Anatomy of a Tiger (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this series, I looked how the Tigers picked up the key members of their league-leading pitching staff, and found that they did it via a combination of free agency and player development. In this installment, I’ll take a look at the position players, and see how the Tigers’ player acquisition compares to this season’s other contenders.

Teams basically have four ways distinct ways of acquiring talent, that probably reflect four distinct abilities that a front office can possess: amateur scouting, the ability to sign talent on the free agent market, the ability to increase an organizition’s talent through trades, and the ability to get the most out of free talent. The worst teams tend to lack all of these abilities (think the Royals), good poor teams tend to be good in all four areas and most teams fall somewhere in between. Where does the Tigers front office fall?

The Hitters

The Tigers offense hasn’t been quite as stellar as their pitching and defense, ranking sixth in the American League with 455 runs through the All-Star break. Nonetheless, their average of 5.17 runs per game during the first half still represents a significant improvement over last season, when they scored only 4.57 runs per game, 11th in the league. Here are the Tigers batting title qualifiers. Since most of these players were also on last year’s roster, we’ll also look at their 2005 stats as well.

                            2006         2005
NAME              AGE    AB    OPS    AB    OPS
Curtis Granderson 25     331   .829   162   .808
Magglio Ordonez   32     321   .873   305   .795
Placido Polanco*  30     319   .679   343   .794
Ivan Rodriguez    34     302   .873   504   .734
Carlos Guillen    30     302   .876   334   .802
Chris Shelton     32     301   .856   388   .870
Brandon Inge      29     294   .744   616   .749
Craig Monroe      29     269   .734   567   .768
*Performance with Tigers only

What jumps out is that while all the players were on last year’s roster, only Ivan Rodriguez, Brandon Inge and Craig Monroe were full-time players last season. This season’s offense seems to have derived most of its improvement from a combination of good young players getting more playing time (Curtis Granderson, Chris Shelton) and veterans coming back from injury (Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen). But how did these players get on the Tigers roster in the first place?

Home Grown – Tigers (2)

Curtis Granderson
Brandon Inge

Granderson has been a revelation this season at 25, providing a solid bat and good defense in center field. (In addition to his work with the Tigers, Granderson also doubles as a young star on THT Web Editor Aaron Gleeman’s Diamond-Mind Baseball team, something he is quick to remind me every time we talk about the Tigers.) Granderson was a third round draft pick in the 2003 draft out of the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Inge was a second round pick out of Virginia Commonwealth University all the way back in 1998, and he is currently in his eighth year in the organization, which was something of a mild surprise, since players rarely stay that long with one organization nowadays unless they’re a superstar. At 29, Inge is quite a bit older than the Tigers’ other young stars. A product of the Randy Smith-era, he was repeatedly tried at catcher before re-inventing himself as a super-utility man last season.

Home Grown – Other Division Leaders

Boston Red Sox (2)
Kevin Youkilis: Drafted in the 8th round of the 2002 draft.
Trot Nixon: Drafted in the 1st round of the 1993 draft.

New York Mets (2)
Jose Reyes: Signed as an amateur free agent out of the Dominican in 1999.
David Wright: The Mets’ 1st round pick in the 2001 draft.

St. Louis Cardinals (1)
Albert Pujols: Drafted in the 13th round of the 1999 draft.

San Diego Padres (2)
Khalil Greene: Drafted in the 1st round of the 2002 draft.
Josh Barfield: Drafted in the 4th round of the 2001 draft.

Oakland A’s (4)
Nick Swisher: Drafted in the 1st round of the 2002 draft.
Bobby Crosby: Drafted in the 1st round of the 2001 draft.
Eric Chavez: Drafted in the 1st round of the 1996 draft.
Dan Johnson: Drafted in the 7th round of the 2001 draft.

Like most of their peers, the Tigers feature a couple of high round draft picks. This should come as no surprise, given that teams that are good at talent evaluation should probably hit the jackpot with at least one or two high round position player prospects every few years, and that teams with good talent evaluation generally tend to win. It’s also interesting to see that the pattern of successful teams relying on blue chip amateur talent seems to cut across market size. According to this amazingly exhaustive study, it’s either that or draft the best player in baseball in the 13th round, and then fire the scout who signed him.

Mercenaries – Tigers (2)

Magglio Ordonez
Ivan Rodriguez

In 2004, Ordonez missed 110 games with knee injuries following a four-year run that saw him average 153.5 games a season with no lower than a .915 OPS in any season. Deciding to look on the sunny side, the Tigers signed him to a five-year, $75 million contract. Ordonez promptly rewarded them by missing half a season with a sports hernia in 2005, and hitting more like, say, Raul Mondesi than a $15 million player. OK, maybe that was a bad example, but you get what I mean. At age 32 this season, Ordonez probably has a couple good seasons left in him, and represents the kind of big money, All-Star caliber player that big money teams like the Yankees or Red Sox seem to field at every position and pay like superstars, and smaller money teams like the A’s or the Padres never seem to field.

Pudge Rodriguez was kind of like 2004′s Magglio Ordonez, a big name veteran whose star power and contract (four-years, $40 million) exceeded what could reasonably be expected in terms of actual production, especially given his age. Rodriguez is no longer a superstar, but he’s still a pretty good guy to have around, given that his defense still appears strong and he hits decently enough for a catcher.

Mercenaries – Other Division Leaders

Boston Red Sox (3)
Manny Ramirez: Signed an 8-year, $168 million contract in 2000.
David Ortiz: Signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract after being non-tendered by the Twins, followed by a couple bigger money extensions. (Something that Aaron doesn’t bring up, incidentally.)
Alex Gonzalez: Signed a 1-year, $3 million contract in 2006.

New York Mets (1)
Carlos Beltran: Signed a 7-year, $119 million contract in 2005.

St. Louis Cardinals (2)
Juan Encarnacion: Signed a 3-year, $13.5 million contract before the season.

San Diego Padres (0)
None.

Oakland A’s (0)
None.

Surprisingly, the Tigers have more major free agent contributors on offense than the New York Mets (the pitching staff is another story). Given the ages of Ordonez and Rodriguez, they probably aren’t and won’t be getting as much mileage out of their signings as their peers are, but, as noted in Part 1, the Tigers are not a poor team, and can afford to overpay for talent a bit. Sure, Pudge makes more than any Padres or A’s player other than Giles, but somehow, I don’t think many Tigers fans are complaining.

Trades – Tigers (2)

Carlos Guillen
Placido Polanco

Guillen was acquired from the Mariners before the 2004 season for Ramon Santiago and a generic minor leaguer. Guillen had recently been arrested on DUI charges, and the Mariners decided they had to run him out of town. Personally, I don’t quite get the rationale—if a player commits any indiscretion, he must be moved at all costs to protect the organization’s reputation, and yet the acquiring organization is never tainted. So, fans won’t abide a team that employs a drunk driver, but it’s OK to trade for one. Maybe the teams involved hope that the acquiring team’s fans aren’t aware of the player’s background. It’s not like there’s a massive electronic network of digital devices that constantly transmits information about baseball players all over the world, or anything. Come to think of it, maybe Dick Cheney should invent one when he’s not busy hiding in his bunker.

In the Mariners’ defense, Guillen wasn’t nearly as good for them as he has been for the Tigers, both this season and when he posted a near-MVP caliber season in 2004.

In yet another move that was panned at the time, but now seems to be working out, the Tigers traded Ugueth Urbina for Polanco last season. Most observers felt that the Tigers had greater needs than second base, and while it’s true that Polanco won’t be as cheap or with the team as long as a prospect would have been, his decent hitting and sterling defense have been a key part of the Tigers’ resurgence this season.

Trades – Other Division Leaders

Boston Red Sox (3)
Mark Loretta: Traded for Doug Mirabelli.
Mike Lowell: A throw-in in the Josh Beckett deal.
Jason Varitek: Acquired from the Mariners as a minor leaguer for Heathliff Slocomb, along with Derek Lowe and the Derek Lowe Face, a move that probably added about six months to Bill Simmons‘ career.

New York Mets (2)
Paul LoDuca: Traded to the Mets during the offseason for two minor league prospects.
Carlos Delgado: Traded to the Mets along with cash this offseason for Mike Jacobs, Yusemiro Petit and Grant Psomas.

St. Louis Cardinals (2)
Scott Rolen: Acquired from the Phillies for Polanco, Mike Timlin and Bud Smith in 2003. It’s OK Phillies fans, at least you only had to throw in Doug Nickle to make the deal happen. Subsequently signed an eight-year, $90 million contract extension.
Jim Edmonds: Acquired from the Angels for Adam Kennedy and Ken Bottenfield. Subsequently signed a six-year, $57 million extension. Trading for a disgruntled star in his walk year and then signing him to an extension will henceforth be referred to as pulling a “Jocketty,” kind of like acquiring overpaid, redundant players is known as pulling an “Isiah.”

San Diego Padres (2)
Brian Giles: Jockettied from the Pirates for Jason Bay, Oliver Perez and Cory Stewart and a three-year, $30 million extension.
Adrian Gonzalez: Acquired Gonzalez, along with Chris Young and Terrmel Sledge in a reverse-Isiah with Texas for Adam Eaton, Akinori Otsuka and Billy Killian.

Oakland A’s (3)
Mark Kotsay: Acquired from the Padres in 2003 for Ramon Hernandez and occasional Yankees starting left fielder Terrence Long. (I know that was like a month ago, but I didn’t have my own column at that point, and this still still brings a smile to my face.)
Jay Payton: Acquired from the Red Sox last season for Chad Bradford and cash.
Jason Kendall: Acquired from the Pirates in 2004 for 2006 All-Star Mark Redman, Arthur Rhodes and cash.

All the other division leaders seem to have acquired a key player or two via trade, whether they are small or large market. You’d think A’s general manager Billy Beane would have some notable scalps here, but he hasn’t acquired an impact hitter via trade since getting Jermaine Dye for Jose Ortiz, Mario Encarnacion and Todd Belitz.

Overall, there doesn’t seem to be that much of a pattern though, with some teams acquiring top tier talent near free agency and others acquiring complementary parts. The Tigers seem to fall somewhat in between, with Guillen and Polanco being important parts of the 2006 team, as opposed to superstar-type talents like Rolen or relative filler like Payton or Gonzalez.

Free Talent (2)

Chris Shelton
Craig Monroe

Free Talent – Other Division Leaders

None.

This is definitely where the Tigers really differentiate themselves from the rest of the pack. Monroe, claimed off waivers from the Rangers in 2002, the Tigers can take or leave, but getting Chris Shelton in the Rule 5 draft from the hapless Pirates before last season was, by luck or design, a masterstroke, and exactly the type of move teams looking to make the jump from also-rans to contenders need to make. Despite their signings of Ordonez and Rodriguez, the Tigers could not have seriously hoped for contention in the past few years, and thus they gambled roster spots on Rule 5 guys like Shelton and reliever Wil Ledezma. And, as they sometimes do, those gambles paid off, and the Tigers now have an above-average offensive first baseman, who by some accounts is very good with the glove as well.

Additionally, Marcus Thames, who has only 205 at-bats this season, didn’t fit into the parameters of this mini-study, but is nonetheless posting a 1.006 OPS for the Tigers this season, and was signed as a minor league free agent all the way back in 2003. Add him into the mix, and the Tigers probably have been the most productive team in terms of getting production out of free talent in the major leagues this season.

Defense

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shoutout to the Tigers defense. My colleague David Gassko, who knows much more about baseball than I do, has cited the Tigers infield defense as the main reason for their success, while sabermatrician Chris Dial has three Tigers in the top five of his overall AL defensive rankings (Polanco, Shelton and and Inge). As noted in Part 1, run prevention has been the driver for the Tigers’ success this season, and that has been the result of good work by many of the players written about in this column.

The Bottom Line

So two parts and about 5,000 words later, what have we learned about the Tigers’ amazing turn-around? The Tigers seem to distinguish themselves by developing good talent and augmenting it with astutely acquired cast-offs and overpaid veteran free agents. If anything, the 2006 Tigers’ story tells us that if you can draft and develop good young (read: cheap) talent, you’re willing to spend some money, gamble on some players with some upside and aren’t completely incompetent, good things will happen sooner or later.

References & Resources
Once again, Tigers Central was invaluable in tracking down the origins of the more obscure Tigers.

This story could also not have been written without stats from ESPN.com, Baseball Reference and Chris Dial’s excellent (and free!) work on defense.

Lastly, thanks to reader Mike Green for pointing out to me in advance that Wil Ledezma was also a Rule 5 draftee.

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