Mar 16, 2014; Melbourne, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers catcher Bryan Holaday (50) bats against the Washington Nationals in spring training action at Space Coast Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports
Yes, yes, yes, Miguel Cabrera will get things figured out and return to being one of the top hitters in the game. He’s currently responsible for only 10% of Tiger home runs, rather than his usual 25%. That will change. The thing is – that might not be enough to make the Tigers offense upper tier.
Though Cabrera hasn’t been his old self, the other Tigers cogs have been doing well – in certain cases better than we should reasonably expect. Rajai Davis‘ very low strikeout rate will float back up, and he won’t be hitting at this clip. Torii Hunter probably isn’t going to be launching balls out of the park at anything like this clip, we’ll be happy with 20 HR but hoping for 40? Expecting rookie Nick Castellanos and Austin Jackson to keep up this clip (as far as slugging in concerned) is probably unrealistic too. Regression to the mean by these other Tigers who have hit very well through the team’s first 10 games would cancel out the regression to the mean by Miguel Cabrera. And let us not forget: it may never have been reasonable to expect Cabrera to keep up his recent pace – maybe this will be a .900 OPS year for him by September’s end.
For the Tigers offense to be better than average (I hope not just for the Tigers offense to be AL average) the Tigers are going to need to get something out of their lineup black holes. Others have written extensively about the damage it does to a team to have regulars in the lineup hitting well below replacement level, so I won’t go into that kind of detail here. What the Tigers need is somebody to do a little hitting when Davis isn’t in the lineup or isn’t hitting (as should start to happen soon), somebody that can hit a little at short and somebody that can hit a little behind the plate. Unfortunately, these were the positions that (due to injury mainly) we had the least confidence in entering the season. We have no reason, through 10 games, to have any more confidence in Tyler Collins, Alex Gonzalez or Andrew Romine who have small sample OPS numbers of .343, .532 and .298 respectively.
It’s too early to pull the plug on anyone, obviously, and finding out exactly what they have in Tyler Collins and Andrew Romine in particular has value in and of itself – providing they aren’t costing the team wins. But… it would appear that the only real strategy that the team is going to follow – or even could reasonably follow based on the costs of any other plan of action – will be to wait until the end of the month or the end of the 40 game observation window (if Ausmus manages by rule of thumb like Jim Leyland) and switch these guys out for worthies in Toledo if they continue to fail to get the job done just as they have so far. Unfortunately, though the guys in Toledo are doing just fine against AAA competition right now (especially JD Martinez, who is on a tear) those guys are anything but sure bets to provide replacement level bats in the majors as well. I could see Collins being the first to get the boot – since it took a lot of convincing to get him on the 25 to begin with. Martinez, being a righty, probably isn’t going to get the call unless someone gets hurt but Ezequiel Carrera has been pretty sharp to start the season – including 5 steals in 11 games. If Hernan Perez and Danny worth can keep their batting numbers looking like they look right now (.289/.365/.422 and .351/.400/.486), Gonzalez and Romine will have to do a lot better than this to keep their jobs for long.
The catcher conundrum is different… everyone and their mother has been writing condemnations of Alex Avila already. He has not hit well so far this season. Expectations of his bat have probably been excessively high – thanks to his unsustainable production a few years back – but we definitely had hopes of a .700 OPS from him, which from a catcher isn’t really bad. Despite the small sample it is a real area of concern because Avila hasn’t been “unlucky” on balls in play, he has a potentially unsustainable BABIP of .333 – he just hasn’t put anything into play so far. If Avila is striking out 50% of the time, despite facing mostly righties, something is very, very wrong. Unfortunetly, I’d argue that the biggest problem isn’t even whether or not and when Avila gets his groove back it’s the lack of a suitable backup plan.
If Avila isn’t hitting, Avila should be catching less. There’s no reason to put a guy with massive platoon splits and persistent tendinitis of the knees out there to catch 4 of every 5 or 9 of every 10 games – except for the reason that the Tigers actually have: no confidence in Brian Holaday. Avila’s .130 slugging percentage is terrible, but at the moment it’s .130 points higher than Holaday’s. His .259 OBP, also bad. .259 points higher than Holaday’s. The Tigers brass made the executive decision that allocating funds to a backup almost good enough to start, like Brayan Pena, wasn’t going to be the best use of scarce funds that could go to relievers or Rajai Davis this year. That decision, to go with Holaday instead, amounted to a plan to minimize the damage by minimizing playing time and crossing their and our fingers. There wasn’t and isn’t any particular reason to expect Holaday to be a replacement level or better catcher. At the moment, there isn’t for James McCann either – though we can hope that will change. And that means that the Tigers have no realistic way to mitigate the damage wrought by a deep and prolonged slump from Avila. I think of the issue this way: we’re stuck with weak O from Collins, Gonzalez and Romine due to the injuries to Andy Dirks and Jose Iglesias. For all intents and purposes, the effect of Avila’s slump is the same: we’re stuck either getting more of Holaday’s weak O or getting a performance from Avila himself that mimics Holaday’s weak O. Had the Tigers spent a little to get a backup like Kelly Shoppach or John Buck, they wouldn’t find themselves in that particular predicament.
The sad truth is that these 5 guys account for about 23% of Tiger plate appearances so far and that percentage isn’t going down. As a group they’re batting .128 with only 1 extra base hit and 26 strikeouts in 78 at bats. Unless that gets significantly better soon – even to something like a .240/.290./.340 line the Tigers offense overall is going to stay subpar.