Saturday, March 01, 2014
The Ten Most Indispensable Tigers
(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 (ClayDavenport.com) to nine wins (BaseballProspectus.com) 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.