When does that dent in the cushion become too much of a problem? In other words, as it pertains to the Detroit Tigers, at what point will injuries wipe out the perceived gap between the Tigers and the rest of the division?
Injuries have dominated the news about the Tigers over the last couple of weeks. Andy Dirks is gone for 2-3 months and Jose Iglesias and Bruce Rondon are looking at lost seasons. That’s one-and-a-half starters down and a key middle reliever out for a long time. To add insult to injury, literally, Rajai Davis and Anibal Sanchez are also battling minor aliments. It’s enough to make one wonder if the Tigers are slipping back to the pack in the Central.
Most projection systems had the Tigers winning the Central by a comfortable margin. One of the best, Clay Davenport, projects the Tigers to win 88 games, which is six games better than the second place Indians (and boy does this underscore how little love the rest of the Central is getting). Davenport, unlike many other projection systems, attempts to factor in playing time when determining an individual player’s contributions. The above projection was made after Dirks’ injury was announced but before Iglesias’s issues became so grave and Rondon’s season-ending injury.
It appears giving Dirks’ lost time to Don Kelly and some other replacement level left-handed bats, which is what Davenport has done, does little to shake things up in the Division. But what happens now that Iglesias is out indefinitely? Here is where things get a little bizarre. Below are Iglesias’ full season WAR (wins above replacement) projections by three of the top projection systems:
Davenport: 1.2 (based on about 460 plate appearances)
That’s an average of 1.7 WAR. If Iglesias fails to play at all this season, and assuming the Tigers replace him with 0.0 WAR player, that knocks off another couple of games. But it still leaves Detroit a healthy lead in the division.
(Just as I was finishing up this post the Tigers traded for the Angels’ Andrew Romine, a 28-year old utility infielder with a some major league experience and a strong glove. They parted with Jose Alvarez, a pitcher the organization deemed expendable. Romine is a replacement level answer who didn’t cost much at all.) But what if the Tigers had show complete restraint and settled on an internal option at shortstop. Here are the projections for Eugenio Suarez, the Tigers top SS prospect
Davenport: 0.1 (but based on only 30 PA)
Whoa. Let’s unpack this a little. For starters, Oliver likes Suarez over Iglesias—period. At first blush, this seems nuts. At second blush, it still doesn’t make sense. But then take look at the more conservative projections, by ZIPs and Davenport. Davenport’s projection assumes Suarez spends most of the season in the minors. But his full season projection for Suarez is 2.1 WAR. Damn, there we go again. Even if you don’t buy these bullish projections—and it’s mostly wise not to—ZIPS’ 1.0 WAR would suit the Tigers just fine. And honestly, so would a 0.0 WAR. The Tigers season will not swing on whether Detroit could have found a sexy replacement, such as Stephen Drew, for Iglesias. Suarez, who has made a strong impression this spring, or even the recycled Danny Worth (check out Blair Tatrault’s excellent case for Worth from yesterday) could have filled Iglesias’s shoes very well, thank you. We now see that the Tigers were uncomfortable turning the position over to either Suarez or Worth. But even if Romine crashes the Tigers should still be fine at the position.
On to Rondon. Most middle relievers are pretty fungible. Rondon, at this point in his career, fits neatly into this narrative. That’s doesn’t make his loss any less nerve wracking for the Tigers, who were counting on Rondon to record important late inning outs. As for the projections, Rondon’s average among the top systems was about one WAR. Some of his possible replacements from within the organization, such as Evan Reed, come in, around average, at slightly less than half a win. That’s only a half win difference, still keeping Detroit out of the danger zone. I wouldn’t be surprised, however, if the Tigers consider picking up someone on the cheap outside the organization, which could neutralize the loss or even turn it into a positive (for this season).
If all of these projection systems, which have become more and more accurate as they’ve been fine-tuned over the years, are in the ballpark, the Tigers, it appears, can overcome the injuries they’ve suffered to date. They certainly don’t need to resort to any desperate measures, and I don’t consider giving up Jose Alvarez a desperate measure.
A serious injury to another starter, however, could start to gouge away at the gap between the Tigers and their Central Division foes. Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, et al, the stars, well the Tigers really have no suitable replacements for them. Then again, what team in major league baseball could easily replace a star? Losing Cabrera could wipe out entirely the preseason projection gap. The loss of Verlander, Max Scherzer or Anibal Sanchez would really shake the foundation as well. It would essentially be “Game On” for the rest of the division. The Tigers could probably still lose another second-line starter and win the division, assuming the core of stars stays healthy. But Detroit would rather not test this hypothesis.
Of course, most baseball seasons, like life itself, hardly proceed as planned. It’s a good bet that one or more of the Tigers’ Central Division foes will beat their preseason projections and it will be “Game On” no matter what the Tigers’ injury situation is. To restate a hoary cliché, “that’s why they play the games.”
The Tigers are just hoping they don’t have to play too many of them with more backups and Plan Bs.