Peralta and Cruz on their way back but likely with new roles
Of the contending teams that lost a key player to a Biogenesis suspension, the only one to address its situation proactively was the Tigers, who dealt for shortstop Jose Iglesias prior to the July 31 trading deadline to take the spot normally occupied by Jhonny Peralta.
The Rangers, meanwhile, waited until August to acquire Alex Rios from the White Sox and help fill the void created by the absence of the suspended rightfielder Nelson Cruz. Both players would be eligible to return to their respective teams in the postseason (Peralta could actually be activated for the final regular-season series) but while neither club has said definitively that it will bring them back, it's possible now that if they do return this year it won't be at the same positions they held down when they left.
The slick-fielding Iglesias has done such a good job cushioning the blow of losing Peralta for 50 games that the team is literally exploring an out-of-leftfield solution in anticipation of the latter's return: using him at their weakest outfield position despite the fact that he's never spent so much as a single inning there. Aside from the rare DH appearance or late-inning shift to first base, the 31-year-old Peralta has spent the entirety of his 11-year major league career -- not to mention his time in the minors -- playing either shortstop or third base.
Prior to Monday night's game, Tigers manager Jim Leyland told reporters that the team will send Peralta to Lakeland, Fla., to join its instructional league team and work exclusively in leftfield. From Fox Sports Detroit's Dana Wakiji:
"He’s going down there basically to work out, see some live pitching, get some instruction on playing left field, and play left field in the games down there," Leyland said.
"We’ll be getting reports from down there, from the guys that are down there, on how he looks -- how he looks in left field, how he’s swinging the bat."
Before being suspended 50 games for acquiring performance-enhancing drugs from the Biogenesis clinic, Peralta had been one of Detroit's top hitters, rebounding from a subpar 2012 showing to bat .305/.361/.461 with 11 homers in 2013. Despite not having played for over a month his 121 OPS+ is still tied with Prince Fielder for second on the team behind Miguel Cabrera. Since Peralta's suspension began after the Tigers' 109th game, he's eligible to return for their final regular season series against the Marlins in Miami, giving him a chance to show Leyland what he can do under game conditions, albeit in one of the majors' most spacious outfields.
In Peralta's absence, the 23-year-old Iglesias has hit a respectable .287/.331/.385, down from the .330/.376/.409 he hit with the Red Sox, but still far better than most talent evaluators figured given his .244/.296/.292 line in 916 plate appearances at Triple-A and his struggles at the major league level before this season. Even now, this year's success with the bat is being driven by a .371 batting average on balls in play that he'll be hard-pressed to sustain, and his secondary offensive contributions are minimal; In his 367 plate appearances, he's lacked both power (.086 isolated power this year) and plate discipline (4.1 percent walk rate).
That said, Iglesias has continued to dazzle in the field Just as he had prior to his inclusion in the three-way, seven-player swap that sent Jake Peavy from the White Sox to the Red Sox and Avasail Garcia from the Detroit to Chicago on July 30. Here's one of many examples:
[mlbvideo id="29656865" width="600" height="336" /]
The various advanced defensive metrics don't suggest there's been a huge difference between the play of Peralta and Iglesias at shortstop. On a prorated basis over the course of a full season, the gap appears to be about eight runs in the new guy's favor -- considerably less than one might guess having watched the pair's highlight reels -- though the sample sizes upon which that's based are still small. The shakiness of Detroit's infield defense with Fielder and Cabrera at the corner means, it's a smart choice to play the better fielder at short, particularly as he's also the team's shortstop of the future given Peralta's pending free agency.
Meanwhile, the Tigers have struggled to get consistent production from their leftfielders, who have combined to hit just .263/.329/.394. Righty Matt Tuiasosopo has hit .267/.371/.453 with seven homers in 175 PA, albeit with a fluky reverse platoon split and just a .185/.264/.231 showing with one homer in 72 PA since the All-Star break, suggesting the league is onto him. Lefty Andy Dirks has hit .257/.322/.364 with eight homers in 454 PA with a more typical platoon split, though to be fair, he's also played above-average defense in left (+10 Defensive Runs Saved). Top prospect Nick Castellanos, a 21-year-old righty who hit .276/.343/.450 with 18 homers at Triple-A Toledo this year while converting from third base -- where he's blocked by Cabrera -- to leftfield, has all of 12 major league plate appearances under his belt. While the position may be Castellanos' next year, Peralta is a player with whom Leyland is clearly more comfortable, and a reasonable bet to outproduce him or any of the alternatives offensively the rest of the way.
Thanks to his experience at the hot corner, Peralta also provides a level of insurance with regards to Cabrera, who has been battling an abdominal injury since late July that appears to be taking a bite out of his production. He's hitting just .243/.417/.351 in September, though his first homer of the month came on Tuesday night. Peralta's presence on the roster would allow Leyland to DH Cabrera in the event that his body won't allow him to play the field, and while that would cost them the services of Victor Martinez (.297/.347/.414), it still beats using Ramon Santiago (.230/.304/.305) at short and Iglesias at third or vice versa.
As for Cruz, he has begun working out in Arizona in hopes of returning to the Rangers should they snap out of their tailspin and avoid missing the playoffs. Rios has provided reasonable production (.289/.329/.444) relative to the rest of his slumping Texas teammates and could man rightfield while Cruz is shunted to either leftfield, where David Murphy has disappointed, or his natural position as DH, where he wouldn't be prone to any defensive mishaps (see the 2011 World Series, Game 6). Cruz could also provide considerably more punch at the DH spot than the ailing Lance Berkman and the rest of a group that has combined to hit a meager .250/.318/.392 there.
The situations of Cruz and Peralta are a marked contrast to the way the Giants handled the 50-game suspension of Melky Cabrera last year. Cabrera too was suspended for 50 games for failing a drug test and he was eligible to return in the postseason, but San Francisco shunned him instead of activating him for the NL Championship Series or World Series. The Giants didn't miss him, winning their last seven postseason games en route to their second World Series title in three years.
That said, the situations aren't entirely parallel for a couple of reasons. First, both Peralta and Cruz will be available from the start of the playoffs while Cabrera, who still had five games to serve after the end of the regular season, was not. Second, the suspension of Cabrera, who had just won All-Star MVP honors and led the league in batting average at the time, came as a sudden shock, and the negative perception of him was exacerbated by his ham-fisted fake website scheme. Peralta and Cruz were part of a much larger group of players whose potential suspensions had surfaced months earlier, two of whom — Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez — served as the scandal's lightning rods given their superstardom and transgressions that netted even longer suspensions than the requisite 50 games. None of that exonerates Peralta or Cruz, but soon they will have done their time in accordance with the current Joint Drug Agreement, allowing them to return to work with no additional penalties. For all of the talk from players and teams about cleaning up the game, it's still worth noting that a forgive-and-forget attitude usually prevails when it comes to using suspended players to help pursue championships, both this year and -- given that the pair will likely sign multi-year free agent deals this winter -- beyond.