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MLB Winter Meetings preview: Tigers need outfield, bullpen help

The Tigers head to the winter meetings in need of serious help in the outfield and the bullpen. The numbers paint a grim picture of how bad things are in those areas.

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Two-thirds of the Detroit Tigers’ starting outfield from the 2014 season is gone. Austin Jackson was traded to Seattle in the deal that brought David Price to Detroit. Torii Hunter is a free agent and has signed to play with the Minnesota Twins for the 2015 season. In their places, so far, the Tigers have Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose. Don Kelly and Ezequiel Carrera didn’t offer any solutions, but they’re also gone from last year’s team.

Rajai Davis was the least productive outfielder in the American League against right-handed pitchers in 2014 (minimum of 300 plate appearances) according to weighted on base average (wOBA), weighted runs created (wRC) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+). The second worst was Austin Jackson. Despite being a left-handed hitter, Anthony Gose was one of the ten worst if you drop the qualifier down to 200 plate appearances.

The Tigers signed Gose to play center field for his defense. The club thinks they can make some adjustments and turn him into a respectable hitter, but they have their work cut out for them. Davis doesn’t bring a plus defensive game with him to justify his presence in the lineup against right-handers.

Davis is very useful in the platoon role that the Tigers envisioned for him when he was signed. He posted a wOBA of .408 and an OPS of .936 in 157 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers last year. That ranks fourth in the league among outfielders. But the injury to Andy Dirks left Davis in a full time role, and he logged more than twice as many plate appearances against right-handers, with only a .277 wOBA and a .617 OPS.

Gose made just 57 plate appearances against left handed pitchers in 2014, and for good reason. His .214 wOBA was among the worst in the league. Gose should not be batting against left-handers, and Davis should not be hitting against right handers. If the club wants to platoon them in center field, they will need to find a full time corner outfielder. If they’re going to platoon Davis in a corner outfield spot, they will need one platoon partner each for two outfield positions.

In the bullpen, the situation is also concerning. The Tigers ranked 14th of 15 American league teams in bullpen fWAR in 2014. They ranked among the bottom three bullpens in ERA, FIP, and walk rate.

Detroit’s relief pitchers combined for just 0.6 WAR in 2014. Joba Chamberlain contributed 0.8 WAR. The rest of the relief corps was below replacement level as a group, with no other pitcher among the group of 25 posting a WAR above Blaine Hardy’s 0.3 fWAR.

The good news is that Joakim Soria -- who worked 11 innings for Detroit in 2014 -- had 1.5 WAR for the full season, which ranked among the top ten relief pitchers in the American League. The other good news is that many of those who caused the greatest damage are gone. Jim Johnson, Phil Coke, Pat McCoy, and Justin Miller were all replacement level or worse, and all are no longer on the Tigers’ roster.

Even if Joe Nathan returns to respectability as a closer and Soria returns to the form that he showed before joining the Tigers at the end of July, the club will need more help in the bullpen. Curiously, they have not made much effort to sign some of the best free agent relief pitchers who have gone to other teams. Not only have they avoided Andrew Miller, whom they pursued in July, but Jason Frasor, who was traded to the Kansas City Royals just after the Tigers acquired Soria from Texas, has resigned with the Royals for just $1.25 million plus incentives.

If the club is going to look for solutions internally, they are likely to be disappointed. Tyler Collins has just 24 plate appearances in the major leagues, and projects to be a fourth outfielder. Steven Moya struck out in 29 percent of his plate appearances at Double-A Erie. Bruce Rondon is coming off Tommy John surgery and his effectiveness is far from guaranteed.

The Tigers acquired Josh Zeid off waivers from the Houston Astros. Zeid posted a 6.97 ERA, 6.33 FIP, and -0.6 WAR in 20 innings in 2014. They will have to do better than that.

It’s still early in the offseason. Dave Dombrowski has stated that the team would like to improve their bullpen. They need to do that, and they need to address the weakness in the outfield if they are going to approach the 90 wins that it took to win the American League Central division by one game last season.