Last season, the Detroit Tigers reached the World Series despite deep flaws and probably the sixth- or seventh-best roster in the American League. They used Delmon Young for part of the season in left field (where he was three runs below average in just 29 games, per Defensive Runs Saved) and for part of the season as their designated hitter (despite his .267/.296/.411 batting line). They gave 503 plate appearances to Brennan Boesch (.240/.286/.372 batting line). At second base, Ramon Santiago started 45 times; Ryan Raburn started 31 times; Danny Worth started 22 times; and Brandon Inge started five times.
The team seems to have fixed most all of these problems this offseason. Torii Hunter will take over right field, a huge upgrade over Boesch. Victor Martinez, who missed the whole 2012 season with a torn ACL, will return as the DH. Omar Infante came on board in a July trade, and will be the starting second baseman from Opening Day onward in 2013.
In addition to that, Anibal Sanchez signed on for the next five years, ensuring that the rotation–which went from very good to the AL’s best late in 2012–will enter 2013 as the best on the junior circuit. It’s not even especially close. This also creates, in the minds of some, a surplus of starting pitching.
The only hole left in this team is its bullpen. Phil Coke is their best (maybe only) reliable reliever, but as a lefty, is ill-suited to a fixed closing role. Jose Valverde is a free agent, and the Tigers insist they have no intention of bringing him back. In fact, they insist they can solve their relief problems from within, starting with flame-throwing prospect Bruce Rondon.
I’m not sold. Maybe Detroit genuinely thinks it’s true. From a normative perspective, though, I can’t support that conclusion. This is a World Series-caliber club, and remember, last year’s (the one that reached the real World Series) was not of that caliber. The front office can’t afford to throw away this opportunity.
To fill their relief void, many have posited that Detroit could seek to trade Rick Porcello or Drew Smyly, the two top candidates for the fifth starter’s role. I disagree, firmly. I would advocate using Smyly in long relief, both in order to hedge against injury, and because the Tigers lack depth in their relief corps as much as they lack top-shelf talent. I would not trade Porcello for a reliever, because he’s a starter, and I think he has major upside left. Think Edwin Jackson’s career path.
Nor should Detroit look to trade top prospect Nick Castellanos for a proven closer. Castellanos has more value than that. If some executive somewhere has become enamored of Avisail Garcia and offers up a great relief arm for him, fine: I’m not a Garcia fan anyway. Maybe a Carlos Marmol deal is possible. It feels unlikely, though.
Teams in this situation often try to pick the right guy out of the middle of the market. That’d mean Matt Capps or Brian Wilson, this year. It frequently does not work. Ask the Red Sox, who have acquired Andrew Bailey, Mark Melancon and Bobby Jenks in recent years, with no good things coming of it.
No, I think Detroit needs to simply bite the bullet here. Rafael Soriano is dangling out there, the best fruit left unpicked. That’s because he has been sprayed with the virulent pesticide of a new qualifying offer, one that means signing him would cost Detroit (or anyone else save the Yankees) their top draft choice. That seems to have really hampered him; teams know at least a little better than to give up a pick under the new draft rules (which monetize and increase the true value of a top pick) for a relief pitcher.
Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski should not lose sleep over a lost pick in this case, though. The time for the Tigers is now. They’re loaded. They haven’t made the splashes the Blue Jays or Angels made this winter, but they’re every bit as good. Owner Mike Illitch has a cozy relationship with Soriano’s agent, Scott Boras. Detroit could finagle some very off-the-books quid pro quo there. One way or another, though, Soriano would make this team the best in the American League, for my money, and for Illitch’s, there’s really no better cure for what ails the Tigers.Next post: The Chicago Cubs Should Trade James Russell and Darwin Barney to the Washington Nationals for Steve Lombardozzi
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