The Detroit Tigers are in first place, or close to it.
They have the best pitcher and hitter in the game.
They have a handful of superstars and All-Stars at other positions, too. Their starting pitching, #1 through #4, is as talented as any in baseball, and may be as good as the franchise has ever had.
The team regularly attracts sellout crowds, has a burgeoning fan base, and are one of the favorites to win the World Series.
Things are good in Motown. In many ways it’s the new Golden Era of Baseball in Detroit.
But if Mike Ilitch is to ever hoist the World Series trophy above his wig-covered head, his baseball team will need to address a few things that may not seem obvious, but can make a big difference when games are close and runs are at a premium. You know, like in the postseason.
Of course, the Tigs have played baseball deep into October the last two autumns, so you may be saying, “What’s the problem?” After all, the Tigers have been one of the final four teams left standing in each of the last two seasons. But two years ago they were brushed aside by the Texas Rangers in the League Championship Series, and last October they were swept away rudely by the San Francisco Giants in the World Series.
It’s not that we can look at the recent postseason disappointments and pinpoint precisely what the issue was in every game, that would be too simple. But it is easy to see – in my opinion – the biggest problem this team has, and I have some news for you, Tiger fans – it’s not the performance of the bullpen.
If I may be permitted to use a cooking metaphor, the Tigers are like a very good entree: tasty and plated well, but the overall culinary experience would be better if they changed one thing. The ingredients.
Or put another way (how many damned metaphors can I get away with here?) – our favorite baseball team is like a movie cast. The stars are Hollywood headliners with Academy Awards on their résumé, but the supporting cast is not as strong as it could be. The result is a movie that gets 4 out of 5 stars, but misses out on Best Picture.
Fellow DAC columnist Michael Betzold recently wrote that the Tigers could benefit from a good-glove man (or two) on the bench to bolster their meager infield defense. He’s absolutely correct, but I’ll take it farther than that: the Tigers failure to properly construct a 25-man roster, from position #1 to #25, is their greatest flaw. It’s the reason they have played so unevenly in the regular season the last 2+ seasons. It’s the reason they can be so frustrating to follow on a daily basis over the course of a 162-game schedule. It’s the reason they lose in the postseason.
If Mr. Ilitch wants to finally win his World Series, he’d be wise to order his baseball minions to address this shortcoming.
Dave Dombrowski is President, CEO, and General Manager of this franchise. He deserves a lot of credit for the success the Tigers have enjoyed over the last decade. He’s accomplished much in baseball1. This article is not intended as a hatchet job of DD, he’s admired in baseball and deservedly so. However, where there’s the opportunity for great acclaim, there’s also the possibility for great criticism. The Tiger GM bears responsibility for the puzzling way that his team has been built.
Let’s start with what is not dysfunctional. The Tiger starting lineup is one of the best that money can buy. With Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter, Austin Jackson, and Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers have bonafide offensive weapons at many spots in the lineup. The starting pitchers? Just fine, thank you very much. This season, a couple of them are doing the unthinkable – making Justin Verlander look like just one of the gang. Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer can be lights out on any given night, and Doug Fister isn’t shabby either. Forget about the inconsistency from the #5 slot – every team has that same problem.
The issue with these Tigers is the construction of the team itself. And for that, Dombrowski deserves all of the blame. Let me explain.
The Tigers have 25 active roster spots. They have five starting pitchers and nine starting position players – that’s 14 spots. The team, like many in baseball, carry seven relievers. Now we’re at 21. That leaves four slots for bench players. That’s not much, but many teams go that route in modern baseball, where relief specialists are deemed as important as just about anything. Every team seems to have at least one guy who is designed to come in to face one batter if needed – a left-handed specialist like Darin Downs, or a strikeout guy like Al Alburquerque. But with just four bench slots that means the team is left having to choose very carefully. You need a backup catcher, and you need at least one infielder who can play short, second, and maybe even third base. The Tigers have Brayan Pena and Ramon Santiago, two switch-hitters, in those roles. That leaves two more spots, which DD has filled with Don Kelly and Matt Tuiasosopo.
Tuiasosopo and Pena are useful players who serve important roles – one as the backup catcher, the other as a power right-handed bat off the bench. But, because the Tigs have only four bench spots available, they’re forced to use two of them on players who can do many things, even if they can’t do any of them very well at all. That’s a perfect description of Kelly and Santiago. Neither are major league caliber. Not even close. Santiago hasn’t hit a ball that scared anyone since 2011. Kelly’s most redeeming quality is that in a pinch he could put on the catching equipment and probably not take every pitch off his protective cup. Otherwise, there’s one thing we’re sure of about Mr. Kelly – by the end of the year he will have hit about .180 with little power and no real offensive contributions to his credit, save for a couple belt-high fastballs that he will pull into the bleachers. He’s a Swiss Army Knife with a dull blade and a broken corkscrew that you can still finagle into opening your soda bottle every once in a while.
If the Tigers starting lineup was more well-rounded, like say that of the Cardinals, they could afford to carry 12 pitchers and 2-3 terrible bench players, because those guys wouldn’t be needed except in emergencies. But, that’s not the case. Many of the Tigers offensive stars (see Cabrera, Fielder, Peralta), are poor defensive players who should be subbed for late in games when the team has a lead. Other everyday players (Avila, Infante, Dirks) should be pinch-hit for at times because they aren’t always in a good matchup.
But with only one decent major league bat on the bench, Jim Leyland doesn’t have potent weapons to use. As a result, we see Kelly and Santiago hitting in spots where no one in their right minds should ever use them. In fact, Kelly gets a couple starts every week, for some godawful reason. So far in 2013, Kelly and Santiago have started 31 games between them, a fact that should cause you to run screaming down Woodward Avenue.
This isn’t just a slap at those two players, though. The Tiger braintrust is really to blame. They have consistently erred in choosing the supporting pieces of their cast. From Ryan Raburn chewing up at-bats and playing second base, to the Brandon Inge Fiasco, to giving valuable roster spots to Kelly, Santiago, and minor league lifers like Quintin Berry and Danny Worth, the Tigers have made serious miscalculations in how they construct the puzzle pieces of their 25-man roster. That’s on Dombrowski.
Considering the team has great offensive powerhouses like Cabrera, Fielder, and VMart, and lesser stars like Peralta, they need to have a deeper bench to give those guys support defensively. The Tigers also should have more flexibility with their bench, which means they should add another non-pitcher slot. They could easily get by with six relievers. It wasn’t that long ago that teams were carrying 4-5 relief pitchers. Wasting a roster spot for a guy that only pitches maybe two times every 10 days is ridiculous. While that pitcher atrophies in the bullpen, the Tigers lose games because they don’t have an extra bat to use for pinch-hitting (or a pinch-runner with some speed), or to bring in late-inning defensive replacements.
The bullpen is dysfunctional as well. Let’s face it. Two years ago the Tigers enjoyed an amazing season from their bullpen, when Jose Valverde went 49-for-49 in save opportunities and the club locked down every game where they led after 8 innings. That wasn’t to be expected every year, admittedly. However, Dombrowski’s love affair with the 7-man bullpen and his shuttling in and out of arms like musical chairs has been as much to blame for the team’s uneven play the last two years as anything. A 6-man pen with six pitchers who pitch more often would be a better solution. Drew Smyly can take the ball a lot, as can Octavio Dotel (when healthy). The drama that is Papa Grande should have been erased from this team, but Dombrowski allowed the much-maligned and hated closer back onto the team after playing tough with him in the off-season. Like he did with Inge and Raburn, DD is showing that his Achilles heal is a warped loyalty to players who are well past their usefulness. Stick a fork in Big Potato, he’s done. His uncertainty at the back end of the bullpen spills down onto the other players on this team. You can see the cringing when he enters the game.
With the studs at the top of their roster, the Tigers can almost autopilot their way to 90 wins. But that’s no guarantee that they will make the playoffs, even with an extra wild-card in the mix. With each of the last two MVP’s on their side, I think the Tigers will make it to the postseason, but once they get there, almost every game is a low-scoring, tension-filled contest. With an infield that doesn’t have very good range, a few lineup spots that need to be pinch-hit for in key spots, and little team speed, the Tigers don’t have a bench that can give Leyland the arrows he needs to fire at the enemy in October. Their bullpen is bloated and misused because of the poor way it was constructed (again).
A better 25-man mix would tip this team closer to winning 100 games and being a force in the postseason. To make that happen, the front office would have to rethink the way they are evaluating the players on the edge of their roster. They’re top heavy, and now it’s time to pay attention to the portion of the team that doesn’t get all of the glory.
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1. As a whippersnapper he built the Montreal Expos farm system into just about the best in baseball, and by 1994 that team was one of the best in the game and, if not for the strike, might well have won their first pennant. He then built the Marlins and won the World Series in 1997. After presiding over an owner-mandated fire sale in Florida, he bolted for the Tigers. But in 2003, the Fish won a second WS ring, this time with many of the key pieces being players that DD drafted or stole from other teams. Of course, in Detroit he has won two pennants in seven seasons and led the club to their first back-to-back post-season appearances since the Great Depression.