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The Strike Zone

Tigers look to extend surge by shoring up weaknesses

The hot hitting of Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera is only part of the explanation for why the Tigers are roaring once again. (Getty Images)

With a three-game sweep of the White Sox over the weekend, the Tigers retook first place in the AL Central for the first time since early May. Dating back to June 30, they're on a 15-4 run, rivaling the A's for the title of "the hottest team in baseball." On Monday, while the rest of the baseball world was buzzing about the Ryan Dempster trade rumors and the Ichiro-to-New-York shocker, Detroit pulled off a trade with the Marlins to shore up two of its most glaring weaknesses, receiving righthander Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante, albeit at the cost of top pitching prospect Jacob Turner and two other minor leaguers. It would appear that the Tigers have rediscovered their bite.

Their recent surge should be warming the cockles of owner Mike Ilich's heart, as it's being driven by the superstars at the upper end of a payroll that ranks as the game's fifth-highest at $133 million. Prince Fielder, who was signed to a nine-year, $214 million deal over the winter, is hitting .359 /474/.547 with three homers this month. Not to be outdone, Miguel Cabrera is even hotter, .397/.449/.765 with seven home runs, including the 300th of his career on Sunday. On the pitching side, Justin Verlander has rediscovered the groove that helped him win the AL Cy Young and MVP awards last year, yielding three runs and 11 hits over 25 innings in three starts.

Verlander aside, this latest run has more to do with the Tigers battering opponents into submission than it does with stifling them. After scoring 4.37 runs per game through the end of June, they're up to 5.56 per game in July, on .286/.356/.472 hitting. Brennan Boesch has snapped out of a dreadful early-season slump to hit .380/.415/.740 in July, while Jhonny Peralta (.317/.359/.500) and Austin Jackson (.284/.361/.446) have been lighting up opposing pitchers as well. Meanwhile, the team's run prevention has dropped by about half the amount of their offensive increase, from 4.49 per game through June to 3.89 in July. Much of that is Verlander; in the games he hasn't started, the Tigers have dropped from allowing 4.93 runs per game (which would rank as the league's second-worst mark) to 4.47 (still higher than the league average 4.38).

The trade with the Marlins should help the Tigers on both sides of the ball, though more on the run prevention side. Aside from Verlander, no Tigers starter has posted an ERA below 4.00, with Doug Fister (4.04) the only one with an ERA better than the league average (4.05). Fister (1.1 HR/9), Max Scherzer (4.62 ERA, 1.4 HR/9) and rookie Drew Smyly (4.42 ERA, 1.2 HR/9) have all struggled to keep the ball in the park, though their strikeout and walk rates have been strong enough, while Rick Porcello (4.40 ERA) has been victimized by a .349 batting average on balls in play. Smyly is currently on the disabled list due to an intercostal strain, and doesn't have a timetable for return; in his stead, Turner was roughed up for 10 runs and four home runs in 7 1/3 innings over two starts, though he was able to wobble through the latter, against the White Sox on Sunday, for Detroit to win.

The 28-year-old Sanchez, a pending free agent, profiles as the Tigers' best starter behind Verlander. His 3.94 ERA is also a bit on the high side given strong peripherals (0.9 HR/9, 2.5 BB/9, 8.2 K/9), inflated a bit by a .312 BABIP. His 3.46 Fielding Independent Pitching (an estimate of his ERA based upon his strikeout, walk, hit-by-pitch and homer rates) would rank as second among the team's starters behind Verlander's 2.88. Once a pitcher who couldn't steer clear of the disabled list — he made just 49 big league starts from 2006-2009, interrupted by a variety of shoulder problems including 2007 labrum surgery — Sanchez has become quite durable, reaching 32 starts and 195 innings in each of the past two seasons. Last year, he set career highs with 202 strikeouts and 9.3 strikeouts per nine.

Second base was a glaring need for the Tigers from both the offensive and defensive standpoints, as I pointed out in my AL Central deadline preview, and wrote in more detail on Monday at Baseball Prospectus, when I awarded the team's three-headed Ryan Raburn/Ramon Santiago/Danny Worth hydra a spot on my Midsummer Replacement-Level Killers, highlighting the biggest sinkholes in the lineups of contenders::

They might be running away with the division had they solved their second base problem over the winter, but instead, general manager Dave Dombrowski chose to mix and match with the options at hand, namely good hit/no field Raburn, good field/no hit Santiago, minor leaguer Danny Worth and displaced third baseman Brandon Inge. Not only have those players combined for a .203/.289/.278 line while playing second, they've been the Keystone Cops of a a defensively-challenged unit that ranks second-to-last in the league in defensive efficiency at .678, 17 points below league average. Inge has been jettisoned… while Raburn has been farmed out, recalled and repurposed as a utilityman, leaving Santiago (.220/.302/.298) to do the bulk of the damage lately.

In both articles, I noted that Infante, who played for the Tigers from 2007-2007, had been one of the options under discussion. The 30-year-old righty swinger is hitting .287/.312/.442 with eight homers, more than he's hit in any season since 2004, when he bopped 16; his slugging percentage is 45 points above his career mark. More importantly, he's a strong glove man according to all of the major defensive metrics; even with a pitching staff that leads the league in strikeout rate, the upgraded defensive support should help, particularly for the groundballer Porcello (5.4 K/9). Versatile enough to help at shortstop, third base or the outfield corners if the need arises, Infante is signed through 2013, for a reasonable $4 million per year.

The pair of players didn't come cheap. In Turner, the Marlins are getting a 21-year-old 6-foot-5 righty who was the ninth pick of the 2009 draft, a pitcher whom Baseball America ranked among the top 26 prospects in each of the past three years; Baseball Prospectus had him 15th this year, while ESPN had him 29th. Considered extremely polished for his age, a future No. 2 or 3 starter, he throws a 90-94 mph fastball that touches 95 and an over-the-top curveball and a changeup that can both miss bats. "He has a big, strong frame, easy delivery, and maintains his stuff deep into games and late into seasons." wrote BP's Kevin Goldstein this spring, though he noted, "While he throws a lot of strikes, he still needs to polish the command of those secondary offerings." With a grand total of 17 starts in Double-A, 13 in Triple-A and six in the majors (with an 8.28 ERA) over the past two seasons, he's hardly a finished product. Competing for the team's fifth starter job in the spring, he lost out to Smyly, a 23-year-old who was the team's second round pick in 2010. Smyly's ceiling is as a future No. 4 starter, but he's apparently much closer to that now than Turner is to his ceiling; even so, he's the one who's now out of a rotation spot.

As for the two other players in the package, both might be usable at the big league level, but they've got a ways to go even to get there, and hardly profile as future stars. Rob Brantly is a 23-year-old catcher who was the team's third round pick out of the University of California in 2010. Ranked seventh on the Tigers' prospect list according to Baseball America, he's only hitting .254/.295/.285 at Triple-A, with neither his his power nor his on-base ability profiling as projectable. Brian Flinn is a 6-foot-8, 22-year-old lefty who was the team's seventh-round pick out of Wichita State, with a low-90s fastball but secondary offerings that rate below average. The Tigers and Marlins did also swap competitive balance lottery picks, with Detroit receiving what amounts to the 37th pick in next year's draft, and Miami receiving the 73rd.

With the surge, the Tigers are now forecast to have a 71.7 percent chance of making the postseason according to Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds. The trade, while depriving them of a potential future rotation cog, keeps pace with the White Sox, who have added Kevin Youkilis and Brett Myers in recent weeks, and who themselves rate a 68.0 percent chance of making the playoffs. Perhaps as importantly, the deal fortifies them at a time when other Wild Card hopefuls are still mulling their options. They still have work to be done — replacing DH Delmon Young would be a start— but the Tigers are suddenly in much better shape to return to October.

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