Here's another in a series of outsider looks at the Tigers, as Cee Angi returns for another go at it! --Kurt
There's something about the Tigers and Dave Dombrowski I admire, though as a fan of an opposing team he irks me. He doesn't sit around hoping that his team will get better: He sees a void and he fills it. The return of Victor Martinez next season means that the Tigers should have scary-good 3-4-5 hitters in the lineup every night. The 7-8-9 spots might be just as scary, though for different reasons. That's fine, though, because Dombrowski recognizes it's a problem and he'll find players. That's just what he does.
This next statement will not surprise you: Tigers corner outfielders were terrible in 2012. Their weakness was predictable, as 65 percent of their $133 million Opening Day payroll in 2012 went to five players -- Prince Fielder, Martinez, Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Jose Valverde -- which meant foregoing any opportunity to fix the already-weak outfield. Austin Jackson recovered from his disappointing sophomore season to turn center field from question mark to bulwark, but the piecemeal approach to the corners failed to pay off in the same way.
The left-field combination of Andy Dirks, Delmon Young, and Quintin Berry produced league average results, thanks in part to Dirks' unexpected .322 season and Young's hitting .300/.336/.518 in his 30 games in left. Neither is likely to carry over to 2013; Dirks benefitted from a .365 BABIP, and given his minor league performances, the Tigers will be lucky if he settles in as a productive platoon player, never mind turning into the new Andre Ethier. As for right field, the worst decision Jim Leyland made last season was letting Brennan Boesch start 115 games there (as well as eight at designated hitter) in the hopes that he'd find his 2011 power stroke.
There are dozens of ways the Tigers can improve the corners, and there's no one right answer, but some answers are more right than others. The Tigers don't need to go Prince Fielder-big to fix the corners, they just need to find the right combination of short-term patches. The least-likely scenario is that the Tigers balloon their player payroll to Dodgers-level proportions (for those keeping score at home, they are already committed to $200 million for next season), sign (say) Josh Hamilton and Michael Bourn, and call it a day. Not only would the cost be outrageous, but it would also be unnecessary; the Tigers may already possess near-term solutions to those positions in Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos, even if neither is ready now.
There is no sense in rushing Garcia, who is just 21 and, despite his decent short-sample showing in his regular and postseason play, probably not ready. His impatience in the minor leagues (36 walks in his last 1028 plate appearances) suggests a player who would have to hit .300 to put up a bearable OBP. Though he skipped Triple-A to reach the majors, he is one prospect for whom facing the junk-throwers who pitch at that level wouldn't be a waste of time. As for Castellanos, he's still adjusting to the outfield, and his struggles at Double-A and in the Arizona Fall League suggest he needs a little more time. Nevertheless, both could be ready by 2014 at latest, so handing out long-term contracts to multiple outfielders doesn't make a lot of sense.
It seems unlikely the Tigers would go for even one top-tier free agent outfielder for the same reasons. The Hamiltons, Bourns, and Swishers are just too big and too long of an investment. Signing one or two second-tier outfielders, say a Cody Ross, Torii Hunter, or Ichiro Suzuki, to one- or two-year contracts makes more sense. Realistically, Dombrowski will probably compromise between short-term needs and long-term possibilities and target a starter for one corner while platooning a right-handed bat with Dirks in the other.
There are advantages to platoons. They are cheap solutions, offer flexibility, and in the Tigers' case would utilize some of the talent already on hand. Dombrowski seemed to be suggesting this sort of solution in his recent remarks to the press. "If I had to settle with him [Garcia], Castellanos and Dirks, and something else," the GM said, "I think you do that."
Because platoon outfielders is the one area of this winter's free-agent market that actually has some depth, Dombrowski won't have to accept that scenario if he doesn't want to, and if he does, the "something else" might actually be pretty good. Shane Victorino would be a great fit, with a career .301/.373/.508 against lefties, though he will likely have full-time offers despite a miserable season from the left side of the plate (.229/.296/.333). He would, however, meet Dombroswki's goal of becoming more athletic in the outfield. Jonny Gomes, a career .284/.382/.512 hitter against lefties but a famously iron glove, would not. Scott Hairston, .276/.325/.500 career against southpaws, is another possibility for a pure platoon role, as is Reed Johnson, a career .311/.367/.461 hitter against left-handers.
When looking for a regular outfielder to play opposite their platoon, the Tigers are likely to face stiff competition for the aforementioned Hunters and Suzukis because the younger outfielders who aren't Josh Hamilton, the Swishers and Uptons and perhaps even the Rosses and Ludwicks, are going to want a longer commitment, but are, for various reasons, risky. Every team is going to see these still-playable old-timers as their way of putting off choices they'd rather not have to make, but 30 teams can't sign Torii Hunter.
There is also a wild card in Melky Cabrera, who might come at a discount on a short-term, incentive-laden contract due to his PED suspension. Even though Cabrera is suspect both for sketchy behavior and a too-high BABIP, he would still be an upgrade over what the Tigers have now. He too will be seen as an escape hatch from unappealing choices, and the bidding on Cabrera might be hotter than the conventional wisdom might suggest.
Bringing in two more outfielders leaves Brennan Boesch without a defined role, and that's for the best. Boesch is a frustrating player to assess -- he's been in the majors for three seasons, but has performed erratically since his arrival. Is he a power-hitter? His last full season in the minors suggested that he is, as did his .458 slugging with 16 home runs in 2011. That slugging percentage lost nearly 100 points in 2012 as his ground-ball/fly-ball rate jumped from .75 to 1.00, and his extra base hits fell from 8.9 percent to 7.2 percent. Not only did his power drop off, he struck out more and walked considerably less (7.4 percent versus 5.2 percent), dropping below league average.
The Tigers won't sit around waiting for him to rebound, nor should they. If he bounces back in whatever playing time is available to him, it will give them a surplus of good outfielders for trading purposes.
There is pressure on Dombrowski to get the outfield mixture right: The lack of production at the outfield corners would have been less obvious if the Tigers had had a stronger production from the middle infield, but this season shortstop and second base were problems as well. Normally, we wouldn't expect the middle infield to shoulder a major part of the offensive load, but with weak players in the outfield's traditional power spots, the Tigers are effectively daring them to.
Rest assured, Dombrowski will do whatever it takes to upgrade the corners this offseason, and anything will be an improvement over last season's performance, especially in right field. The Tigers are in the enviable position of having the majority of their lineup set this offseason and it's stacked with hitters, so even improvements on the margins will go a long way. Whatever moves they make to improve the corners will just make them that much more likely to repeat.