Coming off of their 2-0 sweep (or non-sweep, depending on how you interpret Sunday’s rainout) of the Kansas City Royals, the Detroit Tigers are closing in on American League Central-leading Cleveland. The Tigers were one of the pre-season favorites to win the Central, so despite a rough start to the season (similar to the ones from which fellow projected contenders in Chicago and Minnesota are still recovering, if they do) this is no big surprise, especially given the overall weakness of the division. While the non-Justin Verlander contingent of Detroit’s starting pitching has been far from flawless, they’ve been pretty good overall (although it would help if Brad Penny could remember how to strike hitters out). The bullpen could probably use a bit of help, but that’s true of most teams, and the difference is usually marginal (and, to be honest, boring to write about). The Tigers might be good enough to take the division as they are now, but there also seems to be a couple of areas among their position players where they might be able to improve things.
The Tigers’ infield is looking better than one might have thought it would prior to the start of the season. Despite the worry that Miguel Cabrera might be Baseball’s First Ever Alcoholic and the corresponding impact on his play, he’s putting up another typical .400+ wOBA season (yawn). While Victor Martinez (159 wRC+) and Alex Avila (133 wRC+) are both due for regression, they’ve hit well enough to alleviate any worries that the catcher/designated hitter arrangement might not work out. At second base, the Tigers have thankfully cut short the Will Rhymes experiment and gone with Scott Sizemore. Even if Rhymes does have some small advantage on Sizemore in the field, Sizemore is probably a least a league-average hitter, while Rhymes would probably do well to exceed a .300 wOBA over a full season. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta has been the real pleasant surprise on the infield, smacking the ball around for a 138 wRC+. There is likely some BABIP-influenced luck here, his power will likely come down a bit, and despite a favorable small-sample UZR, his defense at short is below-average at best. Still, a .331 wOBA (as ZiPS RoS now projects) is very good from a shortstop in this run environment, and he’s an average player at worst.
The real problem in the infield as currently constructed is third baseman Brandon Inge, who has hit (and I’m using that term loosely) .198/.254/.294 (49 wRC+). He’s probably had some bad luck on balls in play (.255 BABIP), but then Inge has never done that well in that regard (.284 BABIP career). Inge’s main offensive skill has been his decent power, but that has dropped down to a .095 ISO this season. ZiPS RoS sees some return to form, but a .302 wOBA is nothing to get excited about on its own. Whether or not that is good enough depends on how good Inge’s primary calling card — his glove — remains. Around 2006 and 2007, one could make a case for Inge as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. In more recent seasons, he’s been seen as about half a win above average. If he’s still that good, he could be an almost average player. If he’s lost his ability to play third at an above-average level, then he’s barely a 1.5 win player in terms of true talent. That might be worth “fixing” for the Tigers either by acquiring another third basemen to replace Inge or perhaps acquiring a shortstop and moving Peralta to third. The problem, of course, is that third baseman (and even moreso shortstops) are difficult to find in trade, and might cost them more than they want (or can) spend in terms of talent and money.
If the Tigers want to improve their stock of starting position players, the outfield seems like the more likely place to do so. Austin Jackson‘s BABIP chickens have come home to roost this season, and he’s striking out at a ridiculous rate, but with his defensive skill and the difficulty of finding center fielders at the right price, the Tigers probably have to stick with him for now. The corners are more interesting in this regard. Magglio Ordonez just went on the disabled list, but that may just as well, as he was showing his age both in the field and at the plate. He probably isn’t that bad yet, but the Tigers need to be ready to explore long-term alternatives without putting too much faith in a quick and productive return. Ordonez’s injury at least has postponed the Annual Burying of Ryan Raburn. Yes, Raburn has been dreadful so far this season (.214/.255/.366, 70 wRC+), and sports a strikeout rate that would make Austin Jackson blush. But the Tigers have seen this before — Raburn gets off to a slow start, gets buried and/or demoted, then brought back up as an injury replacement and crushes the ball. His ZiPS RoS of .334 isn’t thrilling for a guy who isn’t a defensive virtuoso, but it’s good enough for a corner outfielder in this run environment, even for a corner outfielder. On the other side of the outfield, brief 2010 sensation Brennan Boesch is seemingly showing that he’s a better hitter than this second-half slump indicated. That was probably the case all along, and Boesch has shown some improvement in both his walk and strikeout rates. However, he’s still living off of a higher BABIP than he’s likely to be able to sustain (.330 with only a 16.2% line-drive rate) and his power has also dropped off (.115). ZiPS RoS is quite pessimistic, seeing him as having a .308 wOBA the rest of the way.
ZiPS isn’t perfect, of course, and one might dismiss it in favor of current-season performance (although I wouldn’t recommend it), saying that Raburn is indeed this horrible and Boesch this adequte. In either case, however, the Tigers still need another corner outfielder (and that’s assuming that can stick with Jackson in center). The recently called-up Andy Dirks has shown some promise in Triple-A this season and last, but it seems a stretch to suggest that he’s a solution as a full-timer in the outfield just yet.
What I’ve left unsaid is who might be available in trade, what the Tigers have to offer, and whether it would be enough. That’s for another post or for the comments here. I simply wanted to see where Detroit might make themselves better as they try to move into the divisional lead. Corner outfielders are generally easier to obtain than infielders, and so finding one to replace Ordonez alongside either Raburn or Boesch (or a Raburn/Boesch platoon) seems likely to be the one place where the Tigers can improve their group of starting position players the most.
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