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.