERA+, 101 K, 74 BB, 156 IP). Maddux was a year older than Bonderman that season. Smoltz at age-21 registered a 2-7 mark in 12 starts, with an ERA+ of 67. At the age of 22, in 1988, Glavine was 7-17 with an ERA+ of 81. He only fanned 84 batters in 195 IP, walking 63.

History is littered with great pitchers who were obliterated in their first exposure to the major leagues. Sometimes they turn it around quickly, like Maddux. Sometimes it takes a few years, like a Glavine or a Red Ruffing. Sometimes it never happens. But I don’t think the decision to pitch Bonderman in the major leagues was a mistake. My best guess is that he struggles at times in 2004, but you see more flashes of brilliance, and in 2005 he becomes a solid rotation pitcher. After that, he could stagnate, like an Andy Benes or Ramon Martinez. Or he could flourish, like a Maddux/Glavine/Smoltz, there’s no way to tell right now.

There are other live arms on this staff, we move on to the third big question surrounding the future of the Tigers:

3) The Tigers have plenty of young pitching at the major league level, can we expect anyone aside from Bonderman to become a solid starter down the road?

The Tigers did not have one game started by a pitcher over the age of 26 last year. The 1988 Braves were similar (though they did have a 34-year-old Rick Mahler in the rotation). In terms of eyeballing expected development, that Braves team finished next-to-last in the league in strikeouts, the Tigers struck out a league-worst 764 batters last year. Yet that Braves squad produced Glavine, Smoltz and even Pete Smith, who had a good arm but never was able to put it together.

The Tiger ace was Nate Cornejo, who struck out 46(!) batters in 195 IP (2.1/9 IP). I have no idea how he was able to parlay that into a 4.67 ERA, but I guarantee that either the strikeout rate or the ERA will be on the rise in 2004. Over 93 IP in 2001-02, Cornejo whiffed 45, so perhaps last year was an aberration. Even the 2001-02 rate isn’t good enough to be successful long-term, unless you’re Scott McGregor – and he had the benefit of those great Oriole defenses.

Management moved in the LF fence last year which absolutely killed Mike Maroth. Maroth pitched pretty well in 2002 (129 IP, 94 ERA+), well for a 24-year-old in his first major league exposure anyway. Despite not being a fly-ball pitcher (53% GB in 2003), the lefty gave up 34 HR in 193 IP – up from seven in 129 IP the year before. His non-homer hits per 9 IP, K/IP and BB/IP were were virtually unchanged, but Maroth’s ERA+ dove to 75 and he became the first 20-game loser in 23 years. He did not give up oodles of HR in the minors and he isn’t a fly-ball pitcher, so it’s possible that he can adjust. But his K rate was/is not great either, and I don’t think he’ll be around if/when the Tigers are any good.

Gary Knotts is a 27-year-old righthander who hasn’t had much success, though he has fanned 7.4 per 9 IP in his 885-inning minor league career. It’s possible he could develop into a successful pitcher, but I’d have to say it’s unlikely.

Then there are the 2002 Rule 5 guys:

Matt Roney is an interesting prospect. He’s been a typical first round high school pitching prospect (injured/disappointing) in the early going, but he’s getting it together now. He’s just 24, and he’s whiffed 398 in 393 minor league innings. The K-rate dropped in the majors (47 in 100 IP), but that happens and is not alarming in a pitcher’s first major league exposure. His control isn’t great, but it isn’t terrible. He’s got some work to do, but there is potential here.

The one I really like is Wil Ledezma, who was drafted from the Red Sox. The lefty just turned 23, and is listed at 6′ 3″ 152 (Ramon Martinez was listed at 6′ 4″ 174). But wow does he throws gas – 153 strikeouts and just 64 walks in 135 minor league innings. Unfortunately there’s a major injury history here. He suffered a stress fracture in his elbow during the 2000 season and missed the entire 2001 campaign. He only made five starts in 2002. He wasn’t ready to be a major league starter, but it absolutely made sense for Detroit to draft him and keep him on the roster for a season. Keep an eye on him.

4) Aside from Ivan Rodriguez, how much will the new acquisitions (Rondell White, Carlos Guillen, Jason Johnson, Fernando Vina) help the club?

Johnson replaces Adam Bernero in the rotation. You’re good if Johnson is your #4 starter, you’re the Tigers if he’s your ace. This probably saves the team 30-40 runs.

Rondell White will replace . . . no one? He’s a good hitter, but he’s an injury waiting to happen. My all-time favorite Clutch Hit intro at Baseball Primer was during Spring Training of 2002. It was still February, and White hurt something that would cause him to miss a week. The intro was simply “Who won the pool?”

What does White do that Monroe or Ross don’t do? Or Ben Petrick (more on that later)? It wasn’t a lot of money, but couldn’t the resources ($6 million, two years) have been better spent elsewhere, or saved for a rainy day? White is fine trade bait come July, I suppose that justifies the signing. He’ll probably be hurt anyway, perhaps Monroe and Ross will both get a decent amount of playing time. Ross looks like a solid major league RF right now – I doubt he’ll be a star, but there is no way to justify giving any of his at-bats to White or Bobby Higginson. He’s a throw-back, he’s got pop, he’s stolen 73 bases in 90 attempts in the minors. Just a really solid player.

That being said, if White replaces a rapidly declining Higginson (132, 115, 108, 86 OPS+ the last four years), this could be a big plus, 25 runs. If he replaces Monroe, it’s 10 runs. Successful sports franchises, like the 1980s 49ers say, “thanks for the memories,” and move on with 30-somethings like Higginson. Those are the tough decisions, how Trammell handles Higginson’s PT (especially if he starts slow) will give us a major insight into his managerial style.

Vina takes over for Warren Morris – another waste of $6 million over two years. Morris is 30, and hit .316/.373 last year. Vina is 35, has declining range, and hit .309/.382 capping a 4-year freefall from effectiveness. Am I missing something?

Guillen is the new SS. This was a great move. Ramon Santiago, the younger incumbent just wasn’t getting it done, I can’t see him ever being a viable major league hitter. Infante slugged .258. Guillen is in his prime and is actually quite good. He flies under the radar because of the plethora of star shortstops in the AL, but I’ll take a solid glove and 102 OPS+ from my SS any time. This is at least a 25 run improvement.

Among the minor additions, DeFelice and Al Levine are major improvements over the players they replace. Inge is absolutely useless, DiFelice is fine as your backup catcher (though completely unnecessary for a team like this) – 10 runs there. Chris Spurling is out for the season, giving Levine those innings could save 10 runs as well.

Overall the Tigers have fixed some of their major negatives. Including Pudge, who is worth at least 70 runs, we’re talking improvement of somewhere between 150 and 175 runs here – just from the new players.

The only existing player likely to decline is Dmitri Young – who wasn’t that far over his head. Pena and Munson should be better. This team could easily be 180-200 runs better than they were in 2003, even if none of the young pitchers improve. The Tigers should score 780-800 runs vs. 890 allowed, which would put them at 69-75 wins (72 +/- 3 wins for luck) – again if the young pitching doesn’t improve at all (which I don’t think is likely).

When a team loses almost 120 games, you have to ask one final question:

5) Is there help on the way, what does the farm system look like?

We already touched on Ross above, he’s the most ‘major-league ready’ of the Tiger prospects. According to John Sickels, the top players in the farm system are Brent Clevlen and Joel Zumaya; both played in the Midwest League last year. Zumaya looks incredible, he’s been clocked at 98 and whiffed 126 in 90 innings last year. He’ll likely be moving to high A-ball this year, it’ll probably be awhile before we see him at Comerica. Clevlen is a 20-year-old RF with pop, he drew 72 walks also last year.

He’s not really a “prospect” anymore, but I think the Tigers should find a way to get Petrick some at bats when Rondell White gets hurt; I’d even stick him behind the plate if Pudge goes down – what do you have to lose?. The deal (for Bernero) was a steal if you ask me. I know most of it came in Colorado, but he hasn’t been that bad. He’s hit 37 2B, 27 HR, and drawn 78 walks in his 669 major league at-bats. He’s scored 114 runs and driven in 94. I realize he’s also whiffed 177 times, but I think worst case they have another Rob Deer, best case he’s another Phil Nevin. A team this bad should be finding at bats for guys like this (and Morris), not spending $12 million over two years on RonDL White and Albert Belle‘s blocking dummy!

Kyle Sleeth was the #3 pick in the draft, a 6’5″ 200 pound right-hander out of Wake Forest. He signed late ($3.35 million bonus), which is probably good from a rest pespective (that’s what the Tigers said anyway), so Tiger fans will likely get their first look at him in Lakeland. He doesn’t blow anyone away, but he has good command and throws low/mid-90s. Barring injury (as always) his arrival time is probably late 2005/early 2006 – top end is probably as a #2 starter.

Rule 5 pick Chris Shelton is an interesting player. He’ll turn 24 in June, and he lit up A ball (.478/.641); didn’t do so well in 35 games in AA (.331/.377). He’s definitely the kind of bat this team should try to hang onto if possible. Of course he’s a C/1B/3B, which means he really can’t play anywhere. My theory on catchers is that if they can hit, don’t mind squatting and can throw any better than Piazza, just stick them back there and if you give up some stolen bases it’s not the end of the world. DiFelice was a waste, just let Shelton and Petrick handle the backup catcher duties. If they prove to be worse than awful back there, let Inge or Max St. Pierre back-up Pudge. You’re going to be bad either way, right?

The other Rule 5 picks were Mike Bumatay (85 K, 34 BB, 64 IP) and Lino Urdaneta. Bumatay has a solid chance to stick, Urdaneta is a long shot.

Rob Henkel, the lefty the Tigers picked up in the Mark Redman trade, should be in AAA – his top end is probably becoming another Mark Redman.

The rest of the farm system is pretty awful. The only other guys with potential are all in the low minors, and there aren’t too many of them.

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