How the Tigers Can Take the Central Crown. Hint: His Name is Cliff Lee

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This is the sixth and last part of the WAR-based 2010 retrospective, this time looking at why we wound up behind the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox and what we need to do to retake the top spot in the division. Surprisingly, it’s quite a bit easier to nail down what we lack that the Twins and White Sox have than it is to say what advantages we have over Cleveland and KC. And it isn’t what most of you probably expect.

I’ll make one thing clear right off the bat: The Tigers’ position players weren’t a liability in 2010. The Tigers’ 22.4 offensive WAR was a bit worse than the Twins’ 25.2 but quite a bit better than the White Sox’ 18.0. What’s more, oWAR is only one part of position players’ contribution. On the defensive end the Tigers were far better than the Twins or the White Sox. Our dWAR was 1.9, well above league average, but the Twins and White Sox were an abysmal -3.2 and -3.4 respectively. If we count total WAR contributions of Tigers position players we wind up with 24.3 WAR; compared to the Twins’ 22.0 and the White Sox’ 14.6.

This should give cause for caution to those who advise throwing large sums at players like Adam Dunn and Victor Martinez. Yes, we scored fewer runs than the Twins last year – but a part of that was the conscious decision by Tigers management to give playing time to gloves where bats were scarce. If you count his defense, Ramon Santiago was better than Derek Jeter by a wide margin this year. I wouldn’t mind signing VMart, because catcher has been such a weak spot for the Tigers ever since Ivan Rodriguez‘ suspicious loss of mass – but his glove offsets a big chunk of what he adds with his bat.

If Dunn is allowed to go near a glove, his net contribution to a team is league average at best. As an example: in 2009 Dunn posted a .928 OPS, but only 0.9 total WAR (+3.9 with the bat, -3.0 with the glove) – it takes a special player to hurt his team that much on defense. Even if he could be convinced to DH full time, and he has stated that he is not interested in signing with a team that would use him that way, he would have a lot of competition on the market for that role. Good DHs are not hard to find, there is a reason no-one put much effort into pursuing Jermaine Dye.   David Ortiz’s .899 OPS and 3.3 WAR last year are probably just about Dunn’s ceiling in 2011 as an AL DH. That’s probably better than the Tigers could do with anyone else (except Jim Thome), but it’s probably no more than 1 win better than likely alternatives (Ordonez, etc…), and probably not the best use of the money.