The Detroit sports scene has typically been blessed with favorable GMs (general managers). Well, except for the Lions… sort of. And the Pistons, sometimes. I don’t really follow the Pistons, though; I just know that Joe Dumars went from hero to villain pretty quick during his tenure as GM. The Lions, well, it’s hit-and-miss. But the Tigers and Red Wings, recently, have been consistently excellent under the tenures of Dave Dombrowski and Ken Holland, respectively.
Holland’s only misstep lately was a 5-year signing of injury-prone, largely unproven Stephen Weiss, who is making $4.9M per year. That said, in the space of one injury-riddled year for the Wings, Weiss has become the odd-man out. He missed most of the year due to a sports hernia and the resultant rehab; in that time, Riley Sheahan and Luke Glendening emerged as NHL-ready centers. Sheahan has size, a good shot, and incredible passing skills; he’s probably a better player than Stephen Weiss, even this early in his development, and makes more sense centering the 2nd line going forward, especially if he continues to center the “Kid Line” with guys he’s played with for years in the minors, as well. Glendening only recently notched his first goal (it took 51 games), but he’s shown great development over the season. A temporary call-up, he leveraged his size, fearlessness, and skating ability into an everyday role as the 4th-line center and on the penalty kill. He’s essentially the ideal 4th-line center, a guy who can grind with the best of them and still be a danger to score; in fact, his line performs so well, that Coach Babcock has been intentionally matching them up with the other team’s best line on occasion. As for the other two lines, the top line is centered by Pavel Datsyuk, of course. The third line is typically centered by Darren Helm, who has blazing speed, tenacity, and is another top penalty killer. I’m not sure where the Wings fit Weiss in next season when he returns; however, the recent youth movement has suddenly made him the odd-man out. It should also be of note that the Red Wings have ridiculous depth at center beyond that: Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Joakim Andersson can also all play center as necessary.
Other than that, the Wings are in an excellent place – they have a great deal of young talent suddenly, in the same year as several contracts are set to expire. Mikael Samuelsson ($3M), Todd Bertuzzi ($2.075M), Daniel Alfredsson ($3.5M), David Legwand ($4.5M) and Danny Cleary ($1.75M) are all unrestricted free agents. The Wings could potentially re-sign Alfie, but there’s really no room for any of these guys – Samuelsson and Clearly have spent most the year injured, and Bertuzzi has been a regular healthy scratch of late. The Wings look to clear almost $15M off the books and see the cap expand by $4M or so next season. That money will likely be spent on locking up their future – both Danny DeKeyser, Riley Sheahan, and Tomas Tatar are restricted free agents, and all three look poised to be cornerstones of the Red Wings’ future. Gustav Nyquist, another young force, is signed for next year, but the Red Wings might look at locking him up, as well. Those four – Sheahan, Nyquist, Tatar, and DeKeyser are the next generation. Their emergence this season is testament to the scouting and youth development of the Red Wings.
So let’s move on to the actual point of this post, which is to explore the odd offseason of Dave Dombrowski and the Detroit Tigers. For one, note that the Tigers made a pretty significant shift in philosophy with Jim Leyland retiring and Brad Ausmus taking over; the Ausmus Tigers are looking to be a quicker team with better base-running. As such, Dombrowski managed to alleviate the major cramp in Leyland’s team last year – he traded Prince Fielder for Ian Kinsler. This was multi-level move that worked for the Tigers; on paper, the trifecta of Cabrera/Fielder/V-Mart looks really good, until you realize that it locks the 1B/3B/DH positions in stone. Leyland’s lack of lineup flexibility, especially with an injured Cabrera last season, was a major problem. Ausmus doesn’t have that problem; with Fielder gone, Cabrera takes over 1B, and he can always flip-flop with V-Mart as necessary. Kinsler is an upgrade over Omar Infante at 2B; nothing against Omar, who is a household favorite here, but he’s basically a hit-for-average guy and not do much else – a guy who hits .300/10HR/10SB has value, but Kinsler’s upside is simply higher, and it let them jettison Fielder and his massive contract. To be fair, the just took those savings and lavished them on Cabrera with an even more massive contract, but that was just as inevitable as Joe Mauer’s ridiculous Twins contract a couple years back.
No, I have no issues with Dombrowski’s Fielder move or any other position player moves (even the ridiculous shortstop scrambling after Jose Iglesias was lost for the year). No, I’m concerned and confused by the bullpen.
Going into the offseason, two mutually exclusive facts seemed to be true: first, the Tigers’ major weakness was the bullpen; and second, Smyly was due to get his shot starting. Smyly starting makes some sense; he’s a good pitcher with good starter-quality stuff, and he’d paid his dues – two years in the bullpen, largely due to the economics and other situational factors. However, Smyly was essentially our best reliever last season, and there was no burning need in the rotation to move anyone. Sure, Scherzer might walk in free agency, but if he did, that would get Smyly his spot, while holding him in the ‘pen for another year while we patch it up. Honestly, Smyly could have been a candidate to close after Benoit left.
Instead, Dombrowski traded the perennially underrated Doug Fister (another household favorite) to the Nationals for Robbie Ray (a lefty starter prospect), Ian Krol (a young lefty reliever), and Steve Lombardozzi (a utility infielder). This was seen partly as a salary cap move, to clear some room to – people thought – bolster the bullpen. The Krol acquisition is part of that; he’s a lefty arm that replaces Smyly in the ‘pen, since this move put Smyly back in the starting rotation. But make no mistake – this move happened with the knowledge that Smyly was our best reliever last season, that our closer left as a free agent, and that Scherzer (based on things he’d said and the history of Scott Boras) was likely to test free agency next season. The Tigers took what was left of their play money and signed two men – closer Joe Nathan and reliever Joba Chamberlain.
Joe Nathan has been an elite closer in his career. He’s been especially elite against the Tigers. His career numbers include 341 saves, a 2.77 ERA, a 1.10 WHIP, and a nearly 3:1 K:BB ratio. However, he’s 39. His physical skills – velocity, for example – have been on the decline. That didn’t stop the Tigers from giving him $10M, with a $10M option for next year. Chamberlain got a 1-year, $2.5M deal; Chamberlain’s claim to fame was that he was a top prospect once, who got largely mismanaged by the Yankees due to injury. His career numbers include a 2.5:1 K:BB ratio, a 3.87 ERA, and a 1.39 WHIP. Honestly, I don’t mind the Chamberlain signing so much – his velocity is also down, but he’s seen as a potential reclamation project; it’s entirely feasible that he’ll thrive in a new setting and away from the shorter outfields of Yankee Stadium. However, with the relative lack of depth in the bullpen, it puts Chamberlain in a higher leverage situation than he really should be.
Along with these moves, the Tigers declined a $3.75M club option on Jose Veras, who pitched quite respectably as a Tiger last season. Veras owned a 3.02 ERA and 1.07 WHIP with the Astros and Tigers last year; his career marks stand at 3.86 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. He’s not a flamethrower or a sure-fire closer, but he is a veteran pitcher with proven experience as a closer. For whatever reason, the Tigers decided he wasn’t worth keeping around.
What bothered me about these moves was the desperation behind them; the Tigers, as they did in the past with Jose Valverde, seemed locked into the idea of having a “proven closer.” As a result, they reached and overpaid for Joe Nathan, at the expense of the bullpen as a whole. The relief pitching market wasn’t thin this season; had the Tigers had the gusto to put the closer position up for grabs, they could have filled out their bullpen with quality names instead of blowing a large chunk of payroll on one player, then making a speculative signing on Joba Chamberlain.
So we have $12.5M to play with, let’s pretend. But! Let’s also pretend that we didn’t trade Doug Fister, so we’ll take… oh, let’s say $2.5M off of that. What are we doing with it? First up, I’m exercising the club option on Jose Veras for $3.75M. Okay. $6.25M left. Let’s get some lefty depth. Since Smyly’s still in the pen, I venture after Manny Parra. Parra had a poor 2012 after missing 2011 due to injury; he bounced back in Cincinnati in 2013 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.20 WHIP. The Reds didn’t extend a qualifying offer to him, so he hit free agency. He ended up re-signed on a one-year, $1M contract. Let’s give him $1.5M to come to us. $4.75 left. I want more insurance for the unsettled closer position, so rather than let him go back to Milwaukee, we’re going to offer $3.75M to Francisco Rodriguez, who had an excellent 2013 in a set-up role. That leaves us with $1M or so left in budget, which we’ll just consider to be net savings, or leave to be spent on prospects. The only other move I’d make, and I would push for this one, would be to acquire Luke Gregerson from San Diego, since he was on the block. Let’s pretend we trade Andy Dirks and a minor league player-to-be-named later for him, which seems reasonable since San Diego got Seth Smith. At any rate, believe that if I’m the GM and I know Gregerson is on the market, I’m getting him; the Tigers have minor-league OF depth to offset a Dirks trade. If this trade isn’t possible, it’s no worry; the bullpen is still suddenly much deeper than it was, and the open bullpen positions can be staffed by young guys like Evan Reed or Luke Putkonen.
These changes leave us with last year’s starting rotation – Verlander/Scherzer/Sanchez/Fister/Porcello, with the likely outcome of Scherzer walking in free agency (or being trade bait mid-season, even if we’re winning!), with a bullpen of Smyly/Veras/Alburquerque/K-Rod/Coke/Parra/Gregerson/Reed/Putkonen. This results in a deep bullpen mixed with younger guys and veterans, with room for any of Smyly/Veras/K-Rod/Gregerson to complete for the closer job, and the losers to be relegated to very reliable set-up duty. It’s also deep enough that if the Tigers did opt to trade a starter at the deadline, Smyly could step out of the ‘pen without leaving a gaping hole.
I’m no professional, and obviously, I curtail all of the realities of GMing in this exploration, but I’ve watched enough baseball over the last couple years to realize that a deep bullpen is critical to winning. Both Boston and St. Louis had formidable bullpens with no obvious weaknesses last year; by contrast, the Tigers spoiled incredible starting pitching with dubious relief work. That bullpen is no better today; I’d argue it’s worse. If the Tigers are on the outside looking in come October, I doubt anyone will have to look further than the bullpen to know why.