The Detroit Tigers: Winning the Stupid Way

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By H. Jose Bosch

I’ve already said here on The Sports Bank that the Tigers are in first places despite winning ugly. What I hadn’t realized at the time is that the ugly is not only on the field but also off it.

Detroit’s top five paid players make up roughly 58 percent of the team’s payroll (fifth highest in the league) and it’s safe to say their combined contributions to the team are not equivalent to what they are getting paid for.

Here’s an on-the-surface assessment of the Tigers’ five-highest paid players. (Three batters, two pitchers)

Batters (M. Cabrera, M. Ordonez & C. Guillen)

.294 BA, .449 SLG, .358 OBP, 29 HR, 108 RBI

Pitchers (D. Willis, J. Bonderman)

1-5, 10.50 ERA, 18 K, 31 BB

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Miguel Cabrera ($14.4 million) is the second-highest paid player on the team and he’s earning his keep and severely skewing the above combined stat line with his great averages and accounting for nearly 50% of the three players combined plate appearances. He’s the team’s leader in batting average (.333), slugging percentage (.551) and on-base percentage (.397). He also leads the team in driving in runs and is tied for 2nd in home runs.

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However, Magglio Ordonez ($18.9 million) and Carlos Guillen ($10 million) have little pop (combined .248, .317, .345, 8 HR, 48 RBI) in their bats and both have missed significant time due to injury or just plain sucking. That’s not even the worst part.

The worst part is the money they are flushing down the toilet to two terrible pitchers. The Tigers are paying Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis $22,500,000 combined this season to have an output less than that of a journeyman starter. Together they don’t even make up a crappy pitcher. Yet this talent-deprived Franken-pitcher would be the third-highest paid player in the league (and $4 million more than the current highest-paid pitcher in the league – Barry Zito).

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No first-place team is wasting as much money on its five highest paid players. The Los Angeles Angels come the closest. They also have three batters at the top of their payroll (Guerrero, Hunter and Matthews Jr.) and the Angels’ big 3 have similar combined stats to the Tigers’ big 3 in batting average, slugging percentage and on-base percentage (Mostly due to the fact that Cabrera skews the averages so high due to so many more plate appearances than Ordonez and Guillen). However the Angels’ trio has driven in more runs (121-108) in 135 less at-bats and most importantly the Angels boast a record that is 8 games better than the Tigers.

New York’s three best hitters are also among the five highest players on the team and one of them (Alex Rodriguez) hasn’t even played the entire season. Kick and scream all you want about the Yankees spending but at least their players are earning their pay (for now) and winning a much tougher division.

Worse than the high paid hitter’s failures, no team’s highest paid pitchers even come close to the Tigers’ futility. Just to see what a good team spends its money on, the Yankees’ two highest paid pitchers (4th and 5th on the overall payroll) are a combined 20-11, 3.68 ERA, 222 K and 106 BB.

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Dave Dombrowski should be given credit for making Detroit baseball relevant again. The Tiger GM convinced owner Mike Illitch to open the purse strings and spend like a stay-at-home mom on QVC’s Web site. However to this point, the Tigers have only put together one remotely successful season under Dombrowski and the 2006 World Series run was more fluke than a great plan constructed by Dombrowski. I think 2007 and 2008 proved that.

The problem was and is Dombrowski’s fear of arbitration and his inability to play the market to his advantage.

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The Bonderman and Willis contracts were a direct result of trying to avoid the apparently fearful situation of arbitration. Maybe I don’t have a great grasp on the concept, but no player has won more than $10 million in arbitration and that player was Ryan Howard who had already won an MVP Award prior to that mediation. Surely neither Bonderman nor Willis was going to come close to that figure and break the bank, even if they won their cases. But rather than bite the bullet for a year Dombrowski offered very stupid contract. He also did this with Nate Robertson (3 years/$21.25), who is being paid $7 million this year to not be on the active roster.

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Bonderman may have convinced the front office to give him a longer contract after arbitration, but his numbers dipped significantly from 2006 to 2007. Robertson had a losing record in 2007 and should’ve just been released, but even if he wasn’t, Dombrowski would’ve had an easier time dropping him after 2008. Same goes for Willis.

Had Dombrowski given himself the chance to see how unhelpful those three pitchers were, he might’ve saved himself roughly $40 million of the past two seasons, money that could’ve been spent on a more reliable third starter or to shore up the bullpen.

The Guillen and Ordonez contracts aren’t as much of a problem; Dombrowski just didn’t know how to use the market to his advantage. Last season the Tigers should’ve been sellers and both Guillen and Ordonez were shoppable. Hindsight is 20/20, but despite both players contributing very little this season, the Tigers are in first. It makes Dombrowski look foolish for holding on to these parts when he clearly could find parts to throw together and make a competitive team in a mediocre division.

Today, Dombrowski is staring at a team with major holes in the bullpen, at the back of the rotation and a team with little pop from the left side of the plate. Not to mention that the team’s second best “hitter,” Brandon Inge, is playing through a serious knee injury and both Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson are underperforming.Bad contracts make most players on the team unmovable and there is little depth in the farm system, a problem that could’ve been solved by making some deals last season.

Detroit is defying all conventional wisdom by remaining in first place this far into the season with the team it has. But it has been in spite of Dave Dombrowski’s decision-making, not because of it.

Detroit Tigers’ midseason report

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By H. Jose Bosch

Unlike Miss America 2008 — Michigan-native and first pitch thrower outer Kirsten Haglund — the Tigers have managed to be in first place without looking pretty. Granted, it’s like being the one-eyed man in the land of the blind, but I’m not one to complain about first place.

The starting pitching has been solid, the bullpen has been holding together and even though the offense isn’t as explosive as the last first-place team (2006) it has gotten the job done up to this point. Since the Tigers haven’t reached astronomical highs like they did in the first half of 2006, maybe their second half will be better.

miguel_cabrera1First half MVP: Miguel Cabrera (.321 BA, .384 OBP, 18 HR, 50 RBI, 31 walks, 50 strikeouts)
I could have gone with Brandon Inge since he has more home runs and RBIs and he’s an all star this year while Cabrera is not. But Miggy is hitting much better than Inge, striking out less and has been a better fielder statistically. Inge is an excellent fielder and he is clearly a better athlete, but Cabrera plays his position better than people give him credit for and he hasn’t made too many goofs this season. As for the offensive numbers, if Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco weren’t having off years (for them) Cabrera might have 70 RBIs. If those two have better second halves and Marcus Thames stays healthy, look out. Cabrera cooled down quite a bit after storming out of the gate, but my goodness if I performed at life like this after “cooling off” well I’d be at the New York Times already. Hehehe … (turns into uncontrollable sobbing).

inge2Most improved player: Brandon Inge (.268 BA, .360 OBP, 21 HR, 58 RBI, 35 walks, 85 strikeouts)
If you can’t be the best player, there is nothing wrong with being the most improved. At the break last season Inge was still not hitting well (.220) and had considerably less pop in his bat (7 HR, 23 RBI). Now you could make the case that if Inge’s improvement coincided with Detroit’s than he really is the most valuable player of the first half. I’m not going to buy that. Regardless, Inge has done a great job so far this season. He could have a year similar to his career best in 2006. Even though the Tigers aren’t going to live and die by his bat, having that pop near the bottom of the order in the second half is going to be a major help.

Biggest strength: Starting pitching
Two all stars and a rookie-of-the-year candidate in the starting rotation make life a living hell for opponents on most nights. Detroit is third in the American League in team ERA and has held hitters to a .259 BA (fifth-best in the league). The starting pitchers, particularly Nos. 1-3, have a major hand in that.
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After a slow start Justin Verlander has been as dominant as any pitcher in the American League. He’s at the top of the strikeouts pile with 149 strikeouts, 18 better than the next highest pitcher. He is also one of just seven pitchers with 10 or more wins.

Edwin Jackson is walking fewer batters and giving up fewer hits than his career average. In fact, he has lowest WHIP (walks/hits per nine innings) in the American League. He also has the A.L.’s second-lowest ERA (2.52). With more run support Jackson would probably have at least as many wins as Verlander right now.

Rick Porcello was roughed up in his last two outings but received a long rest during the all-star break. His numbers are strong for a pitcher in his first full season with the big club (8-6, 4.14 ERA, 31 BB, 47 SO) and there is no reason to believe he can’t keep that up.

If the Tigers decide to make any majors moves, it could be to acquire a stronger No. 3 starter. Whatever happens, Nos. 1-3 are steering this ship. If Armando Galarraga pitches better in the second half, it’ll be icing on the cake.

Biggest weakness: Consistency
One look up and down the Tigers roster and I think this is a damn good team. There are places where Detroit could be better. I’d love to swap out Magglio Ordonez for a left-handed hitter with some pop. I wouldn’t mind acquiring stronger middle reliever to get to Rodney in the ninth. And the team could use a functional fifth starter. Heck I’d take a fifth starter period. Most of the time what Jim Leyland throws out on the mound in that place has been anything but a Major League starter. But not one of theses problems are so glaring that it could be considered the biggest weakness.

granderson1What will solve the Tigers’ problems is more consistent play. Ordonez has slowly turned his slow season around and if he, Placido Polanco and Curtis Granderson can get back to beig .300 hitters (even if they don’t finish the year over .300) the offense will be very formidable, even without a left-handed bat.

In terms of relief pitching, Leyland needs to trust one man in the 7th inning and stick with him. Brandon Lyon has done well after a rough start and he seems like the perfect guy to use in the 7th. I love Bobby Seay at the specialist role between the 6th and 7th inning. Joel Zumaya he needs to start mixing in his change up and slider and throwing them consistently well if he wants his fireball fastball to be effective.

As for the fifth starter, Leyland will have to be content with a parade of pitchers in that spot until the playoffs when a No. 5 starter doesn’t matter. As long as their collective numbers do well, it’ll be a non issue.

Final forecast: As I said earlier, this division is weak and no one, Detroit included, will run away before September. But the Tigers are just as competitive as the White Sox and Twins at the moment. If the stars keep playing like stars and the struggling few pick up their performances just a bit, Detroit can expect its first division championship since 1987.

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