Tuesday, January 31, 2012

$214 Million Might Not Win the Detroit Tigers the Division

I like Prince Fielder as much as the next guy. He just got paid $214 million dollars to hit for the Detroit Tigers for the next 9 seasons. Though the contract is a bit outrageous, there's no denying how good Fielder is with a bat in his hand. That's something of an understatement - the guy can absolutely mash.

He's averaged 38 jakks, 108 RBI, 95 runs scored, to go along with a .282 batting average and a .932 OPS. He's not just a home run or bust hitter though; he's had at least 150 hits in each of his full six seasons, with at least 25 doubles. Despite carrying nearly 300 pounds on a 5'11" frame (both of those numbers are what he's listed at - I'd wager that they're both slightly exaggerated. Not in a good way), he moves well for a big man and runs like a base stealer. Most importantly, the guy is a horse at just 27 years old. I meant that figuratively, but I understand if you would misconstrue what I was typing. He's missed 13 games in 6 seasons, which is superhuman in a sport with 162 games a year. Prince Fielder is one of the 10 best hitters in the league and a perennial MVP candidate, barring a stroke or another joke/considerable reality pertaining to the fact that he's really fat.

But that all being said...I don't know how much better the Detroit Tigers are this year.

Most baseball writers are already writing in the Tigers for the AL Central crown, and perhaps rightfully so, considering how handily they won the division last season. However, even with Prince's presence and enormity of his deal, I see a lot of glaring holes with this team. Here we go:

1) Prince Fielder is not a pitcher

My first thought when I heard about Fielder's 9-year, $214 million dollar pact was "wait...they know that he can't pitch, right?"

I can't say enough about Fielder's hitting. Really. He is phenomenal. Every single swing that this guy takes looks like he's going to hit it into next week. But a fantastic lineup of mashers means nothing if you can't keep the opposing team's scoring down as well.

The Tigers rotation begins with AL Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander, who even if he repeats his almost unprecedented dominance he had in 2011, won't be enough to take the Tigers all the way. He's followed up by fourth-year man Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Crazy Eyes Scherzer and the choice of rookies Jacob Turner, Casey Crosby or reliever Phil Coke. Looking beyond Verlander, this is an extremely flawed starting rotation.

Porcello is carrying with him a sterling pedigree (1st round pick in 2007) and age on his side (he's only 22), but not nearly the type of numbers that would embolden anyone - after coming in 3rd place in the 2008 AL Rookie of the Year voting, he's posted a 24-21 record with a 4.82 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP in 3 seasons of 343 innings since. He's still not striking out very many batters (only 4.9 per 9 innings), and giving up a phenomenal number of hits despite playing with a good defensive infield (this season, the infield will be completely turned over...more on that in a second).

Doug Fister finished the year with a buzzsaw (8 wins with a 1.79 ERA and a ridiculous 0.89 WHIP in just 10 starts) after being traded from Seattle, but otherwise remains a slightly above average soft-thrower with solid control for his career (3.83 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, but with a 11.40 SO/BB ratio).

Crazy Eyes Scherzer showed the promise of a number 1 or 2 starting pitcher his first season in Arizona, but since then has proved to be erratic at best. He vacillates between being a brilliant power pitcher, and the second-coming of AJ Burnett. His high strikeout totals are really watered down when compared with the fact that he's never allowed less than 8 hits per nine innings in a full season.

Turner, Crosby and Coke are untested, but could all have potential for greatness. But hedging your bets on three under-25 year-old players isn't what championship aspirations are made of.

The Tigers have starting pitching woes, to say the least. Despite Fister's success post-trade, his history shows that he can't really be relied on as anything more than a number 3 starter, at most, though he'll have to masquerade as a number 2 pitcher for Detroit this year. Scherzer and Porcello are a crapshoot, which is the best case scenario for whoever will be their number 5 starter.

Could all these pitchers throw to the top of their potential? Sure. If they do, this might be the best team in the majors. But I'm not betting on it.

2) Prince Fielder isn't helping the defense

For all of their offensive brilliance, an essentially brand-new Tigers' infield could be one of the very worst defenses in the league this year. Going on UZR (standing for Ultimate Zone Rating; the best metric we have for measuring how good a fielder a guy is), every single one of the Tigers infielder has posted a average or below average rating at their new position.

Even as agile and quick moving as he is for his size, Fielder still is a fat guy playing baseball. He's not exactly Mark Texeira out there. Miguel Cabrera, who claims he will move over to third base, was so bad 4 years ago and 100 pounds ago at the hot corner that the Tigers moved him to first after just 14 games. Ryan Raburn was so bad at second base defense in 2011 that they moved him to the outfield for Ramon Santiago's defense and his .695 OPS. The only returning defensive player, shortstop Jhonny Peralta, leads the pack by having a very average 0.5 UZR, despite spending so much time at the Dwyane Wade School of Confusing Spelling.

Defense wins championships, the very same principle in basketball. The Brewers, who were one of the worst fielding teams in baseball, lost the NLCS in part to a bad defense that caused 7 combined errors in game 5 and the deciding game 6. The Tigers have a ton of groundball pitcher which thrived with the 2011 Tigers defense behind them. The 2012 Tigers might not give them that same advantage.

3) Prince Fielder can't make the other teams in the AL Central remain terrible

The division won't be as bad as it was last year when only 2 teams finished over .500. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals are primed to pull a Tampa Bay-like appearing act with all their young farm talent reaching their maturation points. The Twins are only one year removed from 94-win season, with in large part the same talent, but hopefully less injury-prone than 2011.

I'm sorry Chicago, I have no defense for you. The White Sox are going to be awful.

But the division isn't going to be a cakewalk like everyone claims. I expect the Royals and Indians to be far more competitive than they've been in years, and for the Twins to be the same Ron Gardenhire team that overachieves when I think they're done.

Prince is going to mash. I know that. But he can't fix all the problems that led to the Rangers 6-game victory over the Tigers in the ALCS. Their starting pitching is very suspect beyond Verlander, their infield defense is below-average and their division is going to be more difficult than people think. I like the Fielder signing in general, and especially for the message that it gives the team and its fans about winning, but I'm not sure it was the best way to allocate $214 million. An investment in CJ Wilson, Hiroki Kuroda, Yu Darvish or Roy Oswalt might have been a much more prudent baseball decision, for less money...for all four. Combined. I'd still pick the Tigers to win the division in 2012, but not going away. After all, if offense won titles, then the Yankees would be on number 35.

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