“First, do no harm.”
This ancient advice encouraged physicians not to do anything that might worsen their patient’s condition. These wise words can also be applied today to various decision-makers charged with curing the perceived ills of their organization.
Like major-league baseball general managers, for instance.
In this case the Detroit Tigers’ “illness”, so to speak, was contracted early in spring-training when starting shortstop José Iglesias fell victim to a recurrence of shin problems originally thought to be little more than a nuisance. Sidelined for the past three weeks, Iglesias has now been diagnosed with fractures in each shin, which will sideline him for most (if not all) of the 2014 season, creating a major hole at a key defensive position.
There you have the diagnosis. So what’s the recommended cure on the field?
As alluded to above, any legitimate solution-seeking process should always consider the potential harm of intervention.”Intervention” in this context means going outside the organization with the intent of spending precious resources to land a replacement shortstop.
Is that wise? Probably not, at least at this early stage of the season. Here are some popular options being bandied about the baseball world:
Sign 31 year-old, injury-prone, free agent Stephen Drew, late of the Boston Red Sox.
I think not. Not only would he cost mega-bucks, which would be better spent in other areas (e.g., extending a couple guys named Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera, remember them?), but the Tigers would forfeit their first-round draft pick in June, scheduled to be pick number 23. Very expensive surgery, indeed, with the outcome very much in doubt.
Again, a dubious palliative. Greater offense at this position usually comes with a high tariff–lesser defense. One step forward, one step back. Any clear upgrade you identify on the trade market will be expensive–are you willing to sacrifice the long-term health of your organization for a short-term cosmetic fix?
Thank you. I knew you’d see it my way.
Let’s examine then why filling the shortstop void with an internal candidate makes the most sense as the Tigers prepare to break camp in Lakeland.
First, the position of shortstop demands a strong defender–you opt for “offense first” at your own risk. Filling the position with a defensive-minded player makes sense, particularly with this pitching staff, spacious Comerica Park, and a lineup which should be able to score enough runs.
So do the Tigers have such a defensive stalwart ready to step in, you might ask?
The answer is a resounding “yes”.
His name is Danny Worth, and he’s a 28 year-old journeyman infielder with solid defensive credentials.
Simply put, Worth can pick it. He has good range, soft hands, and plenty of arm to excel at shortstop. His instincts are pure, and seven years experience as a professional middle infielder should help him adapt comfortably to new Tiger second baseman Ian Kinsler and vice versa.
Is he José Iglesias? Of course not. Iglesias’s defensive talent is rare and his spectacular play will be missed every day he’s not in the line-up.
But Worth will make most plays Iglesias would have made, and will lend a steady veteran presence to the left side of the infield. It’s easy to forget because he didn’t see much action, but Worth was on both the 2011 and 2012 Tiger postseason rosters.
Alright, then, we get the defense part. Can Danny Worth hit?
Well, not so much.
That’s a big downside, but it might not be as bad as it looks. Whether you consider his major-league career totals with the Tigers in 219 at-bats (.242/.307/.315) or 1,929 at-bats as a minor leaguer (.248/.323/.359), Worth is unlikely to instill fear into opposing pitchers. One redeeming quality he possesses, however, is an ability to hit left-handed pitching.
In fact, his major-league numbers indicate he hits over 100 points higher against lefties (.298) than righties (.191). So he’s an obvious shoo-in against port siders, but what about the right-handers?
As Worth would obviously hit ninth in the lineup, expectations would be lower than if he was hitting higher. Nor should it be forgotten the man he would be replacing, Iglesias, was not exactly a terror with the bat either. Finally, Worth could easily be pinch-hit for in the later stages of games when the Tigers needed additional offense, as Jim Leyland did at times with Jose Iglesias last year.
Who would play shortstop in those situations?
Ideally it would be someone who matches up decently against right-handed pitching. It could be switch-hitting utility man Steve Lombardozzi (who appears to hit better left-handed than right), or switch-hitting rookie Eugenio Suarez, or right-handed hitting Hernan Perez, who filled in for Omar Infante last summer.
The problem with the latter two is each could profit greatly from further minor-league experience. It doesn’t make a lot of sense for either to play intermittently in Detroit when the organization would be better served with them playing at Toledo every day.
The highest level at which 22-year-old Eugenio Suarez has played is AA–Erie, and even with that he has played only 111 games.
The 23-year-old Perez reached the majors last year as a replacement for injured second baseman Omar Infante, but hit only .197/.217/.227 in 66 at-bats.
It’s clear both Suarez and Perez are excellent prospects. But do you expose either or both to the challenge of hitting major-league pitching in the chilly spring air of April and May, and risk undermining their confidence in the event they fall flat?
Or do you send both down to the minors for more at-bats while you allow Danny Worth (with occasional spot start/late game help from Steve Lombardozzi) to anchor shortstop until either Iglesias returns or Suarez or Perez is genuinely ready for the big leagues?
The answer is clear from this perch. You add Danny Worth to the active roster and make him your everyday shortstop.
Is he a miracle cure? No. Not by a long shot.
But in this case he might be exactly what the doctor ordered.