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

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As the Hot Stove season opens, I would argue that the Tigers have little need to make a move on the offensive side. Signing top-tier sluggers like Dunn or Martinez would make a marginal improvement, but not nearly enough to get us to the top of the division. We’re 12 WAR behind Minnesota, 4.4 behind the Sox, and a +1 from Dunn still leaves us out of contention by the end of August. To gain that much ground the first step is to find the biggest hole and the second is to fill it with the biggest boulder around.

The place we’re weakest is the back end of the rotation and that’s where our search for answers should start. The best thing about signing starting pitching is that 5th starter isn’t a position.

Dunn has to DH, even if the Tigers biggest (offensive) hole is at second base. We could throw $15 million per at Dunn and get one marginal win, for that reason alone. We could throw $22 million per at Cliff Lee and get 6-7 marginal wins… I can tell you what looks like the better deal to me. There’s a reason the Yankees targeted C.C. Sabathia specifically, he was the one guy who was actually worth the massive contract they would have to give him.

If Lee won’t talk, my second option would be (assuming he clears the physical) a clause-laden big-money contract for Brandon Webb like the one we gave Magglio Ordonez. The Cardinals contend year after year in a mid-sized market with a Stars-and-Scrubs lineup, so could we.

As a second starter, Justin Verlander looks amazing – as a third starter Max Scherzer looks even better. As a fourth starter, I can tolerate the aura of unfulfilled potential that surrounds Rick Porcello – we’re certainly not going to send him down or ship him out but he can’t exactly be relied upon at this point either. I have no problem with a fifth slot used as a revolving door for prospect trial runs… maybe Oliver can hold down a spot, maybe not. If he can’t, maybe somebody else can.

Coke doesn’t excite me in the rotation, but in the bullpen he’s a tremendous asset. Since we need to get another 4 WAR out of the ‘pen to match the cream of the division, taking Coke away would make that task even harder. Some of that needed bullpen improvement must come internally, and for that we can only hope and pray. Valverde is going to be our closer in 2011… we need him to be a 2-3 WAR closer, not a 1.2. Since the closer role is taken, we have little to attract the best of the free-agent fireballers.

Our young arms have shown that they have talent in the minors, now they have to show that they can handle the pressure of the show (I’m talking to you, Weinhardt). That condition is especially pressing if Zumaya isn’t able to contribute at all next year.

There is one bullpen move that, I believe, will have to come from outside the division. Brad Thomas won’t duplicate the numbers he put up this year, I wouldn’t duplicate the contract he was given. Fu-Te Ni, it would seem, can’t be trusted in any game situation other than BP. The Tigers’ desperately need a genuine LOOGY, which Phil Coke is not (nor is Schlereth). It could be that a healthy Seay fills that role, or it could be from outside the organization, but it should be (and probably is already thought of as) a high priority.