Winter Report Card: Detroit Tigers
With little less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers report, we're checking in on how each team has fared in conducting its offseason business while acknowledging that there's still time for its prognosis to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2014. You can find all previously published Winter Report Cards here.
While the Tigers took home their fourth straight AL Central title in 2014, their first-round ouster and the advancement of the second-place Royals all the way to the World Series underscored the fact that they're hardly unchallenged in the division that they've dominated. That goes double in a winter where the White Sox have improved greatly and the Indians have retained their promising young core. General manager Dave Dombrowski has shaken up the roster, but the departures of free agent Max Scherzer and the traded Rick Porcello have thinned their vaunted rotation considerably, and the rest of the roster is looking more vulnerable than usual, particularly after Thursday's report that Victor Martinez will need surgery to repair the torn meniscus in his left knee, the same one that cost him the entire 2012 season.
Re-signed for four years and $68 million on the heels of an age-35 season in which he hit .335/.409/.565 with 32 homers and a 168 OPS+ en route to 5.3 WAR — all but the batting average were career bests, and he led the league in OBP — Martinez represented the team's largest investment this winter. As a transaction judged in isolation back in November, the contract looked like a longshot to pay off given V-Mart's age and injury history, even with 310 games and 1,309 plate appearances over the past two years. In the context of what has transpired since, it's a head-scratching strategy given a top-heavy payroll, which even including Martinez's first-year discount ($14 million, with $18 million in each of the next three years) commits $137 million to just eight players. Those commitments no doubt factored into Dombrowski's decision to trade the increasingly expensive Porcello to the Red Sox at a time when it appeared likely that Scherzer would depart, significantly destabilizing the rotation.
At this writing, it's unclear what the timetable for Martinez's return will be — the range is 4-6 weeks if the cartilage is trimmed instead of repaired, but jumps to 12-16 weeks if it's repaired to save the tissue, a better long-term prognosis for the player but a worse one for the team. Keeping in mind that he's already had microfracture surgery on the same knee in order to try to restore cartilage growth, there's reason to be concerned that Martinez could miss Opening Day and more. There's a danger that same fate could befall Miguel Cabrera; he underwent late October surgery to remove bone spurs and repair a stress fracture in his right ankle and is doubtful for the start of spring training.
The December trade of Porcello came on the heels of a career-best performance (204 2/3 innings, 3.43 ERA, 4.0 WAR) and brought back 29-year-old Yoenis Cespedes, who, like the departed righty, is heading into his final year before free agency, but unlike him can't be issued a qualifying offer due to a stipulation in his contract. Cespedes, who will make $10.5 million ($2 million less than Porcello), is coming off a solid season featuring 22 homers and 4.1 WAR, but he hit a lopsided .260/.301/.450. The performance with the bat approximates that of the departed Torii Hunter (.286/.319/.446 with 17 homers), but the good news is that Cespedes was 11 runs above average according to Defensive Runs Saved, where Hunter had declined to a dismal -18 DRS — roughly a three-win swing in performance from a player who's 10 years younger.
Fortunately, that's not the only defensive upgrade for a team that ranked third-to-last in the league in DRS (-64) and tied for second-to-last in Defensive Efficiency (.673). In November, Dombrowski sent 23-year-old Double A second baseman Devon Travis to the Blue Jays in exchange for 24-year-old Anthony Gose, a once-heralded and thrice-traded former prospect. Gose hit just .226/.311/.293 in 274 PA for the Blue Jays in 2014 and owns a career line of .234/.301/.332, but that's in all of 618 PA, as he's been endlessly yo-yoed between the minors and majors for the past three seasons (five times last year!). It's too early to give up on him, and his +5 DRS in 160 outfield starts suggests that he can better the -7 DRS the team got in center last year from the position, not to mention the offensive performances of the departed Ezequiel Carrera (.261/.301/.348 in 73 PA for the Tigers) and Don Kelly (.245/.332/.288 in 185 PA), both of whom filled in there after the trade of Austin Jackson. Carrera signed with the Blue Jays, Kelly with the Marlins.
Also offering potential for an upgrade is the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias from a bout of bilateral stress fractures in his shins that cost him the entire season. During his 2013 rookie campaign, Iglesias not only hit a surprising .303/.349/.386, but was also a human highlight reel in the field. He actually graded out around average according to the metrics, but those were split between two teams (Boston and Detroit) and two positions (third as well as short), and his athleticism is worth betting upon. Given the .223/.286/.293 offense and -10 DRS the team received from its shortstops — including backup Andrew Romine and the since-traded Eugenio Suarez — you have to like the team's chances to improve here.
Unfinished Business: More pitching
While the aforementioned upgrades should help, the real question is the state of the pitching staff with the tall task of replacing both Porcello and Scherzer (220 1/3 innings with a 3.15 ERA and 6.0 WAR). Justin Verlander is coming off an ugly age-31 season in which he posted a 4.54 ERA (his highest since 2008) with just 6.9 strikeouts per nine (his lowest since 2006) and an average four-seam fastball velocity of 93.4 mph, down from a peak of 96.4 in 2009. Those woes may owe something to his coming back from core muscle surgery in early January 2014, so there's reason to hope he can rebound. The Tigers will have the benefit of a full season of David Price (248 1/3 innings with a 3.26 ERA and 4.6 WAR split between Tampa Bay and Detroit); the 29-year-old southpaw will make $19.75 million in his final year before free agency. Beyond that, the team is relying upon another rebound from Anibal Sanchez, who was limited to 21 starts and 126 innings due to a finger laceration and, more troublingly, a pectoral strain that cost him all of September.
Rounding out the starting five are two trade acquisitions, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene. The 33-year old Simon was acquired from the Reds in exchange for Suarez and 23-year-old A ball righty Jonathan Crawford. He's coming off his first full season in a rotation, not to mention his first All-Star selection; he pitched to a 3.44 ERA in 196 1/3 innings, though his 4.33 FIP, .268 BABIP and 5.8 strikeouts per nine suggest regression may be ahead. Even less proven is the 26-year-old Greene, who was acquired from the Yankees in a three-way trade that sent lefty Robbie Ray (acquired from Washington in the Doug Fister trade and rocked in 28 2/3 big-league innings) and infield prospect Domingo Leyba to the Diamondbacks. An unheralded 15th-round pick in 2009 who was roughed up in Triple A, Greene posted an impressive 3.78 ERA, 3.73 FIP and 9.3 strikeouts per nine for the Yankees, albeit in just 78 1/3 innings.
With that much uncertainty, the Tigers could certainly use the services of James Shields, who remains a free agent at this writing and who can provide quality innings in bulk. That in turn would allow the inexpensive Simon ($5.5 million in his final year before free agency) to return to a bullpen that has become a perpetual sore spot; the unit ranked 13th in the league with a 4.29 ERA and 14th with a 33 percent rate of allowing inherited runners to score. Joe Nathan is coming off a dreadful season (4.81 ERA, 3.94 FIP) and Joakim Soria an injury-shortened one (44 1/3 innings split between Texas and Detroit due to an oblique strain).
Gone — barring late re-signings, since they're still free agents — are Joba Chamberlain (63 innings with an ERA that rose to 3.57 amid a rough second half ) and Phil Coke (3.88 ERA in 58 innings), as well as Jim Johnson (6.92 ERA in 13 innings), who signed with the Braves. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny, who pitched all of 21 major league innings with the Brewers in 2014 after returning from offseason shoulder debridement but who's generally fared well out of the bullpen, will replace Coke, but both Alex Wilson and Josh Zeid are largely untested, and Joel Hanrahan hasn't pitched in the majors since May 2013.
The 28-year-old Wilson, acquired in the Porcello deal, has all of 56 big league innings under his belt, including just 28 1/3 in 2014, and his 6.6 strikeouts per nine rate doesn't suggest a late-game option. The 27-year-old Zeid, who has 48 1/3 innings with a 5.21 ERA and a whopping 1.7 homers per nine, appears to be an even dicier proposition. The 33-year-old Hanrahan, who saved 76 games for the Pirates in 2011-12, missed most of '13 and all of last season rehabbing from the Deluxe Elbow Combo Platter of Tommy John surgery, flexor tendon repair and bone chip removal. Another option — if not Simon — would appear to be in order, though scaring one up at this late date won't be easy if Dombrowski doesn't want to pay the ransoms that Francisco Rodriguez or Rafael Soriano will command.
Preliminary grade: C-
Despite the losses of Scherzer and Porcello, the Tigers' offseason wasn't all bad. But for what they're spending — upwards of $170 million, barring a trade — the number of question marks here is too high, particularly in a division that doesn't lack for alternatives to supplant them as champs.