This is supposed to be the time of the year when optimism abounds. Pitchers and catchers report in just about three weeks, after all. Yet as I look at the Tigers roster, there are a couple of things that stand out as huge potential problems. I’m not alone in this sense, as Jonah Keri penned a piece for fangraphs that highlights some of the issues the club could face this year. Keri’s got some good points, especially concerning the infield defense.
The player I’d like to focus on is at shortstop. The Tigers haven’t had a complete player at the position since before Carlos Guillen‘s downward spiral of injuries began; so roughly 2006. In 2007, Guillen showed a rapidly declining range and the Tigers went out and traded away Jair Jurrjens to Atlanta to nab Edgar Renteria. Renteria was supposed to solidify the offense and the defense, but as I’m sure I don’t need to remind any of you, things didn’t go as planned. Renteria struggled to get to balls on the ground and what’s worse, he didn’t hit much, either.
With that experiment failed, Detroit put an emphasis on defense at the position and signed glove man Adam Everett. That worked great defensively, but Everett couldn’t hit. This shouldn’t have surprised anyone as he never had much offensive prowess.
Now the Tigers have decided that they need more “RBI guys” and re-signed Jhonny Peralta to play short for the next two years. Peralta has had three seasons of at least 20 home runs. He’s driven in better than 80 runs four times; he’s precisely the guy Jim Leyland would want hitting in his lineup. Peralta won’t be counted on as a middle-of-the-order hitter he was in Cleveland, and his production should match the better hitting shortstops in the league, so the Tigers will see a huge upgrade to the lineup. But Detroit has once again forsaken infield defense, at a premium position, for the sake of a bat.
As Keri noted, Peralta “has cost his teams 28 runs defensively at the position over six-and-a-half seasons.” He didn’t have good range when he was younger (and considerably thinner), so expecting him to turn into Ozzie Smith over the course of an offseason just isn’t gonna happen. Peralta noted at the end of last year that he needed to drop some weight to play shortstop full-time again, but even if he does he won’t cover a lot of ground.
Having Brandon Inge playing beside him will help, but ground ball pitchers like Brad Penny and Rick Porcello are going to give up extra hits and extra runs with Peralta at short. The problem is compounded when Carlos Guillen is at second, as he has very little range as well.
Jim Leyland will do his best to combat the problem by using Ramon Santiago or Danny Worth as late-game defensive replacements, but that only works if the Tigers have the lead late. Detroit’s bullpen features a slew of strikeout pitchers which largely eliminates the issue anyway. So while there’s an advantage to pulling Peralta late, the advantage isn’t as large as you would find earlier in the game when a guy like Porcello is pitching.
I think it’s easy to gloss over the potential problems the Tigers could face as their infield defense looks right now. You can look at a lineup that features an MVP candidate, a former batting champ, and a deadly switch-hitting DH and see the potential for this club to score a lot of runs. It’s a similar formula Detroit tried in 2008, when a porous defense let in more runs than a terrifying lineup could score.
Apart from Inge, none of the other guys who figure to see significant innings on the infield are any threat to win a gold glove. The Tigers once again overcompensated at shortstop, bouncing from one extreme player to another. This year, it’s back to an offensive threat who struggles with the glove. We can sit back and hope that Peralta produces big numbers with his bat, but unless he makes huge strides as far as his range is concerned, the Tigers defense will struggle and their pitching will go downhill. We could be looking at 2008 all over again.