In an instant Monday evening, the Detroit Tigers markedly improved the short-term outlook for their club by procuring starter Anibal Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante from the unexpectedly marginal Miami Marlins. In the package of prospects Miami received to supplant their loss was only one player taken directly from Detroit’s active major league roster: Jacob Turner. Thus, roster space needed to be cleared before the Tigers could activate both Sanchez and Infante, who presents an obvious upgrade over all four players they’ve started at his spot this year.
The choice for demotion was obvious, and Detroit predictably axed utility infielder Danny Worth. Somehow, scores of Tiger fans communicated shock and anger, taking to social media and talk radio to bemoan the decision. Ryan Raburn, who swiftly became the principal target of indiscriminate fan angst upon the departure of Brandon Inge, was, they believe, more deserving of dismissal. I’ll tell you why the higher-ups at the Detroit baseball club disagree.
First, the logistical rationale: on June 20th, Raburn spent his 860th calendar day on a major league roster, the professional baseball equivalent of five years. That means, despite being in the midst of his final option year, the 31-year-old veteran has the license to decline a hypothetical minor league assignment. If he were to do so, the Tigers would be forced to choose between keeping the dejected player or releasing him outright and paying his $2.1 million salary in full. By choosing to instead relegate Worth, who is also in his final option year but has accumulated under two years of service time and therefore has no such rights, Detroit maintained a bit of organizational depth.
Yes, Raburn’s play this season has been deplorable—Wins Above Replacement figures from FanGraphs (-1.3) and Baseball-Reference (-1.8) agree that he’s been quite a bit worse that the typical replacement player—but Worth hasn’t been productive either. Worth’s current on-base plus slugging percentage is .586, inhibited by a meager .215 batting average and a lack of any significant extra-base power. He certainly hasn’t done enough to unseat a player like Raburn, whose .743 career OPS is a great asset for a bench player.
Another nail in the Worth coffin was the Tigers’ addition of a defensively-capable infielder. They now possess a full-time shortstop in Jhonny Peralta, two players competent or better at both second and short in Infante and Ramon Santiago, and utility-man Don Kelly, whose extra versatility and left-handed bat kept his roster spot safe (for now). Besides the two middle infield spots, the only position Worth has played professionally is third base, which Miguel Cabrera has occupied this year for all but 31 innings. While Raburn can be utilized, for now, in a corner outfield platoon with whoever’s cold out of Quintin Berry and Brennan Boesch, there’s no playing time left for Worth, who manager Jim Leyland had found only 16 plate appearances for this month even before Infante’s arrival.
Having adequately, I hope, defended Raburn’s prolonged stay over Worth, I turn my attention to Toledo, where Andy Dirks, long sidelined by right Achilles tendinitis, began his rehabilitation stint on Sunday night for the Triple-A Mud Hens. “His will be a little bit longer than most rehabs,” Leyland cautioned when it began, but his return is nearing and it is presumed that his .328 average over the season’s first two months will guarantee him at least semi-regular playing time in the outfield.
This is where things get a bit more controversial. The completion of Dirks’ recovery, assuming no injuries or trades involving current Tiger position players between now and then, will likely mark the end of someone’s career in Detroit. Austin Jackson, Brennan Boesch, and Alex Avila are three of the four position players remaining on the active roster who can be optioned, but none are expendable. Quintin Berry, the fourth, becomes less important with Dirks on the team, but—and this isn’t to say that Dave Dombrowski operates on the whim of the fan base—it’s hard to conceive him going anywhere at this point. As back-up catcher, Gerald Laird is safe, and on a two-year deal, so is Ramon Santiago. That leaves Raburn and Don Kelly.
Their bout is much closer to a toss-up, but some of the same reasoning for Raburn over Worth is also applicable in arguing for Raburn over Kelly; with the Tigers’ infield set, Santiago qualified to serve as a replacement up the middle, and Infante able to shift to third in an emergency, the value of Kelly’s versatility is diminished. If he holds any defensive advantage over Raburn in the outfield, it’s slim, and Detroit will have a plethora of outfielders vying for playing time anyway.
In my opinion, that makes offensive prowess the most important criteria in choosing between the two. The numbers for both this year have been awful, with Kelly holding a slight lead in batting average (.178 over .172) and on-base percentage (.272 over .227) but trailing in slugging percentage (.255 to .248). When two players have been about equally atrocious in recent past, I like to look at their track record more broadly; as previously mentioned, Raburn holds a career OPS of .743, which looks pretty golden next to Kelly’s .629. Further, Raburn has posted an OPS of .850 or greater in nine different months over the span of his career, including each of the last three September/Octobers (1.108 in 2009, .971 in 2010, and 1.155 in 2011). That speaks volumes for his offensive potential, especially considering Kelly has accomplished the same feat just twice.
Keep in mind that, because whichever one sticks around will be spelling three left-handed batters in Boesch, Dirks, and Berry in the outfield, it makes sense for the Tigers to keep a right-handed bat like Raburn’s. All else considered, that may just be icing on the cake.
Those who still long for the day of Raburn’s release should hold out hope, though; Victor Martinez could yet return this season, a development which would almost surely spell Raburn’s demise if he makes it past the next cut—which he should.