Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Detroit Tigers 2007 Outlook

2006 results: 95-67, Won AL Wild Card, Lost World Series

Pythagorean record: 95-67

Key free agents: Sean Casey

Plan for 2007: Upgrade several positions to avoid regressing to under 90 wins next year

Many recent World Series teams have declined significantly in the year following their trip to the big one. Much of this is due to simple regression to the mean; baseball’s so-called Plexiglass Principle states that all teams tend to gravitate toward a .500 record in future years. However, a considerable part of the problem is the complacence demonstrated by successful teams. Clubs like the 2002 Angels and 2003 Marlins kept their World Series lineups virtually intact the next year, which resulted in 77-85 and 83-79 records, respectively.

Other teams, like the 2005 White Sox or the Yankee teams of recent vintage, have followed up their Series appearances with bold moves to keep the team in contention the next year. Though the Sox failed to make the playoffs in 2006, they won 90 games and were in contention until the last week. Meanwhile, while many criticize George Steinbrenner for overreacting to fill every hole on the New York roster, the Yankees have continued to win the division every year.

The 2006 Tigers face a crossroads. Their Pythagorean record of 95-67 indicates that they really had 95-win talent. They can return virtually the entire 2006 roster—everyone but Sean Casey is under contract for 2007—or they can use the additional revenue from increased ticket sales to target some upgrades in trade or free agency. The latter option is clearly better, but will require good roster management, as the organization will essentially need to remove a player currently under contract for each one they add.

What remains to be seen is whether the Tigers’ 2006 playoff run will cause free agents to warm up to the idea of playing in the Motor City. In recent years, the franchise has pursued free agents like Ivan Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Carl Pavano by offering them far more money and years than any other team, perhaps to compensate for the “stigma” of playing for a team that lost 119 games in 2003.

Where can they upgrade the team? If Mike Maroth returns healthy, Detroit will have five solid starting pitchers, so it would be a waste of resources to sign another, unless they can offer one in trade for a big bat. Joel Zumaya looks poised to be a better closer in 2007 than any free agent reliever. If the Tigers need any pitching, it’s in the back end of the bullpen, which won’t be a big difference-maker over the course of a season.

What about their lineup? Six positions are set for 2007. Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco, Brandon Inge and Curtis Granderson are above-average performers at their positions, and all but Rodriguez are signed to cheap, below-market contracts. Ordonez is staying put because of his image and $75 million contract rather than his production, which is around league average for a right fielder, when he is healthy.

That leaves first base, left field, and DH as the easiest positions to improve. These spots are currently occupied by Chris Shelton, Craig Monroe, and Marcus Thames. You can certainly win a championship with these three as your worst everyday players, but they occupy the positions where it’s easiest to find an impact bat, and Shelton is the only one likely to improve next year. Monroe, who can’t take a walk to save his life, is a particularly terrible fit in the number 2 spot. In fact, the Tigers only have one hitter, Guillen, who delivers a really good OBP.

What the Tigers really need is a guy who can get on base in front of their power hitters, preferably a left-handed batter to balance their righty-heavy lineup. That player is Barry Bonds. For all his shortcomings last year, Bonds led the majors with a .454 on-base percentage and should be over .400 again in 2007. Jim Leyland knows how to manage Bonds from their years together in Pittsburgh, and Bonds can DH regularly with an occasional start in left field or at first base. Bonds won’t be cheap, but he is an ideal fit, particularly if they bat him in the leadoff or second spot in the order to get him more plate appearances and more times on base in front of the heart of the order.

Another very good option is a rumored trade with Texas involving Jeremy Bonderman and Mark Teixeira. Though Bonderman has great stats and stuff and will be only 24 next year, a good young starting pitcher simply doesn’t match the value of a top hitter. If this offer is actually on the table, Detroit should quickly accept, even if it means throwing in something of reasonable value, perhaps Shelton. Teixeira would be under the Tigers’ control during his peak years at ages 27 and 28, and brings a great bat and another above-average infield glove for a pitching staff that relies heavily on the defense behind them. He also doesn’t bring the injury or age risk that the big free agents carry with them.

The Tigers’ next choice should be Frank Thomas. Thomas doesn’t quite bring the presence or on-base skills of Bonds, and he is right-handed, but he still fills the need for a big-time power hitter in the middle of the order, when he is healthy. Nomar Garciaparra makes another attractive option. Though he has often been hurt recently, he has never stopped hitting when healthy. Detroit can plug him in at DH to eliminate his defensive shortcomings, and if he gets hurt, they can plug in Thames. Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano are better health risks, but they lack the on-base percentages of Thomas or Bonds and will come with expensive, long-term price tags.

The 2007 Tigers, like the 2006 version, are likely to feature a balanced team without any major holes. But without adding an elite-level hitter to the team, they will likely end up with an 85-90 win team, one that needs to overachieve to emerge from the strong AL Central. Their willingness to make sacrifices to get that talent will make all the difference for their chances at returning to the playoffs in 2007.

No comments: