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The Tigers’ Curious Roster

Victor Martinez – four years, $50 million. Joaquin Benoit – three years, $16.5 million. Brad Penny – one year, $3 million. It wasn’t Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez. But by bringing in a solid bat, a set-up man coming off a monster season, and a potential bargain of a back-end starter, the Tigers still made more shiny moves to upgrade their roster than many other teams this off-season.

Detroit, meanwhile,  kept its core intact, led by one of the five best hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera, and (arguably) one of the five best starting pitchers in Justin Verlander. In a division with two solid but still beatable rivals, you’d think Tigers fans should get excited for a possible 2011 playoff run. So why does this roster seem…not quite right?

The first problem is the composition of the lineup. The Tigers are short on left-handed hitters; projected starting catcher Alex Avila is the only lefty in the bunch, with switch-hitting Victor Martinez expected to start at DH and Carlos Guillen a possible option at second base if he ever gets healthy. The lack of left-handed hitters is not necessarily a fatal flaw, if you’ve got right-handed hitters who can handle righties. Cabrera posted a .436 wOBA vs. right-handed pitching in 2010, 4th-best in the majors among qualified batters. A line-up full of Cabreras would do just fine, of course. After that? Check out the Tigers’ other eight projected starters in 2011.

2010 wOBA vs. RHPs

Austin Jackson: .351 (thanks, .429 BABIP vs. RH!)
Magglio Ordonez: .340
Ryan Raburn: .332
Victor Martinez: .306
Alex Avila: .306
Brandon Inge: .303
Jhonny Peralta: .296
Carlos Guillen: .279

A couple of caveats apply. Martinez had never shown anything close to as big a split as he displayed in 2010, and he usually handles righties much better than he did last year (career .357 wOBA vs. RH/.370 wOBA vs. LH). Guillen has also been much better against righties in the past (career .363 wOBA against them) and battled injuries last year.

Still, this looks like a lineup that’s highly exploitable by any decent right-handed starting pitching, or even a manager with a bunch of ROOGYs waiting in the pen. There are no righty-mashers waiting anywhere on the bench or in the minors either.

The second problem is the makeup of Detroit’s defense. The Tigers ranked a solid 8th in MLB last season in team UZR. But the team’s top defenders were all outfielders, injury fill-ins, or Brandon Inge. Any groundball not hit to third base looms as a potential problem for the Tigers this season.

At short, the Tigers will run out Jhonny Peralta, who has cost his teams 28 runs defensively at the position over six-and-a-half seasons. Considering he’s probably the biggest player in the majors likely to start there this year, and was never known for his range even in his early-20s, it’s hard to imagine him not being one of the AL’s biggest defensive liabilities at the position.

At least Peralta has plenty of experience at his position, even if it is bad experience. Guillen appeared in just 47 games last year at second base, netting a -1.5 UZR in that limited sample. That marked the first time he’d manned the deuce in 11 years, several years before the Mariners traded him away for no good reason. Guillen’s also 35 years old, coming off a season-ending knee injury last August, and still banged up enough that Jim Leyland might be looking elsewhere for a second baseman, at least on Opening Day.

Twenty-seven-year-old Will Rhymes and 26-year-old Scott Sizemore could conceivably form a platoon that fares better than Guillen with the glove, and maybe even with the bat. But neither player has a long enough track record to make such improvement a good bet. Throw in Cabrera, whose defense is best described as, “Man, that guy can hit!”, and you’ve got a team that could run into trouble if it were to ever trot out a bunch of groundball pitchers.

Yeah…about that.

Pitcher, Career GB%:

Rick Porcello: 52.2%
Brad Penny: 45.7%
Max Scherzer: 41.1%
Justin Verlander: 40.0%
Phil Coke: 36.6%

So you’ve got one of the most extreme groundballers in the league in Rick Porcello. Then you’ve got Brad Penny, a pitcher who already had strong groundball tendencies, went to work with Dave Duncan in St. Louis, and (in an admittedly small sample size), radically altered his approach by throwing a lot fewer fastballs, a lot more splitters, and induced a lot more groundballs (52.8%) last season.

The rest of the rotation consists of Max Scherzer, a pitcher who induces slightly more grounders than flyballs but struggles mightily with going deep into games and will need all the defensive help he can get; Justin Verlander who…well, he’s Justin Verlander, he’ll probably be fine; and Phil Coke, who induces quite a few more flyballs than grounders, but will also be asked to carry a starter’s workload all season, the first time he’ll assume that role since the first half of the 2008 season. In Double-A.

Again, these aren’t necessarily fatal flaws. But a lineup that looks somewhat promising from afar could underachieve, perhaps doubly so in high-leverage situations against tough righties. And the starting rotation, which on paper appears intriguing in its own right, could yield worse-than-expected results thanks to 3/4 of a leaky infield defense.

When the Tigers look back on the 2011 season, they might be happy with with the big things they did right — but regret the little things they did wrong.