Austin Jackson turns 27 about two weeks before Spring Training begins in February and that’s significant because more players have their best season at 27 than at any other age. Austin Jackson has already turned in four solid to great big league seasons and macro level aging curves tell us that Jackson should be heading into his peak year. We might not see the best Jackson has to offer in 2014, but it’s worth considering exactly what kind of player he is two years ahead of free agency.
|162 Game Avg.||162||732||112||12||20||7||.278||.344||.416||.759||105|
Jackson had a strong rookie campaign before crashing back to Earth in 2011, but bounced back extremely well in 2012 as he was one of the top centerfielders in baseball. 2013 was a solid year, even if it did look disappointing next to the season that came before. Let’s go beyond the basic numbers.
Jackson was always criticized as a guy who had a high BABIP that couldn’t be sustained, but we’ve seen enough to know that he’s always going to be a high BABIP guy. You won’t see .390 on any sort of consistent basis, but .330-.350 seems entirely reasonable going forward based on his batted ball profile. He’s a terrific baserunner even if he didn’t steal a ton of bases in 2013 and he’s somewhere just better than average in centerfield defensively overall. All told, he’s contributed 14.6 WAR in four big league seasons.
Jackson is, at worst, a solid MLB regular or, at best, a potential superstar. You’re happy with either of those outcomes, but which do we think is more likely? Let’s consider his game in three dimensions.
The league average centerfielder hit .253/.324/.395 in 2013 with a 99 wRC+. Jackson hit .272/.337/.417 with a 107 wRC+. In his worst season, he hit 13% worse than league average and has been as good or better than league average in each of his other three seasons. Jackson probably isn’t the hitter he was in 2012, but even if we pull him toward his career averages, he grades out better than the average centerfielder at the plate.
Jackson has cut down on his strikeouts since his first two seasons and the power has picked up over the last two seasons as well. At his best, Jackson can be a dynamic force in the lineup, but also has a tendency to go through funks when his timing starts to drift at the plate. When he keeps his swing short, you start to dream about All-Star Games, when he doesn’t, you think he might need to head to the bottom third of the order.
Jackson clearly has the physical tools to succeed at the plate, but the key for him is to fine tune his approach and maintain consistent swing mechanics, which are two skills that shouldn’t decline as he ages. That means he should get better at the plate over the next couple of seasons, or at least not get worse too quickly.
Jackson probably figures as a player who will hit 10-15% better than league average in 2014, which makes him a valuable bat in center.
Jackson grades out as a tremendous baserunner. In two of his four big league seasons he’s been worth more than five runs on the bases with the other two seasons being close to average. He’s stolen fewer bases every year of his career, but even with only 8 steals in 2013 he added 5.8 runs with his legs.
He takes the extra base at an above average rate and seems to pick up steam as he rounds second on singles and doubles hit by his teammates. He doesn’t have the best basestealing instincts, but it’s also hard to judge simply because the Tigers have limited incentives to send runners given their impressive offense. Baserunning value peaks early, so we shouldn’t expect Jackson to get dramatically better, but it’s entirely reasonable to assume he’ll be worth 3-5 runs on the bases in 2014.
You got a chance to see Jackson’s DRS and UZR in the table above, but I also like to look at RZR, which simply measures the percentage of balls in his zone he turns into outs. Jackson’s career mark in CF is .939 which is solidly above average for that position.
People rave about Jackson in center, but his skills are somewhat divergent. His range is excellent and he’s a pretty good route runner, but his arm is definitely below average. Additionally, Jackson never dives and occasionally gets caught in between as a result and turns easy outs into hits. That is both frustrating and promising. If you can get Jackson to learn to dive or at least make better late route decisions, you might be able to improve his already stellar range.
It’s probably safe to count on Jackson for 5 runs above average in centerfield over each of the next two years..
Back of the envelope calculations put a player like we’ve just described somewhere in the 3-4 WAR range depending on how much he stays on the field. I think 600 PA is safe even if you expect him to miss two to four weeks with an injury and he’s likely to bring in something like five runs above average in each of the three dimensions of the game. Factor in position and replacement level and you’re looking at a 3-4 win player.
Jackson has shown the ability to play better in each of those dimensions, but if we’re being conservative, he’s probably more like an above average player than a great player. If you filter centerfielders by ages 23-26, Jackson ranks 51st all time in WAR, two wins behind Matt Kemp and 3.4 wins behind Carlos Beltran. I wouldn’t compare Jackson to those players for several reasons, but I don’t think it’s out of the question to suggest Jackson’s going to pick up $15 million per season in free agency if he keeps his performance on par with his career averages.
I suggested the Tigers could probably pick up five years of Jackson for $55 million last offseason and that number has likely stayed reasonably consistent because he’s added another year of service but also come down from his 2012 peak. The Tigers have more pressing contract needs, but now would be a good time to lock up their centerfield.
Jackson looks like he has a few more 3+ WAR seasons in him and a five year deal right now would buy out two arbitration years and three on the free agent market. Something like 5/$60M would be a good place to start before he has a chance to have another great year or salaries start to inflate.
In general, we’ve seen enough of Jackson to recognize that he’s one of those players who is above average everywhere and probably not a superstar anywhere. Those are vital pieces of a championship core and if fans have the right expectations, he’s should be a joy to watch roam center.
One of the knocks on the recent versions of the Tigers was that they were terrible at infield defense. It’s hard to argue with that very stringently. Cabrera was bad. Fielder was bad. Peralta and Infante were somewhere around average for their position. Together, that isn’t a great group and the estimated cost of that group compared to a perfectly average bunch is in the neighborhood of 30 runs or three wins per season. Those estimates aren’t perfect, but they are a reasonable starting point.
This is an exercise, not anything definitive, so take the precision with a grain of salt. In 2013, Cabrera was about 17 runs worse than average at third, Fielder was something like 5-10 runs below average, and Infante and Peralta were both within four or five runs of average depending on the stat you prefer. The defensive metrics I’m referencing are Defensive Runs Saved or Ultimate Zone Rating, which each assign run values to defensive plays relative to the performance of a league average player at that position. Zero is average for the position and every ten runs above or below average is roughly equal to a win.
What we’re after here is how the Tigers defense will look in 2014 with a new player at every position. Cabrera will be back at first, Kinsler will play second, Iglesias at short, and someone at third – potentially Castellanos and potentially Mr. Outside Hire. Let’s develop a range of estimates for each player and then combine them to get a sense of what we might be dealing with. These ranges are my estimates based on UZR/DRS data from the last three years and additional information gathered using defensive efficiency numbers and visual scouting.
Miguel Cabrera – First Base
Cabrera is an interesting case because of the injury, but I’ll assume that he’ll be healthy by the time the season starts. During his career at first base, Cabrera rated out as a slightly below average fielder with fluctuations on both sides of zero. His ability to turn batted balls into outs was below average, but he became reasonably good at turning double plays from the position and brings a pretty good set of hands to the position. We have to factor in that he’s two years older, but also that he has been working to get better at a tougher position.
Run Estimate: -8 to +5
Ian Kinsler – Second Base
Kinsler’s story is interesting because UZR and DRS can’t seem to agree if he’s an average defender or a pretty good one. Kinsler has solid range but probably misplays balls a little bit too often. Thirty is in his rear view mirror, but he remains a solid athlete who shouldn’t be in for a rapid decline.
Run Estimate: -2 to +8
Jose Iglesias – Shortstop
Iglesias is a wizard with the glove, but we have very little major league data with which to judge him. UZR loves him at short with DRS thinking he’s around average. Neither loved him at third, but again, we’re dealing with 1,000 sporadic innings at multiple positions. The scouting reports on Iglesias are sparkling giving him plus marks for range and elite grades on his arm and hands. I’ve heard plenty give him 80 grades (the highest possible) for his defense and my personal observations concur. He’s one of the best in the game right now. I asked Mark Anderson of BP and TigsTown if he thought he was better than Andrelton Simmons, and his answer was an emphatic, “Absolutely.”
Run Estimate: +5 to +15
Nick Castellanos/Someone Else – Third Base
We don’t really know who will man third base, but the leader right now is Castellanos. The most recent evaluations of his defense at the corner weren’t great, but enough people said they thought he could stay there that I’m not going to estimate a crazy, disaster number. He has some raw skills, but his footwork needs improvement and he hasn’t played there in over a year. With some effort, I can easily see him getting himself to Cabrera or better levels in 2013. It’s hard to judge an unknown, so I’ll simply tack on a few positive runs to account for the possibility they sign a good defender at the position.
Run Estimate: -15 to +3
Totaling those estimates up, we find a range of -20 to +31 runs. That’s a wide range, but these are the outer bounds of the estimates. The Tigers infield was something close to -30 last season (-20 if we’re being generous), so this looks to be a ten run upgrade even if things don’t go terribly well. At the outside, it could be a sixty run improvement, which is about six wins in the standings, but even at the lowest estimate, they’re most likely getting better.
Granted, we’re dealing with estimates based on imperfect measures, so you have to look at this skeptically. It’s possible that the Tigers have added somewhere between one and six wins of value by improving their defense. They will certainly be giving some of that away on the offensive side as they drop from Peralta to Iglesias and Fielder to Castellanos, but it’s hard to imagine a world in which the defense doesn’t get better.
The Tigers starters are strikeout pitchers so infield defense isn’t as valuable to them as it is to others, but Fister and Porcello put the ball on the ground a lot, which means better defense should bring their RA9 or ERA numbers closer to their true talent FIP numbers in 2014.
League average BABIP on ground balls in 2013 was .241. For the Tigers it was .266. For Fister it was .295. For Scherzer it was .280. Defense isn’t something we can break down into tiny samples with great success, but the Tigers allowed way more hits on ground balls than average last year and that number is probably going to go down in 2014. There are a lot of moving parts, but the Tigers defense should be better off having made the big trade.
Over the last few days we’ve had many discussions about the merits of the big trade, and the view from the first inning is that the Tigers made a good move for the long run with the short run value left a bit up in the air based on how they spend their financial savings. We think Prince is likely to bounce back a little bit and Kinsler will continue on his current path which places him somewhere around 3 wins if he plays most of the 2014 season. It’s kind of hard to say anymore about the deal as a whole without knowing what Dombrowski is up to next, but we can start to think about Ian Kinsler in a Tigers uniform because there’s a pretty high probability that’s actually going to happen. I mean, unless those Robinson Cano private jet to Willow Run rumors are true…
Kinsler is entering his age 32 season and has eight years of big league experience almost exclusively at second base for the Texas Rangers.
|162 Game Avg.||162||728||114||174||38||3||24||26||6||.273||.349||.454||.804||110|
Those numbers can give you a basic sense of his career path, but we’re obviously going to dig a little deeper to understand the type of player he is.
AT THE PLATE
Kinsler’s declining walk rate is a concern, but he also doesn’t strike out very often. His power has really been up and down throughout his career as has his BABIP. You’ll notice with a more complete number like wRC+, he’s been a league average hitter or better in every season of his career with a couple of big years in which he hit for more power. If we’re thinking about Kinsler heading into his Tigers years, there is really no way we can expect that pop to return. Looking at an average to slightly above average bat with a wRC+ somewhere between 100-110 probably makes sense heading into 2014.
Kinsler has always been known for his home/road split. Texas is one of the best parks in which to hit, but it’s important to note that Comerica Park is becoming for hitter friendly over time.
For his career, the split is pretty significant and in 2013 there’s still plenty about which to be worried.
You’ll notice Kinsler slugged better on the road in 2013 despite getting on base much less frequently. Generally speaking, we should expect Kinsler to hit worse at Comerica than he did in Arlington, but everyone hits worse in Comerica than they do in Arlington. The adjustments he makes will be important.
There’s also some concern that he doesn’t use the right side of the field very effectively, but that’s always been part of his game so it’s not like our view of him going forward should change very dramatically. He has three career homeruns to the right-side of second base, though, which is crazy.
All in all, Kinsler is a solid major league hitter. In 2013, the average second baseman hit 9% worse than league average. Kinsler hit 5% better. For reference, Infante was 17% better but that was also Infante’s best season ever.
Kinsler has been a very strong baserunner in his career both with respect to taking extra bases and stealing bases efficiently. Here are his overall baserunning runs above average:
His 2013 didn’t look great and that was mostly a function of getting caught stealing much more than normal.
Until last year, Kinsler was one of the most successful basestealers in the game. The rule of thumb is that you need to have a success rate of 70% or better for it to be worth it and Kinsler had some seasons in the high 80s and 90s. It’s unclear if 2013 is a blip or a trend, but given how rough the Tigers are on the bases, he can only be an upgrade. That is especially true when it comes to his extra bases taken percentages as league average is 39% and he has been above 50% in each of his last four seasons.
It’s important to realize that Kinsler is only going to get worse on the bases as he ages, but he’s coming down from a very high peak. There’s no question he makes the Tigers a better baserunning team and should be able to provide at least a couple of runs above average in that department in 2014.
The report on Kinsler’s defense is a little bit mixed, but it tells a pretty clear story if you know what to look for. DRS likes Kinsler more than UZR over the course of his career, but both have him as something better than average. The question isn’t if Kinsler is good, it’s if he’s a little better than par for the course or if he’s great. RZR tells you the percentage of balls in his zone he’s turned into outs and his career mark of 82.9% puts him solidly above average at second base. Kinsler has great range, but occasionally boots a few to many balls. That’s nice to see in the data, because that’s exactly what I thought about him based on my own observation.
Kinsler isn’t going to be another Iglesias, but he’s going to be a solid defensive player who can stay at second base at least for a couple more seasons.
THE ENTIRE GAME
So Kinsler has an above average bat for the position and adds positive value on the bases and in the field. He’s a little bit injury prone, but he’s been a solid major league regular or better in every year of his career regardless:
Kinsler is leaving his prime years, but there’s no reason he can’t produce a could more 2-3.5 win seasons if he stays reasonably healthy. Kinsler is one of those players who is above average everywhere but great nowhere. Those are very useful players, especially when the Tigers already have plenty of players who are really good at certain things and not so good at others. Kinsler adds nice balance to the team and should earn a good portion of the salary he has coming his way.
The Tigers likely aren’t doing wheeling and dealing this offseason, but the first big move netted them some financial savings and pretty nice player to boot.
If you didn’t get a chance to see it, I joined Brian Kenny on Clubhouse Confidential to talk about the Fielder-Kinsler deal on Friday. Here’s a link to the conversation. If you’re looking for my initial take from the night of the deal, you can find that here, along with some thoughts about what this might mean about big contracts going forward.
We should also have some follow up analysis on Kinsler coming this afternoon or this evening.
That escalated quickly. Heading into the offseason the Tigers were expected to look to move Prince Fielder’s 7/$168M contract, but it didn’t look like there were going to be any takers. Fielder, even if he aged extremely well and bounced back to his pre-2013 levels, was barely going to be worth the contract. If he ages at a pretty normal clip and never goes back to his 5 win ways, we were looking at something like $70M in dead money. Maybe not anymore.
News broke on Wednesday night that the Tigers and Rangers agreed to a one for one swap of Prince Fielder and Ian Kinsler that gives the Rangers their power bat and frees up a spot for Jurickson Profar while the Tigers get salary flexibility and a new second baseman. The deal is amazing because if you squint really hard, it looks really good and really bad for both sides. It’s a challenge trade, but it’s also about position.
The Tigers had three guys who should be playing 1B and DH and now they have two. The Rangers had three middle infielders and now they have two. Kinsler will cost 4/$57M with a $10M/$5M buyout for year number five, plus something like $30M in cash. The Tigers are saving some cash in this deal that could prove to be extremely valuable when it comes time to extend Max Scherzer or Miguel Cabrera, but they’re also probably straightening out their defensive situation. Cabrera can go back to first where he belongs and Nick Castellanos can get into the lineup a little easier. Maybe Peralta gets back on the radar. It’s too soon to tell.
Kinsler had an insane 7 win peak in 2011, but looks a lot more like a 2-3 win player going forward. He’s a league average or slightly better bat with a history of running the bases well. The defense is a bit unclear because DRS loves him and UZR thinks he’s meh. Either way, you’re looking at solid player who is probably just a bit overpaid at $16M per season, plus however you want to allocate the $30 million
This trade has moving parts. If Kinsler is a 2 win player at 2B, Cabrera moves to first and is league average at the position defensively, and then the Tigers use Castellanos at 3B for about 2 wins, you’re looking at something like 11 wins for something like $40-44M. Re-signing Infante for $10M would put them somewhere around 12-13 wins for $54M. That’s a small improvement financially especially if it softens the risk later on in the deal.
I think this trade makes the Tigers worse in 2014, but it also gives them more financial resources to get better. They’ll save a few extra million that they can spend on a LF/RP/3B and they’re much better off in later years of the deal. Kinsler doesn’t look like a great player, but he’s good enough to probably make this work.
What we don’t know is how much of this momentum towards a deal came from the comments Fielder made after the season and his performance in the postseason. If the Tigers traded him because there were hard feelings, this is silly. If they traded him to save a little extra money that could be better allocated, it looks a lot better.
To be perfectly honest, I don’t have a strong opinion about this move. I think it makes a lot of sense for Texas and it’s a giant freaking question mark for the Tigers. Fielder probably bounces back in 2014 and beyond, but the trade saves them more money than it is likely to cost them in overall on field value. It’s a smart long term deal that might bite them in short run. Which means we really can’t judge this deal until we know how Dombrowski is going to spend the savings. That’s the key. Saving money is good, but you save that money so that you can spend it elsewhere.
I enjoyed rooting for Fielder and watching him slide, and had absolutely zero problem to his comments after the postseason ended. I’m sorry to see him go, but happy to welcome Kinsler. It’s hard to tell if this is an overreaction or a smart calculation, which is what makes it so interesting. Sorry to leave you hanging, but I don’t know what this one’s going to end. This won’t be the last thing I write about it, but my initial take is that this is probably going to work out for the best.
Stay with me here. This is going to be short and to the point. Brad Ausmus is pulling an Abraham Lincoln move right now and it’s worth noting. I’m not comparing the two, I’m saying Ausmus is borrowing a leadership tactic at which Lincoln was very skilled. This week, after hiring Matt Martin to be his defensive coordinator, Brad Ausmus told the Free Press that Martin is “a baseball guy” and “not a number cruncher” and “not a sabermetrician.” The manager doth protest too much.
There are two obvious points here, ones that Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller argued on today’s Effectively Wild Podcast. First, Ausmus is going out of his way to sell Martin as “one of the guys.” This is Ausmus wrapping serious changes in a conservative cloth. This is Ausmus channeling Lincoln.
The key is that Martin’s job is weird and new and baseball players as a group tend to be slow to adapt. Columnists and writers tend to be slow to adapt. The Detroit media environment as a whole has been slow to adapt. If you start seeing the Tigers shake up defensive positioning – as Martin is likely to do – then Ausmus has already set the table to answer the questions. Martin isn’t some nerd who looks at spreadsheets, he’s a baseball guy with lots of “real” credibility. Lincoln was a master at this. Instituting massive change and convincing people it wasn’t massive change. That’s what this is. This position didn’t exist as a coaching position until three weeks ago when the Nationals created it. Now the Tigers and Angels have one too. More are likely coming.
What’s so great about the sales job is that it’s so obviously a deke. I doubt that Martin is programming is own algorithms, but he’s obviously going to be looking at the sabermetric data we’ve all been talking about for a while now. There simply isn’t another way to do that job. You can’t watch the last 100 at bats of every player on the opposing team and eye-ball the shift you need to employ. This requires batted ball data – the kind of data that sabermetricians use all the time.
I don’t know if Martin knows how to run and interpret regression analysis, but I’m fairly confident he knows how to employ the information readily available to all major league front offices. You don’t have to crunch the numbers to use the numbers, but you do have to get the players and local media to go along with it. That’s Ausmus’ job. Ausmus is selling the idea and Martin is implementing it.
They’re wrapping a newfangled position with fancy numbers in the cloth of an old set “of baseball eyes,” as Ausmus put it. The Tigers didn’t have this position a few days ago and no one had one in 2013. To suggest this isn’t a analytic innovation is silly, but that’s exactly how you have to sell it to get most people to buy in. That’s how you effectively institute change – by convincing people it isn’t really change at all. The hiring of Brad Ausmus looks better and better every day.
It was pretty exciting to hear that the Tigers hired Omar Vizquel to be their first base coach and infield instructor given his reputation for strong defense and good instructional ability. With all due respect to Vizquel, his hiring was completely overshadowed when we learned today that the Tigers also hired Matt Martin to be their, I’m not making this title up, “defensive coordinator.” Oh boy.
The idea behind the position is pretty simple. Martin will be in charge of shifting and positioning the infield against specific hitters and will work with the advanced scouting group to prepare for this kind of decision-making. He’ll be joining with Vizquel to form a super-infield-defense-academy. In other words, the Tigers are about to get shifty.
This is big news for a couple of reasons. First, it’s one of the biggest leaps into the future that the Tigers have taken, at least in public, in many years. This is a big jump forward into analytics for the Tigers who have leaned much less on their statistical analysis team than many others in the industry. It also tells us that Ausmus is a believer as well because they wouldn’t bring someone like this in if the manager wasn’t on board. Leyland didn’t have a DC on staff, Ausmus does. This supports the idea I floated when Ausmus was hired that he’s going to be very receptive to analytic information when it comes to macrolevel decisions about his team.
But this hiring also tells us something else; it tells us the Tigers are going to get better. Well, it doesn’t really guarantee that, but if the Tigers are really going to go all-in here they stand to benefit more than almost any other club in the league. They have serious range issues in the infield and shifting is going to tighten up some of those holes. There’s no perfect answer, but if you look at the massive shifting integration the Pirates employed in 2013, it’s hard not to get excited. The Tigers probably won’t move that far, but we’ve seen the potential for BABIP payoff if a team is willing to make the move.
Finally, the specific hire looks extremely promising. I love the position in general, but Gabe Kapler, former Tiger and friend of the movement, speaks extremely highly of Martin.
Kapler also followed up with a link to something he wrote for Baseball Prospectus in August about Martin and coaching in general which lays the praise on pretty thick.
A couple of coaching hires doesn’t change a whole lot about the Tigers chances in 2014, but they send very positive signals about the future of the organization that seems to be growing more comfortable with modern thinking by the day. It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact these moves will have on the team, but they’re moves in the right direction. The Tigers have clearly had success without a lot of love for sabermetrics; imagine what they could do with even better information.
We’re about to find out.
I’ll keep this relatively short because I’m of the mind that these awards don’t really matter that much. They are a fun intellectual exercise and often an occasion for comedy, but they are of little real value beyond that. It’s nice to honor individual achievement with a plaque, but the fact that one player wins and one doesn’t changes nothing about the seasons or the players. It’s just a thing that an exclusive group of writers says.
But I also find myself in an interesting place because the player on my favorite team was the player who won the award that, in my mind, was handed out to the wrong guy. I’m thrilled for Miguel Cabrera personally and I’m really glad he had a great year. I’m thrilled for Scherzer, whom I didn’t vote for but considered a much better Cy Young candidate than Cabrera an MVP candidate. But on the other side, I’m a fan of smart, rational decision-making and good analysis and the MVP voting that helped Cabrera was lacking in that department. I have yet to see a rational case for why Cabrera was the AL’s best player. Or most valuable, if for some reason you think those two words mean different things. If you have a rational case for Cabrera, I want to hear it. Post it in the comments section or e-mail me at NewEnglishD@gmail.com. Maybe I’ll even publish it.
I’ve written about this race at Beyond The Box Score and I wrote about the same battle a year ago in these pages. I don’t have a lot else to say on the subject. Trout was better. The award should go to the best player. Therefore, Trout should win the award. Those three statements are important for this discussion. Let’s consider them briefly to illustrate a point.
Trout was better.
I touched on this above and in the first link, so I’ll keep this short. Mike Trout was the better baseball player in 2013. He had more plate appearances and was Cabrera’s equal when you combine baserunning and hitting and was much better on defense. A lot of the people who voted for Cabrera even admitted to this point. Okay, good.
The award should go to the best player.
This was the talking point this season. Lots of writers argued that in order to be valuable, your team has to be good because there’s no difference between the 70 games the Angels would have won without Trout and the 80 games they did win with him. That’s a silly thing to give out an individual award for, however. What is the value of handing out an award to the best player on a good team? Forget for a moment that the description explicitly says that the winner doesn’t have to come from a playoff team and just ask yourself this. Why would we want to give an award to the best player on a good team? What is that proving? That suggests that an individual award is contingent on the performance of one’s teammates, which means it isn’t an individual award at all.
Therefore, Trout should win the award.
If Trout is better and the award should go to the best player, then Trout should have won. That’s a little obvious, but also important to say. If we aren’t going to give the awards to the player who deserves to win, what’s the point of even giving out the award or caring about it at all?
So here’s the punch line. And this is going to sound strange. The fact that Cabrera won each of the last two MVP awards actually diminishes his accomplishments. I’m a Tigers fan before I’m a baseball writer and I’m actually more upset about this part of it than anything. The MVP has become a bit of a joke, so it’s less meaningful to me that he won it this year. It cheapens Verlander’s award, which I think was more justified. It’s a less prestigious award because of this process. I would be prouder of Cabrera finishing second in an award that matter than finishing first in one that doesn’t.
Several people have mentioned to me that I’m one of the few Tigers writers who sees this thing objectively. I appreciate that, but it also speaks to another important issue. Beat writers, many of whom are great and smart, don’t watch enough baseball to really provide a good vote. The Tigers guys know the Tigers, but they don’t stay up late watching the west coast games because they’re still busy covering the Tigers and going to bed so that they can cover them again. Part of the problem is that some writers are hopelessly lost, but a lot of them just don’t have the exposure to enough players because they don’t have the time. I think that’s another flaw in the system that isn’t any of the voters’ fault.
The rational analyst in me is unhappy with the result, but so is the Tigers fan. Cabrera didn’t deserve the award and the fact that he won anyway makes it less special as an institution. I’m not losing sleep, but I do wish we did a better job on things like this. I mean, we have to do something until they start playing again.
One of the strengths of the 2014 Tigers is that most of the 2013 version is locked up through at least the upcoming season. Seven of the nine starting position players and all five starting pitchers are under contract going into next season so the main focus will be on the bullpen and the bench. The two starting spots to consider are second base and left field. We covered left field a few days ago which means it’s now time to turn our attention to the keystone.
IN HOUSE CANDIDATES
The Tigers aren’t blessed with a lot of big league ready talent up the middle, so the two leading candidates are Danny Worth and Hernan Perez. I think both are perfectly capable of keeping their heads above replacement level thanks to solid to above average defense and good baserunning, but neither provides much of a boost offensively. Perez was seriously over-matched during his time at the plate in 2013 and gave us one of the most incredibly terrible swings of the year:
Needless to say, Perez might need some work. We know what Worth brings and I suspect he could offer 0.5-1.0 WAR if given the job. Not great options, but options that are good enough to keep you from doing something stupid.*
THE FREE AGENTS
So obviously, Omar Infante is the guy the Tigers are after. He’s coming off four straight seasons of 2.0+ WAR and just completed his career year entering his age 32 season. Something in the 2/20 to 3/30 range makes sense for both sides and the Tigers are likely to snatch him up if big spenders don’t drive up the price.
Only three other free agents make any kind of sense for the Tigers. First, is Brian Roberts – who doesn’t really make sense either. Roberts was great about four or five years ago and has struggled to stay healthy, but if you can get him for next to nothing, I’d be interested in the upside play.
Robinson Cano is the prize of the class and is likely to command something in the 8/200 range. He’s a 5-6 win player in the near future and a 3-4 win player a few years beyond that, so he’s a legitimate upgrade over Infante and the rest of their in house options. The price is quite high given the amount of money they have to allocate to Verlander, Fielder, Sanchez, and whomever they want to extend. There’s a way in which they can make Cano work financially, but it’s a Hail Mary. You’re talking about adding $20 million to the payroll over last year in addition to the arbitration raises and keeping that on the books long-term. I think it works if you’re willing to let Cabrera walk after 2015 or if you can find someone take the Fielder deal off your hands. The second option is tricky because you’d have to eat some money, which means it would be about $30 million per year for Cano compared to $20 million for Fielder. I’m not sure Cano is $10 million better than Fielder, but I’d consider going down that road if another team would let you.
The final free agent is Mark Ellis, who strikes me as the ideal Plan B if Infante walks. He’ll be cheap on a 1-2 year deal and can be counted on for 1-2 WAR with some nice defense in an infield that needs it. Not a sexy option, but one that will work.
The only second baseman that’s an upgrade and could be on the market is Howie Kendrick. He’d work for me, but the prospect cost and salary seem high enough that Infante would be cheaper. I mean, if you can pry Matt Carpenter from St. Louis….hey wait this isn’t talk radio.
I thought about this a lot and there are four realistic scenarios. The first is to go in-house for free and punt on 2B offense. You have good glove men and the money can be spent elsewhere. Option two is re-signing Infante for $10-$12 million a year so you can keep the band together. Option three is to take a mild hit and go for Ellis at $6-$7M on a one year deal.
Option four is the big one, and I guess it’s not quite as crazy as it sounds. You have to ask yourself how much Mike Illitch is willing to pay to bring a title to Detroit. Cano doesn’t guarantee it, but it’s big deal. It’s three wins on top of Infante’s peak for $20 million extra. The math works out if the payroll does. It’s a big upgrade for a reasonable price relative to the cost of a win. You’re in at $25 million but out at $30-35 million. The question is what that means in the long-run. I don’t think they can keep Cabrera, Fielder, and Cano into their late 30s, but I think it can work in the short-run. Maybe it’s time to throw caution to the wind and think about winning now. If it sinks the 2018 Tigers, so be it.
If you could move Fielder at a financial loss, you can put Cabrera back at first, move Castellanos to third, and bring Cano in to play second. That works on a lot of levels because it improves the defense and doesn’t hurt the offense. You’re paying a premium to do it, but that could work too. I can envision a world in which the Tigers grab Cano. It would have to come from Mr. I because it’s expensive however you go about it. I wouldn’t recommend it, but I think you could talk me into it. It’s not likely, but it’s not crazy on the face of it.
Infante is the right choice. He’s still pretty young and has really improved his overall game in the last few years. A 2 win second baseman is hard to find hanging around the market and it won’t preclude other moves. Ellis is a nice backup plan, but re-signing Infante is way to go. That is, unless the owner wants to invest his children’s inheritance on one more crazy idea.
One of the strengths of the 2014 Tigers is that most of the 2013 version is locked up through at least the upcoming season. Seven of the nine starting position players and all five starting pitchers are under contract going into next season so the main focus will be on the bullpen and the bench. The two starting spots to consider are second base and left field. Second base looks like it will be Infante if the price is right and a future post if the price is too high. Left field remains a more interesting question.
THE IN-HOUSE CANDIDATES
The Tigers ran through the 2013 season predominantly using an Andy Dirks and Matt Tuiasosopo platoon who combined for 2.5 WAR across close to 700 total PA (some at DH and RF). All told, the Tigers LF hit .259/.325/.383 in 2013 and the league average LF hit .259/.323/.412. Not quite as much power as the average left fielder but essentially identical when it comes to AVG and OBP. The Tigers had more or less average offensive production from their left fielders when their left fielders were Dirks and Tuiasosopo.
Ultimate Zone Rating loves Dirks in LF, ranking him 3rd in baseball last season at 9.4 (DRS had him 6th). Tuiasosopo isn’t around anymore, so his average-ish ratings aren’t too relevant. In general, the Tigers worked a couple of wins out of left field with average offense and solid defense for next to nothing. They have that option again.
Dirks will be back with the team in some capacity and they have the option of handing him the job again in 2014. Dirks has about 1000 career PA and ranks just above average offensively (103 wRC+) with a .276/.332/.413 line. In 2011 and 2013 he was in the 85 wRC+ neighborhood with his 2012 season much higher at 132. It’s unclear exactly how good he would be over a full season, but it’s safe to say he’s somewhere in that range. An average OBP for a LF with a little less pop and a lot more glove is a pretty reasonable bet. If healthy, that’s about a 2 win player.
The Tigers could also hand the job to top prospect Nick Castellanos. Castellanos has 18 big league PA so we’re going to have to judge him based on his minor league numbers and scouting reports. He tore up AAA as one of the youngest players at the level in 2013 (.276/.343/.450) after crushing at three of five stops along the way from 2010 to 2012. Scouts love his bat and think the power will come with age. No one loves his feet or his defense, but plenty think he can be good enough not to warrant a DH spot. I’ve heard some scout/writers like Keith Law hang “future all-star” on him. Maybe the Tigers give the job to Nick and see if he’s ready.
It’s also possible, maybe even likely, that they use some sort of job share between the two. They won’t make Castellanos the weak half of a platoon, but they may find a way to use him for 110-120 games as they ease him in against big league pitching and full contact defense. If the Tigers want to stick with their in house options, it’s very likely they can match the production they received this season, which was plenty considering the talent they have elsewhere – even after a down year at times from Fielder, Jackson, Martinez, and Avila.
THE FREE AGENTS
FanGraphs has a leaderboard that includes 32 free agent outfielders that’s worth examining. Let’s limit our search to players who have some chance of being worth two wins in 2013 and don’t have a giant red flag (Franklin Gutierrez) or a huge price tag (Jacoby Ellsbury).
I have six names.
Granderson, Beltran, Choo, Chris Young, Marlon Byrd, and David Murphy.
You can click the link and view their statistics and you’ll notice that none of these players are ideal fits. Granderson makes a good deal of sense but the Tigers will need to commit to more than the $14 million qualifying offer waiting in his inbox and then subsequently more than the Yankees are willing to offer in addition to the loss of a draft pick. Granderson has had five seasons of 3.5 WAR or better in his career, but on the wrong side of 30 and coming off two down years (injuries included), I’m not sure he’s worth the money and the draft pick compared to what the Tigers have in house.
Beltran remains a great hitter but is approaching DH status, comes with the QO, and is even older than Granderson. This would be like signing another Torii Hunter if Hunter was better. Beltran is still a great hitter but his diminished defense isn’t really something the Tigers can absorb given the price he’s likely to command.
Choo would be a strong fit entering his age 32 season considering the fact that he’s among the best dozen or so offensive players in the sport and that his defense would look much better in a corner than it does in CF. The key variable with Choo is cost. He doesn’t come with the risks that Grandy and Beltran do, but that will also make his price tag harder to handle. The floor of a Choo deal is 4/60 and the final number will probably be higher. The Tigers aren’t likely to add that kind of money to their payroll given the coming raises, but if they do have the cash, he makes the most sense.
Young and Murphy are the wild cards because they are coming off down years and might be available for cheap. Young is a great defender with power and Murphy until recently was an excellent hitter against righties with some nice balance mixed in. Neither are great, but both are interesting if their market disintegrates. Byrd would never have been on my radar if he hadn’t just had a four win season. I don’t think it happens again, but for the right price, you talk.
Only two names jump out as legitimate upgrades that wouldn’t cost an arm and a leg that could be on the market this offseason. The Padres’ Chris Denorfia and the Rockies’ Michael Cuddyer. Denorfia is on a cheap deal and will be a free agent after 2014, so if the Padres admit they aren’t going to catch the Dodgers, they may be willing to part with their underrated outfielder. He’s routinely been an average to above average hitter across varying playing time and showed promise defensively last year. He’s not an automatic upgrade over Dirks/Castellanos, but he might provide some depth and stability at the position without mortgaging the future.
Cuddyer has the potential to be an impact bat at a cool $10.5 million if the Rockies are will to part with him. The prospect cost might be a touch higher, but Cuddyer is coming off his best season at the plate with a career 113 wRC+. The high BABIP and resulting stats are partly Coors aided but Cuddyer was no slouch on the road last year either. He’s not the kind of upgrade that you’re really going to notice, but he’s probably a safer bet to produce than Dirks and Castellanos.
Given a sparse market and a weak trade crop, it’s hard to suggest the Tigers do anything but play the hand they were dealt. Test out Castellanos and have Dirks there to back him up. It would be a great idea to sign a right-handed bench bat like Reed Johnson or something to fill in if Castellanos needs some time in AAA, but there really isn’t a better option that wouldn’t be pretty expensive. Granderson, Beltran, and Choo are reasonable upgrades but they come at a cost. Dirks and Castellanos are going to cost the Tigers next to nothing and those players would also add $10 to $18 million to the yearly payroll. That might be worth it in a vacuum, but considering the other needs that money is better spent keeping Infante and stocking the bullpen.
The Tigers have to figure out how to make the money work going forward with Verlander, Fielder, Sanchez and whomever they wish to extend into the future. It’s hard to see how paying more than ten million dollars right now on a LF who might improve the team by 2 wins is truly worth it. If there was a great option out there, they should go for it, but there doesn’t appear to be anything worth doing. Dirks is underrated and Castellanos could be a star. This is the year to find out what those two can do.