Detroit Tigers’ Steve Lombardozzi: Is There Potential for More?


July 15, 2012; Miami, FL, USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Stephen Lombardozzi (1) makes a catch during the fifth inning against the Miami Marlins at Marlins Park. Nationals won 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Tigers’ depth is being tested already. Jose Iglesias is down with shin splits, and Andy Dirks is on the shelf for at least two months. Additional injuries are really more a question of when not if.

Everyone knows the Tigers farm system lacks many (any?) sexy major-league ready prospects. And Detroit’s bench has been thin the last couple of years, mostly filled with older veterans entering the decline phase of their careers or journeymen with no record of success.

The facts above bring me to the purpose of this post: to revisit, one more time, the “trade whose name shall not be mentioned.”  No, not the whole trade, just the part of the deal that brought the scrappy utility player with the last name bound to compete with the new third baseman for Most Misspelled Tiger of 2014.

When the trade went down in December, Steve Lombordozi, oops, that’s Lombardozzi, seemed the proverbial throw in. The number four starter who pitched like a two or three and the two lefties with big arms dominated the debate. Steve Lombardozzi didn’t figure into the conversation much. Lombardozzi really only had himself to blame for that. As many of his Washington teammates, he didn’t have a great 2013 season.

It might surprise you then that Lombardozzi was once considered a solid prospect. Baseball Prospectus, John Sickels, and other prospect mavens touted him as a potential starter in the major leagues, probably at 2B. No one forecast stardom. But many expected him to be at minimum an above average utility man. In 2012, his first full season in the major leagues, he posted an OPS+ of 82 (100 is average for all players; his stat line was .273/317/354 in 416 plate appearances). That’s not All-Star caliber or even starter worthy, but it’s better than you might think. Let’s look at the second basemen, Lombardozzi’s natural position, from the National League’s five playoff teams in 2012, plus the Dodgers, who won 86 games, and the Tigers.

Omar Infante (as a Tiger): 257/283/.668  78 OPS+

Dan Uggla (Braves): 98 OPS +

Daniel Descalso (Cards) 72

Ryan Theriot (Giants) 83

Mark Ellis (Dodgers) 93

Brandon Phillips (Reds) 99

Danny Espinosa (Nats) 93

All but one outperformed Lombardozzi but some not by much. And here’s the key: all but Descalso (who was 25) were older than 30. Lombo (anyone ever call him this?), on the other hand, was just 23. Only Infante and Descalso, who had a cup of coffee, on the above list had even made it to the major leagues by age 23. Most of these guys were still playing in AA. The takeaway:  a shade below average offensive performance from a 23-year old middle infielder with a respectable glove is anything but alarming. Does it tempt upper management to offer a long-term deal? Of course not. But it certainly merits keeping him around, especially when that player posted the following as a prospect:

AAA (22 years old): 310/354/408

AA (21 and 22): 305/368/474

A+ (21): 293/370/409

A (20): 296/375/322

October 2, 2012; Washington, D.C., USA; Washington Nationals left fielder Steve Lombardozzi (1) singles in the first inning against the Philadelphia Phillies at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports

That’s decent production for a middle infielder slightly young for his level and not playing in the thin air out West. He showed a pretty good eye, hit for average, and as he matured displayed a bit of power, although that will never be his game. His glove was solid as well. As mentioned, Lombo was considered a decent prospect by scouts, someone who could start for a second division club. His first year in the majors, as a 23-year old, didn’t change this perception. Here’s what had to say about Lombardozzi in the middle of the 2012 season:

“Lombardozzi has impressed manager Davey Johnson quite a bit this season and that has become much more apparent as Johnson is finding plenty of ways to keep his bat in the lineup.  He gets some work in the infield still, but since the return of Zimmerman, Johnson has found him a spot in left field in lieu of the Xavier NadyRoger Bernadina platoon and says that he plans to continue using him there.

You’re not going to get much in the way of power, but Lombardozzi should produce a high average and throw you some decent stolen base totals as well, provided he sticks in the lineup.  Aside from his defensive versatility, Johnson loves his on-base skills, so as long as he keeps that OBP at a solid level and continues to work as he does, he could/should remain a steady fixture in the Washington lineup…”

Last year, however, Lombo regressed.  His 69 OPS+ (259/278/338 .616) followed the rest of his Nationals teammates in their race to the bottom.  It also likely explains why he was available.  Lombo’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) dipped around 15 points while his contact rate dipped about 2.5%. The former is not a huge concern going forward, the latter is something to watch.

Obviously the Tigers are hoping that 2013 was an aberration, that the patience the switch-hitting Lombo showed in the minors and the poise and good contact skills he flashed in his rookie year are the real Lombardozzi. If that man re-emerges, the Tigers will have found a valuable asset, one they can use all over the field and to replace injured starters for a spell. A combination of Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago—in their primes. And remember he is only 25. There is still time to develop into something even more. And how about this for giggles: on Baseball Reference’s similarity score Lombo is most similar by age to Terry Pendleton, a jack-of-all-trades guy who notched 28 career WAR and won an MVP while playing for a World Series champ. Baseball is nothing without hope, right?

More realistically, the Tigers can at least hope for a backup with real bite, something they’ve lacked the last couple of years.  And something that would help further justify a certain trade.