06 December 2007

Look Out for Those Tigers...

I think I can confidently speak for the rest of the American league when I say:


Did the Detroit Tigers really just pull that off? Did they really just trade for one of the best hitters in the major leagues, improving what was already one of the best offensive teams in the majors? Did they actually manage to get a 25-year old, potential star pitcher as a throw-in? Do they actually have two (TWO!) All-Star shortstops?

Well, technically one of those, Carlos Guillen, will be a firstbaseman next year, which is OK, because his 859 OPS in 2007 would have been second only to Carlos Pena in the American League, if he'd been a firstbaseman last year. He wasn't. he was an All-Star shortstop, but he'll fit in just fine. That, however, wasn't good enough, so back in October, Tigers' GM Dave Dombrowski traded for the Atlanta Braves' shortstop, Edgar Renteria, a 5-time All-Star himself (though not in 2007, despite hitting .332) to shore up the infield. Can't blame him for not wanting to put the likes of Sean Casey out there next year.

But Dombrowski wasn't satisfied to stand pat with that improvement, which was probably worth two or three wins alone.

In November, he traded a back-up infielder who can't hit his way out of a paper bag, Omar Infante, to the Cubs for Jacque Jones, who had an off year, but is likely to hit .275 with 20+ homers next year if he's healthy.

And then, this week, while everyone else was fretting about where Johan Santana would end up, and whether the Yankees or Red Sox would get him, how much they'd have to give up for him, how much money he would want, and whether or not he would veto the trade...the Detroit Tigers used the diversion to quietly work out one of the biggest off-season trades in history, getting Miguel Cabrera AND Dontrelle Willis for six prospects.

Granted, they gave up a lot, but they could afford to give up a lot. They took on a lot of salary with Jones and Renteria (and will pay out even more when Willis and Cabrera either come up for arbitration or get signed to long-term contracts), but again, they can afford it. In case you couldn't tell by the insane salaries being handed out to pedestrian players (and the ludicrous one going to good players) Major League Baseball is virtually swimming in money these days, and unlike some other teams (the Yankees shall remain nameless), the Tigers aren't crying poor.

There are rumors that they'll flip Willis to the Mets or somewhere else, but if it were me, I would hold onto him for the year. They only got him in this trade because he had an off year and his trade value was low, and they won't get as much as they should for him if they trade him away again. His 5.17 ERA last year was largely due to the bad luck he had in Florida, an unusually high .329 opponent batting average on balls-in-play in 2007 (8th highest in MLB among qualified pitchers, where the league average is about .290 or .300). If he reverts to the norm in 2008, he'll give them 35 starts and 220 or so innings with an ERA about 10% better than average, and will be a veritable bargain at the $9 million or so he'll get in arbitration. They'll get a lot more for him if they wait to trade him until next winter, when he's a 15-game winner, than if they trade him again now, as a 15-game loser.

In any case, the Tigers' farm system is all but bereft of any real talent now that they've given up all of these players to prime the pump for 2008. Briefly, the players they gave up were:

For Renteria: Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez

RHP Jair Jurrjens went 7-5 with a 3.20 ERA and 94 strikeouts in 112 innings in AAA this year, then went 3-1 with a 4.70 ERA with Detroit last year. He's 6'1" and 160 lbs right now, so he needs to fill out a little, but he'll only be 22 in January, so there's time for that, and it may help him weather the strain of pitching and stay a little healthier, something that's been a problem for him. His strikeout rate in the minors was decent, his walk rate good and his homer rate excellent, so he could be a nice 3rd or 4th starter.

OF Gorkys Hernandez just turned 20 in September, and hit .293/.344/.391 in the Class A Midwest League this year. That's nothing special in and of itself, but the .293 average was 6th in the Midwest League, and he also stole a league-leading 54 bases (getting caught only 11 times). He's still young enough that he could develop more patience (only 36 walks in 481 at-bats) and as his frame fills out, he should gain some more power.

For Willis and Cabrera: Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin, Burke Badenhop, Eulogio De La Cruz, Mike Rabelo, and Dallas Trahern.

OF Cameron Maybin was the youngest player in the American league this year, at just 20 years old, and got his first major league hit, and his first major league home run, off Roger Clemens in his second game. Unfortunately, he never got another homer, and indeed, only one more RBI, in the other 22 games he played, hitting a weak .143 overall. The Fish will likely play him in the majors next year anyway, as his .309/.396/.488 averages over 700 or so minor league at-bats suggest that he's close enough to being ready for the Show. Word of warning: he also struck out 206 times in 191 games in the minors, so there will be some growing pains on his way to becoming an All-Star, which probably won't be for three or four years at the earliest, if it ever happens at all. Regardless, he and Miller are the obvious jewels in this trade for Florida.

LHP Andrew Miller looks like he's going to be an awesome pitcher. But looks aren't everything. He's a 6'6" lefty who throws in the mid-90's, and he's only 22. He struck out 117 batters in 142 innings at four levels (High-A through the majors) this year, but he also walked 64 batters and gave up a homer every 8 innings at the major league level. Like Randy Johnson, he may take some time to harness his stuff and develop better control. Hopefully it won't take him until he's 26 to have a decent season, as Johnson did.

Mike Rabelo caught about 50 games in the majors this year, hitting a weak .256/.300/.357, which wasn't much different from the .263/.332/.346 he hit in his 6-year minor league career, spanning over 500 games. He'll be 28 in a month, and is probably as good as he'll ever get, which is to say, as good as a few dozen guys you can normally get off the waiver wire.

Eulogio De la Cruz will be 24 when the 2008 season starts, and he did well enough at two levels (AA and AAA) in 2007 to merit a long look in spring training next year, maybe even a bullpen job. He throws hard despite his size (5'11", 160 lbs), but doesn't have a lot of control or movement, and so he walks too many batters to make it as a starter in the majors (about 4/9 innings in the minors). He could be a short relief guy, but his manager will have to keep him on a short leash, given his control issues.

Burke Badenhop is a big righty (6'5", 220), a polished, college-experienced pitcher with good control (about 2 walks/9 innings in 67 minor league starts) and reportedly an excellent sinker. He'll be 25 when next season begins, but has pitched only 19 innings above Class-A ball at this point, so he'll likely have to prove himself in AA and AAA before being brought up to the majors. On the other hand, he is in the Florida system now, where they have tended to skip AAA entirely if the major league club had a hole to fill, so we could see him in the majors sooner rather than later. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus thinks he could be a solid #4 or #5 starter in the majors very soon.

Dallas Trahern is a lanky righty (6'1", 190) who just turned 22 a few weeks ago. He has survived on finesse, producing a lot of ground balls with his sinker but not striking out many, even in the low minors. His career minor league strikeout rate is only 4.78/9IP, and his walk rate (2.74) is good, but not excellent. His 3.38 ERA in the minors is largely due to the fact that he's reluctant to give up homers (only 31 in 500 minor league innings) and he's pitched in places that tend to favor pitchers. He's young still, but not many guys learn to throw with another 5 mph in their 20's, so I doubt he'll ever make much of a dent in the majors. Too bad, too. He's got a great baseball name.

So anyway, there you have them, the eight players the Tigers have surrendered in order that they might achieve victory in 2008. It's likely that Magglio Ordonez and Placido Polanco will come back to earth next year, but it's also likely that Jacque Jones will bounce back, and that Curtis Granderson and even Miguel Cabrera should at least stay the same, if not improve next year, and the OF/1B/DH spots have plenty of depth, with Jones, Granderson, Guillen, Magglio, Gary Sheffield, Marcus Thames, and young Ryan Rayburn to rotate through five spots in the batting order.

The starting rotation, RHP Justin Verlander, RHP Jeremy Bonderman, LHP Dontrelle Willis, LHP Kenny Rogers and LHP Nate Robertson could be great, with star potential in three of them (Verlander, Bonderman and Willis) a solid innings-eater in Robertson, and a crafty old lefty in the Gambler.

The bullpen was not great last year overall, but it has a lot of young arms in it, which should only help them next year as they mature.

Even though the Tigers faltered late in the year and finished a seemingly-distant 8 games behind Cleveland in the AL Central, the real difference between the teams (by Baseball prospectus' Third-Order Wins) was virtually nil, and Detroit just added two great hitters and a potentially great pitcher, so the Tribe had better watch out. Not to mention the rest of the Junior Circuit.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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