Welcome to the first part of an ongoing offseason series that asks the question: If the Tigers are stymied in every possible attempt to upgrade a point of weakness – what are we likely left with when Spring Training rolls around.
The most important of those weak spots, at least in my personal opinion, remains second base.
There are decent second base options that could be had in trade, and at least on available (for the time being) in the free agent market – but the simple fact of their existence doesn’t mean that any will ultimately wind up wearing the Olde English D. In the second half of 2011 second base ultimately became a near-strict L-R platoon of Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn. Ramon Santiago, unfortunately, is a free agent and coming off a good season by his standard both offensively and defensively. Rumor has it he wants lots more money, and other rumors have it that he’s got non-Tiger suitors (including the Minnesota Twins). Our worst case scenario assumes no free-agents outside the organization (like Kelly Johnson) no trade acquisitions (like Orlando Hudson) and no Santiago – since I’ll assume he winds up in the Twin Cities earning triple what he did in 2011.
Raburn is still going to be around as an option, assuming the Tigers don’t trade him away. The problem is that while I do think that Raburn is a bit better with the bat than he showed overall in 2011, I think he’s every bit as bad with the glove (at second base) as advanced defensive metrics suggest. According to UZR/150 Raburn would cost a team two full wins with his glove as a second baseman, true for 2011 and true for his numbers at second prior to 2011. That means that for Raburn to be an ‘average’ second baseman he needs to add 4 wins with his bat, and while he’s a good hitter (especially for a second baseman) that’s a bit of a stretch. So I’d argue that while Raburn IS an option at second for 2012, I don’t think he’s the best option among internal solutions. For one thing, to go along with his atrocious glove, Raburn hits right-handed pitching badly. The whole bat/glove package might swing in Raburn’s favor if he’s the weak side of a platoon, like he was in 2011, but it probably wouldn’t if he was playing every day.
If Raburn isn’t an everyday outfielder, he could be an effective part-time second baseman in addition to playing some outfield – but we need the left half of the platoon to make that possible. If Santiago is gone, the “Worst-Case Scenario” for the platoon’s strong side is the same guy that started the year at second for the Tigers in 2011 – Will Rhymes. Rhymes was great in limited time in 2010, weak in limited time in 2011 and definitely has a ‘true talent’ level in between the two extremes. We know what he is – he’s a no power, scrappy on-base type guy. In Toledo he hit .305 in 2010 and .306 in 2011. In 2010 he maintained the same high-ish BABIP in the bigs and hit .304, in 2011 his BABIP took a nosedive and he hit only .235. Rhymes doesn’t seem to have big L-R splits (presumably he can hit or lay off a slider) but as a platooner in 2012 I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect him to match his major league average slash line of .283/.341/.370 though his slugging might drop to .350 or so. I’ll have to rank his defense overall as ‘average’ – according to UZR/150 he has been slightly below average in 2010 and in 2011. According to BR he was way above average in 2010 but way below in 2011. Given that inconsistency, I’ll go with what I’ve seen, and what I’ve seen is a guy who can handle the position effectively.
So, as a platoon partner for Raburn (or someone else, hint, hint) should Santiago go elsewhere, I would expect Rhymes to give a little more OBP than Santiago but a little less pop and a little less glove. He’s also younger (and cheaper) so there is less risk of a sudden decline in bat speed, foot speed or defensive range. I don’t think he’s a better option than Santiago, but he’s a very close substitute. If Rhymes is the strong side, I still wouldn’t want to play Raburn as the weak side. What I want to see Raburn doing is playing in the outfield where his glove is a plus (and certainly better than either Boesch or Young). We have a perfect candidate for weak-side second baseman on the roster already – something I mentioned during the playoffs – in Danny Worth. Statistically, Worth has been great defensively at second base and only at second base. He has also shown an ability to hit lefties, but no ability whatsoever to hit righties. In my book, that makes him a perfect platoon partner – on the days Rhymes sits we get a guy with a better glove and a better bat.
If the Tigers are stuck going into 2012 with a platoon of Rhymes and Worth, I expect an overall OPS at second of .720 with defense slightly on the positive side of average. That OPS would be weighted towards the ‘on-base’ component, since both guys would be expected to give an OBP of at least .340, and comes with some speed attached. Since the major league average for second basemen last year was only .705, this makes, in combination, for an EV of about 2 wins from the pair – but an EV that comes with tremendous risk due to their short major league track records.