Monthly Archives: February, 2015

Tigers Bring Back Joba, Beard Apparently Not Welcome

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

After a great first half and much less great second half, Joba Chamberlain had two very poor outings against the O’s in the ALDS. He signed a small deal last winter with the hopes of rebuilding his value, and while he looked well on his way to doing that in June, things quickly fell apart and he actually wound up getting less guaranteed money when the Tigers re-signed him this morning.

That’s actually a pretty remarkable thing when you peel back the onion. Joba had a perfectly fine season with a 3.57 ERA and 3.16 FIP in 63 innings. He had the occasional sore this or that, but nothing that kept him out of action for very long. And yet, no one wanted him.

His second half numbers were much worse than his first half, with is K%, BB%, ERA, and wOBA all going in the wrong direction in a big way, while his BABIP actually got better. Part of that is simple regression to the mean. Joba wasn’t as good as he performed during the first half and so some crash was expected just in the normal course of business. He also lost it a little and wound up pitching 28 below replacement level innings after the break. Factor in his two awful appearances in October and it’s not a huge shock that he’s not signing a $20 million deal.

But it is a little surprising to me that he had virtually no interest and got a $1 million deal after teams reported. The first half did happen and it’s not as if that performance is totally irrelevant. Joba showed that he could remain healthy and reasonably effective for a full season, but no one came calling with a significantly better offer.

Maybe that speaks to long-term concerns about his health or perhaps it speaks to teams paying too much attention to a few innings of reliever performance. Joba is certainly worth a flyer at this price, but it’s very odd to me that the Tigers would pay Hanrahan, Gorzelanny, and Joba $3 million or so among them in conjunction with the $170+ million they spent on the rest of their roster but not be willing to pay a little more for one of the quality middle relievers who hit the market this winter.

I wanted Neshek, Gregerson, Cotts, Duke, and Frasor and the Tigers did not seem to be in on any of them despite the maximum AAV on the deals sitting in the $5-6 million range.

Signing Joba at this price in isolation is totally fine. I’m all for it. There’s almost nothing that can go wrong. But the team seems to never want to pay an extra million or two for a good player even though they routinely pay several million extra for their great players. It’s an odd approach if nothing else.

My one specific concern here is that I worry Joba will have a good April and Ausmus will fall into old patterns of using him in the 8th inning exclusively. Just because Dombrowski signed him late doesn’t mean the manager will use him correctly. Given how rigid Ausmus showed himself to be last year, it could cost the Tigers on the basis of familiarity.

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The Tigers Get Back To Work

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth
It’s very early on Friday, February 20, and the temperature outside my apartment is somewhere close to -10. That’s might not sound like a good thing. In fact, on the last two days like this, I was treated to balmy temps in the 40s.

The Tigers will hold their first workout of the 2015 season today in Lakeland. There are plenty of new faces and old faces and memories of pitchers and catchers who no longer wear the uniform for the hometown team. Winter, by the proper definition, gives way to spring this morning even though most people who are reading this will awake to temperatures somewhere below zero.

And for the first time since 2012, I’m one of them. The Tigers are getting back to baseball and my exile to the American south is over. There’s normalcy after a pretty abnormal winter for me. The last time the Tigers played ball, things were much different on my end.

The first day of spring training is merely a symbol. We don’t really get to see anything and nothing important happens, but it signifies the end of wandering. The aimlessness of the time between seasons has ended and we’ve found our way home.

This year, that’s more than a metaphor for me and I’m looking forward to being near the action, even if the action is starting a thousand miles away from frigid park outside my window. It will be here soon enough.

Assessing Brad Ausmus, Baseball Manager

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

If this blog was part of the criminal justice system, I probably wouldn’t get picked for Brad Ausmus’ jury trial. You might think that’s because of my vocal criticism of his first year, but it’s actually because demographically, he and I are too similar. If you drew Venn Diagrams of handsome*, Jewish, former catchers, he and I would be standing right next to each other.

*-What? My wife and mother think I’m handsome. Shut up, there’s no need for name calling.

I point that out because I want to make it clear that I went into the 2014 season with high hopes for Ausmus and I really wanted him to succeed. After his introduction last winter, I spoke very highly of him in several separate posts, praising him for the way he seemed to embrace modern thinking while crushing it up and hiding it in the proverbial pudding. He brought Jeff Jones back. He brought in Matt Martin to be the defensive coordinator. He talked about the need to bring in modern analysis, but with a presentation style that made it easier for players to understand.

Check. Check. Check.

There was a lot of optimism on my part, which I remind you of because I want to point out that I am 1) only sometimes right and 2) not out to get him. I was buying what he was selling, and it started out nicely. The team performed well early, and while everything was clicking, he was taking a hands-off approach that kept the clubhouse loose and the bunts to a minimum. After a month or so, I thought we had found our man.

But things started to turn for Ausmus as we careened toward summer. The team stumbled, culminating in his poorly executed, and inappropriate joke about beating his wife to handle the poor play on the field. It was a stupid moment, and to his credit, as soon as it came out of his mouth, he knew it and did everything a person should do in a situation like that. But for our purposes here, Paul Wezner from TigsTown made the relevant point. Paul pointed out how the “joke” fiasco was an indication that Ausmus was coming undone a bit. The normally deadpan, buttoned down boss was cracking.

His team was facing adversity. A baseball team that’s rolling doesn’t need a manager. One that’s struggling does. How he handled the remaining months would tell the tale, and I don’t think he handled himself very well at all.

But let’s step back for a moment. Let me make a few additional things clear. Actually measuring and assessing a manager from the outside is extremely difficult. I’m not going to be able to put a definitive number on anything. If I had to guess, I’d say Ausmus’ managing cost the team about five wins during the season relative to the average manager. It’s a rough estimation, I admit, but we just don’t have the information to know which pitchers he used because he wanted to and which he used because one of his guys needed a day off. We don’t know who had the flu and whose wrist was kind of sore.

There’s missing information, and this is a site that likes to deal in facts. We’re not going to be able to do that perfectly here and we’re all just going to have to be okay with it. There’s something worth saying, even if there’s a limitation on how confident we can be.

I should also mention that it’s possible for a person to become a better manager over time. I think Ausmus was bad in 2014, but that doesn’t mean he’s doomed to live at that level forever. Maybe he will, maybe he won’t. But it’s possible to improve and it’s possible that the transaction cost of replacing a manager is high enough to give him another year.

So if you get to the end of this discussion and want to comment or post on Twitter, remember I said all of those things. I didn’t have it out for him, managing is hard to measure, and I think people can get better. Put all of that in a box to the left side of your screen and hold onto it because it’s about to get combative.

Since I’m already 700 words in and haven’t said anything, I’m going to critique Ausmus by telling you the story of his first season through the lens of five players.

1. Joakim Soria

The problem isn’t that Joe Nathan sucked. Maybe we should have seen a decline coming, but no one was out there predicting that Joe Nathan would be horrible. There’s nothing Brad Ausmus or Earl Weaver could have done to avoid that disaster. But Ausmus responded to the Nathan crisis in a way that demonstrated his flaws.

When a player struggles, plenty of managers make a point to show support in order to maintain their confidence. It’s a classic leadership move. But as Nathan continued to struggle and the Tigers continued to lose close games because Nathan had nothing in the tank, Ausmus refused to go to anyone else as the closer because Nathan was a “proven closer” and he didn’t have another one of those.

This is an obvious strike against Ausmus, but lots of managers do stuff like this and a rookie manager might not want to push the limits of bullpen usage for fear of calling attention to himself. But then this weird thing happened and the Tigers traded Jake Thompson and Corey Knebel for Joakim Soria. Ausmus finally had another proven closer to use in place of Nathan!

Naturally, he called on Soria to be the relief ace and all was right!

Nope. He hardly ever used Soria and on multiple occasions he demonstrated that he only wanted to use Soria in the 7th inning, saving Joba and Nathan for 8/9, and continued to manage to the save stat for Joe Nathan. Now perhaps Ausmus knew that Soria wasn’t in position to pitch well, but it would be an awfully big shock if the Tigers traded for a pitcher, dealing two of their best prospects, for a pitcher who they didn’t think was very good.

What probably happened was that Ausmus didn’t know Soria and he decided he was comfortable with his 8/9 guys even though he just got handed a better pitcher. Unwillingness to adapt will kill you in a game like this.

2. Anibal Sanchez

There was no excuse for the way Ausmus played his Anibal Sanchez card in October. You might want to defend him and say that Sanchez was pushed to his limit at 35 pitches, but you’d be wrong, because it was Ausmus who refused to use Sanchez in the final weeks of the regular season to stretch him out for just such an appearance.

It’s one thing to be worried about Sanchez’s arm, it’s another thing to have failed to prepare for such an obvious situation. Sanchez was his best arm in the pen, and it was obvious from the day we heard he’d be back in September. Ausmus kicked this one by failing to think ahead and failing a test of imagination.

3. James McCann

This drove me crazy. I won’t hold back. Ausmus wouldn’t use McCann in September because McCann didn’t know the pitching staff and it wouldn’t be fair to put him in a big game with an unfamiliar pitcher. This is another thing that sounds kind of reasonable at first, but when you think about it, it’s plain silly.

Ausmus knows more about catching than I do. I’ll admit as much. But McCann was his best bet against left-handed pitching and he wouldn’t use him out of fear that McCann wouldn’t be able to properly manage the pitching staff. Which is weird, because McCann has a fine reputation as a receiver and it’s his job to go to meetings and game plan how they’re going to attack hitters.

Ausmus also had the option of calling pitches from the bench, or having Avila or Holaday do the same. McCann was more than capable of doing his job, and even if he wasn’t, Ausmus’ concern was about his game calling, and that’s something you can easily work around. There was just no logic to it at all.

4. Nick Castellanos

This is the easiest one to forgive, but I wanted to bring it up anyway. During the season, when asked about Castellanos’ defense, Ausmus made a comment to the effect of “Nick might not have great range, but he’s making the plays he gets to.”

Except that’s factually wrong. Castellanos made a ton of misplays on balls hit right at him. I’ve been pretty clear on the fact that I do think Nick can get better at third, but as a point of fact, he was lousy in 2014.

I don’t mind a manager throwing some cover for his guy. That’s a manager thing to do. But when he chose to give an answer, he gave an incorrect assessment of his player. He was just wrong about Castellanos’ ability to make plays on balls hit near him.

This ones a little fuzzy, but in the context of the rest of evidence against him, this stands out to me. I can forgive the bunting and the bullpen roles, but you have to know your players and their abilities or you’re going nowhere.

5. Ezequiel Carrera

This is the big one. The story of Brad Ausmus’ 2014 season was Carrera and it wasn’t pretty. You can’t blame Ausmus for Carrera’s spot on the roster. Dombrowski builds the club and Ausmus got dealt Carrera. That’s just a thing you live with.

But let’s turn around and evaluate how Carrera was used by his manager. For one, he hit in the top two spots in the order seven times despite being very bad at hitting. He was also used as a pinch hitter six more times, which…well, same.

But it came down to a single moment. We can sum up Brad Ausmus as a manager with the game that happened on September 2. The Tigers won 4-2 against the Indians, which sounds great, but it was one of those games where the team just happened to win despite their manager’s best efforts.

The Tigers trailed 2-1 entering the 8th inning. Bryan Shaw was on the mound for the Indians and Suarez was due up. Given the situation, pinch hitting with a lefty made sense. Ausmus had Tyler Collins and he had Steven Moya as lefty pinch hit options. If you’re thinking about a guy who can spray it around, Collins. If you want the bomb, Moya. Easy enough, right?

No. Apparently not because Ausmus went with Carrera!

His explanation was that he wanted someone who could steal a base if he got on base. Which makes your head explode every time you hear it because 1) Carrera can’t get on base and 2) He could have pinch run for anyone who reached base.

But listen, mistakes happen and sometimes you just say something to answer a question if you don’t believe it. And you almost want to forgive him until Miguel Cabrera singles during the next inning and Ausmus uses Moya to pinch run!

Think about that. He had two choices. One where he needed a hitter and one where he needed a runner. He had two players, Carrera and Moya. He somehow managed to decide that Moya belonged in the running situation and Carrera and the hitting one!

If not for that glorious human being, JD Martinez, the Tigers would have lost this game, in large part due to the craziest thing I’ve seen a manager do in quite some time.

It’s one thing to use Carrera too much because you think he’s a good defender (he’s not), but it’s another to use him as a pinch hitter when you have a pinch running need coming in the next inning that you know you’re going to need (Cabrera was lumbering badly at the time).

*****

So here’s the bottom line. After all the hype, Ausmus loves bullpen roles and he loves bunting. He over-managed and didn’t have good answers for questions. It was a bad showing, but when it really came down to it, what eats me up was that he didn’t know his players and he didn’t plan ahead.

Ausmus never seemed to be prepared for his first move to fail and he was frequently caught without a reliever warming up while another was melting down. He put bad hitters into big spots and didn’t really figure out who his good pitchers or defenders were at any point.

Managing is tough and evaluating them is a challenge, but everything I saw from Ausmus in 2014 indicated that he was in way over his head and seemed too stubborn to change. Hopefully that’s not the case.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention two things Ausmus did in 2014 that I liked. First, he didn’t announce which relievers were available before the game. That’s good strategy and he stuck to it to keep the other manager from getting an edge. Second, even though he used his bench poorly, he did use it. He didn’t save players for emergencies, he put them in the game if he thought they could help.

So as pitchers and catchers report, the Tigers have plenty of things to resolve. The manager isn’t the most important issue, but it’s the issue that should be the easiest to fix. The Tigers brass needs to get into his ear and resolve some of the bigger gaps in his decision making.

The Tigers like sluggers and hard throwing relievers. Ausmus can’t fix the roster, but he’s got to be smart enough to identify the good relievers and the bad hitters he has in his care. You can’t win the World Series with the Bad News Bears, but that’s not an excuse to put the worse player at shortstop. Ausmus probably wasn’t the reason the Tigers exited after three ALDS games, but he didn’t help them exceed their abilities. And there’s no point in sticking with a manager just because he didn’t ruin the team. The bar should be higher for a team with a $170 million payroll. If Ausmus doesn’t show progress, there’s no reason for him to stay.

I doubt it will happen, but if he doesn’t demonstrate improvements by the All-Star Break, he shouldn’t be at the helm when the pennant chase comes. Would the Tigers do that? Unlikely, but this is a job that would attract a lot of talent and the team shouldn’t settle.

Should The Tigers Extend Yoenis Cespedes?

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

With James Shields off the board, the baseball offseason is essentially over. Pitchers and catchers will show up next week and split squad games won’t be far behind. But before things get into full swing, teams are going to start to look at which of their players they want to lock up long term. Two years ago, the Tigers extended Verlander. A year ago, it was Cabrera. This year, they have a shot to deal with David Price, as we discussed recently, but they might also consider soon to be free agent, Yoenis Cespedes.

Much like previous posts of this nature, we’re going to try to estimate Cespedes’ free agent earnings next winter and then decide if the Tigers should consider paying that price. Keep in mind that Cespedes is ineligible for the qualifying offer, so draft pick compensation is off the table no matter what. This year will be his age 29 season, so you’re buying ages 30+ if you’re offering a deal.

Let’s try to get out bearings a little bit. Nelson Cruz just got 4 years and $58 million going into his age 35 season and his three season platform was worse than Cespedes’ last three years. Let’s assume Cespedes nails down about 3 WAR for the 2015 season, which would leave him well ahead of Cruz.

Pablo Sandoval hit free agency two years younger than Cespedes will, but there’s some similarities in their overall value heading into the payday winter. Sandoval had two 5 WAR seasons prior, however, so it’s not a perfect comparison. He got 5/$95MM.

It probably makes sense that Cespedes will get at least four years and it’s hard to imagine him not getting five. The cut point is probably five to six seasons and the $15 million to $20 million range seems about right. He’s a good defender with some real power, but it’s not like he’s an elite offensive performer. He’ll get the name recognition bump and a little love for RIGHT HANDED POWER, but he’s not going to get Robinson Cano money.

5 years, $95 million? 6 years, $115 million? I think that’s the neighborhood based on recent history. There’s really no way he gets less than Cruz and with another nice year he might wind up in the Sandoval range.

The Tigers don’t have any obvious outfield help blocking Cespedes’ return. JD Martinez’s future is a little uncertain, but even then, Derek Hill is a long way off and Steven Moya isn’t exactly a sure thing either. There’s plenty of room for Cespedes if the Tigers determine that they’re fond of him.

So let’s say that Cespedes will give the Tigers a break a roll his 2015 salary into an extension, leaving them only on the hook for 4/$85 million from 2016-2019. Does that make sense? For $85 million, you’d like to see something like 12 WAR over the life of the deal. That’s three wins per season, which would require a pretty slow decline. It’s plausible, even if you might not call it the likeliest outcome.

But let’s say the Tigers can afford to pay, and are motivated to pay slightly above market rate. Instead of $7.5M/WAR, let’s say they’ll pay $9 million per win. If that’s the case, you just need 9-10 WAR, and that’s a more reasonable projection given normal aging patterns. This assumes Cespedes will sign a deal of that magnitude rather than playing the field and looking for a big spending who digs his power.

The Tigers extended Cabrera back in 2008 before ever seeing him wear the uniform, but the difference between Cabrera and Cespedes is pretty significant. The Tigers pay for stars, but they also really like paying for their stars. Cespedes might not qualify and probably doesn’t have a lot of incentive to sign for below market rate. He’ll have made more than $30 million by the time he hits the market and doesn’t need the security of a big deal right now. Unlike a starting pitcher, the odds of a career altering injury are relatively low for Cespedes and he might try to nab $120 million or so next winter if he socks 35 dingers in the D.

So this becomes a bit of a guessing game. How much of a gambler is the Tigers’ new left fielder? We know that Scherzer made a smart bet on himself and that the Tigers made a bad one on Verlander and Cabrera (financially). While I recommended they extend Price, I think I’m going to come down against ponying up for Cespedes just yet. He’s a quality player, but he’s the kind of guy you can replace for less because he has sexy skills.

It wouldn’t be a disaster to sign Cespedes this month, but I don’t think waiting until next offseason costs them enough to shoulder all of the risk right now.

Tigers Fans Tear Collective Meniscus

Clip art illustration of a Cartoon Tiger with a Missing Tooth

 

If 2pm wasn’t hard enough on a Thursday, today we learned that Tigers DH Victor Martinez is going to need surgery to repair a torn left meniscus, the same meniscus that he tore before the 2012 season in conjunction with his ACL. Even if the tear is bad this time around, it’s still a much less serious injury if you’re looking for comfort.

As far as the product on the field, the question isn’t really if the Tigers can replace Martinez. They can’t. There’s no one in the organization who can match Martinez, but realistically speaking Martinez is probably going to miss a month or so of real, live baseball. At the top end, he’s a 4 win player and that means we’re talking about less than a win lost over the course of a month. Obviously a blow, but it’s not like learning Cabrera is out for the season.

There are three additional points worth making regarding this injury. First, remember this moment the next time you want the club to sign an aging star to an expensive contract. I was fine with the contract, but the idea that a proven player is a sure thing is just dead wrong. Martinez is as steady a hitter as they come, but an old player getting hurt and missing time isn’t news.

Second, this is why I’m always lamenting the Tigers’ allergy to depth. No team would be in good shape with injuries to Cabrera/Martinez type players, but it would be a lot better if their the fill in options weren’t Hessman or Lennerton. If you’re a team that loves expensive, aging players, it’s probably a good idea to stock up on bench options.

Finally, the real kicker here isn’t the time lost. The concern is how this recovery will affect him for the next year and the three years after that. Martinez took a long time to get himself straightened out after his last injury and you worry that you’ll lose him for a month but he won’t be himself for a few more. Martinez is young by normal human being standards, but for a ballplayer, he’s in his golden years.

The Tigers are a diminished team without Martinez playing from a less impressive deck than they have been in recent years. There are good players on the team and fun players on the team, but they’re in that window where little problems like a few weeks without Martinez wind up making Progressive Field and October destination.

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