Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Breaking Down the Tigers Current 2014 Payroll While Explaining Payroll Obligations, Arbitration, and Other Things...

This offseason for the Detroit Tigers is a big one, and there is no question about that. Whether or not the Tigers surge past the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS and/or win their first World Series title since 1984, they have some big-time business decisions to make. They have undoubtedly the best hitter on the planet in Miguel Cabrera who is bound for free agency after 2015 unless the Tigers sign him this offseason, they have a Cy Young Award favorite in Max Scherzer who is a free agent at the end of next season, and they have a few frustratingly inconsistent players on their roster who are about to become very expensive via arbitration. The bottom line is this: contrary to popular belief, owner Mike Illitch does not have bottomless pockets, the Tigers' stars are not getting any younger, they have a less than middling farm system, and their roster is probably not going to be any better next year than this year's, barring something completely unexpected.

I understand how depressing that sounds, but believe me, this is not me saying that the Tigers cannot be World Series contenders next year, because they probably can be. This is simply the reality of Detroit Tigers. If they continue to do business the way they have since 2010, which has worked for them lately, they will begin to see their plan backfire and they will be forced to go into a full rebuilding phase sooner rather than later. Their window for contention is closing, whether you as a reader realize it or not.

That said, their baseball operations department will have a plan for this offseason, and it may differ from mine. I have some ridiculous ideas to keep that window of contention open for awhile longer all while keeping some valuable pieces in Detroit, which I will post next. Before I get into that, however, we are going to have to lay the foundation for the reasoning behind my madness, and that begins by breaking down the Tiger's 2014 payroll.

We will begin by examining the Tigers' 2014 current salary obligations according to Cot's Baseball Contracts (parentheses are when contracts expire. For example, Prince's contract runs through 2020 so he will be a free agent in October of 2020, which is the 2021 offseason):

1. Prince Fielder 1B: $24,000,000 (2021)
2. Miguel Cabrera 3B: $22,000,000 (2016)
3. Justin Verlander SP: $20,000,000 (contract runs through 2019, club option for 2020)
4. Anibal Sanchez SP: $15,800,000 (contract runs through 2017, club option for 2018)
5. Torii Hunter RF: $14,000,000 (2015)
6. Victor Martinez DH/1B/C: $12,000,000 (2015)
7. Jose Veras RP: $3,250,000 (2015)

These particular players have guaranteed salaries for next year, meaning that their salary is set in stone, and the Tigers have an obligation to pay these players. These seven players already account for a whopping $111,050,000 in payroll next year. Keep in mind that there are still 18 other roster spots that are going to be pricy, so we have to determine how much these players are going to get paid too. Of the 18 remaining roster spots, half of those spots are players who are eligible for arbitration, meaning they are players who have between three and six years of service time on a Major League roster, and are eligible to negotiate a larger salary than the league minimum (for 2014 the minimum a MLB player is allowed to be paid is $500,000). 

Max Scherzer is arbitration eligible this offseason.
The process of arbitration is complicated to explain and to understand, so all you need to know is depending on how many times a player has already been eligible is directly proportional to how much a player is going to make, in addition to other factors such as on-the-field performance and comparable player's salaries. In other words, a player who is eligible for a third time is probably going to make more money that a player who is eligible for a first time, and if player "A" is better than player "B", player "A" will be compensated with a heftier salary. Kind of makes sense, right?

These nine players are eligible for arbitration (parentheses are when a player is eligible for free agency. For example, Max Scherzer is eligible for free agency after the 2014 season, which is the 2015 offseason):

1. Max Scherzer SP (2015)
2. Rick Porcello SP (2016)
3. Doug Fister SP (2016)
4. Austin Jackson CF (2016)
5. Alex Avila C (2016) 
6. Phil Coke RP (2015)
7. Don Kelly IF/OF (2015)
8. Andy Dirks OF (2018)*
9. Al Albuquerque RP (2017)

*Andy Dirks is a Super-Two player and is eligible for arbitration four times instead of the normal three.

These particular players do not have guaranteed contracts, but the Tigers have guaranteed control over their contracts until the year that is specified in parentheses. This means that the Tigers can make a decision over what to do with each player's contract, and they have plenty of options. Should they choose to tender the player a contract, they remain under team control, and are required to be compensated at at least 80% of their previous year's salary for the next year. A team can decide to sign them for as many years as both sides can agree to, but normal circumstances usually result in just a one-year contract. If a team decides for whatever reason that a player who is eligible for arbitration is not going to be worth their potential salary, they can choose to non-tender them, thus making that player a free agent and free to sign with any team. 

The tricky thing with arbitration eligible players, however, is that they get expensive very quickly, especially if they are talented and have the statistics to show it. For example, Max Scherzer, the Cy Young Award favorite this year, made $6,750,000 last year. He had an above-average year in 2012, and that warranted an above-average salary for his second year of arbitration. This offseason, however, he and his agent Scott Boras will likely demand $14-15,000,000 for his services because of his unprecedented 2013 campaign, and the Tigers will likely be required to pay him that much should their negotiations go to a hearing.

Each of these eligible players have different skill-sets and are all at different stages of arbitration eligibility and therefore will have significantly different salaries, but the bottom line is all of these players are going to be making a lot more money than $500,000, so for the sake of argument let us say that they will (this is an estimation, mind you) accumulate about $40,000,000 in payroll obligations should every single player be tendered a contract. This then ups the Tigers' payroll obligations to $151,050,000, which is higher than last year's blisteringly high payroll of about $148,000,000, and we still have nine roster spots we have not even gotten to yet

The Tigers have six players who are eligible for free agency, meaning they have six roster spots to fill either internally via their minor league system or through free agent signings. These players are as follows:

1. Joaquin Benoit CP
2. Jhonny Peralta SS
3. Omar Infante 2B
4. Octavio Dotel RP
5. Jeremy Bonderman RP
6. Bryan Pena C

These players played some sort of role on the Tigers this season, and four out of the six made significant impacts on the Tigers this year. These players are free to receive contract offers from all 30 Major League teams in an auction-like atmosphere. Assuming that none of these players return, that leaves us with only a few other players to address, and these are the minimum-salary players.

Minimum-salary players are those who are set to receive at least $500,000, but usually not too much more, from the team they are under contract with. These players have between zero and three years of service time on a Major League roster and therefore are not eligible for arbitration. These players without a doubt in my mind will agree to a contract with the Tigers for the league minimum:

1. Drew Smyly RP
2. Bruce Rondon RP
3. Nick Castellanos LF

These players will account for at least $1,500,000 of the 2014 payroll, so that now brings the grand total to $152,550,000. If I did not mention a player (such as Hernan Perez, Matt Tuiasosopo, Bryan Holaday, Luke Putkonen, or someone else), it is because I do not believe they have earned a guaranteed spot on the Major League roster for next year, these three players without a doubt in my mind have a spot on the 2014 Tigers. The players I have not mentioned will have to fight for one of the six remaining roster spots, and free agents that the Tigers bring in may be guaranteed some of those spots as well. The amount that the Tigers will spend on free agents is not even estimable at the moment because of the unpredictability of the offseason, so for the sake of argument we will say that a conservative final figure for Detroit's 2014 payroll if no roster changes are made is $155,000,000.

So, to conclude, Detroit's payroll if nothing changes on the current roster is going to be noticeably more than last year's. Whether or not this payroll is sustainable is only known by Illitch and the Tigers' highest executives, but from an outside observer, this payroll seems highly unsustainable. . .

. . .and that means change is coming. Part two to this two-part post is coming later this week, where I explain what I would do to deflate the payroll and guarantee long-term success for this franchise.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Why Miguel Cabrera's Defense Will Not Matter

*I almost posted this last year, re-read it, and now I can finally post it and say..."I told you so"...

In my last post, I shared my thoughts on how Prince Fielder's signing could force Miguel Cabrera to find a new home after 2015. After taking a look at the road ahead for Miguel Cabrera, I think the next best place to look is the sudden change of path he's on right now, and that's his trip across the diamond to third base. Miguel has been a regular first baseman since early 2008, and despite what advanced defensive statistics such as UZR tell us (can you believe Cabrera actually had a positive UZR of 3.5 in 2009?), his defensive skills improved as he grew more comfortable with the position. Sure, every now and then he had trouble scooping the ball out of the dirt at first base, but for the most part, he played a solid first base. I never cringed when a ball was hit to him like I would if a ball was hit to, say, Magglio Ordoñez. Simplifying the statistics some, Miguel was always a lock for a .990 or higher fielding percentage and was going to make fewer than 15 errors over the course of about 150 games at first base. In other words, he would make one or less errors every ten games he started at first base.

Looking back to his days as a third baseman are a little bit more painful. He committed more errors in his 2003-2007 days when he was a regular third baseman with the Florida Marlins, so obviously his fielding percentage dipped down to about the .950 range on average, but his UZR was interestingly kinder to him when he was a third baseman. Every single defensive season he had as a third baseman, according to UZR, was better than the season he had at first base in 2010, his MVP-caliber year.

 Before I talk about Miguel playing third, I suppose you're wondering what I think about the possibility of Miguel Cabrera moving to the outfield? Or perhaps the possibility of Brandon Inge or Don Kelly playing third base when Doug Fister or Rick Porcello, notorious ground-ball pitchers, are on the mound? To answer the first question, Miguel Cabrera should not be let anywhere near the outfield. Every single statistic suggests that he would not thrive there because he could not even when he was a rookie in 2003, and since then he has gotten heavier and slowed a bit. Covering those cavernous gaps of Comerica Park would be a disaster to watch any time a ball is hit in his direction, and to be honest, I would rather see the atrocious Delmon Young there than Cabrera. To answer the second, I certainly think the prospect has crossed management's mind, and you can praise Brandon Inge's defense all day, but the fact of the matter is a .190 hitting third baseman who would strike out more than he weighs if he played a full season is not going to get the job done if the Tigers want to win a World Series, no matter how stellar his defense is. 

There have been numerous scouts and executives that have said Miguel Cabrera is going to be terrible at third base, but the more I think about it, the more I think he's not going to be quite as bad as the naysayers tend to think. Consider the fact that he plays first base like a third baseman. When you watch him play first, you will notice that on a ball hit well to his right, it does not matter to him whether it is the second baseman's ball or not, he tries to get to it. The best example is the last play of the would-be perfect game Armando Galarraga threw in 2010. Was Jason Donald out at first base? Yes, but the whole situation would have been avoided if Cabrera would have let the ball roll to the second baseman Ramon Santiago who would have flipped it to Cabrera for the final out of the game. There would have been no question about the call for umpire Jim Joyce that night because Donald would have been out by several feet instead of a half-a-step. The fact of the matter is, that ball was Santiago's ball to make a play on, and that is not the only occasion Cabrera has decided to take initiative on a ball to his right, it happens constantly. Sometimes it results in a 3-to-1 putout, other times lead to the runner beating out the throw because Cabrera did not let the second baseman take the ground ball.

Mind you, Miguel Cabrera is not the rangiest guy in the world, but he has soft hands and a strong arm. The reason I bring up the whole "Miguel Cabrera plays first base like a third baseman" bit is because if he is playing third base and cuts off a ball to shortstop Jhonny Peralta, more times than not that ground ball he cut off is still going to result in an out. Is he going to be able to field a bunt as well as Brandon Inge? Of course not. Will he be able to make a diving play? Well, he made them at first, he is no stranger to third base, and he has got a strong arm. Range is the only part of Cabrera's defense I am concerned about, his ability to play the position I am not.

But let us be honest for a second here: if Miguel Cabrera makes an errant throw or can't field the ball cleanly and the result ends up being a runner on first or a runner on second and Justin Verlander is on the mound, is that really going to bother him? The pitching is going to wind up being Miguel's saving grace, they know he is not going to be the rangiest or best fielder on their team. He is not the only player in the history of Major League Baseball that's susceptible to committing an error, and this team's strength was never going to be its defense or its speed. So I am taking the "innocent until proven guilty" approach here and saying the experiment is going to work out ok.

Let me just tell one more little story to reiterate my point about Cabrera moving to third base, but please take the time to ignore the fact that the 2011 Boston Red Sox didn't make the playoffs. The Red Sox had a great defensive and, when healthy, offensive first baseman in Kevin Youkilis before the 2011 season. The Red Sox, however, seeing an opportunity to go out and get one of the best first baseman in the game today, swung a trade for San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez. Adrian's only position is first base, but Kevin was versatile and had played other infield spots before, he accommodated for Adrian Gonzalez and moved to third base. Boston's third baseman the year before was Adrian Beltre, and he is notorious for playing a superb third base, but even without his great defense, the Red Sox mashed last year with a lethal lineup that also included MVP runner-up Jacoby Ellsbury, and an MVP candidate in Dustin Pedroia. Their demise was not their lack of defense, it was from lack of pitching depth.

So the point I'm trying to make is the Red Sox gave a little defense for some offense, and for the most part it worked out. What the Red Sox lacked to make the playoffs last year the Tigers have this year, and that's pitching depth. So, sure, the Tigers defense probably isn't going to be stellar, and Miguel at third doesn't help the cause, but it is apparent they are going to hit home runs, it is apparent they are going to be an extra-base team, and they are going to probably be in the top 5 in runs scored again. If their pitching improves from a full year of Doug Fister and likely improvements from Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, the defensive miscues won't matter.

Three sleeper teams in 2013:

Last year, it was the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland Athletics...

These two teams more or less shocked the baseball world in 2012. Every analyst, expert, and executive expected those two teams to be absolutely out of the running during the 2012 season. Both teams were very young and inexperienced, and regardless found a way to win 90+ games en route to playoff appearances.

Predicting who will end up coming out of nowhere and winning way more games than expected is an inexact science, but I am going to do my best to do just that, giving you three teams who could rise up from the ashes and see themselves in the 2013 Postseason.

American League: Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals

But wait...the American League Central?

Many pundits, and casual fans, consider the American League Central division the weakest in baseball. The Detroit Tigers have been the division's powerhouse for the past couple seasons with no signs of slowing down after signing Torii Hunter and Anibal Sanchez this offseason. However, there are two teams, if things go right for them, that could realistically challenge the Tigers for the division, or the very balanced AL East and AL West for the Wild Card.

Realistically speaking, there are five teams in the AL East that are potentially good enough to make the playoffs if things go right for them, and three teams in the AL West. These teams will all be beating each other up for a division crown, while one of these two teams, the Royals or Indians, will be beating up on the weaker AL Central teams to rack up their win total, so it's feasible to see one of these two teams wind up with a Wild Card berth.

What has to go right for the Indians?

The Indians are a team that had a surprisingly busy offseason. They appeared to be on the rebuilding edge as they shipped off Shin-Soo Choo to Cincinnati, but also signed free agent outfielders Nick Swisher and (unexpectedly) Michael Bourn, while also acquiring Trevor Bauer, a starting pitching prospect with a high ceiling. With Bourn at the top of that lineup, he will be giving pitchers fits at the plate and on the bases, providing the middle of that lineup: the likes of Swisher, Carlos Santana, and the newly signed Mark Reynolds, with plenty of opportunities. Their bullpen could potentially be lights-out, their problem is their rotation.

Their rotation is full of potential. At the top there is Ubaldo Jimenez, a pitcher with a 2010 so stellar you could have made an argument for him being the best pitcher in the game. He has struggled since being acquired by the Indians in 2011, and needs to turn it around and show he can keep his walk rate down and strikeout rate up. Justin Masterson needs to show that he is the pitcher he was in 2011, and Trevor Bauer needs to put together a solid rookie season in the rotation. If those things happen, expect the Indians to be in the mix for the AL Central and a Wild Card.

What has to go right for the Royals?

The Royals had an expectedly busy offseason. Promising their fanbase they'd improve their rotation, they went out and acquired Ervin Santana from the Angels, James Shields and Wade Davis from the Rays, and signed Jeremy Guthrie, who had a stellar stint in Kansas City this summer, to a three-year deal. With what appears to be a solid rotation and solid bullpen, the attention turns to the health, and productivity, of their lineup.

The player I think is most important to the success of the Royals is Eric Hosmer. Hosmer put together a Rookie of the Year type campaign for the Royals in 2011, only to see himself really struggle in 2012. He needs to bounce back and be a huge force in that lineup for the Royals to be successful, especially to offset to the absence of Wil Myers, who will likely have a Rookie of the Year campaign for Tampa Bay this year. Salvador Perez, an über talented catcher with a very high ceiling, needs to stay healthy all year, and put up the numbers he's put up during his healthy stints for a full season. If they produce, they will be awfully tough to beat in 2013.

National League: Arizona Diamondbacks 

This team is getting overlooked by just about everybody in baseball, and I think that's a huge mistake.

The Diamondbacks put together an awfully unorthodox approach to their 2012-2013 offseason, shipping off their best pitching prospect in Trevor Bauer, and their best player in Justin Upton. Arizona put together mediocre seasons in 2012, but I expect them to be in the thick of the National League playoff hunt.

What has to go right for the Diamondbacks?

Honestly, in my opinion, not a whole lot. This team is pretty well balanced. You look at their pitching staff, and sure, they lost Trevor Bauer, but their rotation depth is easily one of the game's deepest. Ian Kennedy, Brandon McCarthy, Trevor Cahill, Wade Miley, and then one of Daniel Hudson, Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs, or Josh Collmenter. This team may have lost Trevor Bauer, but they have pitching depth worth bragging about, and their bullpen is also relatively deep through trades this offseason (Heath Bell, Tony Sipp). In my opinion, guys like Jason Kubel and Cody Ross have to replicate their 2012 numbers, Paul Goldschmidt needs to take a step forward in his offensive development, and Adam Eaton and Didi Gregorious need to have passable rookie campaigns, and this team will be right there in September.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Framing an extension for Justin Verlander

**Add-on: Justin Verlander actually signed a 7-year extension worth $180 million with a club option that could total $202 million, so I was right on par with salary ($180 million) AND got the length of contract right (potentially 8 years), but the $180MM was over the span of 7 years, not 8.

If you're the Detroit Tigers, you're reaping the benefits of having the best hitter in the game AND the best pitcher in the game. That doesn't happen very often, not in the world of baseball. Nonetheless, the Tigers have those assets, and will for at least the next two seasons.

Key words being: the next two seasons.

Who WOULDN'T want to extend this guy?
Justin Verlander, the game's best pitcher, the 2011 Cy Young recipient and AL Most Valuable Player, is eligible for free agency after the 2014 season. Two seasons away from free agency isn't far off at all, and the longer the Tigers wait to try to extend Verlander, the less leverage they have, and the less likely they are to keep him, which is why they need to start talking extension with the game's best pitcher this offseason.

But where to even begin the talks? In my last blog post, I said the Tigers would be watching the San Francisco Giants' negotiations with their prized ace Tim Lincecum very closely, because his contract would likely be a comparable, and a starting point, in extension talks with Verlander. Things can change awfully fast in a year, because Lincecum went from being one of the games' best pitchers to one of the worst, a career worst 5.18 ERA, 15 losses, a notable drop in velocity, and the first time in five years he hadn't thrown 200 innings. There's no comparable anymore there, so where else is there to look? Zack Grienke, arguably the winter's top free agent, could be a place to start, but he hasn't signed a contract yet, and likely won't for a few weeks.

In other words, Verlander is his own pitcher, comparable to no one. When you're comparable to no one, you have all the leverage in the world. So you'd think that the best place to start would be the highest paid right-handed pitcher ever, right? Wrong.

Matt Cain of the Giants is the highest paid right-handed pitcher ever. He signed an 8-year, $139.75MM deal last year, but let's compare his average numbers to Verlander's over the past four years:

Matt Cain: 14 wins, 2.93 ERA, 220 innings pitched, 180 strikeouts, 1.097 WHIP, and collected a total value of 16.5 in WAR.

Justin Verlander: 19.5 wins, 2.96 ERA, 239 innings pitched, 244 strikeouts, 1.080 WHIP, and collected a total value of 25.2 in WAR.

In reality, the numbers are hardly comparable, Verlander is indisputably the better pitcher in just about every facet, while pitching in a tougher league. So the only thing you can do is give the man exactly what he deserves: the largest contract for a pitcher, ever.

According to fangraphs, since he signed his five-year, $80 million contract extension, he's been worth approximately $29.36MM per season. Obviously, a pitcher being paid $29MM per season would not only be unprecedented, but absolutely crazy. However, this amount is not crazy for a pitcher the caliber of Verlander. He is being paid $20MM the next two seasons, and will likely think that he deserves a raise, and rightfully so. He will probably earn something around $27-$28MM a year for at least a couple of years over the duration of his new deal. He's also going to want a longer-term contract, probably exceeding five years, and the riskiest long-term deals are deals given to pitchers, who constantly get hurt and easily deteriorate.

But consider the following: Verlander has never spent a day on the disabled list, and his durability will likely warrant his agency to argue that his longevity makes him deserving of a deal exceeding five or six years. He also is the face of a franchise whose fans idolize him. He may want a chance to pitch in a big(ger) market, but he may never be more revered or more valuable than he is in Detroit, which gives Detroit a bargaining advantage in that aspect, but no matter what, they're going to have to pay him like he is most valuable in the city of Detroit.

My offer to Justin Verlander: 8 years, $180 million. This easily makes him the highest paid pitcher in the game, possibly also giving him the highest average annual salary in the game, and, if you structure it properly, you may also have enough assets leftover to extend Miguel Cabrera, the aforementioned game's best hitter, when his contract expires a year later.

Agree? Disagree? Too much? Too Little? The debate has only just begun.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

What Underlying Message are the Tigers Sending by Signing Prince Fielder?

Prince Fielder, the newest Detroit Tiger, went .299/.415/.566 in 2011
Like everybody else in the baseball world, I was absolutely shocked to hear Prince Fielder agreed to sign a 9-year, $214 million deal with the Detroit Tigers. We can all talk about the long-term repercussions because of his size, the age when his contract will expire, his potential and inevitable decline, and how both he and Miguel Cabrera fit in at first base, but I'm not going to talk about any of those things.

I want to talk about how this can turn into an ugly situation for the Tigers.

Now, hear me out, because I think he's going to a great player for the first few years of his contract, and a good player for the last few years of his contract. He's going to provide an immense kind of protection to Miguel Cabrera that Victor Martinez could have never provided, and Fielder and Cabrera will be battling it out for MVP next season because teams won't know who to pitch to. I think this signing also sends a message that the Detroit Tigers (Mike Illitch in particular) want to win the World Series and win it sooner rather than later, but what other message does it send?

How about to guys like Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander?

Victor Martinez was an integral part of the Detroit Tigers last season, and you have to look no further than their runs scored in the league and the difference in the number of intentional walks Miguel Cabrera got in 2010 and 2011 to see exactly why. That guy was a run producer, a clubhouse leader, and a fan favorite in 2011. After his ACL injury that was going to keep him out of commission for the 2012 season, it was most likely that the Tigers were going to keep a cheap, one-year replacement and try and work in-house to replace Martinez's production. Now that Detroit went out and got Prince Fielder, where does that leave Martinez?

I think, realistically, it leaves him out of a job. Maybe Miguel Cabrera pulls a Pablo Sandoval, sheds 30 pounds and can play third and then in turn, Victor can still DH for the Tigers in 2013. Unfortunately, the more likely scenario is Cabrera and Fielder have to split DH and first base duties, and Martinez is going to get traded as soon as the Tigers can prove he's healthy.

As someone that appreciated what he did on the field, it hurts a little knowing he may not have a place when he comes back. But I suppose it's a good problem to have when you have three All-Star caliber sluggers but are going to struggle to get at bats for all three in the lineup.

Now, on to Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. These two guys are signed for a few more seasons (Miguel through 2015, and Justin through 2014), but they, like Fielder, will be making $20MM or more per season through the duration of their contracts. If they continue to stay healthy, and history suggests they will, they're going to continue to put up staggering numbers, and they're going to command huge salaries when their contracts expire.

But with the Tigers paying huge money to Prince Fielder, will they have room in the payroll for both?

The Fielder signing likely means Cabrera will leave via free agency after 2015.
Unless the Tigers are planning to really up their payroll for the next ten years, and I'm going to say no, I'm really skeptical in thinking they can keep all three on their payroll, and I think the guy who gets the shaft is inevitably Miguel Cabrera. I mean, let's face it, Miguel and Prince are both first basemen, who are likely to require a switch to the DH role later in their careers. Now, mind you, Prince will only be 31 in 2015 and Miguel will only be 32 (for comparison, Albert Pujols is 32 now and just signed his 10-year, $254 million deal with the Angels), but comparatively, in the market baseball is growing to become, Cabrera is going to command Albert Pujols money, assuming he stays healthy and has no setbacks, when his contract expires in 2015.

I don't think the Tigers are going to be able to make that one work.

Can the Tigers extend Verlander in lieu of the Fielder signing?
And Justin Verlander, the guy who signed a 5-year, $80 million extension after the 2009 season, will likely be watching the Tim Lincecum negotiations very closely, and be using that as a starting point to discuss his next contract with Detroit. Because Lincecum is likely getting something like 8-years and $180 million from his next suitor, I envision something like 8-years and $180 million would be something Verlander and his agent will demand Detroit to shell out to keep Verlander there.

...but are the Tigers going to be able to make that kind of commitment?

I credit Mike Illitch for going out and getting what he needed to replace Victor Martinez and arguably put themselves in World Series contention. However, it may send a negative message to Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, a couple of franchise players, when their contracts expire and they try to negotiate with Detroit, because Detroit's response will be "we don't have a whole lot of money for you, because we shelled out a whole lot for Prince Fielder."

And as a someone who absolutely appreciates everything Cabrera and Justin have brought to the Tigers throughout their time here, it really irks and scares me to think that the fan base may have just lost their franchise players, their favorite players, their sensational players, to free agency because they won't be able to afford them. Instead, Illitch just committed to a player that, yes, makes the Tigers better in the short term, but financially binds them for the long term to the point where Mr. I may not be able to keep Detroit's beloved where they belong, wearing the Olde English "D".

I just hope I'm wrong.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

One Last Move The Tigers Could Make...

It's been a long offseason, but it hasn't been quiet by any stretch of the imagination. The Tigers made a huge splash, signing reliever Joaquin Benoit, catcher/DH Victor Martinez, starting pitcher Brad Penny, and bringing back third baseman Brandon Inge, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and right fielder Magglio Ordonez. The team looks to be about done, and all indications point to Tigers' general manager Dave Dombroski not handing out any more major league contracts this offseason.

But there are still some holes to fill.

I won't complain about Victor Martinez being the primary DH but also being the backup catcher, his bat is extremely valuable and pivotal to Detroit's success next year. But come the situation where Avila either gets hurt or needs to be pinch-run for late in a game that Martinez is DH-ing, Victor cannot come in and catch, and the Tigers need someone who can fill in in a moment's notice. Carrying a third catcher on a roster isn't very smart, especially when you need a fourth outfielder and fifth infielder on your bench, but carrying a guy that's versatile enough to catch in a pinch is. Don Kelly and Ryan Raburn (he reported to camp in 2008 as a catcher) I'm assuming will fill the role of emergency catcher next year, and that's fine with me.

What concerns me more is the lack of starting pitching depth.

I've made countless comments that I didn't think Galarraga would make the rotation ahead of Brad Penny, and the Tigers seem adamant to stick with Phil Coke as a starter no matter what, so after flipping Galarraga to the Diamondbacks for one fringe prospect and one minor league filler, fans are left wondering: who's going to fill the role of spot starter/long reliever?

Could Andy Oliver be MLB ready in an emergency situation?
The in-house options currently are relievers Brad Thomas and Enrique Gonzalez, but also could be minor leaguers Andy Oliver and Charlie Furbush in an extreme case, and that concerns me. Guys such as Andy Oliver and Andrew Miller have shown us that rushing a prospect to the Majors sometimes wind up disastrous. Oliver was by no means ready for Detroit last year, and got shelled. Miller was rushed up by the Tigers in 2007 and has never had a successful season in the Major Leagues, he's currently fighting for a bullpen spot in Boston. I think the Tigers have learned their lesson and are not going to repeat history with Andy Oliver again if they can help it, he'll spend a majority of the season in AAA Toledo. Furbush might be ready for the majors in a pinch, but he doesn't overpower hitters and his only strength is his deceptive delivery, I don't see him being a viable option for the Tigers next year. Thomas and Gonzalez have previous starting history, but they're in the bullpen for a reason, and that's because they got lit up in their opportunities to start.

So what should the Tigers do?

Well they're obviously done making major moves, but a minor league contract somewhere isn't unlikely, and they need a guy who can fill the shoes of the presumed role of Galarraga this season, and that's be a long-reliever and spot starter when necessary. When I take long-reliever and spot starter into account, one particular guy comes to mind for me. He's a guy that has pitched for the Tigers before, in both a starting and relief role, and was relatively successful for them over the course of his tenure.

Chad Durbin in 2007.
Jeremy Bonderman? No, I'm talking about Chad Durbin.

Durbin had a stint with Detroit from 2006 to 2007, and has a history of both starting and relieving. He actually started 19 games for Detroit in 2007 and went 8-7 with an ERA of 4.72 and posted a K/9 of 4.7 and a BB/9 of 3.5. So he's not overpowering by any stretch of the imagination, but I feel like he could be a guy that could come in and get the job done in a pinch, and he'd be a very valuable asset to Detroit in 2011. There have been reports that the Phillies will not try to bring him back, so this is Detroit's chance to sweep in a grab him. My guess would be a minor league deal with $600K guaranteed if he makes the roster would be enough to bring him back to the Motor City.

Announcement: since my divisional previews are so lengthy, and this is more a hobby than a full-time job, I will not be writing divisional previews daily, and I will be doing them weekly. Check back next week for the AL Central preview! Sorry and thanks for understanding.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

2011 Preview: American League West

The Texas Rangers were last year's American League Champions.
The American League West was one of the more abysmal divisions last year in terms of the actual race. The Texas Rangers, at 90-72, enjoyed the most comfortable lead of any playoff-bound team, finishing an impressive nine games up on the second place Oakland Athletics, although they finished with a mediocre 81-81 record, the lowest record of any second place team last year. That didn't stop the Rangers from being a force in the playoffs though, winning the first playoff series in their franchise's near 50 year history by outpitching the favored Tampa Bay Rays. They didn't stop there, however, dethroning the defending world champion New York Yankees with a stellar pitching performance from Cliff Lee, and Colby Lewis twirled two gems as well, but they also got by with the absolute dominance of Series MVP, and League MVP, Josh Hamilton by crushing four homers and knocking in seven. Their playoff dominance stopped there, however, as their offense was stifled by the brilliance of San Francisco's playoff rotation, and they watched the Giants waltz to their first World Series victory since the days of Willie Mays in New York. Nonetheless, it was a very successful season for the breakthrough franchise.

It was also a somewhat successful season for the Oakland Athletics, as their young pitching rotation actually led the league in ERA en route to a .500 record, but the other two teams in the West experienced down years and lost years.

The Los Angeles Angels, who were favored by many to win the division, struggled mightily after the loss of powerhouse first basemen Kendry Morales in late May. They also diverted away from manager Mike Socia's ways of moving runners over and stealing bases. The Angels tried to keep up with the Rangers, after their acquisition of Cliff Lee, by acquiring ace Dan Haren from the Diamondbacks for scraps, but it still wasn't nearly enough to top the Rangers, or the A's, with an lethargic offense and struggling bullpen. The Mariners, another favorite to win the division, faded early primarily on their inability to score runs, and that found them giving up on their all-in season, trading phenom Cliff Lee to their division-rival Rangers. Their bright spot, however, came from the absolute dominance that their ace pitcher Felix Hernandez displayed. So dominant, in fact, that sports writers decided to overlook the horrible 12-11 record and named him the AL Cy Young award winner.

So now that the season is over, let's see what these teams have been up to:

Texas Rangers

2010 Record: 90-72

The defending American League Champions had very little tweaking to do this offseason to have their team ready to grab another American League Pennant. Their lineup was solid, their pitching was deep, and they had a decent defensive team. A small addition here and a minor trade there was going to be enough to guarantee them another shot at the title, but there was just one thing in their way: they needed to re-sign their ace pitcher, and perhaps godsent pitcher, Cliff Lee.

Texas GM Jon Daniels and Adrian Beltre shake hands at the
press conference announcing his new deal.
With new ownership in place, the Rangers were ready to give an extremely competitive nine-figure offer to the 2008 Cy Young award winner. After a couple months of throwing money at Cliff Lee, he finally had to decide between Texas and the New York Yankees, and ultimately decided on neither team, leaving both in the dust and signing with Philadelphia. But that didn't stop the Rangers from making a splash to try to accommodate for their loss, most notably signing third baseman Adrian Beltre to a 5-year, $80MM contract with an option for a sixth year to potentially make it 6-years and $96MM.

With the help of mlbtraderumors transaction tracker, I've been able to scrounge together all of Texas' signings since the beginning of the offseason, I will throw in all of the notables.

Most notable arrivals:
Barret Loux - RHSP
Yorvit Torrealba - C (2-years, $6.25MM)
Brandon Webb - RHSP (1-year, $3MM with incentives)
Arthur Rhodes - LHRP (1-year, $4.1MM with an option for 2012)
Adrian Beltre - 3B (5-year, $80MM with vesting option for $16MM)
Mike Napoli - C/1B/DH (Trade from Toronto for Frank Francisco)

The Verdict:
Josh Hamilton, OF, the 2010 AL MVP.
So obviously a deep lineup just got deeper with Beltre and Napoli, with healthy seasons from Nelson Cruz, Ian Kinsler, and Josh Hamilton, this team is a lock to dominate again in 2011. They don't have an ace at the top of their rotation after the loss of Cliff Lee, but if Brandon Webb can return to form he could potentially be that guy. Neftali Feliz, the 2010 AL Rookie of the Year could also fill that role if the Rangers decide to take him out of the closer's role and into the rotation, but that remains to be seen. Barret Loux is a real diamond in the rough, because the sixth overall pick in last year's draft failed his physical with Arizona, he was eligible to become a free agent and Texas nabbed what could be a big prospect for them in the future for a bargain price.

So even though they lost top free agent Cliff Lee, I would consider the Rangers big winners for the offseason and they should be one of the most exciting teams to watch in 2011. I predict 90 wins and then some on their way to the top spot in the AL West.

But why will they win?

First and foremost, this team is going to be riding on the shoulders of its offense, which it is not short of. With speed at the top in Elvis Andrus and Julio Bourbon this team looks to get on base early and often, and then stifle the opposition with the power of Josh Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli, and hell, for what it's worth, Ian Kinsler. This team is going to be built to outslug its opponent with a deep lineup and a deep bench starting Michael Young and continuing with David Murphy and Matt Treanor.

Neftali Feliz's role with the Rangers in 2011 will be
pivotal to the team's success.
The only achilles heel this team seems to have is its pitching depth, with a young and still somewhat shaky starting rotation, the Rangers may have to force their hands and take Neftali Feliz from the closer's role and slide him into the rotation. That shouldn't be too big of a problem for Feliz, who came up from the minors as a starter, but few were as dominant as Feliz in the closers role. Brandon Webb could potentially be the answer at the top of Texas' pitching staff, but that's a huge "if" as to whether or not he's going to stay healthy and return to form. Needless to say, the certainty of what's already there is more than enough for the Rangers to win at least 90 games again in 2011.

Oakland Athletics

2010 Record: 81-81
Dallas Braden (center), threw the first of two perfect
games last season, there are only 20 in history.

The Oakland A's were somewhat of a surprise to me last season. A team that I expected to struggle mightily actually set themselves up for a nice year in 2011. The growth of their young but dominant rotation was key to their success in 2010. They posted the lowest rotational ERA in the league, but they were also one of the youngest. The peak of that success came on Mother's Day when Dallas Braden pitched a perfect game against the Tampa Bay Rays. 2009 Rookie of the Year built off of his very successful campaign and continued to shut down opposing offenses. Aside from that, however, their lineup really lacked some firepower, so it was up to GM Billy Beane to take charge and keep pushing Oakland towards their first playoff berth since 2006.

The problems that surround Oakland are mainly geographical, their stadium is so bad that players are actually pushed away from signing there, and it's a damn shame really. The A's offered multiple lucrative contracts to marquee free-agent Adrian Beltre, which he continually turned down before he signed with division rival Texas, because few want to play in Oakland's Coliseum, a huge park with dwindling attendance rates. Ownership is working with MLB to move the franchise to San Jose by 2015 or so, which would greatly benefit their team, and it seems that baseball is headed in that direction. When that happens, the A's will attract many free agents to its ballpark (wherever that may be), but for now, let's take a look at what Oakland did to improve their team for next season.

Most Notable Arrivals:
David DeJesus - OF (Trade from Kansas City for Vin Mazzaro and Justin Marks)
Brandon McCarthy - (1-year, $1MM)
Hideki Matsui - DH/OF (1-year, $4.25MM)
Rich Harden - RHSP (1-year, $1.50MM guaranteed should he make the roster)
Josh Willingham - OF (Trade from Washington for Henry Rodriguez and Corey Brown)
Grant Balfour - RHRP (2-years, $8.1MM with a club option for 2013)
Brian Fuentes - LHRP (2-years, $10.5MM with an option for 2013)
Andy LaRoche - IF (Minor League deal)

The Verdict:
The A's put themselves in fantastic position for the 2011 season, which is why they're clear winners this offseason, probably more so than the Rangers. They added loads of bullpen depth in Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes, easily two of the best relief options available this offseason. They added some speed at the top of the order in David DeJesus and some pop in the heart of the lineup with Matsui and Willingham. They also added a ton of starting pitching depth as well in McCarthy and Harden, using the terminology "you can never have enough pitching", the A's have done just that. Added loads and loads of pitching.

Unfortunately, this won't be enough for them to top the Rangers in the AL West, I see them posting a better record than last year's, but they're not going to the playoffs.

But why are they simply bound for a 2nd place finish and nothing better?

Will the A's bats be enough to overcome the Rangers in 2011?
The problem the A's have is the exact opposite problem the Rangers have. The Rangers have a deep offense, and the A's have a weak offense. When you look at the Rangers, they have guys who can consistently put up great home run totals and high SLG% (HR, SLG): Hamilton (32, .633), Cruz (22, .576), Beltre (28, .533). Those guys alone posted SLG over .500 on the Rangers club, and Kinsler is likely to bounce back and do the same thing. Napoli didn't post a SLG over .500, but he did hit 24 home runs. So in other words, they're a true offensive threat. The A's, on the other hand, have ONE guy who hit over 20 home runs in 2010, Matsui, with 21. On top of that, they have no one that slugged .500 or anyone even all that close. They lack the offensive firepower to contend for a playoff berth, but they have the pitching to get them past the Angels and Mariners.

Los Angeles Angels

2010 record: 80-82

Kendry Morales (middle), after he had broken his leg
celebrating his walk-off home run at home plate.
The Angels, the heavy favorite to win the AL West last year, and the defending champions since 2007, couldn't amount to their expectations this year. Go back to May 29th, 2010, the Angels and Mariners were tied 1-1 in the 9th inning with the bases loaded. Angels first basemen Kendry Morales, the hitter, drills a deep drive to left center field, Franklin Gutierrez floated back to the warning track and watched the ball sail over the left field fence. The Angels just won, 5-1, on Morales' grand slam. Morales went to jump on home plate in the celebration, and he fell in the middle of his elated teammates. They, not knowing what happened, continued celebrating as he grimaced in pain. Realizing what happened, a couple players came to his aid and guided him off the field.

No one would have thought that a walk off grand slam would be the demise of the 2010 Angels.

Morales had broken his leg, and he would be out for the season. Before the injury, Morales led the team in most hitting categories, including average, homers, and runs driven in. From that moment on, the season was a lost one. With no hitter that could really solidify the lineup, and their pitching faltering with the exceptions of strikeout king Jered Weaver and midseason acquisition Dan Haren. The bullpen was lackluster, their lineup lacked speed, and they simply retracted away from what they had done so well for so many years: moving runners over and stealing bases.

Fast forward to November, and owner Arte Moreno vows to spend money in the offseason, and fans are understandably ecstatic. Many saw them aggressively pursuing outfielder Carl Crawford, third basemen Adrian Beltre, and closing pitcher Rafael Soriano, and spending a lot of dough to get them, thus making them the team on top of the AL West once again. Torii Hunter was aggressively recruiting Crawford, it was all but inevitable that he was headed to Southern California.

Adding Vernon Wells was a questionable move by LA.
But things did not turn out that way. Their attempts to nab Crawford were rather effortless, as he was pried away by the Red Sox that far outmatched the feeble and laughable offer the Angels made. They made a fairly competitive and lucrative offer to Beltre, but he turned them down and headed for Texas. They did not express nearly as much interest in Soriano as anyone expected, and Soriano signed just a couple weeks ago with the New York Yankees. In desperation to keep fairweather fans happy and make a move simply for the sake of making one, they traded Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera to the Blue Jays for outfielder Vernon Wells in arguably one of the most lopsided and puzzling trades in history, eating most if not all of the remaining $86 million on his contract over the next four years (how much money the Blue Jays actually include in the trade is still unknown, but if they did the amount would likely be $5 million or less). The Jays then flipped Napoli to the division rival Rangers, and now Angels fans are left scratching their heads.

Most Notable Arrivals:
Scott Downs - LHRP (3-years, $15MM)
Hisanori Takahashi - LHRP (2-years, $8MM)
Vernon Wells - OF (Trade from Toronto for Mike Napoli and Juan Rivera)

The Verdict:
Mike Trout, baseball's number one prospect.
Well, let me just say this offseason was just plain awful for the Angels. They were expected to spend and spend big this offseason, and they did, they just didn't allocate it in the right players. $80+ million on a declining and aging Vernon Wells is a huge gamble that they're going to seriously regret as early as, well, when he takes his first hack during batting practice in spring training. The Downs signing and Takahashi signings are solid, but in all honesty its not going to be enough to overcome either the Rangers nor the A's. Why they didn't more aggressively pursue Crawford kind of bewilders me, especially because they instead acquired Wells, it might be because they have baseball's top prospect, 19-year-old outfielder Mike Trout, who projects to be a Carl Crawford type player, but that doesn't help them right now. They're big losers for the offseason.

But why are they going to be so bad?
Jered Weaver paced the AL with 233 strikeouts.
Well, they might not be. They could be a second place team, but I don't see them heading to the playoffs or being crowned divisional champs anytime soon, and a lot has to go right for them. Their strength is their rotation, and Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana make a sick one-two-three punch, but it isn't close to the depth of the A's pitching and the overall depth and balance of the Rangers organization as a whole. Their best hitters: Kendry Morales, Vernon Wells, and Torii Hunter don't come close to Texas' Hamilton, Cruz, and Beltre. It's going to be a rough go, yet again, for the Angels in 2011.

Seattle Mariners

2010 record: 61-101

Griffey, one of baseball's all time greats, is one of just
five in the 600 home run club.
It was a season to be forgotten in Seattle. The team was projected to win in 2010 after the acquisitions of Chone Figgins, Milton Bradley, and Cliff Lee. Sheer speed and OBP at the top of the order in Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins, possibly the best top of the order in baseball, and the best one-two punch in any rotation in baseball in Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee. But apart from the absolute dominance of Felix Hernandez, there was nothing to watch in Seattle. All-time great and potential first ballot Hall-of-Famer Ken Griffey Jr. retired early, and the M's struggled early and often offensively. They lacked depth from all angles within their organization, and after all the big moves they made last year, it was bound to be a quiet offseason for the Mariners this year, and it was.

Most Notable Arrivals:
Jack Cust - OF/DH (1-year, $2.5MM)
Erik Bedard - LHSP (1-year, $1MM)
Miguel Olivo - C (2-years, $7MM)
Brendan Ryan - SS (Trade from St. Louis for Maikel Cleto, then signed for 2-years, $2.75MM)
Denny Bautista - RHRP (Minor League Deal)
Josh Bard - C (Minor League Deal)
Nate Robertson - LHSP (Minor League Deal)
Adam Kennedy - IF (Minor League Deal)
Jody Gerut - OF (Minor League Deal)
Ryan Langerhans - OF (Minor League Deal)

The Final Verdict:
My final examination of the Mariners puts them as winners for the offseason because they got better than they were on the last day of the season last year, but they're losers in the long haul, because the moves won't be enough to get them out of the cellar of the AL West. Obviously, the Mariners were quietly busy this winter. Signing a lot of players to minor league deals and making a minor trade for defensive specialist Brendan Ryan. Defense wins ballgames, and this team will be a defense-oriented team, but the lack of hitting depth will really hurt this organization this season, and they will struggle to win even 75 games this season. But that doesn't go to say that the M's won't be fun to watch this year.

But if they're finishing in the cellar, why are they going to be "fun" to watch?

Ackley, one of the games top prospects, will be one of Seattle's bright spots in 2011.
The answer arises in the youth the Mariners possess. Although they don't have one of baseball's prominent farm systems, they have a few guys that are going to come up and contribute this year that are going to be a lot of fun to watch. Justin Smoak, the switch-hitting first basemen the M's acquired from the Rangers in the Cliff Lee deal, should further mature and become a dangerous hitter next season. Seattle's top prospect, second basemen Dustin Ackley, is among the top 5 best prospects in baseball and should be up to help the Major League club in early June, and he should be able to open some eyes, as he has the ability to hit .300, drill 15 homers with plus speed and defense. His presence along with Figgins, Suzuki, Ryan, and Gutierrez make Seattle one of the fastest teams in baseball. Another top prospect, Michael Pineda, should be in Seattle at some point next season too, and he projects to be a solid no. 2 starter being King Felix. So in Seattle's defense, they won't win many games, but they should be a lot of fun to watch next season.