Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Door Opens

The Tigers won the AL Central handily last year. Their 95-67 record was 15 games better than the 2nd-place Indians. No other team in the division finished over .500. Though they have largely stood pat this offseason, the remainder of the division is so far behind the talent Detroit is returning that there has been little controversy in picking them as the favorites to repeat in 2012.

I wouldn't pick them to win 90+ games again, though. Their .318 team BABIP was the best in the Majors by a good margin, exceeding the league average by .024. Players from Miguel Cabrera to Alex Avila to Jhonny Peralta were well over their career norms in this regard. That factor alone makes a healthy regression in their offensive output likely. Throw in the fact that their Closer, Jose Valverde, didn't blow a save in 49 tries (5 blown saves would have been a very good percentage) - a feat he will almost certainly fail to repeat this year - and it's easy to see their win total dropping into the upper 80s.

But with the White Sox (mostly) rebuilding, the Indians short on resources, the Royals still probably a year away and the Twins facing a slew of injury concerns, the Tigers appeared to be the only member of the AL Central for whom 86+ wins was within reach.

Until Tuesday, when we learned that Victor Martinez will likely be out for the season with a torn ACL suffered during offseason workouts. V-Mart was a middle-of-the-order force for the Tigers last year, batting .330/.380/.470 with 103 RBIs. A switch-hitter, he had an .830+ OPS from both sides of the plate. At this point in the offseason, he will be difficult to replace.

There are FA DHs still available, but most of them are in the decline phase of their careers. None of Carlos Pena, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Vladimir Guerrero or Manny Ramirez could be expected to match what Martinez gave the Tigers last year. If I were them, I'd go for Pena, who crushes righties and is at least a good defender at 1B. He could push Cabrera to DH vs. RHP, and they would come out ahead in those match-ups. But they would be much more vulnerable vs. LHP.

Depending on who they get to fill their DH slot, the loss of Martinez probably will cost the Tigers another couple of wins. While their pitching should remain good, they now figure to be a below-average team at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Suddenly, 84-86 wins is looking like the best-case scenario for them. (That was the pace they were on at the trading deadline last summer, by the way, before finishing a ridiculous 39-16 over the last two months.)

Given the precarious health of several of their core players, the Twins have understandably been cautious about overcommitting themselves to the 2012 campaign. They've spent about $21M to bring in 6 FA, mostly on modest, short-term deals. They've replaced their own FA losses more or less equally, and added depth in a couple of areas. Plus, they were unlucky last year, in everything from health to outcomes of batted balls. They should score a lot more runs and allow a lot fewer this year. The improvements may even be enough to bring their RS and RA into balance, which would result in about a .500 team. Respectable, but not a contender. But with $100M already spent to get the team to that level, and the market value of a marginal win nearly $5M, the Twins obviously can't afford to add the extra talent needed to get them to the 86-88 win level.

Now the injury to Martinez changes this calculus. The Tigers are nearly within reach, and one or two more judicious moves could elevate the Twins to the level of true contenders in the division. Look at it this way: if the Twins were 4 games back in the standings at the end of July, we'd expect them to make a move or two to take on payroll and go for the title. Surely, they are much more likely to make up that difference over 162 games than 55. They should spend the money now.

Roy Oswalt is there for the taking, for less than $10M. RH setup men like Dan Wheeler or Todd Coffey could be scooped up for less than $2M. The Twins could pick up Oswalt plus another reliever, kick Nick Blackburn into the bullpen as a long man/6th starter, and proceed into the season with a good pitching staff, all while spending a few million dollars less than they did on players at the start of last season. If things don't work out, they'd have a bunch of quality veterans they could deal in July and August while saving a bit of cash. If things do work out, it would be worth the extra expense, wouldn't it?

Alternately, the Twins could deal from their surplus of A-ball prospects to upgrade the rotation. At least half of those players won't amount to anything, and whoever is dealt can be more or less replaced with one of the Twins' 5 early picks in this June's draft. The Astros may be willing to eat some salary on Wandy Rodriguez or Brett Myers. Either one would be a huge upgrade over Blackburn.

In 2011, everything broke right for the Tigers and wrong for the Twins. A month before spring training, it's already clear that fortunes will be different in 2012. A little flexibility from the Twins now could position them to take advantage of some better luck in the coming season.

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