The Hot Corner: Are the Lions for Real? And a bit on V-Mart and AP…

I promised it last week – we’re looking at the Detroit Lions today, and I’m damn happy to be doing it after their win over Miami.

Football’s a strange, fickle thing.  All sports are, really.  You go into the season, every team down on paper looking great or not great, and conclusions are drawn.  Then a funny thing happens – they actually start playing games.  Sometimes those prognostications turn out… sometimes they don’t.

The Lions have looked good on paper for awhile.  Every year for at least four years has been a year of hope for a beleaguered fanbase hungry for… anything.  Success came in 2012 with a playoff appearance, albeit a mercilessly short one.  But that was a young team, still only 4 years removed from the NFL’s only 0-16 season; the loss was expected, a growing pain before better things came along.  But those better things didn’t come along.  Instead, the team became aggressive and undisciplined, perfectly reflecting a coach who (I believe) preached those things behind closed doors.  Jim Schwartz wasn’t a bad coach; he was the absolute right coach for the 0-16 Lions.  But he was not the guy to take them to the playoff promised land.

I didn’t like the Caldwell hire.  I still don’t.  I think Caldwell is fatally bland in his style in a league that rewards a certain amount of moxie.  Caldwell, however, brought in two very worthy up-and-comers to be his coordinators, and they’ve done wonders.  Teryl Austin, the defensive coordinator, in particular, should receive praise upon adulation upon praise this offseason if the Lions continue to do so well.  Joe Lombardi, the offensive coordinator… well, the jury’s still out there.  The offense has been up-and-down, and the players (especially Stafford) still look like they’re adapting to the scheme change.  And, of course, the Lions haven’t fielded a fully healthy offense since Week 1 or 2.

That last part, in particular, gives me an insane amount of hope.  You see, I’ve thrown caution to the wind – I’m drinking the Honolulu Blue & Silver Kool-Aid.  I’m gulping it this year.  Because the Lions look exactly like a Super Bowl winner right now.  Go back through the last several winners – none of them were flawless midseason teams (sorry Denver).  They all looked good, though – but they all needed to take one more step, to find their groove.  This Lions team is 7-2 and has yet to find their groove.  Sure, they’re spot-on defensively, but they have an offense capable of putting up big points that has underperformed so far.  No one’s looking at them yet and realizing that if the offense starts to really click, this team becomes an immediate juggernaut.  Not only that, but this team looks mentally poised for it – they’re all hungry; they’re tired of being doormats, tired of the losing.  They’re excited.  They’re amped.  They don’t seem to think they deserve to win; but they do expect to win.  This is a huge mental leap, and it’s where this season’s luck is going to play huge – they know they can win in the last two minutes when they have a chance to.  Sure, they’ve gotten lucky – but guess what?  All good teams, all Super Bowl winners, snake a few lucky victories in the season – and they learn from them, get an edge from them.

The next three games are big for the Lions.  The Cardinals in Arizona, then the Patriots in Foxboro, then the Bears for Thanksgiving on a short week.  The Arizona game in particular looms large – it’s the meeting of the NFC’s surprise #1 and #2 teams; the winner of that game makes a statement and takes firm hold on the conference 1-seed.  Playing the Brady-led Patriots at Foxboro, well, that’s always a measuring stick of a game.  And Thanksgiving… well, it’s our annual Super Bowl Substitute.  It’s a big game for the fans.  If the Lions can come out of that stretch 2-1 – for a season line of 9-3 – they’ll be golden, with their final four games (not necessarily in this order) against Tampa Bay, Chicago, Minnesota, and Green Bay.  The hope is that the Week 17 matchup in Lambeau will be meaningless for playoff seeding (and that we’ll win anyway).

But make no mistake – this looks like an ascendant Lions team, their flaws aside.  And what flaws I’m seeing, besides the logic-defying kicking problems, seem limited to adjusting to a new scheme and getting everyone healthy.  These early season injuries, though?  The Lions are winning in spite of them, and better now than later – they could field an entirely healthy team in January, and if they do, and if that scheme has settled in and Prater is hitting FGs… well, this team could go all the way.  I’ve never said that about the Lions and felt completely confident about it, but I am now – this is a team that looks like a legitimate Super Bowl contender, and I’m all in.

So, Victor Martinez re-signed with the Tigers.  Who knew?  I wasn’t expecting that.  I guess he must like the team; he is one of the big clubhouse leaders, to be sure.  And the money’s big.  But still, I feel like other teams pursuing him might be better long-term World Series contenders than the Tigers are.  But if the Tigers can add a couple more guys and solidify things, they can still make a good run in 2015.  But we said that about 2014, too, and that didn’t happen.  Still, the re-addition of V-Mart is a huge boost to the lineup and Cabrera in particular, as even if Victor’s numbers return to reality, he remains a potent .300/.300 switch hitter who’ll ensure Miggy sees good pitches.

I have to think they’ll go get Torii Hunter back now.  Even at $5M for one year, it just makes sense if they’re going to make another hard push in 2015.  The outfield prospects aren’t ready yet, and the market isn’t great.  Pick up Torii for another year and give Collins and Moya both a chance to prove themselves or platoon with him.

So this Adrian Peterson seems to be coming to a finale.  What a frustrating thing.  I mean, as a Lions fan, not seeing AP in the Vikings’ backfield is great.  But from a sheer reality perspective, I’m still stunned at what a mess this became.  Part of it was the timing with the Ray Rice incident, and part of it is Minnesotan sensibilities, too, but still.  I feel bad for the guy; he switched his kid and ended up in a mess.  He didn’t know better; it seemed clear that it was how he was raised, and what was expected from a father.  I thought it was a great opportunity for education and tolerance, but things swung the other way.  I just can’t help but think “hey, how is he supposed to know better if no one ever taught him”?  It’s a lot like the Michael Vick situation, in that Vick was only doing what he thought was perfectly normal and acceptable.  Outside of his community, it wasn’t; but he had no way of knowing that, just as AP had no way of knowing.  I doubt Chris Spielman or Leslie Frazier was sitting AP down for parenting lessons.  But maybe they should have been, and I wish the NFL and the Vikings had decided to do that as their course of action.

Now we have an awkward waiting period, as the league is going to decide on AP’s fate now that he pled out to a misdemeanor charge.  That’s pretty bogus, especially since they’re pushing it back to after this weekend.  Why not now?  I’ll tell you why – because I don’t think the Vikings want to face the PR of having to choose to play him or not.  The players and fans will welcome him back, I think, but the organization seems done with him.  They have a pretty nice built-in low cap hit if they cut him this offseason; even without this child abuse scandal, it seemed a very possible course of action, especially after drafting McKinnon.  Now?  It seems all but assured.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the Wylfs are whispering in Goodell’s ear right now, telling him to draw this out, to make sure they don’t have to face that choice.  They’d rather him rot on the commissioner’s exempt list rather than risk him playing and rushing his way back into the hearts of fans, then facing the PR flak of cutting him.  As it stands, if he doesn’t play again this year, I don’t think there’ll be much reaction to cutting him in the offseason.  He’ll just be looked at as another Randy Moss-ish figure in Minnesota sports history; immensely talented, fun to watch, beloved, but misunderstood and departed too soon.

The Hot Corner: End of the Tigers / Start of the Red Wings

So, clearly, I’m not great at this blogging thing.  I try, and I fail, then I try again, and fail more.  Looks like we’re back in the try phase, so expect some failure ahead.  But who knows!  Maybe something surprising will happen.

That said, I’ve had a lot of change in my life over the past six months or so, and my changing tastes should reflect in this blog, if I manage to keep it going.  I’ll probably aim to run weekly posts by topic; The Hot Corner, for example, is sports-related.  Behind The Screen might be gaming/television/entertainment-related.  The World According to PW is, well, me on a soapbox.  I’ll figure it out as I go.

Anyway, in this edition of the Hot Corner, as I start my new categorization system in an attempt to get this going and just write more in general, we’re gonna talk hometown teams – my Tigers and my Red Wings, in particular.  I could get to the Lions, but they deserve their own post later, and I think who the Lions are will become clear after they play the Dolphins this week and the Cardinals next week.

So those Tigers.  Anyone who knows me knew that I had approximately zero confidence in them as a playoff team.  It just didn’t look good.  They looked like the weakest team on the slate, and indeed they were.  But I’m far more troubled about their future, which I think is arriving now.  The Tigers have been in the playoffs for four straight years, with the first three culminating in ALCS loss, World Series loss, and ALCS loss.  Like many MLB teams, the Tigers were in full win-now mode, mortgaging the future in order to get that ring.  The ring never came, and the future can only be held off for so long.  The Tigers’ farm system is largely barren, with their best prospects still being fringe Triple-A players after mashing in Double-A (Moya, for example).  Dave Schoenfield succinctly called them the ultimate “stars and scrubs” team last season, something that was true during their entire run, but really highlighted this year; he was dead on, and that issue looks to continue to get worse going forward.

The Tigers sit at a payroll of about $160M right now, today.  That’s not factoring in that their best pitcher – Max Scherzer – and best hitter – Victor Martinez – are departing free agents.  Neither guy seems likely to return; the Tigers look to lean on their well-paid but aging stars in Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera next year, as they will for the next decade, period.  The issue is going to be depth; the issue they’ve had all along.  The Tigers will trot out a reliable rotation of 4 guys next season (Verlander, Sanchez, Price, Porcello), but who fills that fifth spot looks bleak – will it be a bargain free agent add, or will they dive into the Triple-A ranks, perhaps hoping on Robbie Ray, the centerpiece of that terrible Doug Fister deal?  The lineup looks to be equally anemic – another year of Rajai Davis in center field seems likely, as there’s still no in-house center fielder in the organization with Austin Jackson’s departure in that equally terrible David Price deal; likewise, there aren’t any center fielders on the free agent market unless you want to overpay Colby Rasmus.  Alex Avila no longer seems like a reliable catcher; Detroit loves him, but his bat is streaky and he’s injury-prone.  Torii Hunter also left a free agent, leaving right field open; Andy Dirks is also gone.  Next year’s right fielder is a huge question mark, and are we really counting on J.D. Martinez to repeat his success next year?  Ian Kinsler will remain a solid 2B, and I feel confident in the development of Nick Castellanos at 3B… but this is not a lineup that screams horror to other teams anymore.  The Tigers’ stars are so well-paid that the team is ridiculously top-heavy, leaving little room for depth, let alone a full slate of above-average starters.  The only other team I can think of that went down this path was the late-00s Phillies… and they’re still clawing their way out of that hole.  Ugh.

So yes, I am a Tigers pessimist at this point.  They’re simply not good, and are unlikely to get better.  I admit, I would not be surprised if they only win 75 games next season and finish last in an AL Central that’s getting more competitive than people realize.

Let’s move onto brighter topics, then.  The Red Wings look good so far!  This isn’t a surprise here, but I saw a lot of Wings fans whining last season when they failed to land a high-priced right-handed defenseman in free agency.  No one really paid attention to the fact that the Wings don’t operate that way in the salary cap era, but whatever.

What the Red Wings do have is one of the best young cores in hockey, though.  The group of Gus Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Riley Sheahan, and Danny DeKeyser – among still others – is absolutely unparalleled in the NHL.  All four are continuing their strong play from last season, and look ready to be the next generation of Red Wing leaders.  I’m stoked.  They’re fun to watch, too.  On top of that, the veterans are playing well – Datsyuk looks like himself, and Zetterberg’s beard is as luxurious as ever.  All in all, the Wings look like the Wings – a reliably competent team that plays at a high level every night.  Sometimes puck luck goes their way; sometimes not.  But they did well in their early schedule – a 6-2-2 start is pretty promising.  If they can manage not to get ravaged by injuries for a third straight season, there’s no reason they can’t make a 24th straight playoff appearance and potentially run deep.

The Wings look set – as dynastic as ever.  I’ve said before, the Wings right now remind me of the ’01-’03 era Wings, just without the Cup (which they almost won in 2013, anyway, when they took the Blackhawks to 7 games).  I remember those years, 12 years ago, when Yzerman and Shanahan were on their way out, as the veterans made room for a new guard to flourish.  The same thing is happening now, as Zetterberg and Datsyuk are aging into grizzled veterans – they’re making room for the new guard, the homegrown kids who are going to keep the tradition alive and strong.  That playoff streak?  We’ll keep it going, and we’ll break Boston’s 30-straight.  I’m more certain of it now than I was five years ago when we lost the Cup to Pittsburgh.  This is the youngest the Red Wings have been in a decade, perhaps even since the early ’90s, and the youth they’re bringing up looks absolutely poised for success.

So I guess we take what we can get right now in Detroit.  Business as usual with the Red Wings, however transitional the team is right now, along with the unsurprising decline of the Tigers.  The Lions look promising, which is a nice surprise, too.  It’s not all bad.  We just gotta take what we can get sometimes, and enjoy what we’ve got.

If I were a GM…

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.

Prince Fielder’s Departure; By Dombrowski We Swear

Ken Holland of the Red Wings has been Detroit’s patron GM for awhile, but I think Dave Dombrowski has finally overtaken him. It’s a process that took time, since Holland was so masterful in building the Red Wings, and he may reclaim it as these young Red Wings mature, but for right now, I think it’s fair to say that Dombrowski has established himself as one of the craftiest GMs in all of baseball. Let’s forget the obvious stuff – the swindling he does at the trade deadline, fleecing Seattle for Doug Fister in 2011 and then Miami for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante in 2012. What he managed to do that’s set him apart now is that he managed to shed Prince Fielder in the offseason of 2013; beyond his other deals (besides acquiring Miguel Cabrera), this one will mark the franchise the most. We’ll look back in 2019 and shudder at what might have been.

I wrote a month ago about what I saw as the plight of the Tigers, that they were burdened by too many large contracts and it was likely to cost them some of their impending free agents, likely one of (if not both) Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera. I remarked at the more balanced budgets of St. Louis and Boston, and noted that balance might lead to championships more than star power. I noted that it seemed impossible for the Tigers to exist competitively down the road with both Cabrera and Fielder, and that the ideal situation might actually be to move Fielder, if possible. Clearly, this possibility gained traction within the Tigers’ organization after Fielder’s poorly timed bluntness about the ALCS loss. Detroit fans are a passionate bunch; that’s why we react positively to Torii Hunter’s boldness (even if he bats poorly) and negatively to Fielder’s nonchalance. There’s inherently wrong with what Fielder said; it’s totally realistic to take the loss in stride, to look forward to getting back to family. But it plays poorly with fans; with the loss still raw, it was a poor decision for Fielder to publicly voice how little it seemed to matter to him. When fans considered his poor postseason performance (dating back to 2012, also) and his mega-millions contract… it’s a bad combination.

The simple baseball reality was just as stark – Cabrera, injured or not, is a limited third baseman; Fielder, injured or not, is a limited first baseman. In an ideal world, Cabrera plays 1B and Fielder plays DH. But the Tigers currently employ Victor Martinez as DH, who makes up for a lack of power with remarkable consistency and tenacious at-bats. It should also be noted that the top prospect in the Tigers’ system, Nick Castellanos, is a third baseman. They’ve been working on converting him to left field, but suddenly, this move lets him play his natural position when he makes the big league. It also means that as Cabrera ages, assuming the Tigers retain him (which seems the obvious intent now), there’ll be no one to block a move to DH. Suddenly, the Tigers are looking like a more complete team, one that will be set up to age better, one that will have more defensive range in the field, and more flexibility in the batting lineup.

Piling on Prince is unfair, though. Prince Fielder is a good ball-player and has certainly played his heart out in a Tigers uniform at times. I think it’d be unfair if Tigers’ fans remember him for his poor choice of words, his playoff disappearance, and his epic belly flop after a terrible base-running decision. I think it should be noted that Prince Fielder’s poor offensive performance as a Tiger came after moving from the Brewers’ Miller Park – a very hitter-friendly park; Comerica Park does hitters no favors. In fact, one of the Detroit News writers speculated last season that Miguel Cabrera would hit anywhere from 5-10 more HRs per year had he gotten to play in Tiger Stadium instead of Comerica Park; this is conjecture, but I’m confident if someone did the math with Cabrera’s hit chart and Tiger Stadium’s dimensions, it would hold up. Likewise, Prince gets more traction in a hitter’s park; in fact, I bet he has a serious resurgence in Texas next season. The major difference between Cabrera and Fielder in their play at Comerica is that Miggy seems happy to take all of the doubles that Comerica affords him; Prince, on the other hand, can’t match Cabrera on the basepaths, and what power he loses in the spacious park simply relegates him to more singles. Maybe the pressure of Detroit was too much for him, too; Detroit forces the issue of his tenuous relationship with his father, a former Tiger, after all, and he had to play up to his contract. We can joke all we want about lamenting the misfortunes of millionaires, but I have no doubt some people just want to play ball, and don’t want that kind of pressure – maybe Prince is one of those guys.

It’s strange to see deals that work out so well for both teams. The Tigers acquired Ian Kinsler, an All-Star 2B at age 31. For the Tigers, this is an upgrade over the departed free agent Omar Infante and a better expense than Fielder; Kinsler should be able to sustain his production through his contract (ending in 2018) and give the Tigers time to develop a 2B-of-the-future, something that does not exist in their organization right now. Likewise, they open up flexibility at the corners – as I noted above, Miggy can move to 1B and Castellanos can play 3B. The Tigers cleared a glut at the corners to fix lack of depth up the infield. Well done. For Texas, the situation is reversed – they acquire depth at the corners and alleviate a glut in the middle infield. Their own top prospect, the incredibly named Jurickson Profar, is a 2B, but Texas had locked up their middle infield in Kinsler and Andrus a couple years ago, relegating the MLB-ready Profar to a bench role. Meanwhile, while set at 3B with Adrian Beltre, they lacked a solid 1B. Now with Kinsler gone and Fielder acquired, Profar will slide into an everyday 2B role, giving Texas a very potent-looking daily infield. The Tigers, meanwhile, will hope that Castellanos – who raked in the minors last year and looked capable in limited MLB action in September – makes the team out of spring training, giving them an attractive infield of Cabrera/Kinsler/Iglesias/Castellanos.

It seems likely that the Tigers aren’t done shopping, that they’ll look for a solid outfield bat to add – but that kind of shopping, which seemed prohibited by finances prior to this deal, suddenly seems more reasonable, as does retaining Max Scherzer. The future that I saw in October – of a slow, aging Tigers lineup unable to overcome big contracts – suddenly seems less likely to happen. The Tigers now seem poised to lock up Scherzer, guaranteeing a future top-3 rotation of Verlander/Scherzer/Sanchez, and set to extend Cabrera’s contract whenever those talks become necessary. That’s a core that Tigers fans will stand behind and can have faith in to guide a future of continued contention. That window, that I feared was closing a month ago, suddenly seems to have gotten propped up a little higher.

Remembering the 2013 Detroit Tigers

It’s always bad news, in my opinion, when expectations run high.  This season was going to end one of two ways for the Tigers – either with a World Series win or as a failure.  It ended in the latter.  In contrast, the Boston Red Sox who beat them in the American League Championship Series came into the season with no expectations; they lost 93 games last year and went from a stricter manager to a more laid-back one.  I told a Boston fan in the spring that the Red Sox could surprise this year, that there was potential there.  Boy, even having thought that, did I end up surprised.

So what happened?  On paper, the Tigers are the better team, and the Tigers are most definitely the sexier team (unless you really like scraggly beards).  The Tigers are a superstar-laden team, which drives regular season success and attention.  They have the stud starting rotation (which lived up to expectations) and the bruising middle-of-the-lineup (which did not).  Say what you want about injuries to Miguel Cabrera, this season ended because of more than that.

Let’s play Team Building 101.  Loading a team with superstars comes at a cost, and that cost is depth.  Outside of the Tigers starting lineup, the options aren’t great; they’re a team with a thin bench.  Boston, on the other hand, got use from its bench, playing match-ups when convenient and running for speed when necessary.  Boston started different left fielders, catchers, and third basemen by choice during the series.  That may or may not have made a difference in winning ultimately; it simply illustrates that Boston had player depth the Tigers do not.  This is in part due to how their money is spent, and this is going to be the problem that the Tigers face going forward – the Tigers are currently paying 3 men over $20M/year (Verlander, Fielder, Cabrera); the Red Sox are paying zero men that sum.  The most expensive contract the Red Sox have is Jake Peavy’s $16M.  In fact, the Red Sox are paying 7 men double-digits below $20M; the Tigers are paying 2 players in that $10M-20M range.  For fun, I threw in the Cardinals to see how they pan out – they’re paying zero players $20M+ and only 4 players in the $10M-20M range.  St. Louis is a smaller market than Boston or Detroit, and I’m not pretending Boston is some small-market Cinderella team.  Boston, I’m aware, has a higher overall payroll than Detroit does, by about $10M – my point here is simply that one of those two teams is spending more wisely and it contributes to their success.

Thing is, having a team of highly paid superstars doesn’t always guarantee championships.  I think the most important thing – besides intangibles like hunger to win, leadership, etc – is depth.  Paying several guys a ton of money erodes depth.  While this year’s agonizing failure weighs on my mind for the Detroit Tigers, what it means for the future weighs even more heavily.  Torii Hunter said it himself after last night’s loss, although I think he was referring more to himself than the team – the window’s getting smaller.

The Tigers have three high-caliber free agents – closer Joaquin Benoit, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and second baseman Omar Infante.  Also on their radar has to be Max Scherzer’s impending free agency; he will command a large-scale contract.  I believe Peralta is gone; the Tigers have a bargain in rookie Jose Iglesias, who is projected to be our everyday defensive whiz for several years.  I think they need to bring Infante back; there’s no second base option within the organization and no other attractive free agents at that position, so I expect him to be a priorty re-signing.  I think Benoit could go either way; he looked fine during the regular season but displayed shades of Valverde in the postseason – depending on his price tag, that’s money that could be better spent elsewhere.  

The bigger question is what the Tigers should do with their two major impending free agents after next year – Scherzer and Cabrera.  Cabrera is an epic hitter, there’s no doubt, but he’s coming into his 30s, when power hitters typically start to lose their swing.  With Prince Fielder signed through the decade, there’s no room at DH in the future to stash Miggy.  Likewise, Scherzer looks to command a big contract which would work to keep the Tigers away from aggressive pursuit of other players potentially in the future.  Can the Tigers exist competitively with four $20M+ players, especially when two of them are “power” pitchers and two of them are power hitters with a lack of defensive range and speed?  I don’t think so.  

Boston and St. Louis are facing off in the World Series, and both teams got there by unconventional team-building methods.  St. Louis famously let Albert Pujols go in free agency two years ago.  Pujols is a historically great hitter whose only contemporary competition right now is Miguel Cabrera.  In fact, their career arc to now is markedly similar – both were third basemen who hit for power and converted to first basemen over time.  Both lack speed and both can be seriously hampered by injury.  Just two years removed from a great final year in St. Louis, Pujols has been a shell of his former self, but the Los Angeles Angels are on the hook for 10 years and $240M.  $24M/year could almost buy Adam Wainwright and Carlos Beltran off of the Cardinals’ roster.  Letting Pujols – again, a historic hitter and the face of the Cardinals for nearly a decade – walk turned out to be the best offseason move the Cardinals made.  Boston traded away their superstar assets last season to the Los Angeles Dodgers, who lost in the NLCS this year.  Boston traded away two $20M/year players in that deal, which was laughably one-sided in terms of player talent – but Boston’s gain was the money dump; they shed literally hundreds of millions of dollars in long-term contracts, and that freed money let them pursue some of their $10-20M/year free agents – guys like Mike Napoli, who hit the solo, game-winning home run of ALCS Game 3, and Shane Victorino, who hit the go-ahead, game-winning grand slam of ALCS Game 5.  It also allowed them the financial slack to pursue bullpen depth like Koji Uehara, depth that paid off when Boston’s first- and second-choice closers were lost to injury.  Uehara ended up the ALCS MVP.

Of course, not every free agent spread is a success, and actually, in the spring, Boston’s signings were met with a certain amount of derision.  Likewise, letting a great hitter walk can return to bite a team.  That’s what makes this year’s failure so bitter for Tigers fans – this looked like the year.  It was that perfect year where hard decisions could be put off and a dominant-looking roster could be compiled without worry.  Torii’s right – the window is closing.  But Boston has proved that windows close and open; no one was talking about Boston’s championship window this year, after all.  Supposedly, it had slammed shut in 2011.

But the Tigers should look hard at the teams in the World Series this year and how they got there.  It wasn’t by keeping high-value superstars around, that’s for sure.  The Tigers will come into 2014 with a unique opportunity, the chance both to wipe part of the slate blank and the chance to contend.  They’ll need to bolster the bullpen this offseason, solidify the left field position if prospect Nick Castellanos isn’t ready to make the team in spring, and re-sign Omar Infante.  Maybe Benoit is the closer, maybe he’s not.  But one thing is certain – if they don’t plan to re-sign Max Scherzer (and those talks should begin this off-season), they need to trade him at the deadline and recoup what they can for him; the same goes for Miguel Cabrera.  While both players are great talents, the longevity of the team may look better without them.  If Miguel Cabrera is to remain a Tiger, then perhaps it’s reasonable to look at trading the gaudy contract of Prince Fielder, whose invisible man impression in the playoffs has to be concerning.  But there’s no way the Tigers can keep both men long-term and make it look work on a championship level.  Winning a World Series this year would have let the Tigers approach those decisions with the warm glow of a championship in the bank; now that they’ve failed, those difficult decisions suddenly look a lot less attractive.

Windows close and windows open.  The Tigers need to take a long, hard look at the team that bested them and learn from failure.  Both teams seemed to “give up” with their personnel choices in recent years; and yet, here they are, battling for the World Series.  Insanity is described as expecting a different result from the same repeated action; if the Tigers’ roster looks virtually the same in 2014, what does that say about the organization?  The last team to make three straight ALCS and fail to win the World Series was the Texas Rangers, who ended their run in 2011 after besting the Tigers in the ALCS.  Since their three straight trips, the other teams in their division got better, and Texas has struggled to make the playoffs since, losing a Wild Card game in 2012 and losing a Game 163 in 2013.  Windows don’t stay open forever, and just as Texas seemed to run out of gas after 2011, it’s hard to imagine the Tigers will hold their window open without making some changes, especially as Cleveland and Kansas City improve.  

The Tigers will be contenders in 2014, make no mistake – but unlike this year, where all that was at stake was a chance at a championship, they’ll also be setting the course of the rest of the decade in 2014 based on the personnel choices they make.  One window will close next year, with or without a ring; it’s just going to be a matter of whether or not they open another like St. Louis and Boston have.