"In the depth of Winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible Summer"---Albert Camus
Depth. There were a few possible issues that could derail the Tigers this year as we contemplated the club during the winter. In the top 3 certainly was the concern that a lack of depth on the big league roster, and in the organization as a whole, could really hurt the team if a rash of injuries hit.
The rash of injuries is hitting. Bruce Rondon's looming Tommy John Surgery was the latest bad news to hit Tigertown this Spring. It made for a rather gloomy Friday for those who were looking forward to watching Rondon throw triple-digit heat in the 8th inning. It also added to the worries of those still reeling from the news of Jose Iglesias' shin maladies, Anibal Sanchez' creaky shoulder, Andy Dirks' back surgery, and even Rajai Davis' hamstring tightness. (to add to the fun on Friday, the Tigers acquired shortstop Andrew Romine from the Angels in exchange for Jose Alvarez)
It's a fairly simple question. Are the Tigers positioned to weather this storm with replacements on hand? There are divergent opinions here, which is to be expected. But make no mistake...the depth that GM Dave Dombrowski would appear to have been comfortable with this season is about to be put to the test. Some think the Tigers are in trouble.
We don't know the future health of Sanchez and Davis. So we'll table those two for now...we do know that Dirks is out until June, Rondon is out for the year, and Iglesias is likely out for the year. Replacing Dirks, Rondon, and Iglesias. Crisis? Speed Bump? Opportunity? Devastation?
From this view, when you look at the total expectations that were being placed upon Dirks, Rondon, and Iglesias, it does seem rather hard to say these were among the Top 8 "Most Important Tigers" heading into this season. Depending on how you rank the importance of Iglesias' defense, maybe he could sneak in there. I won't argue it too hard, but he would have been at the tail end of any Top 10 for me. Dirks is in that second-tier as well outside of the Top 10.
Rondon is a reliever. I typically take all relievers with a grain of salt. Especially young fireballers with a very short track record at the big league level. There was a chance he was going to outstanding and indeed that would have been fantastic to watch. But he's gone. Deal with it. Bullpens get built from scratch and on the fly every year in MLB by teams, many of whom are contending. If Rondon was going to get have this happen, it's much better to have it happen now. It gives him a full year to recover before 2015 and it gives the Tigers management more time size up the relief market for opportunities to improve. (For instance, the Angels made an aggressive April deal for Ernesto Frieri a couple of years ago that really bolstered their bullpen. They saw their need and pounced before most clubs were scoping things out on the trade market. Dombrowski will have this chance now.)
The Tigers are built around their stars. Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Anibal Sanchez, Torii Hunter, and Austin Jackson. This is the core group that the Tigers are counting on to carry this ball club. To this date, they have not lost one of these keys players. They will be looking to plug their holes from openings in the second-tier of the roster. If they were looking to replace Jackson, Scherzer, and Kinsler right now, we'd be having a vastly different discussion.
The belief here is that the Tigers are not really in a world of hurt given the current spate of injuries. Dombrowski is not one to sit on his hands. This is practically a given. He has already moved for Romine and will be looking for more help from various places as the season goes on. While he decides where to attain that help, how will the club carry the less than optimal solutions on hand?
Let's start by looking at two other clubs in the American League and how they've built contending clubs in recent years. The first is the 2013 edition of our beloved pals, the New York Yankees. The Yankees are supposed to be the star-studded crew that rolls to big win totals via profligate spending. But last year it all fell apart. They got old and they had injuries.
A funny thing happened. They didn't roll over and die. They stayed on the cusp of contention for most of the year even with CC Sabathia having a very mediocre year. They trolled the waiver wire, used anonymous in-house guys, and traded for retreads...and they continued to win. They won 85 games and finished third.
They did it with the rotting corpse of Vernon Wells. Somebody who looked like Lyle Overbay...wait, that WAS Lyle Overbay. The final remnants of Ichiro Suzuki. Eduardo Nunez was the shortstop when it wasn't Brendan Ryan at the end. Mark Reynolds, Travis Hafner, Jayson Nix, Brennan Boesch (!!), Ben Francisco, Reid Brignac, Brent Lillibridge...the list goes on and on. These were guys who had seemingly little to no value remaining. None set the world on fire as a Yankee either. But it wasn't enough to scuttle the season to a below .500 death march and that's the point for the Tigers.
The Tigers start with a vastly superior top end of the roster over that Yankees club. Especially in the starting rotation. If the Yankees could finish 3rd with 85 wins in a tougher division with that crew, it's hard to hear the excuses for the Tigers in 2014 if we're still discussing place holders for Dirks, Rondon, and Iglesias.
Then we can look at the Tampa Bay Rays and their ability to craft contenders. The Rays never have a really impressive catcher. They sign the dregs of the free agent market to play first-base. They carry guys like Sam Fuld and Sean Rodriguez. Tampa builds bullpens out of spare parts and rejuvenate veteran arms into useful pieces. The Rays don't panic when a guy goes down. They adapt, innovate, and overcome....and they contend.
Don Kelly, Steve Lombardozzi, Hernan Perez, and Danny Worth could be Rays. That's easy to envision...heck, they took Wil Rhymes after all.
Certainly the Tigers shouldn't emulate the Rays business model. They don't have to do that given their respective financial situations. Also I realize it might seem odd to point out a third place non-playoff club like the Yankees. However, plenty can be gleaned from those two clubs. The Yankees didn't die by having to carry dead weight. They mixed and matched to stay afloat. The Rays find proper matchups for their guys and look for versatility to make up for any deficiencies these players carry to the park.
The Tigers can patch the holes they have and still compete. I don't really believe that is even in question. They aren't in a powerhouse division and, so far, they haven't lost their most critical personnel. We might get more Kelly then many would like to see. The platoon at shortstop might have lulls where it will seem they'll never get another base-hit. A lead or two might get coughed up in the 8th inning that otherwise may not have. But it's a long season. Other clubs will face similar situations. The Tigers shouldn't make a panic-move.
Every club is 0-0. The Tigers don't start at a deficit because they appear weak in two or three areas. The club that takes the field in April is rarely the same 25 that is on the field in August. Dombrowski has shown the ability and willingness to pull the trigger at the trade deadline to get what his club needs. He starts knowing he has his stable of stars mostly at his disposal. The situation might look bad on the surface, but really it's a pretty tenable set of circumstances. I don't see the Tigers as substantially worse off than I saw them a week ago. Weaker? Okay. I'll buy it. But I would say they're still the AL Central favorites. That hasn't changed much.
When looking to replace Iglesias, I would chase hard after defense. If Romine is that guy...great. I feel very few were truly looking for Iglesias to be a real offensive weapon. Many would agree that his .330 batting average in Boston was a likely outlier in his career. Iglesias was there to flash the leather first and foremost. Therefore I wouldn't worry about whether his replacement hits .215 or .245. Can the guy catch almost everything? That's the number one criteria.
Stephen Drew is the elephant in the room of course. His price could come down to a point that Dombrowski can't say "no". Drew is a good player. Not a great player...but a good player. The Tigers would lose their first round pick and also lose all the slot money associated with that pick in the Tigers Bonus Pool of cash...some of which can be used to sign other picks in the first 10 rounds if the player selected in round-1 sign "under slot". Losing that pick really affects the entire top end of the draft, not just a loss in round-1.
The hope here is that Dombrowski puts Drew off as long as possible. Monitor how the replacements are doing and how the club is contending. If Drew remains on the market in June after the draft, take the temperature of the situation and make the decision on signing him then. I wouldn't make that call until I absolutely felt it was necessary. If a club makes a move on Drew before June, its a good bet Boras will let the Tigers make a pitch if they decide it's necessary.
I am starting to be intrigued by dealing for Nate Schierholtz...but only a little. Otherwise I had these thoughts on replacing Dirks last week.
Bullpens are important but they need to be kept in their proper perspective. You need it to be functioning at a decent level to compete. But no two bullpens are alike and it doesn't have to be "dominant" to be effective.
There will be trades to be made this week if Dombrowski finds an arm he likes. The Pirates are said to be shopping Bryan Morris and Vin Mazzaro. Other useful arms will hit the street or the trade wire as the cuts keep happening.
The Tigers just need to find a couple of guys who are ready to turn in a stretch of 40 to 60 innings of quality work. With relief pitchers, you can never tell who that's going to be. Evan Reed? Maybe. Luke Putkonen? Possible.
How did Joel Hanrahan look in his workout for scouts? Is he a viable possibility to help a team this season? That could be worth a look.
Options will be floating around. A good General Manager can build a bullpen during the season. Dombrowski has had his ups and downs on this front. David Pauley and Jose Veras anyone? So maybe nothing is a given. However the need to panic over losing 60-innings of Rondon seems a bit overblown. A quality contender can't use losing a set-up man as an excuse to struggle. The next "Frieri" is only one phone call away. It's up to the Tigers to make their mark on building a bullpen in-season in 2014. It shouldn't an ascent of Mount Everest to complete.
Joe Nathan has been brought in to stabilize the end of the game. Good. Now just mix and match Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, Ian Krol, Phil Coke, Reed, and Putkonen. Hopefully as the season wears on youngsters like Melvin Mercedes, Will Clinard, Casey Crosby, Corey Knebel, and Drew Verhagen are ready to assume roles in some fashion.
Expect some additions from the outside.
Bullpens can be created when you least expect it.
When it's all said and done
The story of the 2014 Tigers is going to be written by Verlander, Cabrera, Scherzer, and the top of the roster. That doesn't mean the rest aren't important and it doesn't mean the holes cause by injuries are a "non-story". It just means "talent wins" and the Tigers have a fair amount of top end talent. They have a front office who won't sit idly by either.
It's time to put their depth in play. They'll use some of that depth to patch things up on the field...they'll use others to swing some deals as well. Expect a waiver claim too.
The injury situation isn't good...but it's not at DEFCON-1 either. These are problems clubs face and it's their job to overcome them. (Sanchez' shoulder? That's a different level of loss. Let's cross that bridge when we know more!)