Quiet Before The Storm
By Chris Hannum
It appears that two related factors are keeping hot stove motions in a holding pattern: Tuesdays formal announcement of the new collective bargaining agreement and Wednesdays deadline for offering arbitration to potential free agents. Since the CBA looks to have an impact on draft pick compensation (as well as other, less direct impacts) what exactly happens on Tuesday will matter a great deal when making decisions on Wednesday. And, of course, strategic planning regarding Wednesdays offers will shape a team’s whole offseason.
We’ve heard rumors before that Type-B status would be immediately scrapped, now it seems more likely that this won’t take effect until next offseason. We’ve also heard that low-level Type-A’s would no longer cost the signing team a pick, now we hear that this may only apply to relievers and what’s more will not change anything for deals which are inked before the CBA becomes official – like Philadelphia’s Papelbon signing. The most important impact would have been on the cost of signing Kelly Johnson, but since he may be the only non-reliever whose ability to find a suitor is truly hampered by his Type-A status I doesn’t seem fair to argue that special clauses ought to be written into the CBA for his case alone.
If – and this looks unlikely at this point, but not impossible since we haven’t heard the full details of the CBA – Kelly Johnson falls out of Type-A, I would hope that the Tigers pounce with a three-year deal. No, he’s not the perfect player, but he’s the best free agent option and getting an equivalent player (as opposed to the hope that a prospect acquired would develop into an equivalent player) would probably require more of the Tigers’ farm system than we’d be willing to stomach. If Delmon Young could actually be flipped for Martin Prado or something of his ilk, that might be better – but it doesn’t look like anyone is going to be willing to do that.
If – and this actually does look likely – Type-B compensation sticks around for another year, I would hope that the Tigers offer Wilson Betemit arbitration on Wednesday. Despite being a very similar player to Delmon Young all around, Betemit will certainly be awarded far less than Young in arbitration – so the ‘potential cost’ should he sign wouldn’t be all that hard for the team to accomodate. Dombrowski’s recent musings suggest that he doesn’t feel that the team can fit platoons on the 25 for next season with Gerald Laird as a genuine backup catcher and Victor Martinez as a full-time DH. This certainly suggests that he doesn’t intend to make a play for Betemit, but I don’t think it’s a valid reason. [Though Betemit’s embarrassing flailings in the playoffs might be…]
Whispers are that the team will be likely be platooning at third anyway, using Don Kelly to balance Inge from the left side. That would combine with five outfielders and Laird to eat up the team’s whole bench, while still leaving the team with a lack of infield depth. Now, nobody actually knows who’s going to be playing second base for the Tigers next year. If it turns out to be Ryan Raburn, then the team’s outfield surplus is an issue no more – but Raburn is universally acknowledged to be incapable of properly fielding the position and to be an option only in utter desperation. If it turns out to be Ramon Santiago or another player who can play decent shortstop, then at least the problem of a backup for Peralta goes away.
So how do we get out of this roster crunch? Well, the first is obvious: teams shouldn’t keep 5 outfielders unless one of them is going to DH a significant portion of the time. That definitely isn’t going to be the case in Detroit. If a team has four outfielders, the fourth outfielder ought to be able to play all three outfield positions. Boesch, Raburn and Young could ‘play’ center, but only in the same sense that Adam Dunn can ‘play’ right field. Andy Dirks can do it, but apparently can’t do it well enough. Don Kelly can do it with style. Even if he’s only a replacement level bat, Don Kelly is so good in the outfield that he’d be a league-average player overall – which is roughly the same production we’d expect from Delmon Young in a rebound year. If the team is in desperate straits, Don Kelly can also fill in at any infield position – even short – something Andy Dirks obviously wouldn’t be able to do. At third, Kelly is barely above average – since instincts and reflexes matter far more than footspeed. The clear first step is that either Young, Raburn or Boesch needs to be moved. That’s shouldn’t be too hard, all of them have some value and none have big contracts hanging over their heads, and some of the rumors we’ve heard suggest that Dombrowski has been trying to do exactly that. The next step is to let Andy Dirks simmer in AAA and await an injury or implosion for a shot at a starting outfield role.
If the team has only four outfielders and the fourth is Kelly, there are two reserve spots available in the infield and two empty positions to fill. No reason that both couldn’t be filled with platoons. Inge can’t hit righties and can’t field quite well enough to compensate for the lack of a bat. The team does need an upgrade, at the very least a guy who can hit right-handed pitching. It wouldn’t be impossible, by any stretch of the imagination, to find a long-term answer at third through the trade market (though virtually impossible among free agents). While I think that is probably the right way to go – one way or another – at second, I don’t think the situation at third (though equally dire at the moment) should be resolved the same way. Inge is under contract, capable of a contribution but a contribution wholly out of proportion to the money involved. I doubt he could be traded, so the money would simply have to be eaten. There is no equivalent issue at second. The Tigers top position prospect plays third, not second, and it isn’t outside the realm of possibility that he could be ready for the plunge by spring 2013. A fairer timetable would put him in Detroit by September, 2013 but this still suggests that what the Tigers need (as far as length of commitment) is exactly what they had in mind when the re-signed Inge to begin with. Definitely need a third baseman for 2012 – maybe for 2013 (hence the club option).
The logical thing to do – if possible – is to find a full-time second baseman, a guy who can back up at second and short and a platoon partner for Brandon Inge who doesn’t require a lot of money, a lot of years, or any kind of compensation in return. Betemit fits the bill. In arbitration, we’d get exactly the cheap one-year deal we’d be looking for. If he didn’t accept, we’d get a sandwich pick and the opportunity to look elsewhere. Either way, we should be looking for a non-Kelly partner for Inge and we should be looking for a cheap one. Kelly simply is not a good option at third – though he does have real value elsewhere. Paying through the nose for a ‘real third baseman’ also doesn’t look like the best use of the team’s resources (particularly if those resources are trade chips). As for making Inge a full-timer again? I don’t think you’d find may people out there who like that idea.