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.

Detroit Tigers: JD Martinez and Detroit’s Experience With Out-of-Nowhere Hitters

Dating back to the “Great Chris Shelton Hot Streak” of 2005, the Detroit Tigers have grown accustomed to hitters coming out of the woodwork (relatively speaking) and making an impact.

Take Shelton for example, he hit a robust .345 in the first half of the season in 2005. Over that span is OPS was .970. Then came the second half were he regressed to a still-respectable .279 batting average and .826 OPS.

Shelton got off to another solid start in 2006 when he hit .282 in the first half, coupled with an .857 OPS. For a time, it seemed that he would continue a moderately high level of play. But once again, the second half struck. Shelton’s batting average regressed to .236. His slugging percentage dropped from .508 in the first half to .292 in the second. His OPS also dipped, going from .857 to .595. That and a .231 batting average at home contributed to him being off the team. He found his next taste of big league action in Texas during the 2008 season were he hit .216. A number that portrayed him more accurately as a hitter than the .345 clip did.

It would seem that the Tigers had another Shelton type on their hands when rookie Brennan Boesch burst onto the scene in 2010 with a nearly identical, Shelton-esque .342 batting average and .990 OPS in the first half. Unlike Shelton, Boesch numbers tanked dropped like a lead weight. His second half batting average was a paltry .163 and his OBP was more than halved, going from .990 to .458. From everything Boesch did in the second half, it seemed like the Tigers had another Chris Shelton on their hands—however, that would change as the rookie posted a solid sophomore season.

The fifth place finisher in the 2010 Rookie of the Year voting posted a solid .283 batting average and a .799 OPS. In addition, his first and second half numbers weren’t separated by a continent sized chasm— .289 was Boesch’s batting average in the first half, while the second half brought a .276 line.

It took longer than Shelton, but Boesch eventually succumbed, his batting average in 2012 was .240. His OBP was .659. A full .140 points lower than 2011’s. He wasn’t with the team by the start of the next season.

As it is right now, Detroit has found a third hitter who has come out of nowhere, JD Martinez. This time, they’re hoping the story plays out a little differently.

Martinez’ first half numbers are very similar to both Shelton and Boesch. He hit .346 in the first part of the season with a 1.035 OPS. In addition to those gaudy numbers, Martinez has added a presence that Detroit desperately needed in the middle of the lineup. In most cases, Brad Ausmus will deploy some combination of Ian Kinsler, Rajai Davis, Torii Hunter, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez in the first four spots in the lineup. Outside of those five the team’s hitters aren’t nearly as potent. Or at least that was the case heading into the season. JD Martinez’ arrival has added much needed power to the teeth of the lineup—power that also extends the lineup and gives it more depth.

His numbers haven’t tanked as badly as Boesch’s did, but Martinez splits are significantly different. He’s hitting .261 in the second half with a .723 OPS. However, there is reason to believe that he’s turning things around mid-decline. Over the last 14 days, the former Astro owns .327 batting average and a .836 OPS. Martinez is clearly turning it around, and that can only be good news for the Tigers.

Tigers’ hitters to come out of nowhere on hot streaks have had their faults. Shelton struggled to hit at home (in addition to his decline) and Boesch couldn’t sustain success after pitchers started throwing more off-speed offerings and less of the steady diet of fastballs that he had been feasting on. Martinez however, hits at home (.318 batting average) and looks to be sustaining his success. If the numbers of the last few weeks tell us anything, it is that JD Martinez is here to stay in Detroit.

 

 

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