In Praise of the Tigers and the Brewers

Earlier this summer, I took an easy (but deserved) shot at the Florida Marlins’ ownership for never really putting out the effort to win despite having a solid core of young talent for years and a large profit margin thanks to revenue sharing. I’m not taking it back now, but while it is admittedly fun to be negative (kudos on the handling of the Logan Morrison situation, boys!), I come today not to bury two more teams, but to praise them. The Detroit Tigers and Milwaukee Brewers are both currently winning their respective divisions. Whether or not it lasts, they deserve credit for going for it when they easily could have justified playing it safe. They are the anti-Marlins of 2011.

While sabermetrically-oriented baseball bloggers understandably focus on front office “smarts,” today I’m talking about something else — something like integrity. While having an efficient payroll, making use of young talent, and avoiding bad trades and contracts are good things, they are only means to an end: winning ballgames and getting to the playoffs for a shot at a championship. That, in short, is the problem that I (and many, many others) have with the Marlins. Despite the front office’s general skill at finding young talent and being competitive on a shoestring budget, the primary goal seems to be maximizing Jeffrey Loria’s profit rather than winning ballgames. The contrast with the Marlins is why the Tigers’ and Brewers’ runs at contention this season have been enjoyable even for many of those who aren’t part of their respective fanbases.

In my pre-season preview for Tigers, I noted that while the Tigers seems to be at the “rebuilding point” every season, given the weakness of the American League Central, they might as well keep going for it. Here we are in the middle of August, and they are winning the division by 2.5 games over… Cleveland? Sure, part of their success has to be attributed to the Twins’ injury issues and the tragic death of Adam Dunn after signing with the White Sox this past winter, but those are the sorts of occurrences that are involved in every divisional race. While the Tigers obviously have a larger payroll than the Marlins, according to Cot’s they actually had a smaller opening day payroll than their (projected) rivals for the AL Central’s teflon crown this season: Chicago and even Minnesota.

But payroll isn’t really the issue here, it’s what has been done with it. Since their surprising run to the World Series in 2006, despite being fairly competitive every season other than 2008, the Tigers haven’t been back the the playoffs. It would have been relatively easy and even understandable for those in charge to say “we’ve tried long with this group, let’s blow it up, re-stock our system, and try start over.” Instead, general manager Dave Dombrowski looked at his team, saw two great players still in their primes (Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander) to build around, a relatively weak division, and decided to go for it again.

Obviously, it is working so far. It’s not the way I would have done it, but that isn’t the point. I wouldn’t have signed Victor Martinez for four years to be the primary DH, and probably still wouldn’t (they’ll have to pay the piper eventually), but has paid off this season, and having him at DH has allowed Alex Avila to show his stuff. Jhonny Peralta looked like a stopgap third baseman, and his contract didn’t look that great when he re-signed with the Tigers. He’s been one of the best shortstops in baseball so far this season. Brennan Boesch has stepped up in the outfield. Yes, there is some “good luck” there, but not all the balls have bounced the Tigers’ way: Magglio Ordonez has been a $10 million fiasco, Brandon Inge got a similar extension to Peralta during the off-season and has been so bad the Tigers felt like they had to trade for Wilson Betemit to fix the situation. Austin Jackson‘s BABIP has returned to reality. The point isn’t to go through all the moves that did or didn’t work, or even exactly how smart they were. The point is that when the Tigers might have started over, they saw their weak division (and they were right — every team in the Central, including the Tigers, has a negative run differential [Author’s Correction: As a comment point out below, Cleveland actually has a slightly positive run differential at the moment, which I missed. Congratulations to Manny Acta and his players!]), and made some moves to try and take the division crown home. Some of them have worked, some of them haven’t. But the Tigers should be applauded for making the effort.

Despite having a worse Pythagorean record than St. Louis, the Brewers are currently five games ahead of the Cardinals in the standings. Milwaukee had a fun run to the playoffs in 2008 on the back of a mid-season “all-in” trade for CC Sabathia. Since then there hasn’t been as much fun. After disappointing sub-.500 seasons in 2009 and 2010, the Brewers could have blown it all up. They had a mediocre system, bad pitching, and Prince Fielder was going into what was likely going to be his last season in Milwaukee. Instead, the team decided to push all their chips to the middle of the table. They traded most of the good prospects in their system as well as their starting shortstop to add Shaun Marcum and Zack Greinke to Yovani Gallardo, reshaping their rotation into one of the best 1-2-3 punches in the National League. Sure, it meant sacrificing their future, and perhaps even worse, it meant that Brewers fans have had to watch Yuniesky Betancourt “hit” and “field,” but the Brewers have weathered that and injuries, and now are in prime position to make a run at the playoffs. The eventual rebuild (and it will be lengthy, although only Fielder is leaving after this season) can wait — Doug Melvin saw the opening and took it. So far it is working, and beyond the “flags fly forever” factor, the aftermath of 2008 has demonstrated that these sorts of runs can bolster the loyalty of a fanbase even through lean times. Given that most studies show the Brewers have one of the smallest markets (however that is defined) in baseball, the conduct of ownership is even more damning of their Miami counterpart.

[Side note: Surely I’m not the only one with my fingers crossed for a Greinke-Doc playoff matchup, right?]

I don’t want to give the impression that any team that “goes for it” is doing the right thing: check out the “Hit Show”-era Devil Rays for a prime example of how and when not to do it. Moreover, it is easy to praise management and ownership when both teams are in first, although I’d like to think I’d have the same attitude either way. There is still plenty of time left in the season, enough time for both the Tigers and the Brewers to miss the playoffs, so I hope I stick to my guns if that happens. However it turns out, I commend both the Tigers and Brewers for being the anti-Marlins of 2011.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


19 Responses to “In Praise of the Tigers and the Brewers”

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  1. Brad says:

    Hey now, the Indians have had a positive run differential for a couple days!

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  2. Steve says:

    The Tigers are doing it despite Leyland’s whacked out lineups. Still has Maggs batting 3rd instead of Boesch who has better splits in the 3 spot compared to the 2 spot. and the overall poor splits (ave/obp/ops) with all he has kept in batting order 1/2/3 spots, which costs Cabrera that many more lost rbi opportunities and having to lead off way too many 2nd innings.
    Plus mismanagement of bullpen, they still might win the AL Central despite Leyland’s buffonery. ie. Raburn at 3rd base,

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  3. Gary Oak says:

    The only problem with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the Marlins play in what is now easily the best division in the NL, and only second to the AL in terms of having tough teams. Sure, Detroit always seems to have a shot when the AL Central is as weak as this. And sure, Milwaukee can get fluky and win 13 out of 14 or so to suddenly be in an easy 1st place in what is basically a division of .500 teams or worse otherwise.

    But when every year, the competition is the juggernaut Phillies, or the pitching-deep Braves who never seem to have a bad year, then it’s harder to justify going for it all when there is a much less likely chance that it’s even remotely attainable. Hell, even the Mets and the Nationals are legitimate .500-ish teams now, and the Nats are set up for a lot of future success with the likes of Harper, Strasburg, both Zimmermans, Espinosa, and the like. The competition in the NL East completely thwarts that of the AL and NL Central respectively. Thus, the Tigers and the Brewers have more opportunities to take such risks, while the Marlins really don’t have a reason to.

    Don’t get me wrong, I hate how the Marlins are run. The Morrison thing is absurd! But I don’t think that calling them out for not “going for it” is really the best way of either criticizing the Marlins ownership, or labeling what an “anti-Marlin” team is, as it really doesn’t shock me that the most anti-Marlin teams are competing in horribly weak divisions. In fact, you could call Wahington anti-Marlin for going out there and investing in Werth (whether it was wise or not is not the point) as part of their future, but as they’re a lowly 4th place team right now the term anti-Marlin just won’t get used on them. And indeed, you did address that it’s easy to label 1st place teams as such.

    So basically, Detroit has a weak division, and Milwaukee has a decently weak division and not much of a future since Fielder is leaving, so they took their opportunity and ran with it. That’s good for those franchises, but really has nothing to do with the Marlins, as there’s always been a divisional roadblock in the way.

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    • So we will seek clarity in mid September, when the Brewers and Phillies go head to head in Milwaukee. I’d say a chin strap might be required for that one.

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    • LionoftheSenate says:

      The Brewers won’t have much of a future? Um….they have the 2nd best record in the NL and their future may include a World Series!!!

      I’m sure you missed that.

      Of course you are probably referring to 2013 and beyond. This is why I’m sick of stats geeks and deals geeks. Everyone is in the predictions business….to the point where they don’t even enjoy seasons as they are. Also, it’s safe to say many teams peaking right now are likely to have dimmer futures……this isn’t just true of the Brewers.

      The Brewers have a bright 2012 ahead of them as well. If they do make the playoffs and even the WS, it will not be all that difficult to replace Prince. The Brewers have two positions, 3b and SS that should be relatively easy to upgrade at a low cost. That marginal gain in talent is available to them.

      Babe Ruth in 1921 was eventually going to fade away and retire and die. So what. When he played he was great and we talk about him to this day.

      The goal is maximizing your window, not making sure your rebuilding years are 70 wins instead of 60. Get a clue.

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      • CircleChange11 says:

        The NL Central will be very interesting in 2012.

        CIN will likely rebound to somewhere between where they were in 2010 and where they are in 2011.

        StL will likely be good as well. Wainwright returns, and CC29 may not. Pujols may or may not be a Cardinal … but regardless, they will be among the top 3 in the division.

        MIL will be good as well given their starting pitching and Braun, etc. Losing Fiedler is going to hurt, but we don;t know who they’ll replace him with.

        MIL has to caution against the type of assumpotions that the 2010 Reds (and their fans) had … that they’ll just be atop the division for the next few years.

        Injuries will likely decide the 2012 NL Central champion because MIL, CIN, and StL will be so close in quality.

        Yes, I’m discounting the sCrubs and Lastros. I do that by default. The Pirates could be interesting again in 2012.

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      • Gary Oak says:

        You’re sick of stat geeks, yet you read Fangraphs? And that “2nd best record” is bloated by playing the Astros, Pirates, and Cubs 18 times a year, and not having to play any NL East team 18 times. But yes, “future” implies after this season. Going into next year, they have no 1B, and an awful 3B and SS. Those are sizeable holes to fill, especially with the utterly bare 3B and SS market as it is. So I think I have a clue. Now stop rambling like a whiny fanboy.

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      • RC says:

        Well built teams don’t really have rebuilding windows.

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    • fothead says:

      If Tampa had that attitude, they never would have made the playoffs twice. Its a cop-out. Lets see if it changes moving forward when it’s time to keep Stanton, Gaby and the like with the new stadium.

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      • Gary Oak says:

        Tampa basically does have that attitude, though. They don’t spend to win, and even balk at the mere idea of spending a decent amount on a free agent, or giving up possible future stars in a deal for a “win now,” immediate-impact type of player. Instead, they win with homegrown talent, good drafting, and so on. None of Tampa’s winning involved spending money and “going for it” as described here.

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  4. The Nicker says:

    Delmon Young?

    WTF?

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    • TFINY says:

      Tiger fans like the trade, because they won’t have to play Ordonez. Twins fans like the trade because they won’t have to play Young.

      Seem like a fair trade to me.

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  5. Chops says:

    If Fielder is the only major piece definitively leaving, I wonder if they can replace him with someone like Carlos Pena or Lance Berkman and continue the run while they have so much major league talent.

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    • LionoftheSenate says:

      Prince is the only major piece leaving. But 1b is not the only position Milwaukee will have new blood. SS and 3b almost certainly will have new blood, esp SS.

      The Brewers should be able to realize enough marginal improvement at SS to offset any drop at 1b.

      2012 is bright.

      Only people obsessed with next FAIL to see 2012 is just fine. Everyone wants to predict the future…..since everyone plays this predictions game, few have anything insightful to offer anymore.

      Is the goal of the Brewers to finish 3rd from 2011-2014 or try and win a World Series?

      The Yankees have but 1 WS title in the past decade, this isn’t as easy as it looks children. if the Brewers make, let alone win the World Series, that will be much more of an accomplishment than what the Yankees did in the last decade.

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  6. Dave says:

    According to Baseball Reference, the most similar player to Delmon Young through age 24 is Carl Yastrzemski….

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    • hk says:

      …which probably has more to do with both of them getting a large number of at bats by age 24 or 25 and little to do with production. Through their respective age 24 seasons, DY had an OPS+ of slightly above 100 and had produced 1.2 WAR while Yaz had an OPS+ of ~120 and had produced 20 WAR. In their respective age 25 seasons, DY currently has an OPS+ of 84 and a .299 wOBA in 3/4 of a season while Yaz posted an OPS+ of 156 and a .404 wOBA.

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