Coming into the 2012 season the Detroit Tigers had two glaring needs: a corner outfielder and a second baseman. Magglio Ordonez was on his way out, and former #1 draft pick Delmon Young has yet to put together a big league season that justifies Leyland putting him in the lineup everyday. So what did the Tigers do to fill these two holes? They signed another All-Star first baseman, leaving a platoon situation at second and Delmon Young in left field. We are half-way through the season, and the holes left by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in the outfield continue to be of the cavernous variety. The Tigers have the least amount of production from their right fielders in baseball (-2.9 WAR) and Delmon Young has been the worst left fielder (among qualified players) in the majors (-.5 WAR). Young now splits time with speedster Quintin Berry, who spent the last eight years playing in the minor leagues before making his pro debut in 2012. While Berry has done well in a rather small sample size, if the Tigers are to contend in 2012 and beyond they will need another quality corner outfielder.
Last week, as if the baseball God’s had come to cure Dombrowski’s off-season hiccup, the Arizona Central reported that the Diamondbacks are interested in trading Justin Upton, their 24-year-old right fielder. Yes, that Justin Upton, the two-time All-Star that finished fourth in the National League MVP race in 2011. Upton is a young player that has yet to reach his prime. Why the Diamondback’s would consider trading such a young talent that happens to be signed through his age 27 season is a mystery, but it should not serve as a surprise. This is the second time in his short career the Diamondback’s have shopped their best player and it appears as if the club has reached the point of no return and must trade Upton. Outfielders typically don’t reach their peak until their age 27 season, a plus for any team contemplating trading for Upton. That being the case, his career numbers .275/.356/.475 & 12 WAR already trump those of each corner outfielder on the Tiger’s roster. The Tigers need to acquire Justin Upton and have the pieces to make it happen.
If you took the time to read the linked article from the Arizona Central you noticed that in return for Justin Upton the Diamondback’s are looking for a shortstop, third baseman, or star starting pitcher. The Tigers have a red-hot third base prospect in Nick Castellanos (20) who could serve as the center piece of a deal with the D-backs. In 2012 Castellanos is hitting .363/.406/.516 between A & AA Ball, was the MVP of the All-Star Futures game, and was recently ranked as the 15th best prospect in all of baseball by Keith Law of ESPN. Obviously, with his recent success Castellanos has generated a tremendous buzz among Tiger fans who are eager to see the him in the Bigs. With the recent success of Mike Trout (20) and Bryce Harper(19), I understand the source of their impatience yet realize the Tigers would be better served by moving the young third baseman now.
To the fans dismay, it’s unreasonable to expect Castellanos to play in the majors for the Tigers anytime soon. As a third baseman Castellanos is blocked by one of the best right-handed hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera (signed through 2015). Moving Cabrera back to first base is out of the question as the Tigers expect Prince to be manning first base for the next eight years. Blocked at third the Tigers organization began playing Castellanos in right field for their AA affiliate. There are two issues with this move: 1) Castellanos loses some of his value moving from third to right field as third base is a more challenging defensive position; 2) Castellanos MAY become an All-Star right fielder or he MAY be the next Cameron Maybin. What we do know is Nick Castellanos IS a prospect and prospects are a gamble because they have yet to prove themselves on the Major League level. I’m sure many Tiger fans remember Maybin, our last major prospect. There was a time when Maybin was an un-tradable prospect until we were able to trade him to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera. You know the rest of the story, Cabrera (the proven commodity) is one of the best players in baseball for the Tigers, and Maybin (the prospect) has since been traded from the Marlins to the Padres and has yet to reach the potential Tigers fans had come to expect. A majority of fans tend to place a premium on prospects because they represent the unknown. In this instance, I’ll take the two-time All-Star who has shown he can play at or near an MVP level. Give me Justin Upton playing right field for the Detroit Tigers!
Quick, throw away all your E-troit* Tiger biases, forget whose your Tiger, and tell me which Tiger has had the best 2012 season at the half way point. *(Not a typo – the D has been removed until the Tiger’s exhibit anything resembling a Major League defense). I know, our biases are strong, we love our new Prince of Motown so let me help you out. Here are the slash lines for the top 3 Tigers in 2012:
Player A – .324/.383/.558
Player B – .335/.411/.552
Player C – .299/.379/.497
Now that we have gotten those biases out of the way, I’m making the argument that Player B, Austin Jackson, has been the best Tiger in the first half of 2012. While I realize slash lines can not tell the whole story I will go behind the slash line in my defense of A-Jax.
(A= Miguel Cabrera; C = Prince Fielder)
Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski’s plan entering 2012 was to field the best beer league softball team with two rather large (pun intended) defensive anchors at the corner infield spots. Unfortunately, the 2012 Tigers bats have not been able to score runs at the rapid pace their defense has been able to gift wrap runs for the opposing team. They lead the American League in unearned runs (43), and have the worst Ultimate Zone Rating (-27.2) (an advanced statistic that quantifies the amount of runs saved by a defense over the season) in the league. In fact, each Tiger player that started Opening Day has a negative Ultimate Zone Rating at their respective position in 2012, except for Austin Jackson (5.2). Jackson has been the sole Gold Glove candidate on a team that at times appears to be playing with gloves made of stone. Therefore, Austin Jackson gets a boost when measured against the other Tigers for playing stellar defense in center field, a position where defense is of grave importance, all while producing eye-popping numbers at the plate.
Since Austin Jackson came to the Bigs in 2010 Tiger fans have taken issue with their free swinging lead off hitter not getting on base in front of Miguel Cabrera. Jackson lead the league in strikeouts in 2010 and finished 3rd in 2011, which drained his value as a lead off hitter because he simply was not getting on base enough. This year, his strikeout rate is down and his walks are up resulting in an On Base Percentage of .411, tops on the team and good enough for second in the American League. And what does it mean to the Tigers to have their lead off hitter getting on base for the big hitters? Without Jackson in the lineup the Tigers are 8-14 (.363), and with him they are 34-28 (.548).
One could pose the argument that Miguel Cabrera has been the best Tiger in 2012 and I would listen. I’m a huge fan of Miguel’s but putting bias aside, my issue with the Cabrera argument is that is based on his counting stats. For instance, Miguel Cabrera has 18HR/52R/71RBI to Austin Jackson’s 9HR/53R/38RBI. Cabrera has produced great numbers, but only looking at a player’s counting stats to measure their effectiveness can be problematic because they are dependant on so many other factors. Case in point the largest disparity between the two players is their RBI totals. RBI are dependant on other players being on base when you get your hits. This negatively effects Jackson as a lead off hitter because he starts the game with no one on base and in the middle innings his RBI total is dependant on the bottom of the order, generally the weaker hitters, getting on base in front of him. The pro Cabrera camp would then argue that the two players have scored about the same amount of runs, a stat Jackson should lead batting first in the Tigers lineup. This argument brings to light another issue with only using counting stats. Miguel Cabrera has played in 22 more games than Austin Jackson and has had 92 more plate appearances ie more opportunities to hit HR’s, score runs, or collect RBI.
Many stats have been created to right the wrongs that counting stats create. One such stat is weighted runs created+ (wRC+), which seeks to quantify a players total offensive value measured by the runs they create. Austin Jackson has the third highest wRC+ score in the American League (163) behind Mike Trout and Robinson Cano. Miguel Cabrera’s 153 score is good enough for 5th in the League. Not a large disparity but all things equal A-Jax has been the more productive offensive player. Finally we will look at the amount of wins above a replacement level player (WAR) the two have added to the Tigers. WAR is a useful tool because it takes into account a players offensive and defensive contributions to determine a player’s overall value. Again Austin Jackson’s 4.0 WAR is higher than that of Miguel Cabrera (3.3 WAR). By no means am I arguing that Austin Jackson is a better baseball player than Miguel Cabrera, who has played at a consistently high level for 10 straight years, but for the first half of 2012 Austin Jackson has been the best player on the Tiger’s roster.
Full disclosure…..1. My obsession with the Detroit Tiger’s has caused many (including my wife) to look at me sideways; and 2. as a former chubby twelve year old first baseman I’ve always enjoyed watching Prince Fielder do work. So at 3:00 pm, January 24, 2012, when these two worlds collided one would assume that I would have gassed up the ride and personally moved our new acquisition to the D. Yet for some reason my joy was tempered as I wondered how in the hell is this gonna work? Fielder plays the same position as the Tigers best player, Miguel Cabrera, and the rather hefty makeup of both players body type make DH the only other reasonable position either can play effectively. Well, the Tigers have a temporary need at DH with the injury to Victor Martinez, but he is expected to make a full recovery and penciled in as the regular DH in 2013. Therein lies my apprehension with this deal. For the next nine years the Detroit Tigers have roughly $338 Million dollars tied up in 1B/DH players, which happen to be the lest flexible type of players when it comes to finding another suitable position. Then I thought damn, did my team just make a panic move (due to Martinez’s injury) that would hamper them for the next nine years?
While the Tigers will attempt to conceal their trepidation which led to Prince Fielder becoming a Tiger, their comments and the numbers say they panicked. Today at Fielder’s press conference his agent Scott Boras confirmed that the Tigers did not enter the Fielder sweepstakes until Martinez got hurt. Mike Illitch confirmed that he has desired to have Fielder wear the Old English D since he was a twelve year old hitting bombs out of Tiger Stadium with his famous father Cecil watching. And Leyland confirmed my deepest fear when he stated, Cabrera, all 250 pounds of him would become the regular third baseman. It’s as if the Tigers are attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole, or in Cabrera’s case a round peg in a square whole. Fielder was given a nine year contract because Victor Martinez will not play in 2012 and the owner feeling the need to compensate for the loss went out and gave the object of his affection a contract that far exceeds the Tigers needs. In doing so Miguel Cabrera, the better player of the two, will be asked to continue his optimal performance under unreasonable conditions.
Miguel Cabrera is not a third baseman, and has not been a good defensive third baseman since 2005. In fact, the Tigers last attempt to wedge Cabrera in at third base ended after only 14 games in 2008. The defensive statistic UZR/150 allows us to measure a players defensive value at a certain position as if he played 150 games that particular season. A good third baseman averages a score of 7, an average score is 0, and a below average score is -5. In 2008 Miguel Cabrera’s UZR/150 score at third base was -36.8, and it’s plain to see why Leyland moved Cabrera to first base after 14 games. Cabrera was to heavy to play third base, also known as the hot corner, in 2008 and he is definitely to heavy to play third in 2012. Needless to say, I have little faith in Cabrera being able to lose enough weight to be even a servicable defensive third baseman. As stated, Cabrera is very limited in the positions he can play defensively and when it doesn’t work at third base he may be forced into a DH role. And how will that work out you ask?
While I realize it is a small sample size the numbers say that Miguel Cabrera hits better when he also plays the field. Cabrera’s career number’s of .317/.395/.555 (AVG/OBP/SLG) resemble one who is destined for the Hall of Fame. His number’s in the 26 games he has played DH .230/.306/.370 reflect a player struggling to crack the starting lineup. This is not out of the ordinary as many players find it difficult to grab a bat and hit after he has sat on the bench as his teammates were in the field. With Fielder at first base I ultimately see Cabrera manning the DH slot in the order. If Cabrera continues to hit at the level of a replacement player when he plays DH, the Fielder signing (which has many calling the Tigers World Series favorites) could be a nine year anchor that prevents the Tigers from competing in 2012 and beyond.
So…….what did I do the day after it soaked in the MY team signed Prince Fielder to what may likely become a team crippling contract?
I called my season ticket rep and renewed my tickets. Remember the full disclosure, I told you in the beginning I was an irrational fan.