While pretty much everyone knows that you “can’t predict baseball,” if there was one feeling shared by the majority of analysts before the season started, it was that the Detroit Tigers were going to easily win the American League Central, perhaps with some token resistance from Cleveland. That is not how things have gone, as presently the Tigers not only find themselves trailing Cleveland, but also surprising division leader Chicago. The Tigers are clearly built to “win now,” and with almost two-thirds of a season to play, being four games out of the division lead (not to mention wildcard possibilities) is hardly insurmountable. This is especially so since neither Chicago nor Cleveland are juggernauts themselves. The Tigers are thus in a position to buy, so what do they need?
Obviously, there are a number of minor improvements any team could make to their middle relief, their bench, and so on. For this short post, I will focus on three (or four, depending on how you look at it) areas in which the Tigers might look to make improvements. This is not to say that they would be able to do so in all of them, but these are the spots where they could look at cumulatively add a few wins down the stretch: the starting rotation, the second base, and the outfield/DH situation.
Prior to the season, Detroit’s starting rotation was seen as shallow but strong. So far this season, only the first has been the case. Justin Verlander has been Verlander-ing it up, but after that, things have been ugly. Rick Porcello has been even more disappointing that usual, yes, he’s only 23, but pitcher aging curves are not like hitter aging curves, and the Tigers are not built to wait around on him. Max Scherzer just can’t be this bad (as far as his ERA goes), but something more than just “random variation” is going on — the team certainly cannot afford to expect him to turn into a #2 pitcher for the rest of the season, and even a #3 is a stretch. Doug Fister was suppsoed to be their #2 starter, and has pitched very well — when he has been healthy. Drew Smyly has been a nice surprise, but now he is hurt, and was probably a fair bit over their heads, anyway.
That is five pitchers, but two have missed time with injury and two have been terrible. The Tigers are not in a position to hope they all stay healthy from here on out and that Scherzer and Porcello will regress “up” (while the other three stay awesome). They do not need to necessarily acquire Ryan Dempster (although that would be nice), but getting a helpful veteran who can give them some near-league average innings (Kevin Millwood?) would be a good idea, especially with stud prospect Jacob Turner not looking like he is going to come up and play savior any time soon.
Second base has been another sore spot for the Tigers. The plan was to have Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago platoon, but apparently the Tigers forgot about their annual tradition of Raburn starting slow and getting demoted. In the meantime, Santiago probably is not a true-talent .261 wOBA hitter, but he is not good. Raburn is not as bad with the bat as he has looked, but he really should not play second base regularly (he is more suited for another role, as I will discuss below). The platoon was a good idea in theory, and might work if they make other improvements, but if they can find a team ready to dump a middle infielder, second baseman are not usually in demand, and it would not take Chase Utley in his prime to be an improvement over the current situation.
The outfield should be somewhat better with Austin Jackson back in the fold. He is due for plenty of regression, but that will be far better than wishing on Quintin Berry‘s star. The corners are more of a problem. In one corner, there is Andy Dirks, off to a monster start to the year. The Tigers might as well see what they have in Dirks, but there has been very little indication in the minors that he is anywhere close to being a true-talent 146 wRC+ hitter in the majors. Brennan Boesch has been terrible at the plate so far this year, but he is on the opposite end of the “luck” spectrum from Dirks. As ZiPS RoS indicates, they are both probably .320-.330 wOBA true talent hitters, which is above-average overall, but probably more suited to fourth outfielder types. The Tigers might be able to find someone to take over one of these positions, but probably not both. One way of improving the situation either way would be to use Ryan Raburn as a platoon partner for one (or both) players, as they are both left-handed hitters and Raburn has usually hti lefties well in the past. That would leverage Raburn better than giving away his platoon advantage with his glove at second base.
The Tigers could find a player that improves on Dirks and Boesch in the corners alternately platooning with Raburn, but likely the easiest single place to improve their team as currently set up requires no defensive skill: designated hitter. Sure, Delmon Young is only 26, had that one pretty good year in Minnesota, hit some memorable home runs in last year’s playoffs, and was a monster prospect eight years ago, but he is also a useless fielder who is working on his second consecutive season with a wRC+ under 90. Yes, Jeff Francoeur and Melky Cabrera were young players who had terrible records who turned it around at about the same age, but the 2012 Tigers are not the 2011 Royals — the want to win now. Yes, Young is projected to be a .320 wOBA hitter the rest of the way, but that is about replacement level for a DH by itself.
Maybe Young would be a better platoon partner for the left-handed-hitting corner outfielders, except he is even worse than Raburn in the field. All the Tigers need is a hitter for the DH spot. There is reportedly a chance Victor Martinez will be back in September, but the Tigers right now are fighting for a playoff spot, so they need help now. One solution for DH would be to get a real third baseman, and move either Miguel Cabrera or Prince Fielder to full-time DH, but it would be much easier to obtain a DH in the meantime. Perhaps Jim Thome will be available if and when the Phillies pack it in (if he does not hurt himself playing first base), perhaps there is someone else. Again, they just need a bat — it does not have to be awesome to improve on Delmon Young.
None of these spots offer a single “fix” for the Tigers. Any single move for any team is rarely going to make a big difference. Moreover, even if they make small improvements in each spot, the Tigers are still going to need som of their current regulars to play better than they have so far this season. However, despite the disappointments of the first part of the season, with plenty of season to play the Tigers are only slightly behind teams that are hardly perfect themselves, and improving a two or three of these areas is doable, and could potentially add a couple wins that might very well make the difference between making the playoffs and staying home.