Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Memphis Blues

The annual GM meetings have come and gone, but not before altering the balance of power in the AL Central. Detroit sold the farm (literally) to acquire two guaranteed years each of Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Dontrelle Willis. This deal has been analyzed to death by now, but I guess I should throw my hat in the ring for you, the esteemed reader.

First of all, this is a pretty obvious "win now" approach by Detroit. In one offseason, Detroit shipped out Jair Jurrjens, Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin and a mess of other lesser prospects. I'm not sure what the Tiger's front office thought of Jurrjens, but I know Atlanta must have thought pretty highly of him to trade Renteria with two years left on his contract. Tribe fans may remember Jurrjens from his 2-1 win against Carmona in late August; a game where I came away very frustrated (read, impressed) with the rookie. Miller and Maybin were the undisputed crown jewels of Detroit's farm system for the immediate future. The Tigers sacrificed long-term organizational depth for short-term dividends.

Many fans have been quick to point out Detroit's aging roster as motivation to make the blockbuster trade now and I agree with this point. Miguel Cabrera (24) and Curtis Granderson (26) are the only starters on Detroit's roster below the age of 30. In that regard, I at least understand where Detroit is coming from, although I don't entirely agree with the move from a philosophical standpoint. Such a sweeping trade is better suited to an aging team like Detroit than a youthful contender like Cleveland, so maybe that's where my bias lies. Some of their key players, like Rodriguez and Sheffield, have already shown a decline in performance or an increasing risk of injury. They may stink in a few years, but the Tigers are going for the throat the next few seasons.

The interesting thing is that even if Detroit suddenly emerges as this Divisional monster and blocks Cleveland from the playoffs (/knocks on wood), they'll still have to contend with Boston (who may have Santana in a year) and New York (who may just purchase the Dominican Republic at some point), in addition to the Tribe. Not exactly a guaranteed Series appearance, is it ESPN? Meanwhile, Cleveland has a much younger team with their core players under contract longer than Cabrera, Renteria, or those other geezers will be (productive) in the Motor City. That's all too far down the road to predict, but it's something to think about in terms of Detroit's much ballyhooed "win now" approach.

Second, just how much will Cabrera and Renteria actually help Detroit next season? Let's take a look at the production from the positions they will be replacing (stats cited from Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus):

Player Position EQA OPS+ WARP2
C. Guillen SS (old) .282 123 7.0
E. Renteria SS (new) .298 125 7.4

B. Inge 3B (old) .238 80 6.0
M. Cabrera 3B (new) .319 150 11.2

S. Casey 1B (old) .254 96 2.4
C. Guillen 1B (new) .282 123 7.0

With Guillen moving from SS to 1B in 2008, Detroit essentially traded for Renteria to upgrade 1B. In that sense, the Tigers made a significant upgrade, but only at one position. Guillen and Renteria were similar players in 2007. Renteria may be overrated going into next season though, since he has posted an OPS+ over 115 only one other time in his career (2003). I don't think it's realistic to expect him to do nearly as well as he did in '07, given the disparity between the NL West and AL Central.

Now before you start stressing out about how ridiculous Cabrera's numbers are, put them in context. Several key members of the Tigers' offense will not be as hot as they were last season. I would be shocked if Ordonez is able to duplicate his MVP caliber season next year. Sheffield has health and age issues, while Renteria's been discussed above. Even Placido Polanco had a career year in 2007, so fat chance of him repeating a performance he's done only once before in his career (notice the trend yet?). Granted, it's not a stretch for several of these guys to perform at a high level in 2008, but it's not as bad as it sounds for the rest of the Central (except for the White Sox because they are going to be horrible. Don't choke Ozzie!).

I think the problem is people are acting like Cabrera will be plugged into Detroit's lineup circa 2007, which just isn't true. Baseball rarely works in a linear fashion like that; player and team performance evolves annually. Granted, offensive production is not as volatile as bullpen pitching for example, but I still don't feel too far off the mark given the makeup of the Tiger's lineup. Cabrera will bring some heavy-duty offense to Detroit, but at the same time, many aspects of Detroit's lineup should regress back to their normal numbers.

Now, as far as Dontrelle Willis goes, Tribe fans have nothing to worry about. Show me that beautiful table:

2005 34 236.3 2.63 .352 .42 1.13 3.09
2006 34 223.3 3.87 .397 .85 1.42 1.92
2007 35 205.3 5.17 .477 1.27 1.60 1.67

Willis has been in free fall the past two seasons. Not only has his strikeout to walk ratio crashed, but he's been getting hit hard. Poor control and an opposition slugging .477 against is a dangerous combination. Willis' decline wasn't particularly gradual either; a 22 win ace in 2005 and a 5.17 ERA two years later?

Part of the D-Train's decline can be attributed to his change in mechanics over the years; the reasons behind these changes are less clear. Carlos Gomez breaks down Willis' mechanics in a great article at THT here. Whatever the problem, Detroit is going to have to fix it if Willis is going to survive pitching in the American League. I'm guessing the Tigers are confident in their ability to resuscitate Willis' past performance as an ace because right now he doesn't appear to be much of an upgrade over the potential stud they gave up in Andrew Miller, or even the promising Jurrjens.

I may be in the minority on this, but I just don't see Detroit surpassing Cleveland in overall talent with this trade. They certainly pulled a lot closer, but I can't believe people are calling the division already, give me a break.

The worst thing Cleveland could have done was to make a knee-jerk reaction to Detroit's trades. Jason Bay? Really? I was against the idea of trading for Bay. I don't see him bouncing back from such a huge decline in performance and I think he is done as an elite hitter. If Bay's reported knee issues are the root of the problem, that's just another reason not to invest a boatload of talent in him via trade. It seems someone's not telling the whole truth here because 28 year old athletes don't usually crash and burn for an entire season like that. No one seems to know the reason why he appears to have suddenly hit a wall, which is suspicious in its own right. I'm not going to go there though, since it would be pure speculation. The fact is, Cleveland avoided a foolish reactionary trade and they are better off for it.

The best thing Cleveland could do to "respond" to Detroit is to extend Sabathia this offseason. As much as I would like to see left field upgraded, Sabathia is still the Tribe's priority at the negotiating table right now.

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