Oct 19, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Detroit Tigers first baseman Prince Fielder (28) is caught in a run down between Boston Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (39) and third baseman Xander Bogaerts (right) during the sixth inning in game six of the American League Championship Series playoff baseball game at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

2013 Detroit Tigers: the Flawed Model

The 2013 Detroit Tigers were the best Tigers incarnation I’ve ever seen in my 19 years as a serious fan.

This was a team you assemble on MLB2K and score 1,000 runs with. This was a rotation you throw 3 no-hitters with.

This was a team that you do everything in your power to acquire in fantasy baseball.

Unfortunately, this team is an outdated, flawed model of how baseball teams succeed.

Back before the pitching boom, a team could have defensively-challenged sluggers. It could have players that could simply move station-to-station. It could spend oodles on high-priced veteran free agents and shiny hot-topic relievers. It could have a manager that had accolades from his office out the door.

But then, the Tampa Bay Rays started dominating the AL East, home runs and offense decreased notably, payrolls started creeping downwards  (except in LA), and managerial innovation became key.

I love this team, but I don’t want to watch it crumble and age poorly like the Philadelphia Phillies of the last five years.

That World Series-winning team of 2008 had it all. They had Ryan Howard, a homer -hitting on base machine. They had Chase Utley, a slick-fielding second baseman with power and average. With Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth, Shane Victorino, Cole Hamels, Brad Lidge, they looked poised for an annual trip to the fall classic, and then they went on to add Hunter Pence, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, and Cliff Lee. It was unfair!

But age started sapping skills. The bloated contracts prohibited good, quality free agents from being added. The defense, once sharp, began to wear thin, and Charlie Manuel looked lost as the game evolved and passed him by.

This grim premonition of the future chills me to the bones because that’s where the Tigers are heading.

Of all the potential fixes to make for the Tigers, most glaringly is a manager who follows in the footsteps of veteran, experienced managers like Dusty Baker and the aforementioned Charlie Manuel: Jim Leyland.

Leyland’s weaknesses were laid bare for all the world to see this season: His inability to effectively manage a bullpen, his reluctance to run, his stubborn loyalty to underperforming players, and his complete and utter predictability when it comes to planning and executing a gameplan.

The Tigers were six runs worse than their Pythagorean win projection, and one can remember several regular season games that ended because of poor bullpen usage. One can remember how that, without injuries, the lineup rarely ever changed from the beginning of the season to the end. And one can look at team stolen base total, a league-low 35, and shake one’s head.

same Leyland was a great manager 20 years ago. He was a good manager seven years ago. This year? His team won in spite of his machinations.  I’ve already covered my beef with Leyland, so I won’t take up space regurgitating the same ideas.

The concerns over the roster are twofold: First, why don’t the Tigers have a roster that takes advantage of how spacious Comerica Park is? Secondly, what will they be able to do when everyone needs to get paid, and when the big contracts age about as well as the players do?

The first is something I’ve been curious about for several years now. Comerica Park is a pitcher’s park with a gigantic outfield. Why not acquire the players to cover the outfield defensively, and be able to hit doubles and triples instead of just homers and singles? Guys who can be counted on not to hit into double plays are completely inopportune times. I’ve often wondered how players like Desmond Jennings, Gerardo Parra, Will Venable, or Daniel Murphy would do in a stadium where their speed would be further accentuated.   How would that affect the RBI totals of Martinez or Cabrera, and how would that help the numbers of fly ball pitchers like Verlander or Scherzer?

That leads into my hope of a team that is defensively superb. Teams like the Rays, A’s, and Giants have paired good defense with their good pitching and found success. Teams like the Royals and Red Sox have improved their defenses and recaptured their competitive drives. Why have two guys on the corners who can, at best, play their positions adequately? Why have a rotating defensive fart in left field? It doesn’t make sense, especially in an age where teams copy successful formulas, and the Rays have been collecting players who excel at defense the last several years, to continue to neglect the impact a great defense can have.

And then there are the contracts. I’d covered the ramifications of potential contract problems before, but what about the way the Tigers keep adding veterans, guys who fit into the “Win Now!” mindset? They are neglecting rebuilding the farm system and acquiring young talent. Dealing a guy like Scherzer, or Jackson, or even Fielder would go a LONG way towards reloading for not just the future, but also continued success with players that work well with the defense/speed strategy that is being used by so many teams nowadays.

Essentially, what we have here is a team that is playing a type of baseball that successful teams aren’t playing anymore. The Cardinals and Red Sox are teams with speed who play great defense, rely on great pitching, and don’t always depend on homers alone (contrary to what this past ALCS may lead us Tigers fans to believe). The Giants followed the same paradigm, setting the trend in 2010. Slugging teams who make astoundingly bad base running and defensive mistakes do not succeed. Experienced, veteran managers who can’t get their teams over the proverbial hump don’t deserve extensions.

I don’t want this to come across as a “BLOW IT UP” type piece, because I love having my favorite team in the playoffs consistently, and really, after the past two months I’ve never been more sold on keeping Torii Hunter, Victory Martinez, and Omar Infante. I’m not content, however, with having a team that can’t get out of its own way en route to a championship, or a team that just can’t seem to make it that last bit. No Tiger fan should be – who wants to be the early 90’s Buffalo Bills? This team was a wonderful experiment, one that saw enormous amounts of success for a time, but one that may ultimately end with a crippled franchise when the talent leaves and the cost remains.

Tags: ALCS Detroit Tigers Jim Leyland Miguel Cabrera Oakland A's Philadelphia Phillies Tampa Bay Rays

  • chrisHannum

    I think you’re going a little far: if the team is paying Cabrera and Fielder a lot of money to bash, with bad D and bad baserunning – that “model” isn’t going to work if Cabrera and Fielder are giving the bad D and bad baserunning but not bashing. That’s what happened against the A’s and Sox. The way the rest of the team is organized isn’t that different from the Cards and the Red Sox. No part of a plan to re-load for a 2014 run is going to involve replacing Cabrera or Fielder with a faster guy – Fielder (or VMart) might not have been great signings, but at this point they’re still tentposts to build around. And Fielder is going to be impossible to deal without eating half his salary. As for the DPs – it isn’t just slow guys that do that, it’s guys that hit a ton of hard ground balls. Jeter wasn’t a slug on the basepaths but he hit into a ton of DPs. If AJax hit 5th, he would too.

    • gstoye44

      Fielder has been nothing but underwhelming since his contract year performance in Milwaukee, and he just doesn’t look like a fit here. Cabrera at least had injury as an excuse. I’d rather the Tigers try to trade Fielder for fifty cents on the dollar than ending up eating most of the deal for a pretty terrible return (like the Vernon Wells deals). And really, his body type has a tendency not to age very well as a baseball player, so his value is on a ticking clock as it is.

      With Prince gone Cabrera moves to first, where he was actually a good defender, and the Tigers could focus on acquiring a guy who can play good defense and who has a good ability to get on base and run well. I’m just off the Fielder bandwagon after watching him these past two seasons. I’d just like to see them import a good defensive left fielder (like a Parra) and a good defensive third baseman (like a Chase Headley), and both those guys can run and have gap-power as well. Restocking the farm system should also be a pretty big priority at this point, too.

      • chrisHannum

        Prince isn’t anywhere near bad enough to want to eat half his salary and get non-prospects in return. There’s nothing wrong with having a 2-win first baseman except paying him like a 5-win first baseman. I don’t think there would be much griping if he were being paid $10 million. If you want the offense as a whole (not just left field) to get more athletic, just wait until 2015 when VMart is gone and Prince moves to DH. Parra would be a good fit as is, but not necessarily worth acquiring at any price.

  • Tim Dafoe

    I think the gloom and doom is a bit premature. How have the last 2 years gone for Tampa? The long-term contracts are a problem for the Tigers, but not right now. Fielder, Cabrera, Verlander all have 4-5 good years left. Ryan Howard suffered a significant injury, so that’s not apples-to-apples. If you trade them when they still have 1 good year left, some team in win now mode will take them off your hands. Look at the Red Sox-Dodger trade last year.

    If the Tigers find a second baseman or left fielder who can legitimately leadoff and drop Jackson to 8th or 9th, that would help the offense. If not, hopefully Castellanos is ready and can help offset the offense they will lose with the switch from Peralta to Iglesias.

    The farm system contributing a player to the starting lineup and maybe 2 to the pitching staff every 2-3 years would be nice to see. The draft is still the key. You can get by with platooning if both players contribute something or offset each others’ specialty skill (one can hit, the other is a defensive specialist or one hits well left-handed and the other right-handed). Kelly and Dirks are essentially the same, good field/no-hit players.

    As for the manager, ask fans of every team if they think they have the best manager in baseball. Very few will say yes. 2 things jump out at me with Leyland. He needs a pitching coach who understands how to use a bullpen. Smyly goes from starter to long relief to one-inning guy to situational lefty? Totally misused. And why was Phil Coke on the roster if you’re afraid to put him in? And the other issue is over-use of players. Two years ago it was playing Avilla 20-some games in a row behind the plate and beating him up for the playoffs. This year, it was not resting Cabrera when he was injured and beating him up for the playoffs. And speaking of coaching, can we get a hitting coach who can help our players work themselves out of a funk at the plate? The Tigers’ poor at-bats are a reflection on Lloyd McLendon. He could not right the ship.

    As for the bullpen, one or two upgrades would fix the Tigers’ problems. All they needed was 2 relievers they could count on to get outs and the ALCS is a different series. Smyly goes from starter to long relief to one-inning guy to situational lefty? Totally misused. And why was Phil Coke on the roster if you’re afraid to put him in? Scherzer turned in the best relief performance of the post season. That says a lot.

    A true leadoff hitter, 2 bullpen upgrades and a change with the pitching and hitting coaches should cure what ails the Tigers. How many other teams wish they had so few problems?

    • gstoye44

      I agree completely – this doesn’t have to be a complete overhaul with the roster, save for a few of the pieces you mentioned. But the coaching staff no longer seems effective on any front, and with Fielder there’s no reason to think that his past two seasons of good, not great, play isn’t the new norm – or that he’s already in regression due to weight/age.

      And the farm system is pretty shoddy right now. Dealing a Fielder or a Scherzer or any of the players due huge raises could help replenish a pretty woeful farm system (Keith Law listed them 25th out of 30) and ease the potential financial burden down the line.

      I don’t particularly enjoy focusing on the “doom and gloom,” but I also don’t want to see this team hamstrung when the Ilitches decide to scale back their spending.

    • chrisHannum

      They had the two relievers they could count on. They just didn’t get the necessary outs.

      • Tim Dafoe

        If they didn’t get the necessary outs, then exactly how were we able to count on them?

        • chrisHannum

          We had about as much reason to be confident (before the series) in Benoit and Veras as Boston had to be confident in – for example – Tazawa. Most of the time, they don’t give up home runs. But, then, sometimes they do.

  • http://tomaroonandgold.blogspot.com Matt Snyder

    When you lose with slow power hitters it’s always that you didn’t have enough speed. When you lose with speed guys it’s always that you didn’t have anyone to drive them in.

    It’s hard for me to say the style of roster construction is flawed for a team that’s reached the ALCS (or further) three consecutive years. When you get that far it just comes down to coin flips.

  • Matt Ragusa

    You guys don’t have an incompetent GM who couldn’t spot real talent if it hit him in the face like a 100 mph fastball. Ruben Amaro Jr. has single-handedly destroyed the Phillies franchise with his stupidity.

  • louwhitaker

    “Dealing a guy like…Fielder”??? Good luck with that.