Detroit Tigers shorstop Jhonny Peralta once again finds his career at something of a crossroads as the 2013 season moves into May. Peralta is off to a relatively acceptable start as he enters the Washington series on Tuesday sporting a slashline of .298/.339/.404, good for an OPS+ of 99. Considering the OPS+ on his career is an even 100 (smack on the league average always set to 100) Peralta is basically being, well ... Peralta. The issue now is where is Jhonny going from this point and what is the Tigers' plan moving forward as Peralta's deal winds down to a conclusion and free agency looms.
When the Tigers obtained Peralta in the summer of 2010 I will freely admit to being completely (and wrongly) underwhelmed. In fact, I thought giving up a young left-handed pitcher from A-ball who was having a modestly successful season (Giovanni Soto) was a slight overpay. The Cleveland Indians were clearly moving on and were looking to dump Peralta. It didn't appear any asset of value should have to be surrendered. The Tribe had already moved Peralta off of shortstop and moved him to third base to make room for the younger Asdrubal Cabrera. It was no stretch to wonder if his days as an MLB shortstop, though certainly not done as a player, were drawing to a close. Dombrowski then doubled down and gave Peralta job security. A two-year deal plus a club option was negotiated in early November of 2010. There was no messing around. Peralta was the shortstop moving forward.
At the time, my impression was that signing Peralta was Dombrowski's path of least resistance. Quality shortstops aren't exactly hanging around outside of K-Mart looking for work. Peralta was basically a pretty easy sign, so Dombrowski went that route. I was stunned at the deal's length. I had assumed given that the Tribe had given up on Peralta that the market for his services would be low enough that a one-year deal would suffice. The main selling point to me on the deal however was Peralta's durability. The guy answers the bell nearly any day Jim Leyland wants to put his name in the lineup. If you're going to commit money and years to a mid-level guy, it is nice to know he isn't on a first name basis with the training staff and their extended family.
Dombrowsk's gamble (if it was one) turned out pretty good. Peralta bounced back from two down years to get off to a great first half in 2011 aided by a seven-homer-, 20 RBI month of May that boosted him into All-Star consideration and ultimately a berth on the AL Mid-Summer Classic roster. Peralta would post a 5.0 fWAR season and play steady if unspectacular defense for a Tigers' club that wound up demolishing AL Central competition in the late Summer and coasted to a division title before losing in the ALCS to the Texas Rangers.
Fans were hoping for more of the same from Peralta in 2012. But, as has happened throughout his career, Peralta was once again subject to wide swings in performance. The 21-homer power he flashed in '11 became warning track outs in ‘12 and that was only when he was able to lift the ball. When looking at his batted ball data at Fangraphs.com we see that much of the change in Peralta between the two seasons was a rise in groundballs and a corresponding dip in flyballs. This led to fewer homers, hitting into a few more double-plays, and a decrease in over 90-points of slugging percentage.
What has the first month of the 2013 season showed us? Certainly you can make the "small sample argument" and say we don't know much of anything yet. But why let that stop us? Let's dive in. First thing that catches my eye is that Peralta's power is down a touch again if we look at ISO (Isolated Power which, if you're unaware is calculated by subracting batting average from slugging percentage -- a favorite stat of Branch Rickey, and if it was good enough for the Mahatma, I'll look at it too. Peralta's ISO currently sits at a paltry .105. League average is often in the .150 range. Peralta was at .145 on the season in '12 after posting a very tasty .179 (solid for a shortstop) in 2011. Once again this year we are seeing a rise in groundballs and another dip in flyballs down to a career low of 30.3%. Only a sky high BABIP of .368 seems to be propping up Peralta's offensive numbers at this point. Peralta has a career BABIP of .311 so it's not like he has a history of carrying a BABIP at his 2013 level. The question I ask is this: Will Peralta's power surge a bit as the weather warms up? Peralta isn't a slap hitter and he's not making a living with his speed. His current power production is marginal and assuming his BABIP starts to normalize a lot of his singles will start to find gloves soon. Jhonny needs to be clearing some fences or finding some gaps. Will that occur? Time will tell us but it seems imperative from this point that Peralta's power stroke emerge from the shadows with fewer grounders and more balls aloft.
The good news from the naked eye here in Iowa as seen through the wonders of MLB.tv (btw, kudos to MLB.tv: the picture appears even sharper this year as it streams to me. Well done) is that Peralta's defense does not appear to be waning in his age 31 season. He is making the plays he gets to as he pretty much always has in steady fashion. Anecdotally he even made a couple of plays last week against Atlanta and Minnesota where he was moving to his right that were plays I would consider "plus." Any plus-plays made by Peralta are gifts to the pitching staff.
The Tigers have shortstop Eugenio Suarez recently promoted to Double-A Erie. Suarez had a nice season in Low-A West Michigan last year and spent only the most brief time at Lakeland before getting the call to Erie. I suppose there is some chance he is ready in 2014 to head to Detroit. But it's highly questionable if he is ready in April. Hernan Perez is raking to start the year in Erie and drew praise from Leyland in spring training. However he seems to have a second-base ticket attached to him. Meanwhile Dixon Machado is an all-glove/no-stick guy. That spells "u-t-i-l-i-t-y" to me and not a threat to start. There is no heir apparent in Toledo no matter what the Detroit News' solid baseball guy Lynn Henning thinks of Dan Worth.
With no youngster completely ready, I honestly think we have a good chance of being right back where we were in November of 2010. The path of least resistance may very well be another deal (hopefully of short length) for Jhonny Peralta. The one caveat obviously being him not completely tanking throughout this upcoming summer. If he can continue to make the routine play and possibly flash just a bit more power moving forward in the warmer months, I would put the odds of Peralta being the Opening Day shortstop in 2014 at around 70 percent and, really, that might not be so bad for another year or two while the youngsters grow up or Dombrowski can swing a deal to get a major upgrade in his middle infield. The Tigers can feel confident in his track record of reasonable production and physical durability while also hoping that just maybe a spurt of that All-Star level magic reappears if only for short periods of time.
That's not a bad player in support of the mega-talents Detroit is carrying on it's roster already.