Wednesday, October 18, 2006

How were the Tigers really built?

You're going to hear a lot of stories, either now or after the World Series, about how the Tigers came together and rebounded from the 119-loss season of 2003, and how the 2006 version was built through a series of prudent acquisitions.

I leafed through a copy of Baseball Prospectus 2004 for their comments on how the 2003 team would need to rebuild. They looked at previous futile teams and showed that they tend to turn over their entire roster before becoming contenders again. The Tigers do have a few players remaining from the 2003 team, but not many; they underwent a successful rebuilding program by importing players from outside the organization.

Since we're not results-oriented here, let's look at how the team really came together, as the decisions looked at the time. First, a look at the hitters.

C: Ivan Rodriguez (Free Agent, 2004)

Rodriguez was given an outrageous 4-year, $40 million contract after the 2003 season in an attempt to restore credibility to the franchise after they went 43-119 the season before. His contract had a theme common to the free agents on this list: he only signed with the Tigers because they gave him a much more lucrative deal than he could have gotten elsewhere.

Rodriguez's contract runs through ages 33-36, a period where many catchers deteriorate both physically and on the field. At the time it was signed, he had missed more than 50 games in three of the past four years. To their credit, Detroit did hedge their bets by allowing themselves to void his contract if he missed extensive time with back injuries. Though it has worked out well, this contract was correctly denounced at the time.

1B: Sean Casey (Trade, 2006)

Casey was acquired in trade with Pittsburgh at the deadline because the Tigers "needed" a left-handed bat in the lineup (they did) and a first baseman (they didn't). Since then, Casey has failed to outhit Chris Shelton, yet still gets the starts, even against lefties. Shelton was inexplicably left off the postseason roster even though he is better than Casey by almost any measure. If the Tigers re-sign Casey, they will regret it, both for the wasted money and blocking their best first baseman from the lineup.

2B: Placido Polanco (Trade, 2005)

Polanco was acquired in a trade with the Phillies, reportedly because Ugueth Urbina got into a fight on the team plane and needed to be dealt quickly. The Tigers did well to pick up Polanco, who was unable to get an everyday job after he surprised the Phils by accepting arbitration, knowing he would come back in a part-time role behind Chase Utley and David Bell.

Polanco finished second in the majors in batting average last year. Though his stats have dipped heavily this year, he still has plus defense and a .300 average, a package that made him one of the league's best second basemen until 2006. Looking back, it's a shame he never found full-time work until now, as he was a legitimate 7-8 win player at his peak.

Though his hand was forced, Dombrowski made a great pickup of an undervalued commodity, and signed him to a very reasonable contract (4 years, $18.4 million).

3B: Brandon Inge (Homegrown)

Inge has had one of the strangest career paths in history. Entering 2004, he was 27 years old, had established himself as the worst-hitting regular catcher in the league, and the Tigers had just made a long-term commitment to Ivan Rodriguez.

Any normal team would have brought back Inge as a backup catcher if at all. Instead, the Tigers converted him to a full-time third baseman. Then a funny thing happened: Inge became a league-average hitter at third base, where the standards for batters are much higher, and became one of MLB's premier defenders at the hot corner.

It's possible the Tigers scouts believed that Inge's bat and glove could flourish after shedding the tools of ignorance, but I doubt it. No reasonable analyst could have foreseen Inge becoming this valuable as a third baseman.

SS: Carlos Guillen (Trade, 2004)

There must have been something in the water in Detroit in the winter of 2003-04, because like Inge, Guillen began flourishing at that point. Guillen arrived in Detroit a .270/.330/.400 type with below-average defense, more a placeholder than a player who drives a team into contention. Since then, he has developed decent power for a shortstop, batted at least .318 every year, and posted two star-level seasons, while remaining on pace for one in half a season in 2005. He has become the first player in major league history to increase his batting average seven years in a row.

I don't really know how to explain this one, either. He has been able to sustain the growth, so it doesn't look like a fluke, but why the sudden turnaround? Did the Detroit coaches know something no one else did? Something in the clubhouse coffee? It's hard to pin down.

LF: Craig Monroe (Claimed off waivers, 2002)

Monroe is exactly the kind of player who gets overrated by the masses because he has decent HR totals, has collected several clutch hits this year, and can't get on base to save his life. He has batted second for much of the postseason, even though he is very poorly suited for the role.

Despite good power, Monroe remains a below-average corner outfielder due to his lack of walks, poor defense and declining batting average. He resembles Jacque Jones or Juan Encarnacion, a corner guy with no on-base skills and moderate power. Like Jones or Encarnacion, Monroe will be overpaid when he hits the free agent market. He makes a great candidate for a trade or non-tender after this year.

CF: Curtis Granderson (Homegrown)

Granderson is an example of the player development that teams need to do to win, and that the Tigers have failed at for years. Even when the Yankees "bought" their way to four World Series wins in the late 90's, they had a core of homegrown players like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada who were cheap due to lack of service time. By getting a very productive player for the cost of the major-league minimum, you save the team $10 million that can be used to patch a variety of holes (though not enough to pay the Tigers' two closers this year.)

Granderson was knocked for playing at a non-baseball school (He is the only University of Illinois-Chicago grad to ever play in the majors), but the Tigers scouts and minor league coaches deserve credit for discovering and developing him.

RF: Magglio Ordonez (Free Agent, 2005)

Ordonez was given a contract even worse than Pudge's: 5 years, $75 million after he underwent a mysterious European surgery on his knee. It seems likely that Maggs would not have gotten more than perhaps 4 years, $50 million with any non-Tigers team, but they felt the need to add a big-name free agent to turn around the franchise from years of losing.

Since arriving, Ordonez has continued a decline in power that makes him a longshot to reach 30 homers again. He's settled in as a .300/.360/.480 corner outfielder in a neutral park with poor defense. Plenty of players with that skill set can't even get everyday jobs.

It's hard to criticize any move that helps a team to a World Series run that has revitalized the franchise, but this is a contract that already looks bad and will only appear worse two years from now.

DH: Marcus Thames (Free Agent, 2004)

Thames has spent the past several years as a 4A player: one who destroys AAA pitching but couldn't stick in the majors. Though many of these guys fail to amount to anything in the majors, many do (Brady Clark and Ken Phelps come to mind), and the Tigers deserve credit for giving him another chance, although they still refuse to give him the full-time job.

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