Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Deflating Detroit Rock City

In 2003, the Detroit Tigers had lost 119 games. Five years later in 2008, 119 wins is a reality.

Mitch Albom, Detroit Free-Press columnist and sob-story novelist, wrote a column following the Cabrera/Willis trade tossing acclimates around but not yet notifying the Motor City citizens to start stockpiling ticker-tape for next November. Jason Stark at ESPN has also stated that the American League pennant goes through Motown as well. Phil Roger's is raving about the deal, in fact, he has already crowned Detroit AL Central champs and the second-best team behind Boston (he currently has the Twins ranked third in the division but ready to fall if Santana or Nathan is dealt). FoxSport's Ken Rosenthal loves them too. Hell, Bud Selig should just have the trophy thing engraved now. Get the discount.

On paper this team looks good. Too good. Insanely good. $130 million a year good. This 2008 squad is reminiscent of the All-Star line-up Homer Simpson's softball team had when playing the annual softball game against the rival power plant and Mr. Burns went out and acquired ringers (not before Smithers had to inform him that his right fielder had been dead for over a hundred and thirty years). Undoubtedly with a roster that included Ozzie Smith, Jose Canseco, Daryl Strawberry, Roger Clemens, etc, etc, it was expected that the team was going to win that softball game. Only the night before the big game -- one by one -- the players started disappearing (Ozzie Smith's ride in the blackhole) or arrest for all the unsolved murders in New York (Steve Sax) or gargantunism (Ken Griffey Jr). These are the sort of events that will need to unfold in order to keep this Tiger lineup at bay. Nothing short of localized global warming, entirely concentrated in the Greater Detroit area will keep this from being the one of the most formidable team ever. That or maybe we just send them all an invite to a "get to know your new teammates" party in some warehouse which we will stock with HGH and steroids. We'll lock them in, call the feds. Baseball players within close proximity to performance enhancing drugs? Case closed.

It is not my nature to be entirely that doom-and-gloom. I for one am not ready to have Metrodome ushers hand me prepunched All-Star ballots for all-Tigers. Always your source for Glass-Is-Half-Empty for your division rivals, I have constructed several talking points that might alleviate this constant chatter that already has Detroit crowned World Series champions for the next infinity years:

1) Renteria and Sheffield are least likely to replicate their career numbers. With injuries and age, these two might not have the opportunity to live up to their projections. At 31, Renteria played in his fewest games (124) since his rookie season (106). His defensive numbers are a tad misleading considering his fielding percentage has not change meanwhile, according to the Hardball Times, his revised-zone-rating has was his lowest last season (.815) since his short-lived Boston endeavor (.805). While the .815 RZR mark would have been good enough for third in the American League, in the National League it was only good enough for 8th. The shortstop crop in the AL is a) shallow and b) forced to defend against one more batter (the dh) who can typically rake (exception: Tyner, Jason). This increased offense in the American League exposed Renteria as a passable shortstop while he was with Boston. Expect him to decline in defense similar to his transition to Boston and put up a line just as similar to his Red Sox days .276/.335/.385 (in a right-handed hitter friendly park, no less!).

Sheffield, meanwhile, is old. In 2008 he will be 39. While he still can pack a punch (25 home runs in 494 at-bats), his final line in his first season with Detriot was much lower than previous seasons in with he accumulated nearly 500 at-bats (.265/.378/.462). Sheffield still has a penchant for drawing walks and taking pitches (4.1 pitches per plate appearance). In 2007, he had an isolated slugging of .321 in May and .270 in June where he hit 16 of his 25 home runs. He faded almost as fast as he started, ending August with a .093 ISOP and September with .062 ISOP. This decline could be attributed to aging, where a player no longer has the wherewithal to last 162 games. When you consider it, spring training beginning in March through September would be a tough stretch for any 39-year-old that is being asked to contribute everyday, even if it is only as a dh. My inclination is that Sheff will have a similar season in 2008 as he did in 2007, only with more games on the DL and fewer home runs due to a overall drop in power later in the season. Curious side note: he was able to tie his second highest amount of stolen bases (22), a mark he established at 29-years-old, nearly a decade prior.

2) Does anyone really believe Todd Jones is a lights-out closer? Whenever Todd Jones was asked to closer out the Twins, I never had that overwhelming feeling of closure as I did when Troy Percival or Mariano Rivera were in their prime. Part of the reason is that he is the most underwhelming closer in baseball today (not named Joe Borowski). Of the 265 batters faced, Jones managed to strike out only 12.5% of them. This strikeout rate is borderline for a major league pitcher, let alone the guy you hand over to protect the game in 9th. Couple the lack of strikeouts with his obscene 8.7% walkrate and the fact that Jones only was able to use his good glove infield on only 45.6% of balls-in-play is not a good definition for the word "lights-out". What this indicates is that Jones has been the recipient of both good luck and a lax definition of a "save". The hard work had been performed by Zumaya or Rodney. Jones was ushered in to not hand over a 3 or 4 run lead, which he only managed to do in 86% of his save opportunities. In 2008, Jones will be without his set-ups in Zumaya and Rodney missed a significant portion of the season with various arm injuries. Word is that the Tigers are looking to sign Latroy Hawkins. Hawkins who was able to induce groundballs 65% of the time last season, will be a disaster minus his Colorado Rockies defense. Pending any trades involving Inge or Marcus Thames for bullpen help, the Tigers have a soft-spot once the starting pitchers are removed from the game.

3) The Tigers seem pretty set on sending Jacque Jones up to the plate three times or more a game. I am not the one to inform Detroit that Jacque is your prototypical free-swinging out machine. In his book, "Fantasyland", Sam Walker used his sports writer credentials to obtain insider information by accessing the players directly in the locker rooms. In one chapter Walker described an encounter with then-Twin Jacque Jones discussing the recent Ron Shandler book. The stats from Shandler's book essentially pegged Jones as a hitter that had incredible luck and was sure to decline in productivity due to his high strikeout rate and batting average on balls-in-play. Jones reviewed Shandler's book with Walker looming over head and was utterly dejected. Following that 2004 season, Shandler was exactly right as Jones regressed from a .304/.333/.464 hitter into a .254/.315/.427 hitter when some of the balls-in-play stopped falling to the turf. After signing with the Cubs, Jones rebounded with a .285/.334/.499 2006 season but saw his power disappeared in 2007, as he finished .285/.335/.400. His home run production decreased sharply as he had been hitting home runs in 3.9% (2004), 3.9% (2005) and 4.6% (2006) of his plate appearance while ending with home runs in 1.0% of his plate appearance last season. This may be triggered by a focus to make better contact. His strikeout rate was the lowest ever in 2007 (14.1%).

Meanwhile, Jones is notoriously inept versus left-handed pitching. If the speculation is true and the Tigers do unload Marcus Thames to compensate for the increased payroll, Jones will certainly be asked to face the league's southpaws. In his career, Jones has managed to put up a Puntoesque .233/.281/.355 line. This makes Jones a prime candidate to bring in your lefty specialist forcing Leyland to use his bench early.

Last of all, I take comfort in knowing that all Twins fans have the scouting report down on Jacque Jones: breaking stuff over the right-handed batters box. He can't hit them, he can't lay off.

4) Magglio Ordonez will not have the same type of year as he did in 2007. While regression seems to be my fall back defense, of all the players in the Tigers line-up Ordonez has to be far and above the most likely candidate to have a regressed season if for no other reason than his 2007 campaign was monstrous. As a 33-year-old, Ordonez put up an MVP-type year with a .363/.434/.595 line. Rediculous for a career .312/.370/.522 hitter. Make no mistake, Ordonez can rake. However, while a very patient hitter (12.3% walkrate in 2007) and a keen batting eye (11.6% strikeout rate in 2007), again Ordonez is another example of a Tiger getting extremely lucky: His batting average of balls in play was .383. That sort of production is bound to decrease (probably back down to his 2006 level of .317, but still...).