The Detroit Tigers' offense wasn't their fatal flaw in the season now mercifully past. Everyone is well aware that the gaping holes in the rotation and the bullpen doomed this season far beyond anything the offense could do to rescue it.
However, the goal of ownership and the front office under new general manager Al Avila isn't just to reclaim their place as the AL Central's team to beat, it's to win the World Series this team and its fans are so desperate for. Fixing the pitching staff isn't going to be enough to make that happen in 2016.
At first blush, the Tigers' offense may have appeared unlucky. They finished first in batting average, second in on-base percentage and sixth in slugging. Those are typically the makings of a seriously high-powered offense. Yet the team finished just 16th in runs scored on the year. For an American League team with this kind of payroll, that's more awful than average. Certainly, we can try to chalk some of it up to sequencing and bad luck with runners on base, but the reasons go deeper than that. They hint at two serious weaknesses with the potential to undermine them in 2016.
Born to run
The first of the two main flaws we've got to contend with is the team's dreadful baserunning. The Tigers were horrific on the basepaths again this year, finishing with a -27.3 BsR per Fangraphs. By that measure they were easily the worst team at running the bases in all of baseball. Only one other team, the Seattle Mariners, finished worse than -16.0 in this category. The Tigers made bad outs all year long, and ran themselves out of far too many innings with reckless aggression and poor coaching.
Since his hiring, manager Brad Ausmus has put a lot of emphasis on running the bases more efficiently. In terms of personnel, the Tigers have added Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Anthony Gose, J.D. Martinez and James McCann, each representing a solid upgrade in speed over their predecessors. Still, the Tigers continue to kill rallies and give away outs on the bases with alarming regularity.
Chicks dig the long ball
The other major flaw was in the Tigers' home run power this season. The vaunted power-hitting Tigers offense was held down by injuries and the deadline deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets. Even taking those things into consideration, they struggled to hit the ball out of the park. They finished 18th in all baseball in home runs, and their .150 isolated power (ISO) was 16th among all MLB clubs. Those are very pedestrian numbers for a team that featured Miguel Cabrera, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez and Yoenis Cespedes for much of the season.
Obviously, the injuries sapped their power numbers. A combined 29 home runs from Cabrera and Victor Martinez was not at all what the Tigers expected. However, Cespedes contributed 18 of his own during his short-yet-glorious tenure in the Olde English D. Can a healthy heart of the order replace those 18 bombs next season? It doesn't seem unreasonable to think that Cabrera and Martinez, with a little more help from Nick Castellanos should be able to replace Cespedes' home run power in the lineup, but that only returns the team that finished 18th in home runs this season. In-house options like Tyler Collins and Steven Moya are unlikely to move the needle if the Tigers to try to play them as the strong side of a platoon.
Then, there are the splits.
If only the league were comprised of only left-handed pitchers. To hone the Tigers' need to an even sharper point, consider their isolated power splits between right and left-handed pitching. Against right-handers the Tigers posted a pedestrian .148 ISO. Against left-handers that number was .177, which was third-highest in the game. The shortest path to a home run in Comerica Park is into the porch in right field. Yet, outside of what Victor Martinez can offer next season, the team has no pull-hitting threat in that direction. The Tigers heavily right-handed lineup is limiting them, and their numbers against right-handed pitching reflected that.
How do they fix it?
These two facts are intertwined in my thinking as the Tigers head into an offseason full of uncertainty. I took Brad Ausmus at face value last week when he claimed he was no longer taking for granted that players understood the basic fundamentals of running the bases. According to the Tigers' manager, he has some new ideas and teaching concepts to employ in improving the situation.
But it's very hard to expect that, after two years, he's suddenly found a way to get through to the players to a substantial degree. The team is overall much faster than those Jim Leyland led to three straight division titles, yet the results have only gotten worse. The players are younger, so perhaps small gains in this regard are possible, but it's difficult to have any faith that the baserunning will turn into a positive in one spring camp.
If the baserunning isn't going to radically change, the only way to ensure that the Tigers are once again a high-powered run-producing offense is with the addition of a legitimate power threat. It's one thing to have faith that Miguel Cabrera will return to his usual 30 home run production next season. This will be the first offseason since 2012 that Cabrera will enter without a debilitating injury hampering his strength and conditioning program. The game's best hitter is a good bet to return to his usual form.
Victor Martinez, however, is a complete wild card at this point. To bet on him returning to hit 20 home runs while maintaining his typical high average and on-base percentage is a stretch at least. The Tigers need to find another power option, and, barring any major moves involving the current starting roster, adding that bat in left field is the only path into the lineup.
It's perfectly understandable for the Tigers, and the fanbase to focus heavily on pitching. There's no doubt that injuries and brutal seasons from Simon, Sanchez, Greene and Verlander were the biggest reason why the Tigers collapsed in 2015. But it needs to be recognized just how far they fell. They could acquire the starting pitching and relief help they need to return to prominence, and still be undone by miserable baserunning, and a general lack of firepower throughout much of the batting order.
Yes, the Tigers can hope for resurgent seasons from Cabrera and Martinez. What they shouldn't do is bet the house on them. It won't be easy with all the needs to fill, but whether with a signing or a trade, Al Avila needs to find this team a potent bat on the other side of the batter's box. If he's unable to do so, even a re-creation of the Tigers vaunted 2013 rotation is unlikely to take them all the way.