March 01, 2013; Port St Lucie, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers second baseman Jeff Kobernus (46) is caught stealing as New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada (11) applies the tag in the spring training game at Tradition Field. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

Heaping Scorn on Dave Dombrowski, Part 2

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Since there’s just so much scorn to heap, this half will focus on the non-bullpen moves that Dombrowski has made of late. This is long, and I’ve been writing it for a few days so unfortunately I’ve been beaten to the punch by sportswriters various and sundry.

Dave Dombrowski’s changes to the bullpen have seemed to revolve around a desire to have the most established possible established closer, to excise the bullpen of soft-tossing lefties and to seek bargain heat. That and, of course, the need to fit into a fairly strict budget.

So… what has Dombrowski done to set up this year’s club?
1. Acquired Jose Iglesias for Brayan Villarreal and Avisail Garcia
2. Let Omar Infante, Ramon Santiago, Brayan Pena and Jhonny Peralta walk
3. Flipped Prince Fielder and cash for Ian Kinsler
4. Acquired Steve Lombardozzi as part of the Fister deal
5. Moved Miguel Cabrera back to 1st in order to hand 3rd base to Nick Castellanos
6. Signed Rajai Davis to a 2-year, $10 million contract to replace 4th OF Matt Tuiasosopo
7. Re-signed Don Kelly for $1 million (and, of course, offered contracts to all the obvious arb-eligibles)

What he hasn’t done yet, but has been rumored, is to trade Austin Jackson or Max Scherzer. IF he did, I think there is an excellent chance that he would then sign Shin-Soo Choo or Ervin Santana. That would be a whole ‘nother can of worms that we won’t get into here. Even if you factor in the arbitration raises due to Jackson, Andy Dirks and Alex Avila this lineup is going to be a little cheaper than last year’s version with $13.5 million coming off the books from the 4 free agents and $4 million (approximately) freed up by moving Prince Fielder. That is – it would appear – largely the point, allowing the team to afford raises for the rotation as well as Joe Nathan‘s new contract. It isn’t really going to be much younger… the incumbents get a year older and while Nick Castellanos is certainly younger than Prince Fielder and Jose Iglesias is younger than Jhonny Peralta, Rajai Davis is quite a bit older than Tuiasosopo and Dirks.

As much as Dombrowski would like to say that the Tigers are not cutting payroll – and they are not – what they are doing is making moves based at least as much on financial considerations as building the best possible ballclub. I’m not heaping scorn on Dave Dombrowski for doing this – it’s his job after all – this is more of an argument in his defense. What I’m going to heap scorn on him for is his apparent goal in reorganizing the roster: to steal more bases.

If you were familiar with the Detroit Tigers only from the 2013 ALCS vs. Boston, you would clearly have gotten the impression that the Tigers bullpen stunk and needed a massive overhaul. You would also have gotten the impression that the Tigers slow-footed, power-reliant lineup couldn’t hope to win in the postseason AND that the Tigers defense was a serious liability. The bullpen has been overhauled – included replacing guys who were good pitchers overall but stunk in the ALCS. The various changes made as a result of the Prince Fielder trade are credited with significant improvements (at least potential improvements) to the Tigers infield defense. Two of the Tigers worst baserunners (Fielder and Pena) have been replaced. Jhonny Peralta and Ramon Santiago have been replaced with significantly speedier middle infielders in Iglesias and Lombardozzi, though the former switch occurred midseason. Ian Kinsler may or may not actually be faster than Omar Infante, but he has certainly stolen a lot more bases. Signing Rajai Davis is – if what you want is steals – the next best thing to signing Jacoby Ellsbury (literally, Davis was 2nd in steals).

What I’m trying to say is: you’d get the impression that Dave Dombrowski, by the moves he has made this offseason, was only familiar with the 2013 Tigers from the ALCS. Benoit was very, very good last year in spite of his ALCS performance, etc… You could make the argument that the Tigers lost the ALCS because they weren’t able to use speed to help to convert men on base into runs on the board – and many have made that exact argument and called for the exact sort of overhaul we have seen. You could also make an equally strong argument that the Tigers lost the ALCS because they weren’t able to use power to help to convert men on base into runs on the board. The Tigers hit 2 home runs in 6 games en route to an isolated power number of .076. The Red Sox hit 4 home runs in 6 games for an ISO of .130. Those 2 extra home runs meant 2 extra wins – which is an observable fact. The Red Sox also scored exactly ONE more run in the ALCS than Detroit in spite of the extra homers and in spite of the extra stolen bases (5 to Detroit’s 2). If the Red Sox were a team built to win with speed, they still beat the Tigers with walks and home runs. If the Tigers lost because they were a team built to drive men in with power, they lost because the power didn’t show up. The specific guy for whom the power didn’t show up (in the ALCS especially, but to a lesser degree during the regular season) was Prince Fielder – who’s out.

Nate Silver and Dayn Perry published an interesting article a number of years ago in BPs “Baseball Between the Numbers” entitled “Why Doesn’t Billy Beane‘s !@#$% Work in the Playoffs?”. As everyone probably knows, Billy Beane’s !@#$% is a colloquial term for “walks and homers” (even if Billy Beane’s real !@#$% is finding undervalued talent). The gist of it was that – after exhaustive statistical analysis – Billy Beane’s !@#$% DOES work in the playoffs, the A’s had just been unlucky in a sport where it’s impossible to be so good that bad luck can’t make you crash and burn. Leaving aside any discussion of what sort of strategy is best suited to a ballpark, etc… we can recognize that the 2013 Tigers (and the 2012 Tigers, and the 2011 Tigers…) were an example of Billy Beane’s !@#$% in action. A team built for power, but especially a team built to get guys on base and ignore speed and defense (since a key tenet of that Moneyball-era Beane philosophy was that speed and defense were overvalued). In short, people have been arguing forever about whether you need a certain sort of offense to win close games or playoff games and the jury isn’t really out – the answer is NO, YOU JUST NEED A GOOD OFFENSE AND SOME LUCK.

Speed does have a substantial impact on a guy’s ability to score once he is on base, that’s real. Power has a substantial impact on a guy’s ability to score from home plate and in other guys’ ability to score once they are on base. Actually getting on base has a tremendous impact on a guy’s ability to score, period. If Dombrowski’s reorganized 2014 Tigers – apparently reorganized based on the decision that Billy Beane’s !@#$% does not work in the playoffs – were simply trading in power to get speed that would be one thing. The problem is that the new Tigers are trading in power AND on-base-percentage in order to get speed. Jhonny Peralta’s .358 OBP last year is gone – and if Jose Iglesias can’t come close to last season’s .356 BABIP his overall offensive production is likely to be awful (he doesn’t walk or hit for any power at all). Rajai Davis’ on-base-percentages over the past 3 years have been .279, .307 and .312 and while there was no expectation that Matt Tuiasosopo could put up similar numbers to his 2013 again, Davis’ OBPs are just not good. Prince Fielder had a .362 OBP in a down year last season and had OBPs over .400 the 4 years before that. Nick Castellanos is a solid prospect, but he’s very, very unlikely to come anywhere near that OBP (his projections peg him for a .313 OBP) any more than he’s likely to match Fielder’s HR numbers. Steve Lombardozzi replacing Ramon Santiago is likely a wash at the plate – in this case replacing Santiago’s plus glove with Lombardozzi’s legs. By replacing Omar Infante with Ian Kinsler the Tigers look to be roughly matching output at the plate (and age, defense, etc…) and getting a guy who has shown more aptitude for actually stealing bases.

What I’m trying to say is that these Tigers – relative to the Tigers of April 2013 – look like they’re going to have a significantly lower ISO number and also a lower OBP. The idea that getting on base is pointless without speed (“base cloggers”) has long been considered an obsolete theory and a big strike against managerial “dinosaurs” like Dusty Baker. For some reason that I cannot fathom, it is undergoing a revival right here and right now in the Tigers organization. The Red Sox did steal 123 bases last year to the Tigers 35, but they also hit more home runs and drew more walks – which do you think had the bigger impact on their league leading run total? Their SB total is going to plummet back to the middle of the pack after losing Jacoby Ellsbury and they don’t really seem to care. The changes that the Tigers have made look likely to cost the team 25 HR relative to last year’s roster and 20 points of on-base-percentage. That would give them an offense something like last year’s Angels or Rays (9th and 10th in the AL, respectively).

Of course, simply wishing that the Tigers could have kept the band together isn’t exactly fair to Dombrowski. Peralta and Infante would have required significant raises to resign in addition to arbitration raises for others. Keeping Fielder, Infante and Peralta would have meant (based on what those two got) $14.5 million more than their replacements PLUS the raises for Dirks, Jackson and Avila (minus the $5 million for Davis). Presumably that was not going to be possible – even if it would have meant more runs scored and more wins than what the 2014 Tigers are likely to produce. As such, being any harder on Dombrowski would really be unfair. In order to maintain payroll, without the Fielder trade we would probably still have seen no retention of free agents for financial reasons, with Hernan Perez at second base and Nick Castellanos splitting time in left with Dirks. That, in itself, would have pushed the Tigers down the exact same route – towards more defense and speed at the expense of on-base-percentage and power – since we’re still seeing 162 games of Iglesias at short and Perez doesn’t have the power or the OBP of Ian Kinsler (or Omar Infante for that matter). But, we’d be seeing less of a move away from power – particularly if Fielder had a bounceback year and Castellanos hit well (since he has a lot more power potential than Rajai Davis). I’m not sure I prefer what Dombrowski has actually done to that alternate reality, but I may just be a bigger fan of Prince Fielder than many. The big danger in both of those scenarios is that the 2014 Tigers offense risks being genuinely bad, though unless Miguel Cabrera gets hurt they won’t be near league bottom. The 2013 lineup didn’t just have big boppers in the middle of the order, it was deep. Now it less so.

I can’t fairly criticize Dombrowski without a better plan, right? But the thing is… I don’t. So it isn’t fair. I most certainly do believe that in out of financial concerns Dombrowski is managing the Tigers’ decline and that the 2013 offense was better than the 2014 offense will be. I don’t think that moving Fielder made the 2014 Tigers better overall in any non-financial way (I think it made them worse), but I also don’t think that Dombrowski could possibly have found a better deal given the dead weight at the back end of Fielder’s contract. I’m very concerned that Nick Castellanos will look terrible at the hot corner and as a result the only way the Tigers will be able to improve team D will be by using Jordan Lennerton at first or an appallingly weak batter like Don Kelly or Steve Lombardozzi at third. I’m concerned that in moving toward speed through any vehicle other than prospects Dombrowski will be paying a premium for a couple of aging guys that used to steal bases.

Frankly the Rajai Davis signing does rankle: almost 100% of the guy’s contributions come from his legs and he is 33 years old. That’s a bad combination. In a world where $5 million dollars on Davis means that the Tigers cannot afford – for example – Joaquin Benoit any more or cannot afford Doug Fister any more surely Dombrowski could have found another right-handed outfielder that can’t hit but runs like a deer. For example, how about Tony Seratelli – who recently signed a minor league free agent deal with the Mets. Of course the really smart move – if what you’re in the market for is a cheap, right-handed base-stealing outfielder would have been to JUST KEEP JEFF !@#$% KOBERNUS! That would be the blazing fast Rule 5 pick that the Tigers just couldn’t find a roster spot for last spring. He stole another 42 bags last year and now he has cracked the list of top 10 prospects for the Nats. Though a lot of this new respect is based on how good his AAA was – if the Tigers still had him, he might have been the in-house candidate for second base rather than Hernan Perez. But of course the Tigers couldn’t find room. The second really smart move would have been JUST KEEP QUINTIN !@#$% BERRY! But of course the Tigers couldn’t find room. Deciding, belatedly, that you really do want some guys who run but don’t hit and then paying through the nose for an old guy who has been doing that for a while? Not smart. I have the feeling – just a feeling – that if the Tigers had held onto Jeff Kobernus and Quintin Berry instead of Don Kelly and Matt Tuiasosopo (though neither was awful for a reserve last year) you’d like the roster a bit better right now.

In general I am not in favor of guys who can’t hit but can run. I am in favor of guys who can hit and can score from second even if they don’t steal any bases. What I am particularly opposed to is spending money on steals such that you then can’t spend it on guys who can actually hit and/or pitch.

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