Detroit Tigers Off-Season: How and Why the Bench Must be Improved

Bench

While the bullpen is, and will continue to be the biggest blemish on the Tigers’ roster, the bench isn’t spectacular either. More depth and quality will be needed in late-inning situations. Yes, the Tigers lineup is fantastic, but sometimes the bottom half of the lineup pales in comparison to the top half. And, as such is much easier to retire. This was brought into focus in the ninth inning of the second and third games of the ALDS against Baltimore as the bottom half wasn’t able to carry out or continue rallies with the game on the line. The Tigers need better hitters off the bench. Whether they arrive via waiver wire, the trade market, free agency, or what have you, help is needed. Dave Dombrowski has to be particularly active in fixing this during the offseason to improve the team’s chances for next year.

Dombrowski has become adept at plucking hitters out of relative obscurity and then watching them become contributing members on the team. He found Quintin Berry, who ended up being a godsend thanks to his added burst of speed into a slow lineup. Swiss army knife/utility specialist Don Kelly was another find. Matt Tuiasosopo was yet another find who provided Jim Leyland with a power hitting alternative off the bench in the legendary skipper’s final season. However, the greatest find may be that of JD Martinez. The former Astro was picked up by Detroit and, after fixing some mechanics with his swing, turned into a legitimate, middle of the order bat.

The Tigers need more production off the bench. Dombrowski isn’t going to find a JD Martinez in every transaction, but he should be actively looking for bench bats.

Yes, the Tigers’ starting lineup is fantastic, but their bench is comparatively futile. With the exception of Kelly, who has a knack for showing up in playoff games, there isn’t much to scare opposing managers or pitchers. Outfielder Ezequiel Carrera is light-hitting at best and is known more for his speed than anything. Andrew Romine and Eugenio Suarez manned shortstop for Brad Ausmus in 2014. With defensive wizard Jose Iglesias returning from injury next season, and neither shortstop’s play screaming “KEEP ME!” Detroit could look for a better hitting infielder. Another middle infielder, Hernan Perez shows the potential to be a solid two-way player, but if he wasn’t ready to play full time in the big leagues, or if he was unable to unseat Romine or Suarez, he certainly won’t surpass Iglesias next season.

Dombrowski needs to give Ausmus more pop off the bench. Catcher is an area where this could be achieved. Bryan Holaday hit .231 this season and the team might seek an upgrade to backup Alex Avila.

Avila is in a different situation. The Tigers’ starting catcher, who suffered yet another concussion during the season ending loss to Baltimore, should be moved into a backup role, or at least a platoon. This would not only minimize the inexplicably severe beating the he takes and preserve his health, but also allow Detroit to find an offensive upgrade. Avila grades out as a good defensive backstop, but hasn’t been able to replicate his offensive output of 2011 when he drove in 82 runs, garnered MVP votes and earned Silver Slugger and All Star honors.

Acquiring a new catcher to partner with Avila would be prudent. The job may go to James McCann. The Tigers’ top catching prospect is a defensive-minded backstop who also hit .295 in AAA. He’s no Victor Martinez offensively, but the .295 line is an encouraging sign from a player thought to reach the Majors because of his defense.

If catching reinforcements are looked for externally, Russell Martin or Evan Gattis would be ideal fits. Martin, one of the best at his position in the game, grades out favorably defensively and provides pop (47 home runs over the last three years) and the ability to hit for average (he hit .290 this past season). Detroit may lose yet another first round draft pick if they sign Martin, but if the former Dodger is the missing piece in terms of winning the World Series, then there should be no hesitation.

Gattis’ calling card, meanwhile, is his bat. The Braves’ slugger hit 22 home runs in only 108 games for Atlanta. Pairing him with the comparatively defensively superior Avila would be perfect. While Gattis’ bat can provide extreme power, his defense isn’t anything special. Platooning him with Avila would make his defensive deficiencies less of a sore thumb. Plus, Gattis has shown that he can be productive without playing every day. This partnership would also save Avila some physical punishment behind the plate. Gattis won’t come cheap in terms of what the Tigers will have to give up to acquire him, but the second year player isn’t arbitration eligible until 2016 at the earliest and won’t hit free agency until 2019. He made a little over $520,000 last year. This is exactly the kind of player a team looking to save money like Detroit needs—an extremely productive hitter who can play a large role without costing much. He also has played in left field for Atlanta. He’s not Gold Glove worthy playing there, but he does have the experience. Something that would come in handy if Brad Ausmus needed to wedge in an extra bat in a must-win playoff game.

Lastly, the Tigers could, at the very least, use some depth in the outfield. Rajai Davis can get by defensively in center field, so an alignment of JD Martinez, Davis and Torii Hunter (if he returns) in the outfield wouldn’t be bad. In fact, it may win them the division again, but it probably won’t deliver a World Series. Signing an impact center fielder may be out of the question. Colby Rasmus is the most enticing option on the market, but the former Blue Jay may be more appealing, and better suited, to more of a rebuilding team like the Cubs or Astros than Detroit. Speaking of the Astros, Houston’s centerfielder, Dexter Fowler, would present a quality target. It may take a lot to pry him away from the Lone Star state, but the former Colorado player would mesh perfectly in Motown with his mix of speed and pop. Other potentially available center fielders such as Desmond Jennings, Denard Span or Peter Bourjos would all be attainable as well as being logical fits in the Tigers’ lineup.

Bringing in a new, starting caliber center fielder would be advantageous in numerous ways for Detroit. First, it would fix any issues defensively at the position. As much as Rajai Davis fits the profile of an old-school center fielder in terms of speed, he’s predominantly a corner outfielder. Having a center fielder who is more accustomed to playing the position defensively would provide an upgrade. Pushing Davis to the bench or into a role where he would potentially spell the aging Torii Hunter would greatly improve the pinch-hitting options. Throw in a healthy Andy Dirks, a couple of scrap-heap/waiver wire pickups and more polished versions of Stephen Moya and Tyler Collins and the Tigers all of a sudden have a plethora of outfielders who could contribute. Injuries and slumps are about as common as the changing of the seasons, so having too many options is a good problem to have.

The Tigers’ offense has long been deemed one of the best in baseball—maybe the best. But over that span the team hasn’t had the most fearsome bench. The bullpen will need some help too, but changing the bench could help make the difference in finally winning a World Series.

 

All stats courtesy of http://www.baseball-reference.com/ unless otherwise noted.

Can’t Live Without ‘Em: American League

(Disclaimer: You can live without these players, it certainly doable.)

Injuries happen. Trades happen. Prolonged, bench-worthy stints occur. Players might not be there.

Whether that player is your everyday superstar or fourth outfielder, the loss means something. But in the case of the superstar, it can sometimes mean a lot.

Teams and the Players They Can’t Live Without:

(Starting in the AL West and moving east through the AL, I’ll have another one coming soon on the NL.)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: None. Not kidding in the slightest. Even if their big, new-fangled signing Albert Pujols breaks down at some point, either Kendrys Morales or Mark Trumbo will be there to step in. Rotation-wise, I might say Jered Weaver simply because his replacement won’t likely come close to his production.

Texas Rangers- Joe Nathan. Again, not what you’d think. If the Rangers lose any one of their infielders Michael Young will step in more than adequately. The outfield is a little more in question, but Craig Gentry usually gets the job done. I say Nathan because, while Texas has depth in the bullpen, it isn’t necessarily closer depth. Koji Uehara, Mike Adams and Alexi Ogando only have 18 saves combined in their careers, and 13 of them are Uehara’s. (Just a quick aside, Mike Adams is an almost-less-than pedestrian 4-20 in save opportunities in his career. If you’re doing the math at home, yes Ogando only has one career save.) All that is basically blogspeak for: The Rangers might go into a colossal bullpen-tailspin if Nathan can’t hold it down.

Oakland A’s- Yoenis Cespedes or Jemile Weeks. It’s not as if the Athletics can’t live without them, or play for that matter. It’s that they probably wouldn’t like to stunt the players growth/developments (whatever term lights your fire).

Seattle Mariners- Chone Figgins. I’d say Jesus Montero for reasons listed above, but the M’s need the Figgy Pudding to maintain his trade value by playing well.

 

Detroit Tigers- Justin Verlander. The Tigers, like the Angels, have good depth. Also like the Angels, the potential loss of the reigning MVP would only hurt Detroit from the standpoint that the replacement couldn’t put up Verlander’s numbers unless his name is Felix Hernandez.

Kansas City Royals- Either of the Corner Infielders. Just as with Oakland, KC needs their young players to get time under their respective belts. The loss of a potential trade candidate like a Mitch Maier or Jeff Francoeur could also endanger those players’ trade values.

Chicago White Sox- Adam Dunn. The Sox need Dunn to stay healthy so he can prove that his signing wasn’t a complete-and-utter waste. The potential loss of Paul Konerko could send this team into the cellar after the way they played last year. Dayan Viciedo could benefit from getting a good deal of playing time as well.

Cleveland Indians- Asdrubal Cabrera and Ubaldo Jimenez. Cabrera is at the center of everything the team does on both sides of the box score. Jimenez, meanwhile, needs to prove that the Rockies didn’t straight-up rob the Indians’ entire store of prospects.

(Weird side note, have you noticed that a lot of the Indians players previously played in Seattle? Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Casey Kotchman, Derek Lowe, Jack Hannahan and Jose Lopez all donned Mariners uniforms. Weird.)

Minnesota Twins- Whoever is Producing Well at the Time. The Twins have been ransacked by injuries in recent years. They have gone from division champ and perennial sacrifice to the Yankees in the ALDS to basement dweller. To give you more of an idea of how far the Twins have fallen, when you type in “Minnesota” and then a “t” to start the word “twins” you get “Minnesota Timberwolves” as your top suggestion. That’s right, the Twins have fallen past the T-Wolves.

 

New York Yankees- CC Sabathia. The Yankees acquired pitching in the offseason. I’ll give them that, but the loss of their ace could be detrimental. As it is the Yankees seem like they will be a playoff team, whether that is as a wild card or a division winner remains to be seen. Here’s a quick rundown of the AL East as it is for me. Tampa and these Yankees are head and shoulders above the rest of the division. Boston and a not-so-far-behind Toronto are in the next tier that seems to be fighting for a wild card berth. Obviously that leaves Baltimore at the bottom, but we’re moving on. The potential loss of Sabathia drops New York more towards the Sox and Blue Jays than Tampa.

Tampa Bay Rays- Carl Crawford Matt Garza Jason Bartlett. The Rays have shown in the past that when an injury hits, or they lose a player to free agency or trade, they recover. Honestly, Evan Longoria would probably sting the most to lose, but the Rays will probably find a way to replace him. Cause that’s how they roll (as the kids say).

Boston Red Sox- Adrian Gonzalez. Yes, Boston would still have Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and David Ortiz, but the rest of the offense simply isn’t there. Carl Crawford is on the shelf due to injury, leading to outfield woes that also prompted the acquisition of Marlon Byrd. Losing a player like this in the past wouldn’t have been as serious, seeing as Boston’s outfield and rotation were both much stronger than they are now. But because of those weaker factions of the team, the Red Sox might not get by if A-Gon is gone. (Sorry, had to do it.)

Toronto Blue Jays- Jose Bautista. The Jays are going to need their MVP candidate if they want to even have the smallest of smallest shots at contending. Other candidates include Adam Lind and Ricky Romero.

Baltimore Orioles- Anyone who has trade value. The Birds need some pieces, and lots of them. The rotation is a very young group, but the players in the field could use a youth infusion. Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are nice pieces, but something has to give. The O’s need to make some changes to even try to win in God knows when.