2011 was, by all accounts, a very good season for the Tigers. They won their division for the first time in a quarter century, by fifteen games, no less. They beat the Yankees and advanced to the American League Championship Series, taking that series to six games. I suppose that one could be forgiven for jumping to the conclusion that this team really doesn’t "need" to make a whole lot of adjustments heading into the 2012 season.
I beg to differ.
Yes, the Tigers have to be considered favorites to repeat as Central Division champions in 2012, but let’s make no mistake that this team has issues. They have serious issues that need to be addressed before the man says "play ball" on opening day.
For one thing, the Tigers are apparently happy to start the season with platoons at second and third base, and these platoons are made up of players that have no business starting at their respective positions on a contending major league ball club. I think that's totally inadequate, and moves need to be made.
At third base, Brandon Inge has worn out his welcome with most Tigers fans. After finally being demoted to Toledo last summer, he returned and played well, but he was limited to starting against left handed pitchers. His apparent platoon partner, Don Kelly, has been a utility player his entire major league career, with a career .240 average, and an OBP well under .300. Both players at this stage are defensively average, at best.
At second base, Ramon Santiago is very good defensively, and Ryan Raburn has shown he can hit -- at least once August rolls around. But Raburn would presumably be playing against left-handed pitchers, where Santiago is actually a decent hitter, and Ramon would start against righties, against whom he’s a pretty poor hitter. Defensively, Raburn is not an infielder, period. If he hits like he can, his bat needs to be in the lineup, but his glove needs to be in the outfield.
The 2011 Tiger lineup was among the league’s worst at getting on base in the top three spots in the batting order. The Tigers ranked 11th, 9th, and 13th in the league in OBP in the first, second, and third spots, respectively. That seems like an incredible waste, considering that they have one of the best RBI men in the game, in Miguel Cabrera, batting fourth.
Dombrowski told us that Kelly Johnson would be too expensive, so he didn’t bother to make an offer. The Jays’ lefty hitting second baseman has a career OBP of .343, while averaging 19 homers and 69 RBI over a six year career, and he plays solid defense as well. There were rumors of the Tigers being interested in Aramis Ramirez, Matt Garza, and Jimmy Rollins. Dombrowski denied all those glimmers of hope.
In fact, the Tigers didn’t even bother to offer arbitration to Wilson Betemit, who is the best hitting third baseman left on the market, at the Tigers’ position of greatest need. Betemit’s defense leaves much to be desired, but he hit an impressive .292 avg /.346 obp /.525 slg in 133 plate appearances for the Tigers after bumping Inge to his rightful place in Toledo. Betemit is not the ideal solution, since his glove appears to not fit him very well, but he is clearly better than what they have at his position, and he’d have cost very little.
It can be said that there isn’t much available on the free agent market at the positions where the Tigers have needs. That is partially true. Aramis Ramirez signed for $36 million over three years, and he’d have been a big help. The Tigers apparently inquired on Martin Prado of Atlanta, and San Diego’s Chase Headley. Whether they made credible offers for those players is something we don’t know.
On the pitching front, the Tigers have stood by while several starting pitchers have signed reasonable contracts with other clubs. I would include Hiroki Kuroda, Erik Bedard, Paul Maholm in that group. Roy Oswalt remains available, apparently for a very reasonable price. The Tigers should sign him, rather than relying on a bunch of unproven kids to carry the load during another pennant drive. Let the kids beat a major leaguer out to earn a job.
What is clear at this point is that the Tigers don’t feel a sense of urgency to upgrade their roster. They’re quite comfortable with where the team that they have to start the season. We can be glad that they don’t feel any urgency to trade a Jacob Turner or Nick Castellanos for the sake of making a move at this time. But I would make any other prospects available to address the needs that I’ve outlined above.
Moreover, the Tigers’ rivals in the AL Central haven’t done a whole lot to improve themselves, either. The second place Indians hope brought back Grady Sizemore at a discount and hope that he can remain healthy, and they will have a full season of Ubaldo Jiminez in their rotation. The Twins have added Jamey Carroll and hope that Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau will be healthy. They’ve also added Josh Willingham, but they have lost Jason Kubel, Michael Cuddyer, and Joe Nathan.
Chicago has taken a step back, losing Edwin Jackson and Mark Buehrle from their rotation, and Carlos Quentin from the lineup, and Sergio Santos from the bullpen. They’re rebuilding, and don’t look like much of a threat right now. The Royals are relying on an impressive crop of young talent, and they will score runs, but their rotation leaves a lot to be desired. Overall, there is nothing very intimidating from the competition.
Still, the Tigers were just 1.5 games ahead of Cleveland as late as August 18 last season. They went on a hot streak, beating their division rivals in head-to-head competition, settling the division race in the next two weeks. But that streak included Magglio hitting .400, a three way platoon of Betemit, Inge and Kelly all hitting .300 with OBPs above .350, and it included near perfection from Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, and Jose Valverde.
If that is what the Tigers need to do in order to repeat as division champions, I would not hold my breath. Ordonez and Betemit are gone, and they haven’t been replaced. They still have no legit lead off man, and they’re praying that Brennan Boesch can put together two first halves and be their No. 3 hitter.
Yes, there is cause for optimism, but there is also cause for concern. The Tigers have needs, and they haven’t been addressed this off season. At least not yet.