Commentary

Pitching, defense among Tigers' chief concerns

Originally Published: November 6, 2008
By Jonah Keri | Special to ESPN.com

The plan was to build an offense for the ages, one that could score 1,000 runs and run roughshod over the American League. Instead, the Tigers missed that mark by 179, while allowing more runs than all but two AL teams. The result was a disastrous 74-88 finish, good for last place in the AL Central.

DETROIT TIGERS
GM: Dave Dombrowski
Manager: Jim Leyland
'08 record: 74-88, 5th in AL Central
Detroit Tigers '08 payroll: $137.2M, 3rd MLB
Runs scored: 821, 4th AL
Runs allowed: 857, 3rd AL
OPS: .784, 3rd AL
ERA: 4.90, 12th AL
Fielding percentage: .981, 13th AL

Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez and Curtis Granderson led an offense that got disappointing performances from Brandon Inge and fading former stars Edgar Renteria and Gary Sheffield. Justin Verlander went from ace to No. 3 starter, while everyone else in the rotation aside from rookie Armando Galarraga was either injured, ineffective, or both.

Primary needs

As much run prevention as they can muster, which means not only pitching upgrades but also much better defense. The Tigers ranked 24th in MLB in defensive efficiency -- the percentage of balls in play caught by a defense -- after ranking 12th in that department in 2007. Manager Jim Leyland played musical chairs with Carlos Guillen and Cabrera, making life even tougher for two already suspect defenders. Other than Granderson, the Tigers' other starters were all butchers, with Inge's promotion to the everyday lineup at least helping a bit.

Aside from a younger, more athletic band of glove men, the Tigers need about a half-dozen new pitchers. Verlander and Galarraga figure to anchor a rotation that's woefully shorthanded, with lefties Dontrelle Willis, Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson turning into pumpkins and Jeremy Bonderman now more of a perennial injury risk than a future frontline starter. The bullpen is no better, with Todd Jones retired, Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney fighting to regain their lost command, and journeyman Aquilino Lopez the best of the 2008 bunch.

Free agents

SS Edgar Renteria, C Vance Wilson, RHP Kyle Farnsworth, RHP Freddy Garcia, LHP Casey Fossum, LHP Kenny Rogers

The Tigers chose to pay Renteria $3 million to go away instead of paying him $12 million to try to replicate his awful .270/.317/.382 season. With Wilson and Pudge Rodriguez gone, the Tigers will search for starters at two up-the-middle positions. Farnsworth and Fossum won't be missed, while Rogers has says he'll pitch for the Tigers only if he opts to put off retirement for one more year.

Trade bait

Maybe a couple of outfielders, and that's being generous. Leyland's announcement that he'll move Guillen to left field next season (his fourth position since 2007) makes all-or-nothing slugger Marcus Thames and 2008 surprise rookie Matt Joyce expendable. At best, Thames might fetch a serviceable reliever or a back-of-the-rotation starter.

Farm aid

There's Rick Porcello and then there's everyone else. The Tigers' top pick in 2007, Porcello is a former high school phenom with the kind of repertoire to hint at future ace potential. He also finished last season at Single-A, meaning Tigers fans might have to wait until 2010 before they get to see the future of the franchise. Outfielder Wilkin Ramirez played Double-A most of last season as a 22-year-old (.303 average/.371 OBP/.522 slugging), but he plays one of the few positions where the Tigers have some depth; ditto for first baseman Jeff Larish. Ryan Perry is a promising pitching prospect who is a couple of years away.

Outlook

Any team that starts with a young core of Cabrera, Granderson and Verlander can't be all bad. But the Tigers find themselves in an uncomfortable position: trailing the White Sox in overall talent and looking up at the Twins, Indians and Royals, who have younger rosters.

The Tigers' $137 million payroll ranked third in the majors in 2008. They'll face a tough choice for next season: Double down by going after mega-priced free agents like CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, or scale back costs and try to bring in younger players to augment the team's core. Most likely, they'll try to do a little of both.

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him at jonahkeri@gmail.com.

Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available for preorder.