With Brad Penny now in the fold, the Tigers have six starters for five rotation spots. Obviously, the top three are set with Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello. I am in agreement with Kurt that Penny is all but assured a spot in the rotation as well; you just don’t bring in a guy with his career track record, give him a $3 million guarantee, and then shift him to the bullpen. Like it or not, a starting job is Penny’s to lose. If he’s healthy, he’ll open the season in the rotation.
So what about the other two starters? Jason Beck went into great detail yesterday about the future of Armando Galarraga in Detroit. If you’re a fan of ‘Mando, you might not want to hear this, but it doesn’t look good. Galarraga is out of minor league options and is arbitration-eligible for the first time this year. The Tigers don’t typically make it to a hearing with their eligible players, preferring instead to settle on a contract before hand. In this case, however, it would behoove the Tigers to wait.
If Galarraga’s 2011 salary is determined by an arbiter, that contract is not guaranteed, as Beck noted. If the two side agree to a deal before hand, however, the Tigers will owe Galarraga the entire amount, no matter if he remains with the club or not. With a non-guaranteed deal, Detroit could release the right hander by March 15 and owe him only 30 days pay or by March 30 and owe him 45 days pay. There is speculation that Galarraga could command a salary pushing $2 million this year based on a similar case last season with San Francisco’s Jonathan Sanchez. That’s a lot of money to pay a long reliever.
But if Galarraga is to be a starter in Detroit this year, he’ll have to either hope for a injury to create a spot for him, or he’ll have to demonstrate during spring training that he’s a better option than either Penny or Phil Coke.
Coke, a converted reliever, is poised to open the season as the Tigers lone southpaw starter. Tigers officials have been steadfast in their support of this move all winter, so there’s really no reason to think that they may have changed their tune upon signing Penny. Yes, the Tigers bullpen would look significantly more formidable with Coke working in the late innings instead of Daniel Schlereth, but the Tigers have been without a left handed starter for the majority of the past two seasons and clearly that’s a situation Jim Leyland and company don’t want to face again in 2011.
Last year, the Tigers gave a combined 17 starts to left handed pitchers. If you throw out the three “bullpen starts” (two emergency starts by Brad Thomas and one by Coke), the Tigers gave 14 starts to Dontrelle Willis and Andy Oliver. Those two combined to go 1-6 with a 5.97 ERA with the Tigers in 2010. Leyland is hoping that Coke, a starter as recently as 2008 while pitching in Double-A, can give the Tigers a stable, reliable southpaw in the rotation.
But why is that so important? After all, the Tigers nearly won the division in 2009 without a left handed presence in the rotation and their 2010 collapse could much more easily be explained by offensive injuries than by getting victimized by their decided right handedness. If you look at the Central division, every one of the four rival clubs fared worse against left handed starters than they did when facing right handers. In fact, only the Twins posted a winning record in games when they faced a left handed starter, winning at a .571 clip. For reference, Minnesota had a .584 winning percentage against right handed starters.
The reason is a simple one, really. The Central is full of quality left handed hitters. Almost without exception, those hitters are much more potent against right handed pitchers than versus southpaws. A few examples: Justin Morneau has a career .296 average and .917 OPS when facing a right hander, but his numbers drop to .267 and .778 when facing a lefty. The same pattern holds true for Joe Mauer (.340/.952 vs RH, .303/ .768 vs LH), Adam Dunn (.258/.941 RH or .235/.817 LH), Grady Sizemore (.292/.903 RH or .230/.700 LH), Shin-Soo Choo (.310/.938 RH or .267/.736 LH), and Jason Kubel (.284/.840 RH or .236/.666 LH).
Sure, you say, the left handed hitters are not as effective against left handed pitchers, but the right handed hitters must make up for that, right? Not so fast, my friend. Looking at team splits from last season, only the Indians were more potent offensively against left handed starters than against right handers. In fact the Twins saw an overall drop of 18 points on their team OPS when facing lefties, the White Sox suffered a 21 points decrease, and the Royals saw their team OPS drop an amazing 62 points against southpaws. Considering that the Tigers will play each club in their division 18 times next year, any additional edge they can gain by using a left handed starter is one worth taking.
But, as evidenced by the lack of success Detroit had last year with Willis and Oliver, not just any left hander will do. In his major league career, Coke has held left handed hitters to a .229/.274/.343/.617 line. His work as a reliever showed us that he can be effective against left handed hitters. But his line against right handers (.243/.335/.362/.697) tells a similar story and leads one to think, as the Tigers obviously do, that Coke can be an effective starter, where he would face plenty of right handed and left handed hitters alike.
After looking at the reasons for moving Coke to the rotation, I have to think that Galarraga’s best shot at staying with the Tigers is to hope for an injury to one of the other starters or to learn how to throw left handed. Otherwise, it looks like Coke and Penny will round out the rotation and Galarraga will be traded or released before camp breaks.