Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Tiger Spring Training Preview - The Outfielders

All winter long, Tiger fans have been debating about a supposed battle for center field between Curtis Granderson and Nook Logan. At the end of last season, it seemed that Granderson had won the regular job after a good stretch drive (.272/.314/.494 in 47 games). Meanwhile, Logan (.258/.305/.335) appeared lost at the plate most of the season after a strong April. All was quiet until Leyland stated that he was intrigued by Logan’s potential and refused to concede that Granderson had the job or even the inside track to the job.

Logan’s supporters rave about his great speed and ability to cover ground in Comerica Park and the statistics back it up. He was first in baseball in Average Range Rank among qualifying center fielders. He displayed his base running skill by finishing second in baseball at taking the extra base on hits. However, Granderson also has above average speed and range. In fact, his range statistics (in limited innings) were actually better than Logan’s statistics. I think that’s probably a fluke based on a small sample size but I don’t believe he’s as far behind Logan defensively as some fans say.

Offensively, Granderson is miles ahead of Logan. In 1,595 minor league at bats, Curtis has batted .300/.383/.495 while Nook has hit .261/.319/.338 in 1,969 at bats. This is a huge difference, much more than enough to make up for any fielding deficit. I believe that Leyland already plans to start Granderson in center field on a regular basis and is just not conceding a job to a virtual rookie. This became more evidently recently when Leyland stated that he wanted a full time regular rather than have two players share the center field position. Prior to that, there was a lot of talk of a possible platoon.

The other starters will be Craig Monroe in left field and Magglio Ordonez in right field. We should, however, keep an eye on Ordonez to see if he is healthier and more mobile than he was last year. Hopefully, his knee and hernia problems are behind him but Leyland has already indicated that he will DH some. The backup outfielders will probably be Logan and Dmitri Young (discussed in the first base preview).

There are four more outfielders in camp who might see Detroit at some time this season. Marcus Thames is coming off two outstanding minor league seasons (1100+ OPS both years!) and also showed good power for the Tigers in 2004 (slugged .509 in 165 at bats) but it’s going to be hard for him to get regular at bats for this team. He has an outside shot at coming north with the team if there is an injury or they decide to send Logan to Toledo to work on his offensive game. The 29 year old Thames is out of options though and might be better off moving to a different organization.

Alexis Gomez is a 26 year old outfielder who was a top prospect for the Royals before his star faded for a couple of years. He rebounded somewhat last year at Toledo (.307/.348/.450) and may give Logan a run for the backup job at some point. He can play all three outfield positions.

The other two outfielders are Ryan Ludwick and Reggie Taylor. Ludwick was once a top power hitting prospect for the Rangers and Indians but his career has been derailed by injuries. He will try to revive his career at Toledo at the age of 27. Taylor is a 29 year old journeyman who has appeared in 260 games with the Phillies, Reds and Devil Rays without much success. He was a great tools prospect with a good power/speed combination at one point but never developed as expected. Ludwick and Taylor will likely join Gomez in the Toledo outfield this season.

As for the Tigers, I could be wrong but I think the biggest question may already have been answered. I think Leyland is just not ready to tell us that Granderson is the starting center fielder.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Tiger Notes

I've been talking a lot lately about position battles and how some role players might fit into the line-up. Over at Tiger Blog, Jeff K has an article on Tiger lefty/righty splits over the past three years and suggests what the best possible platoons might be based on those splits. In particular he mentions how Young's potential role as a multi-position player might influence Leyland's thinking.

Tom Gage of The Detroit News had an interesting interview with Joel Zumaya and Justin Verlander this morning. The most revealing news coming from the interview is that Zumaya said he wants to be a closer:

"I see myself in the future being a later reliever, a closer, more than a starter. I just feel we have a different mentality on the mound. I'd love to come out there when the game is on the line. I'm a big adrenaline guy.

"He's more of a relaxed guy out there -- real energetic, but relaxed on the mound. He takes no crap from anybody, either, but when I'm out there, it's a whole different attitude. I'm so intense. Mellow off the mound, but intense on it.

"I have lots of life to live. I'm young, I can go to Triple A, but I'd love to eventually close Verlander's games. It would be awesome. You'd have two bulldogs out there -- one guy starting and throwing the way he throws, a relief guy in between throwing maybe a little slower than we do, then bam, ninth inning, here I come."

In the past, he has said that he wants to start so he may now be saying he wants to close just because he thinks it will get him to the majors quicker. Either that or the Tigers have convinced him that he'd be better off as a closer. Some scouts have mentioned in the past that his delivery and make-up might be more suitable to relieving than starting. Still, the Tigers have always used him as a starter and have made no definitive statements about his ultimate role so I think we need to stay tuned on this one. Personally, I hope they use him as a starter because I think starters with his kind of potential are harder to find than closers.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Tiger Projections for 2006

During the winter, I talked a little bit about projection systems used to forecast player performance in the coming year or years. Three of the most popular systems are:

Today, I entered projections for each of the systems into a spreadsheet and calculated an average projection over the three systems for each Tiger batter expected to be on the 2006 opening day roster. This method should drown out any projection by one system which seems to be overly optimistic or pessimistic for a particular player. I will only be giving you the averages and not the specific projections for each system as the Handbook projections and PECOTAs are not freely available. You can buy books containing the projections for Tigers and players on other teams at the above links. The ZIPS are public and can be found at Baseball Think Factory. They don’t seem to be in one place though so you’ll probably have to do a search for particular teams or players.

The table below is color coded. Every player projected to fall in the top 30 percent of the league’s regulars for a particular measure is coded in blue for that statistic. Every player projected to fall in the bottom 30% for a measure is coded in red. The middle 40% are in black.

Table - Average Projections for Tiger Hitters in 2006







Ivan Rodriguez






Chris Shelton






Placido Polanco






Carlos Guillen






Brandon Inge






Craig Monroe






Curtis Granderson






Magglio Ordonez






Dmitri Young






Carlos Pena






Omar Infante






Nook Logan






Vance Wilson






From the table, it can be seen that a healthy Tiger line-up would be pretty solid. They would have five regulars (Shelton, Ordonez, Young, Guillen and Granderson) and one bench player (Pena) with OPS’ in the top 30% of all American League regulars. None of the regulars would fall in the bottom 30%.

Every regular except Inge would fall in the upper 30% for at least one of three statistics: batting average, on base percentage or slugging percentage. Only one regular (Inge in batting average) would fall in the bottom 30% for any of those statistics. Even the on base percentages look decent and that would be quite a feat for this team.

If all goes as projected, this would be a very good year for the Tiger's offense.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Rogers is Opening Day Starter, Center Field Still Unsettled

According to MLB.COM, Jim Leyland has already announced that Kenny Rogers will be the opening day starter this year and that Bonderman will pitch the home opener:

Tigers manager Jim Leyland made his "likely" decision official Wednesday: Rogers will start the Tigers' season opener April 3 at Kansas City. Jeremy Bonderman will start the second game April 5 and then the Tiger's home opener April 10 against the White Sox.
I like the idea that Leyland is announcing his decision now rather than waiting until spring training is over. Rogers has the best track record of any Tiger starter and spring training will not change that.

MLB.COM also reports that the starting center fielder will probably bat leadoff ahead of Placido Polanco. He won't say whether it will be Curtis Granderson or Nook Logan but he said he'd prefer it be one of them rather than a platoon:

The switch-hitting Logan is a lifetime .318 hitter against left-handed pitching, but former manager Alan Trammell repeatedly pointed out Logan's need for improvement against righties and to hone his bunting. Granderson, a pure left-handed hitter, actually hit better against lefties at both Toledo and Detroit, but his on-base percentage was stronger against righties.

The two seem to complement each other well, but Leyland has said twice already that he'd like to see the contest won outright, if anything for stability up the middle.

"I'd love to have a center fielder, period," Leyland said. "Now whether that's going to work on this team, I don't know, but I'd preferably like to have a catcher, shortstop, second baseman and center fielder. I like to have them etched in stone, but I'm going to have to tinker with that for a while."

If he really wants one guy to win the job, then I think it would have to be Granderson. I wouldn't want to see a platoon but I could imagine it happening at least at the beginning of the season. It's really hard to see Logan winning the job outright with his inability to hit right-handers.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Tigers Spring Training Preview - First Basemen

Going into the off-season, the Tigers had a three headed monster at first base. Now, there’s a picture for you photoshop experts (Sam?) There was the aging and growing Dmitri Young, the enigmatic Carlos Pena and the up and coming Chris Shelton. They were three players looking to fill two positions – first base and designated hitter. Matters became even more complicated when Jim Leyland said he planned to give Magglio Ordonez some time in the designated hitter slot.

It was apparent that one of the three heads would have to be chopped off during the winter. Shelton had the best year of three by a pretty wide margin so it was assumed by most that he would stay and have a regular job in 2006. Many of us figured that either Pena or Young would be playing elsewhere by the spring. However, the Tigers were unable to trade either of them and unwilling to non-tender Pena after his end of season power display. Thus, the logjam still remains.

One interesting item over the winter was Leyland’s demand to Young to get in shape if he wanted to play regularly in 2006. Whether it was Leyland’s orders or whether it was because this year will be a contract year is unknown but Young did indeed lose weight over the winter. Leyland sounds serious about having Young work out at third base and the outfield this spring and he wants him to be able to play those positions on more than an emergency basis.

It won’t be easy but if Young can play those positions, it would give the team a lot more flexibility. It would free up the DH spot on some days so that Leyland can get Pena’s left-handed bat into the line-up more often and Ordonez (and Guillen?) can rest his legs by DHing on occasion. It would also allow him to rest Monroe and/or Inge against some tough right-handers. So Young’s audition at multiple positions will be one of the biggest stories of the spring.

Along with Shelton, Pena and Young, the Tigers also added Josh Phelps over the winter. Phelps who has batted .268/.336/.473 in 352 major league games will likely start the year in Toledo but could see Detroit later in the season if injuries hit. Also in camp is journeyman Mike Hessman. Hessman has some decent power but doesn’t offer much of anything else and will also probably play in Toledo this year.

But all eyes will be focused on the three headed monster this spring. It will be interesting to see how Leyland manages to work the creature into the line-up. My guess is that Shelton will be the full-time first baseman,Young will start the season roaming around the diamond and Pena will DH when Young plays in the field. I question how long Young’s big and aging (although somewhat slimmer) body can hold up though. We’ll see. As the cliché goes, these things usually have a way of working themselves out.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Tigers Spring Training Preview - The Catchers

There is no positional battle at the catching spot this spring. Everybody knows that Ivan Rodriguez is the starter and that Vance Wilson is the backup. One question concerning Rodriguez is whether he will regain some of the production which he failed to show in 2005 but that’s something that can’t really be answered until the regular season.

A bigger question is what happens if Pudge goes down for a significant period of time with an injury? Although Wilson is not usually as bad as he showed last year, I would not want to see him start for any length of time. What other options are there?

The first option would probably be Maxim St. Pierre. Max has the coolest name and is also the most advanced of the five non-roster invitees. Assistant General Manager, Al Avila, recently said that St. Pierre is the best defenseive prospect in the Tigers system and that he may be ready for the majors soon. He batted .278/.320/.369 at the age of 26 in his fourth year at Erie. This is pretty much the same stat line he puts up every year and at this point I wouldn’t expect much improvement. He looks to be a backup catcher option only.

Another one who could be re-called if anything were to happen to Rodriguez is Brian Peterson. Peterson, who spent the last 4 years in AA Chattanooga in the Reds organization seems to be a Max St.Pierre clone. Like St. Pierre, Peterson looks like a backup catcher at best. He’ll likely share the catching duties at Toledo with St. Pierre but I would expect St. Pierre to get the most at bats.

They do have a couple of catchers lower in the system who are a bit more intriguing even though they wouldn’t be ready this year. The best hitting prospect is Danilo Sanchez. He is 25 years old and has never played above A ball but he put up some impressive numbers at Lakeland last year: .284/.361/.524 with 22 home runs in 349 at bats. If he hits as well for Erie this year, he’ll become an interesting prospect.

Chris Robinson, the third round pick in the 2005 draft, is considered by many to be the best all around catching prospect in the system. The report on him is that he is a good defensive catcher who needs to work on his offensive game Right now he doesn’t project to be more than an average hitting catcher but he is just 21 and has time to improve. He’ll catch for Lakeland this year.

The other catcher in camp is Mike Rabelo. Rabelo is another fringe prospect who will likely backup Sanchez at Erie this year. He hits for pretty good average but doesn’t appear to have any other good skills.

So the answer to the question posed above is that the Tigers don’t have a legitimate replacement for Rodriguez this year and any significant injury to him would create a tough problem for the team.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Tigers Spring Training Preview - The Infielders

There are no positional battles in the Tiger infield from second to third this spring (I’ll look at the first basemen in another post). It will be Placido Polanco at second, Carlos Guillen at shortstop and Brandon Inge at third with Omar Infante backing up all three positions. The biggest question in the infield (and perhaps the most important for the team this spring) concerns the health of Guillen.

Guillen injured his right knee late in 2004, underwent off-season surgery and was never totally healthy in 2005. After a near MVP caliber year in 2004, Guillen was in and out of the line-up all year long and wound up playing only 87 games. This, I think, was one of the biggest factors in a somewhat disappointing season for the Tigers last year. I believe a comeback by Guillen (even if he doesn’t hit for quite as much power as he did in 2004) might be the single biggest ingredient if the Tigers are to make substantial improvement this year.

The early news on Guillen is very positive. In Tom Gage’s article in the Detroit News this morning, Guillen claims to be 100%. One could chalk that up to spring training optimism but at no point last year did Guillen ever claim to be 100%. He admitted his knee was a problem all year long and his sporadic play showed it. Hopefully, the news will remain good when he starts playing regularly including games for Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic.

Beyond Polanco, Guillen, Inge and Infante, there are a few other players in camp who may be seen in Detroit later in the season if injuries strike. Donald Kelly (.340/.402/.508 for Erie last year before struggling in his first attempt against AAA pitching) has a decent left-handed bat and can play all over the place. Third base is considered his most appropriate position but he has played all four infield positions at various times. We could very well see him as utility man in the not so distant future but he’ll need to cut down on his errors (32 last year).

Shortstop Tony Giarratano may be ready defensively but a brief stint with the Tigers last summer showed that his bat has a ways to go. He’ll likely go back to Erie this year to work on his offensive game. How well he hits will determine whether he is the starting shortstop of the future or a utility infielder.

Other infielders in camp are Ramon Santiago (back from Seattle), Kody Kirkland and Kevin Hooper. Of those three, Kirkland is the most interesting. The scouting reports on Kirkland are all over the place as his performance has not matched his supposed potential but he’s still just 22 and the Tigers are still high on him. He’ll play third base for Erie this year.

But the big story here is Guillen. The health of Guillen’s knee will go a long way in determining how much the team will improve this year. So far, the news is good.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Tigers Spring Training Preview - The Bullpen

Last year, the Tigers went into spring training with an intriguing new bullpen as Troy Percival and Kyle Farnsworth were acquired in the off-season to join Ugueth Urbina. A year later, Urbina is in a Venezuelan prison, Farnsworth is a Yankee and Percival spends a lot of time in the doctor’s office. Now, the new man is Todd Jones acquired after Fernando Rodney was unable to secure the closer role at the end of 2005.

Jim Leyland has said that he will bring 7 relief pitchers up north. Jones and Jamie Walker are locks and ,although Leyland wouldn’t say it, Rodney and Chris Spurling are very close to being locks. That leaves three positions open for about a dozen candidates, some with better odds than others. I’ll start with the pitchers which seem to have the best chances and work my way down the list.

When I first drafted this post on paper last night, I had Craig Dingman as a leading candidate to win one of the remaining jobs. That was before I read an article by Crystal Evola of the Oakland Press this morning about an unfortunate health problem which could potentially threaten more than his baseball career. He has a torn artery in his right shoulder, a rare condition which has doctors scrambling to find out what is causing it and how serious it is. I wish him the best of luck.

A healthy Matt Mantei would probably take one of the open spots. The problem is he hasn’t been healthy much lately pitching just 36 innings over the last two years. The former Diamondback and Marlin closer can be dominating when healthy as evidenced by his lifetime K/IP ratio of 396/322. He’s somebody to watch closely this March.

Franklyn German lowered his ERA to 3.66 last year but still struggled with control walking 34 in 59 innings. Another bout of wildness this spring could lead to a trade before the season starts.

Another hard throwing but lower profile right-hander, Mark Woodyard, is a sleeper and has a chance to pitch some important innings for the Tigers this year and in the future. Woodyard is unheralded but the Tigers have always liked him and have sent him to the prestigious Arizona Fall League a couple of times.

Leyland has said that he will take the 12 best pitchers to Detroit even if it means not having a second left-hander to go with Walker. Still, I think Leyland will be looking closely at Bobby Seay, Hector Mercado and Wil Ledezma (discussed in the starting pitcher preview). Seay and Mercado have both pitched well in the minors as relievers the last couple of years and may be ready to succeed in the majors as lefty specialists. Mercado has shown some pretty good stuff in the majors striking out 127 in 125 innings but has also struggled a lot with his control.

Three other pitchers (Roman Colon, Joel Zumaya and Jason Grilli) discussed in the starting pitcher preview might end up in the bullpen as well. I’d be surprised to see Zumaya in the bullpen for the Tigers because I think he’d be better off working as a starter in Toledo but Leyland has mentioned it as a possibility.

Percival is in camp trying to recover from a severe right forearm injury. Surprisingly, he says he has a chance to be ready to pitch by opening day but I have a feeling that’s just his competitive nature. I will be surprised if he pitches this year at all.

One of the most exciting relief arms in Lakeland is 22 year old Eulogio DeLaCruz. The hard throwing right-handed pitcher had 97 strikeouts in 96 innings last year for Lakeland and may have a bright future but he is most likely headed to Erie this year.

The Tigers also have the usual list of journeymen pitchers trying rescue their careers. Chad Durbin, Lee Gardner, Kevin Hodges and Tim Crabtree are all long shots and will probably either get released or be used to fill out the Toledo staff. Crabtree has gotten the most publicity among that group because he is from Jackson Michigan and because he was once a successful reliever for the Blue Jays and Rangers. However, he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2001 and don’t think he has any more chance than the others.

My pick for opening day bullpen: Jones, Walker, Rodney, Spurling, Mantei, Colon, German (with Woodyard the next one in if there is a trade or injury).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Tiger Spring Training Preview - The Starting Pitchers

A bitter cold weekend is forecast and several weeks of winter are still ahead of us up here in the north but all thoughts are warm as we have heard that pitchers and catchers reported to Lakeland yesterday to begin Spring training. This day which baseball fans anticipate all through the long dreary winter is the surest harbinger of Spring. It will be a couple of weeks before the games actually begin but it doesn’t matter. We know that baseball is back and it’s time for everybody, including fans, to get ready for opening day.

In that spirit, I will be writing a series of posts previewing the spring training season. I’ll take a look at the positional battles and other things I think we should be watching as the spring progresses. I’ll begin today with the starting pitchers. There are two big questions surrounding the starting staff and they are related. First, there is still some concern in my mind about the health of their big three pitching prospects. Then there is the question as to who will be the fifth starter.

Maybe I’m just being a paranoid Tiger fan fearing the worst but I can’t help but be a little worried about the arms of Jeremy Bonderman (and yes at age 23 he’s still a prospect regardless of his major league experience), Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya. Bonderman ended last season with a sore elbow and Verlander and Zumaya were shut down with tired shoulders. None of these ailments were considered to be serious and all of them are supposedly ready to go but I still want to see what happens when they go all out in the spring games. Any loss of velocity, stiffness, tired arm, discomfort or “dead arm period that every pitcher goes through” should be viewed with suspicion. The good news is the Tigers aren’t letting Bonderman pitch in the World Baseball Classic. I think it will be much better for him if he gets his arm into shape under the eyes of Tiger coaches.

Assuming everyone is in good health, it is a foregone conclusion that Bonderman, Kenny Rogers, Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson will begin the season in the starting rotation. There will be a battle for the fifth starting spot and the three leading candidates seem to be Verlander, Zumaya and Roman Colon. Verlander who posted an ERA of 1.29 in 119 innings with Lakeland and Erie last year appears to be the front runner despite struggling in two starts for the Tigers last summer. With only 9 starts above A ball, he may need more seasoning but he did dominate AA last year and is considered one of the top prospects in all of baseball.

The second most likely candidate is probably Roman Colon. Colon has always had great raw stuff and had a few good starts for the Braves last year before being traded to the Tigers but he has had problems with consistency. He had a great season at AAA in 2004 after being converted to a reliever but bounced between relieving and starting last year. He did better as a starter last year but had greater success in the minors as a reliever so his ultimate role is still up in the air. Right now, I think they are looking at him as a candidate for the fifth spot with relief pitching as a possible role if he doesn’t win the starting job.

Zumaya who is still just 21 would probably need an outstanding spring and failures from Verlander and Colon in order to make the rotation. There has been some talk of him making the team as a relief pitcher but he would be probably be better off getting innings and refining his pitches at Toledo at least for the first part of the season. He had an amazing 199 strikeouts in 151 innings for Erie and Toledo last year but he also walked 76 so he needs to work on his control.

If none of the above impress the Tigers enough this March, then the next two candidates are probably Jason Grilli and Wil Ledezma. At 29 years old, Grilli is not much of a prospect anymore but he might get a shot just based on the fact that he was about the only pitcher on the staff with a pulse down the stretch last year. His two decent starts at the end of last season give him a glimmer of hope for this season. After dominating for Erie in 2004, Ledezma was handed the fifth starting job almost by default last year even though he had a poor spring. He went on to have a horrible season struggling with his control all year for both Detroit and Toledo. He reportedly pitched better during winter ball but still hadn’t mastered his control problems.

There are other starting pitchers in camp but all of them will be pitching in the minor leagues once the regular season starts. Humberto Sanchez and Jordan Tata are two top prospects so it will be very interesting to see how they do as they get ready to pitch most likely for Erie. Another pitcher to watch is Kyle Sleeth, a first round pick in 2003, who missed the entire season last year and eventually underwent Tommy John surgery. His progress is reportedly going well but for the time being he’s just trying to get back to full strength and probably won’t pitch in game situations until later in the year. Preston Larrison who pitched 71 innings last year for Lakeland and Erie after returning from Tommy John surgery and Colby Lewis who missed all of 2005 with a rotator cuff injury will be trying to regain their prospect status.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Baseball America Top Prospects by Position

Baseball America released a new pre-season feature today - top prospects by position. It's only available to subscribers but I'll give you a brief summary. Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya were both among the top five right-handed starters and Cameron Maybin was among the top five center fielders. Tony Giarratano and Audi Ciriaco were not ranked but were mentioned as shortstops to consider. In all, 80 players were ranked at various positions and 60 others got mentions. I think these rankings tell us that Verlander, Zumaya and Maybin will all be ranked very high (all probably in the Top 50) on the famous Baseball America Top 100 to be released in a couple of weeks. I doubt any other Tigers will make that list.

The most obvious omission for the Tigers was Brent Clevlen. However, that was not a complete surprise because, although he had a very good year, he was repeating the Florida State League. His stock will rise markedly if he has a good year for AA Erie this year.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Average Range Rank for Left Fielders

For my last installment of Average Rank Rank, I present the left fielders. The 24 left fielders with 600 or more innings in 2005 are listed in the table below. There are no Tigers on the list as the position was split between Monroe (who qualified in right field), White, Young and others. Baseball’s leader was Coco Crisp (2.5). Miguel Cabrera (22.8) was at the bottom of the list.

This concludes, for now, my discussion of Average Range Rank. Measurement of fielding range will continue to be a favorite topic of mine in the future as it is still one of the hot sabermetric topics of the day. For the next several days, however, I’ll be getting warmed up for Spring training by writing a position by position preview of what to look for in Lakeland this March.

Average Range Rank: left fielders in 2005




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