Here’s a not-so-outrageous prediction: the Detroit Tigers will win their division. Yes, they’re the class of the slop that is the American League Central, and probably stand a good chance to represent the Junior Circuit in the World Series for a second consecutive year. They certainly aren’t perfect, and that’s okay. Clubs are rarely, if ever, “perfect”. But let’s stop patting the Tigers on the back like they’re the Yankees of 1927 or 1998, and take a look at some clear shortcomings in the organization.
There have absolutely been an impressive run of personnel decisions by general manager David Dombrowski and the Tigers front office, from the Miguel Cabrera trade back in 2007 to the Prince Fielder free agent signing prior to the 2012 season. But there have also been some glaring weaknesses that carry through to 2013, and a Tigers team that is attempting to make a return to the World Series.
Let’s look at the corner outfield spots. In 2011, sophomore Brennan Boesch improved upon his impressive but streaky rookie campaign by putting up a .283/.341/.458 line, mostly holding down left field while Magglio Ordonez rode off into the sunset with a horrid .255/.303/.331 line and played his traditionally putrid defense in right field.
Ordonez’ struggles caused the Tigers to trade for Twins’ left fielder Delmon Young to, in theory, shore up the corner outfield spots and allow Boesch to move to right field. A couple of weeks after the trade, however, Boesch was lost for the season with a thumb injury, leaving the Tigers without much of a choice but to put Ordonez in the field again.
The Tigers had already wasted 1059 plate appearances of sub-.300 on-base percentage performance on utility players Don Kelly and Ryan Raburn and outfielders Casper Wells and Andy Dirks, and the chance of Ordonez catching lightning in a bottle was decent enough to warrant some more playing time. Delmon Young hit .274/.298/.458 in 40 games at the end of 2011, but with Boesch’s injury, the Tigers essentially replaced him with a similar player and were still forced to continue playing their weakest outfielder, Magglio Ordonez.
Heading into 2012, the Tigers sent Dirks back to Triple-A Toledo and decided that it was a good idea to start Young, arguably the worst defensive outfielder in major league baseball, in left field from the get-go. This would be borderline defensible if Young was a true masher, but a .267/.296/.411 line is…not mashing.
By the end of April, Detroit had seen enough of Young’s grizzly-bear-on-ice-skates-over-a-minefield routine, and called up Dirks from Triple-A to man left field, moving Young to the designated hitter spot. Dirks is passable defensively, and put up a somewhat surprising .322/.370/.487 over the rest of the 2012 campaign. At the start of 2013, manager Jim Leyland penciled Dirks into that left field spot, but he has been entirely disappointing, batting just .196/.311/.275 so far, albeit in the opening month of the season.
If you’re scoring at home, here’s the damage (not the right word, I don’t think), from 2011 through April 2013 by players that have primarily played left field (Yes, Kelly played a number of positions, but he’s generally a terrible hitter so I included him for perverse kicks.):
Of course, pretty much every playoff team and many World Series Champions has a couple of weak links on offense or on defense, but having an entirely useless player in the lineup at all times can be crippling. If any of the players that have held down a corner outfield spot for the Tigers over the past 2+ years had been an exceptional defender, their offense could have been excused to some extent. If their offense had been outstanding, some butchering in the field may have been ignored. But the Tigers continued to trot out what were simply subpar players for the better part of the past two calendar years. An interesting choice for an alleged contender, indeed.
Moving on to….Don Kelly. Enough said. I’m not sure that anyone but Jim Leyland knows the answer to this one. Continually letting go of better players and making organizational decisions based on a poor utility player is baffling, and no amount of “clubhouse glue guy” talk can make sense of this unhealthy obsession. The man is hitting an unsightly .230/.283/.343 in his career through the first month of his sixth season. And yet he still holds an MLB roster spot, only briefly heading to Triple-A in 2012, but otherwise being a big leaguer for the past few years.
Yes, he plays a number of positions, but he doesn’t play any of them much better than average, so the Tigers’ love for Kelly is more than agitating. There are no shortage of valuable utility-men, and the Tigers have somehow refused to lend Kelly’s spot to a real, quality major league baseball player. Sure, it’s probably not something that will keep the Tigers from winning a ring, but it is certainly a disturbing loyalty that could prove to be a microcosm of poor personnel decisions that are not based on on-field results and production.
The Tigers have shored up right field in 2013 by picking up an aging Torii Hunter, who still plays what is probably the best defensive right field in all of baseball. While no longer a middle-of-the-order bat, he certainly continues to hold his own at the plate, helping to provide some additional punch for Cabrera and Fielder. This still leaves the problem of left field, and the Tigers continue to attempt a patchwork job, rotating Dirks, Kelly, and the abysmal Matt Tuiasosopo (career .195/.257/.326 hitter that hasn’t played in the big leagues since 2010).
Of course, the Tigers will go as far as their pitching (read: Verlander) takes them, and the offense should be just fine with Cabrera and Fielder holding down the middle of the lineup. The defense is bad, and left field is still a question mark, but the division is weak enough that the Tigers should retain their crown in relatively easy fashion. Let’s be honest: if we’re nitpicking about organizational depth and one lineup spot, their sitting pretty. For their fans sake, however, let’s hope that they find a better way to fill out the last couple of spots on that lineup card, not to mention their organizational depth.