The Tigers have exceeded the expectations of many (including myself) in 2010 by not only winning, but by being in the thick of the AL Central race, going back-and-forth with the Twins this week for the divisional lead. Yes, they’ve outplayed their run differential by 3 games, but those wins are “in the bank.” Some regression is to be expected, so the Tigers should be looking to make marginal improvements to improve their chances.
Buy or Sell
Although the Tigers aren’t as talented as the Twins, they’ve managed to stay with them so far. They also have an older roster that isn’t going to get any better (as a group) than they are now, so they really should go for it. There are some areas they can improve to can better their odds of making the playoffs a fair bit without crippling themselves for the future.
While relievers are often overvalued in relation to how much they can help in a partial season, in the Tigers’ case they could probably help themselves more than most teams given how thin their bullpen is beyond closer Jose Valverde, especially after Joel Zumaya‘s season-ending injury. There should be plenty of sellers this season with relievers available that won’t cost the Tigers much in terms of talent or money; it shouldn’t be difficult to improve on the likes of Eddie Bonine, Brad Thomas, Ryan Perry, et. al.
Staff ace Justin Verlander projects to pitch better the rest of the season and Max Scherzer is coming around after a rough start to the season, but the Tigers could improve the middle and back of their starting rotation relatively cheaply. Jeremy Bonderman should be adequate if he can stay healthy, but with Rick Porcello in the minors after terrible struggles and Armando Galarraga returning to the reality of being Armando Galararaga, this is an area the Tigers should look at. They probably aren’t in a position to trade for one of the big name starters out there, but adding another league average starter to go every fifth day could potentially add a couple of wins down the stretch without mortgaging the future.
The situation with the non-pitchers is a curious one: they have a few good players and one great one (Miguel Cabrera), but then they also have some mediocre role players like Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago who could be improved upon, but are good enough that it probably wouldn’t be worth the wins that would be added given what it would cost to do so at in-demand positions like third base and shortstop. Barring an opportunity for a trade they can’t pass up, Detroit should be looking to proactively maximize the talent they have. Austin Jackson‘s post-April offensive performance is a good reminder that while Brennan Boesch‘s BABIP-fueled contributions are “in the bank,” they aren’t likely to continue, and they should be ready to give more of Boesch’s playing time to Ryan Raburn (who’s a much better hitter than he’s shown so far this season), for example. Another idea along these lines would be to give Scott Sizemore another chance at second base (that was cut short at barely over 100 PAs in part because of bad luck on BABIP) and give Boesch’s at-bats to newly-minted “second baseman” Carlos Guillen, a good hitter whose fragile health the Tigers should be looking to preserve. If Sizemore could hit adequately, this would also improve their infield defense.
On the Farm
Beyond the Box Score’s pre-season aggregate farm system rankings had the Tigers’ system at #21. Jacob Turner and Casey Crosby are young pitchers with a lot of upside that the Tigers shouldn’t be looking to move. After that, there are some useful parts and some long-term potential. Some of the useful parts are decent enough and yet aren’t so great that the Tigers should be afraid to move them in the right offer (e.g., Wilkin Ramirez).
For all the off-season hand-wringing about their budget, the Tigers 2010 payroll is about $134 million dollar, according to Cot’s. Big contracts for Verlander, Cabrera, Guillen, and likely Ordonez (if the Tigers keep winning, his 2011 option will vest, although that hardly seems as devastating as it did the last time it happened) are still on the books for 2011, but Bonderman’s $12.5 million, Johnny Damon‘s $8 million, and Brandon Inge’s $6.6 million, among others, are coming off the books. If the Tigers payroll stays at about the same level, they should have some leeway in that regard in 2011.