Saturday, March 01, 2014

The Ten Most Indispensable Tigers

The Tigers infield defense will take a big hit if shortstop Jose Iglesias goes on the disabled list.
(Photo credit: Julian Gonzalez, Detroit Free Press)

By virtually all accounts, the Tigers are heavy favorites to win the American League Central Division in 2014. Advanced projection systems rate them as anywhere from six wins ( to nine wins ( better than the runner-up Indians with the Royals a close third.  The Tigers superior talent gives them a cushion against under-achieving players and injuries, but many things can go wrong in a long season.

Even the best teams can only sustain so much misfortune and every year the grand plans of some pre-season favorite is derailed by unforeseen circumstances.  The hardest thing for analysts or anyone else to predict is injuries and the loss of key players for extended periods can dramatically change the course of a team's season.

The reason why injuries to starting players hit teams so hard is that most clubs do not have adequate alternatives at most positions and the 2014 Tigers are no exception.  The only bench players one might expect to perform above "replacement level" might be outfielder Rajai Davis and infielder Steve Lombardozzi and both will probably receive significant playing time even if there are no major injuries.

So which Tigers regulars are the most indispensable?  The top ten are listed below. 

1. Miguel Cabrera 

The entire Tigers offense revolves around the two-time MVP and would struggle mightily without him.  Losing Cabrera for a large portion of the season would erase most of the edge the Tigers have over the Indians and Royals.  Even if they moved Victor Martinez to first in his absence, they would still need to add another bat to the order and they have no adequate internal options.  I don't think anyone wants to see Jordan Lennerton or Daniel Fields replacing Cabrera.

2. Justin Verlander

The Tigers top three starting pitchers could be 2a, 2b and 2c, but Verlander is listed first because he has the longest track record of success and durability.  Losing Verlander might not hurt quite as much as losing Cabrera because they have such a strong rotation, but it would be a huge hit.  The most obvious replacement would be left-hander Jose Alvarez, a pitcher you don't want to see getting more than a few spot starts.

3. Max Scherzer

Scherzer might not match his 2013 season, but is capable of coming close and the Tigers can't afford to lose him for an extended period of time.

4. Anibal Sanchez

See Scherzer above  

5. Austin Jackson

A lot of people seem to be down on Jackson after a somewhat disappointing 2013, but he's still an important part of the team offensively and defensively.  Despite his tremendous speed, Rajai Davis is not a great defender and is not even second on the depth chart in center.  Don Kelly is. Chances are they would go with some combination of the two if Jackson were out for a long time and that would be a big drop off.

6. Ian Kinsler

Second base might be the position where they have the best back-up option in Lombardozzi, but he doesn't come close to Kinsler who is expected to be an important cog in their offense.

7. Alex Avila

Avila battled injuries last year including concussion problems and it slowed him down at the plate and in throwing out runners.  The pitchers apparently work well with him and he was one of the top catchers at pitch framing in 2013 according to Baseball Prospectus.  If he continues to miss time with injuries this year,  it will be a blow to the Tigers.  Back-up cather Bryan Holaday is a capable defender, but won't hit much.  Another possibility is that James McCann is ready to help at the MLB level, but I wouldn't count on him playing a big role this year.  Avila is already experiencing back stiffness this spring so keep an eye on him.

8. Jose Iglesias

The Tigers are focusing more on speed and defense this year and Iglesias is an important part of the new approach.  The shortstop position is one of the Tigers weakest bench spots.  Lombardozzi has not played much shortstop, so Hernan Perez would likely take over if Iglesias has a lengthy absence.   The problem is that Perez is more of a second baseman than shortstop.  It is concerning that Iglesias is currently experiencing trouble with his shins as he had a similar problem last September.

9.  Joe Nathan

Statistical analysts often point out that bullpens are a crap shoot and that most closers are replaceable.  This is true to an extent, but I think that dependable relievers are sometimes undervalued by the modern metrics.  Nathan is the only Tigers reliever with a reliable track record of success and they need him to solidify the bullpen.  Flame thrower Bruce Rondon might be able to close if necessary, but they would still lose Nathan's innings if he were hurt.

10. Victor Martinez

As the Tigers second best hitter, Martinez might be the only thing preventing Cabrera from racking up 150 bases on balls.


  1. We definitely need a big year from Martinez and he could even go ahead of Nathan in the order.

    Where would you have ranked Fister and Fielder if they had not been traded?

  2. Fielder would have replaced Kinsler on the list. If they still had Fister., it might have changed a few things because that would have made other pitchers more dispensable. Last year, if one of their big three got seriously injured, they could have moved Smyly into the rotation. This year, they don't have anyone who could step in like that.

    1. Interesting, well if the pitchers drop as a group and you had all 4 together, then I guess you would be considering putting AJ maybe all the way up to 2? Or would he split those pitchers and would Fielder stay behind at least 3 pitchers? I guess I'm wondering how many spots are between AJ and Fielder or if they are connected on the new list.

      Just thinking about it makes it really interesting to mesh together the perspective of what those players were worth and in comparison to each other. So it seems like we might have traded 2 of our Top 7 indispensable players this year.

    2. "I think that dependable relievers are sometimes undervalued by the modern metrics." I'm with you. I was fascinated to see your post some time back debunking "momentum", showing that a team was apparently no more or less likely to win following a really dispiriting loss where a late lead was blown. Even so, I think that not having a reliable closer, in whom the team has faith, is psychologically exhausting over such a long season. I look at both the '67 and '83 Tigers, and even today I just can't see where they were not the premiere teams in the league. I really believe that the fact that neither of those teams ever quite sorted out who would hold a ninth inning lead (even allowing for the fact that there were far more complete games, especially in '67) took more out of those teams than can be discerned with objective metrics. I was hardly a big Mayo Smith fan, but he patched together quite an effective bullpen in '68. And of course we had the MVP pitching the ninth in '84.

  3. There could be a psychological component, but I was thinking more along the lines of good relievers pitching in a lot of close games. The ability to win close games allows teams to outperform what their raw numbers suggest they should be doing and good bullpens helps teams win more close games. They also take pressure off starting pitchers because they can be removed earlier and don't have to throw as many pitches.



Blog Archive


My Sabermetrics Book

My Sabermetrics Book
One of Baseball America's top ten books of 2010

Other Sabermetrics Books

Stat Counter