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.

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

Sitting Curveball

Beat me to it. And the Tigers have a larger negative differential than both the Indians and the White Sox. As of Monday, September 15th, at 2:16 PM.

That was easy. And now, if it changes in the future, I’ve hedged my bets by timestamping it.