Obviously there is a whole lot of season left in 2012 and a lot of things could happen between now and November. Nonetheless, there are already 2013 roster battles being played out on the field. Here’s a small part of our guide to watching the 2012 season with an eye to the next.
MLBTR put up an interesting piece on Delmon Young as part of their “Make Or Break Year” series recently that summed up just about everything there is to say on the topic: Young’s 2012 season (from an offensive standpoint, primarily) will determine whether he winds up with an Andruw Jones-type contract or a Josh Willingham-type contract this winter. In either case the Tigers are exceedingly unlikely to offer him the dollars needed to get draft pick compensation under the new CBA.
They haven’t yet put up a “Make Or Break Year” piece for Ryan Raburn, I assume because Ryan Raburn will have one more arbitration year remaining when his two year deal expires, though Raburn is in a very similar position. The difference would be that Young is currently earning Willingham dollars while Raburn is earning Jones dollars for similar production – depending on your evaluation of their respective defensive abilities Raburn might be the more valuable player.
Raburn is one of a handful of Tigers who face ‘make or break years’ without impending free agency, simply because this season will determine whether they are seen as part time players or future starters. I know that many Tigers fans had been salivating over the possibility of signing Brandon Phillips to play second base in 2013 – he has been locked up to a 6-year contract (that I’m frankly unsure he’ll be worth) so that option is off the table. There was never any doubt that the Rangers would pick up Ian Kinsler‘s 2013 option, but fans could still dream of signing him for 2014 – but he’s been locked up too. The options in next year’s free agent class (at second base specifically) won’t look much better than they did following the 2011 season. The only two players of interest would be Howie Kendrick and Maicer Izturis (both from the LA Angels), who had been discussed here on MCB as potential trade targets during the offseason. I would assume that one of those two would be re-signed by the Angels (though that’s not certain) but one should still hit the market.
What Raburn needs to do is either hit enough to force his way into the everyday 2013 lineup somewhere (and likely earn himself a big arbitration raise) or play second well enough to convince Jim Leyland that there’s no need to look for a solution outside the organization. If he doesn’t do either, he’s likely in line for an arbitration salary of no more than $3 million and a platoon split in left field. In a sense, he’s auditioning both for his own job and for that of Delmon Young.
Raburn isn’t the only Tiger who needs to impress to cement a lineup spot for 2013 – the same is true of Andy Dirks and Danny Worth. Inge will certainly be gone after this season, whatever happens during the season, which leaves his bench role open for another right-handed hitter who can play multiple infield positions. It would take a lot for Worth to lose his hold on that spot. That’s not, of course, the roster spot Worth would want. What he would want is the starting spot at second base. He has already convinced Jim Leyland that he would be above average at the position defensively, but he’ll need a big improvement on last year’s numbers (wherever he is playing) to suggest that he’s going to be able to be more than a utility man.
If Raburn is terrible in the field and wonderful at the plate, I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t the Tigers regular left fielder in 2013. If it doesn’t break in quite that fashion, left field will be wide open. While second base is not a position of depth in the likely free agent market, there are going to be a lot of good options out there to play corner outfield spots. In that sense, Andy Dirks faces an uphill climb to be accepted as more than an extra outfielder – though if Tigers management is in a budget-conscious mood after the Fielder signing (and with significant arbitration raises due for many Tigers fixtures) that would help his case.
Dirks isn’t expected to do anything of the kind – he’s expected to provide an OPS barely over .700 and numbers like that could very well lead the Tigers to see help from outside the organization. It would be very surprising to see the Tigers pursue another top free agent like Josh Hamilton or Andre Ethier, but less surprising to see them go after other members of the class which could include Michael Bourn, Angel Pagan, Shane Victorino and B.J. Upton. For what it’s worth, it has always been conventional wisdom that the Tigers ought to have (if possible) a second center fielder in left given the dimensions of Comerica Park.
I think the ideal version of the 2013 Tigers (from a fans perspective) might be one that saw Bourn and Izturis both added to play left and second and hit first and second. Bourn has always hit lefties terribly – so there would clearly be a role for Raburn or a player like him to platoon. Izturis is a genuine switch hitter with no discernable splits who could do a decent job at the top of the order whether Jackson or Bourn led off. Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch wouldn’t be going anywhere, but were never ideal fits at the top of the order. That is a lineup I would love to see in action. Raburn and Dirks would be – and should be if they don’t outperform expectations for them this year – fighting it out for bench spots in spring training. That would be a little pricey (though no worse than the contracts the team has signed the past few offseasons) compared to what Dirks, Raburn and Worth would cost IF they could provide similar production.
All this is predicated, in part, on the assumption that the Tigers do not sign Delmon Young to a contract extension. That’s a bit like assuming he wasn’t going to be tendered a contract last offseason (and I, for one, figured he probably wouldn’t be). The assumption is that if he hits .280 with 20 home runs some sucker is going to pay him more than he’s worth in a multi-year deal. That sucker could very well be the Tigers, though I’ll keep my fingers crossed.