Friday, October 15, 2010

Looking Ahead to the Offseason: Fasten Your Seatbelts

As I’ve said repeatedly, I’m not a fan of the offseason, and it seems every year I like it less and less. In free agent negotiations, someone always comes off looking bad. In trades, someone’s feelings get hurt. You get the idea. The worst part about it is simply not knowing what’s going to happen. And even if things work out, going through it is still rough. Take last year. The trade that sent Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer to Detroit worked out fabulously, but as a fan, it was very hard to say goodbye to a player like Curtis Granderson. And with many, many changes certain to be afoot for the Tigers, this will be a stressful five months indeed, and there are a couple of players I’m very fond of whom I might be forced to part with, and I’m not looking forward to that. But, to the business at hand, at the present time, Dave Dombrowski has said that the top priorities are finding an RBI man to help out Miguel Cabrera and bolstering the bullpen. With that, I’m going to take a position-by-position approach to this offseason preview, and as I warned last time, if you’ve even only half-paid attention to this blog, you already know a lot of what I’m going to say already, so forgive me for sounding repetitive.

At the present time, it seems like the Tigers are ready for Alex Avila to take over as the starting catcher. His bat needs to perk up a little more for him to keep that job (and I still have no idea why there’s this notion that left-handed offense from a catcher is more valuable than left-handed offense from, say, an outfielder or a shortstop; people always tell me that it’s because it’s a position where you can only throw right-handed, but if you look all around the majors, there are plenty of first basemen and outfielders who bat left but throw right), but his defense has made major improvements, and I definitely approved of his caught stealing rate (because the last thing I want is someone like Brian McCann or Victor Martinez, who are only in their respective lineups for their bats and can’t throw the ball worth anything). In the meantime, we already know that Gerald Laird will not be re-signed. Now, back in 2008 when it was clear that the Tigers needed a catcher, Laird was my first choice among the realistically available catchers of that offseason, and I will maintain that that was a good trade. He was everything I could’ve hoped for defensively (I’m still annoyed that he didn’t win a Gold Glove last year). He just couldn’t get things going with the bat, and even though I think he hit into some bad luck this year (it seemed like every single game in the first half, he hit at least one lineout), he probably “should” not have hit much above .240. The time is probably right to bid farewell. To replace him, the Tigers are apparently looking to either sign or acquire a right-handed hitting veteran to either back up or platoon with Avila. Now, I have my own pipe dream about that, but it’s not gonna happen so I’m not even gonna get into it. Some of us online were discussing Bengie Molina the other night. He is a free agent, he’s a great thrower, he’s passable with the bat, and as an added bonus, he’s Puerto Rican. The downside to Molina is that he is The Slowest Man in the World (and yet somehow he hit for the cycle this year). I can’t really think of any other desirable candidates off the top of my head, but it goes without saying I’d prefer a free agent signing to a trade.

First Base
Unless Miguel Cabrera’s season-ending ankle sprain turns out worse than originally thought (last I heard was three week recovery time), this is absolutely not a concern.

Second Base
It’s possible that the Tigers might try to get someone for this, but they’ve got in-house candidates in Scott Sizemore and Will Rhymes. Sizemore’s put up the better minor league numbers, has more power, and most stat geeks are in his corner as being more likely to put up “sustainable” offensive numbers. Rhymes has become the fan favorite of the two, is a better defender, has more speed, and bats left-handed, so at this point, it’s a toss-up. Leyland has said he does not want to use Sizemore and Rhymes in a platoon, so at the moment it’s looking like a spring training competition. However, we’ve seen instances in the recent past where it looked as though the Tigers had two prospects for one position (or rotation/bullpen spot) headed to a spring training competition, only to see one of them traded at some point during the offseason. This could very well happen in this situation (and remember, they still have the switch-hitting Ramon Santiago as the backup infielder). Carlos Guillen’s name also gets stuck into the mix for second basemen, but he’s likely not going to be fully healthy when the season starts and Dave Dombrowski has said right now Guillen is a man without a position. It sounds as though the Tigers would like to somehow trade Guillen if they could, but his huge contract will probably prevent this from happening (I’m only advocating him staying because saying “I want the Mafia to stay intact” sounds more fair than “I’d like three of the Mafia members to stay and I don’t care about the fourth”).

Third Base
I like Brandon Inge very much and I did not want to see him go, and after a lot of uncertainty, it looks as though there’s a very good chance we’ll be seeing him in the Olde English D a bit longer. The Tigers want him back and Inge wants to stay, so it’d be shocking if they didn’t work something out. Inge is still a streaky hitter (Did you notice he was starting to get hot again right at the last couple games of the season?), but his defense is invaluable.

Back in late July, I never imagined I would find myself typing this, but keeping Jhonny Peralta around for another year might not be the worst thing in the world. Once Inge came off the DL and Peralta moved back to shortstop, I thought sure we’d spend two months watching Edgar Renteria Redux, but Peralta actually did a pretty good job. And his offense was acceptable, if a little bit streaky, Besides, this year’s shortstop free agent class leaves a lot to be desired, and the trade market isn’t much better. I know there are rumors floating around that the Diamondbacks offered Stephen Drew straight up for Rick Porcello around the Trade Deadline, but I don’t know how I would feel about that trade.

I’ve grouped those together because any DH the Tigers might bring in will likely (ostensibly) be an outfielder. Austin Jackson will be in center, we know that, and Johnny Damon will not be with the Tigers anymore. I like Johnny Damon. His low average with runners in scoring position was puzzling (and likely an aberration), but he did a good job at getting on base and he was well-liked in the clubhouse. However, I can’t really see where he would have a place on the team going forward. So that leaves us with an open DH and question marks at left and right. Of the Tigers in my Top Five, two are in very real danger of not being with the Tigers next year. One of them is Magglio Ordoñez. Now, there is mutual interest, and I would very much like Maggs back next year. There are a couple problems, though. One is that Dave Dombrowski has already said that he would prefer this hypothetical RBI/DH-type to be a left-handed hitter (though if Magglio’s ankle heals well, he should still be able to play right field at a reasonable level). The other problem is Scott Boras. He will drag negotiations out as long as he can. He will try to get other teams involved. He will try to get the Tigers to bid against themselves. Dave Dombrowski has been able to work with Boras in the past, but if these negotiations go on long enough and another opportunity presents itself, he may go that route instead. I hope that doesn’t happen. As far as that left-handed RBI man talk goes, a lot of media people think Dombrowski is hinting at Adam Dunn. Dunn profiles as a good DH, but I’m not sure he would want to. There are a lot of fans who would like the Tigers to go after Carl Crawford, but he is going to take an enormous contract (remember, in two years, the Tigers will already have two players on their roster making around $20 million a year; having three players account for $60 million of your payroll does not sound like a good idea) and he strikes me as more of a table-setter than an RBI guy. In-house, apparently Ryan Raburn has been promised more of a regular job next year (though I can’t find the original article/interview in which this was said). I’ve noticed something with Raburn. For the past three years, he’s started off the season very slowly and then had a hot second half. It might not be a bad idea to see if the Tigers could possibly sell high on Raburn, seeing as how good the end of his season was. In addition to Raburn, the Tigers have Brennan Boesch and Casper Wells. Boesch is probably gonna have to tear it up in spring training to avoid starting his season in Toledo. I’m not sure where Casper Wells fits in at this time. He hit pretty well in September, but the Tigers may see him as minor league depth for now. Of course, there is also the possibility that one or both will be traded.

This is the part where I ramble a lot. The three locks are Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello. Verlander and Scherzer speak for themselves and don’t require any further discussion. Porcello will be in the rotation as long as he doesn’t get traded (which is a possibility, although for now I feel as if it’s a remote one). On the final day of the season, Jim Leyland announced that Phil Coke will be the fourth starter. I grant that the Tigers know more about their pitching staff than I do, but when you say you’ve made it your priority to improve the bullpen, is it really the best idea to take the guy who was your best reliever and stick him in the rotation? I’m all in favor of having a lefty replace Jeremy Bonderman, and perhaps the Tigers feel as though they won’t be able to find a suitable lefty on the free agent or trade markets (since they’ve already said they won’t be pursuing Cliff Lee and it looks as though Ted Lilly will return to the Dodgers). However, we’ve heard promises like this from the Tigers before. Remember April of 2008, when Miguel Cabrera was “only” going to play one game at first base and there was nothing else to read into it? Or when it looked like their starting catcher for 2009 would be Dusty Ryan? Or when Carlos Guillen was “definitely” their left fielder and the Tigers were “fully prepared to rely on” Joel Zumaya as their closer? How’d those turn out? I’m not saying the Tigers were wrong to break any of those assertions (as a matter of fact, in most cases breaking the promise turned out to be the better move). But it’s safe to say that something the Tigers have said about next year will turn out to fall by the wayside (be it Phil Coke as a starter, Raburn getting more playing time, or Alex Avila being the starting catcher). But I’ll count him in as the fourth starter until something happens to change that. That leaves the fifth starter, and you already know what I’m going to say about that. I really want it to be Armando Galarraga, but I think he’s going to be traded (it would not surprise me to see the Tigers aggressively shopping him, as a matter of fact). Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski at least had the decency to pay him some lip service on the last day of the season. Actually, if you just looked at the quotes themselves, you’d think as it stands right now, Galarraga would be the frontrunner. Leyland’s quote was to the news media and was something to the effect of “If Galarraga pitches the way he’s capable of, he’ll have a real good shot,” but I don’t know what the original question was, so it’s unclear if he was prompted to say that or not. Dave Dombrowski’s comments came during his in-game interview with Fox Sports Detroit, so I can tell you for sure that he brought up Galarraga’s name on his own without being prompted. His comments were basically the same as Leyland’s, albeit a bit more encouraging, if anything. However, in his offseason preview which was posted on a few days later, Jason Beck seemed to hint that the Tigers considered Andy Oliver to be the frontrunner with Charles Furbush as a dark horse candidate and the only mention of Galarraga was to say that the Tigers “might have to make a decision” on him (if that doesn’t sound ominous, I don’t know what does). For all the talk about Galarraga being inconsistent, in most of his starts, he went between five and seven innings and gave up between two and four runs, which in most cases is at least giving your team a chance to win. Now, if in the course of the offseason, the Tigers have met their other needs (namely, offense and bullpen) and they have an opportunity to make a clear upgrade (either through free agency or trade), then yes, they should go that route. I may be carrying around inexplicable emotional attachments to players, but the well-being of the team is still my top priority, same as anyone else’s (although there have been times where I have been tempted to waver). If that happens, I will most definitely go through a long and arduous grieving process, but I’ll understand the move. However, notice that I phrased it as “CLEAR upgrade.” A gamble on a formerly dominant pitcher coming off an injury or a bad year is NOT a clear upgrade. A formerly so-so pitcher who is coming off a very good year is NOT a clear upgrade. An aging veteran is NOT a clear upgrade. Andy Oliver is NOT a clear upgrade, at least, not at this time. He’s got good stuff, but can you honestly say he couldn’t benefit from a full year in Toledo? The same argument could go for Charles Furbush or another team’s super-prospect. Plus, I always hear about how spring training is a horrible time to evaluate anyone, and I’m starting to believe that’s the case. We’ve seen guys dominate in spring training only to crash and burn once the season starts, and if Justin Verlander’s rotation spot depended on his spring training performance, he’d have started each of the last two seasons in the minor leagues. Let me put it another way: If you start the 2011 season with Galarraga in the rotation and something goes wrong or there’s an injury, Andy Oliver will be right there in Toledo, ready and waiting. But if you go with Oliver and lose Galarraga and it turns out that Oliver was, in fact, not ready for the bigs, then you’re stuck (and don’t even think of suggesting Alfredo Figaro). But as I said, I think Galarraga will be traded long before spring training even starts, so this whole argument will probably turn out to be moot. But for God’s sake, PLEASE don’t trade him for a reliever.

Along with offense, Dave Dombrowski has stressed this area as a priority, although I’d prefer they focus on the free agent market as opposed to trades because I’d hate to see anyone traded for a reliever unless it’s another reliever (or Alfredo Figaro). We know that Valverde’s still the closer. Most blogs that I’ve read blame his second-half struggles on being used too much in the first half (although a lot of the struggles themselves are limited to late July and August; granted, he spent a good chunk of September battling injuries). I’d say there’s a reasonably good chance he bounces back, because his second-half numbers this year did not match his career second-half splits (which were typically better than his first-half numbers). Ryan Perry projects to be the primary setup man, although he had stretches where he looked ineffective. With Phil Coke moving to the rotation, the job of primary lefty falls to Daniel Schlereth at present, but this is a spot the Tigers may look to upgrade. The most notable lefty relievers on the free agent market are Scott Downs, Will Ohman, and Joe Beimel. Downs is the most effective, but he’s a Type A free agent and the Blue Jays will likely offer him arbitration. On the righty side of the ledger, there are a bunch of fans who would just as soon throw Joel Zumaya overboard. I don’t think that’s such a good idea. Zumaya can be a very dominant pitcher when he’s healthy and throwing strikes. HOWEVER, there needs to be backup plan already in place when the season starts, because they can’t keep getting caught off-guard whenever Zumaya injures himself. To that end, that probably means signing another right-handed late-inning reliever. Some of them coming off good years include Grant Balfour, Jesse Crain, Jon Rauch, Joaquin Benoit and J.J. Putz (although Balfour is a Type A, so proceed with caution there). Under no circumstances should Kyle Farnsworth even be considered.

I’m not going to get into stuff about arbitration and the Rule 5 Draft or anything like that, because those things really don’t interest me (although I obviously wouldn’t complain if the Tigers got more draft picks). Obviously, once the Tigers start making moves, I’ll be weighing in (or venting, depending on what it is). I hope you guys enjoy watching the ALCS and NLCS over the next few days. I’ll be rooting for the Rangers and Giants.

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