It's amazing how quickly fans get spoiled.
The calls for manager Jim Leyland's ouster have faded since Tuesday, but even with his unorthodox style they were unfounded in the first place. Beloved Tiger legend Alan Trammell was the latest in a long line of Tiger skippers to fail miserably prior to Leyland's hiring, and in his first season he inflated the team's win total by 24.
In Leyland's four seasons in Detroit the Tigers have averaged 86 wins. The last time they won that many games in a single season was 1988, and while they still haven't won a division title since parting ways with then-prospect John Smoltz, Leyland guided them to their first playoff appearance since 1987.
Likewise, it isn't time to remove team dictator Dave Dombrowski. Nevermind the $24.5 million the 2010 Tigers will spend on pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis, and never mind the roughly $88 million already committed to next year's payroll before arbitration hearings with Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, Joel Zumaya, Zach Miner, Gerald Laird, Ramon Santiago, and Marcus Thames.
Let's not forget where this team came from. Previous GM Randy Smith is the guy that signed Bobby Higginson and Damion Easley to awful contracts, traded for Juan Gonzalez, and traded away Luis Gonzalez, Travis Fryman, David Wells, Cecil Fielder and Brad Ausmus twice. He drafted Matt Anderson. His greatest accomplishment was giving Juan Gonzalez an offer he could, and did, refuse.
Dombrowski has done some similar things. There are the aforementioned bad contracts, and Jair Jurrjens would be nice to have right now. The draft busts aren't there, at least not yet, but Dombroski's tenure hasn't been all roses.
Nonetheless, the Tigers have done their fair share of winning while DD has made these mistakes, and he did take over during the 2003 season, you know, when the Tigers set the American League record for losses. He took chances on players like Pudge Rodriguez and Magglio Ordonez, giving them money no one else would, and by doing so he returned this franchise to legitimacy.
Dombrowski has vastly improved the product on the field.
Even so, Dave has put himself between a rock and a hard place. His team overachieved this season in a poor division, and they have little to no money to spend to keep up with the Joneses.
Let's start with the obvious. Many fans weren't sure Aubrey Huff and Jarrod Washburn were on the team at all this season. They will definitely not be here next season. Likewise, the crop of available shortstops is dismal, and there is supposedly interest from Adam Everett in returning to Detroit, likely related to his wife being a Michigan native. Expect Everett to return for a modest price.
In reality, there are only three free agents the Tigers will have to make decisions on. Most years, that would be an enviable position, but given their financial situation, Detroit will likely only be able to retain one, if any, of the trio. Let's examine the cases for Placido Polanco, Fernando Rodney, and Brandon Lyon.
Placido Polanco, 2B - 153 GP, .285 AVG, 10 HR, 72 RBI, Age: 34
Of all the players that have made the Tigers competitive over the past four seasons, perhaps none is more overlooked than Placido Polanco. The guy's $4.6 million annual salary has been a bargain for the Tigers since he was acquired in a mutually-beneficial trade with the Philadelphia Phillies (the Tigers got Polanco and the Phillies got to showcase Chase Utley full time).
The decision on Polanco will be an agonizing one. Early in the season, it looked as though Polanco may no longer be the player he had been for the Tigers, as his offensive numbers dipped and his range at second base was clearly diminished. However, his late-season surge probably increased his value on the open market, making resigning him a dicey proposition for Detroit.
The Tigers must ask themselves, now that the cracks have appeared, is Placido Polanco worth what he can get on the open market?
The Tigers don't have a wealth of prospects in their system, but one of the more promising players on the farm is Scott Sizemore, a second baseman that split his 2009 season between AA Erie and AAA Toledo and hit .300 at each level. Sizemore will be 25 next season, and the time has come to see whether this kid can play at the major league level.
The move away from Polanco is simultaneously terrifying and palatable. It is more difficult than most realize to find reliable hitters, especially hitters that can contribute defensively the way Polanco can.
It's even harder to find players that can hit in pressure situations. Placido may not move quite the way he has in the past, and his bat may have slowed a tad, but he is still a valuable major league player.
On the other hand, Ramon Santiago can play second base and wouldn't be the worst hitter on the team, plus it is time to answer the questions about Sizemore. Taking their chances with Sizemore and Santiago might be the best way for the Tigers to go next season.
Fernando Rodney, RP - 2-5, 73 GP, 75.2 IP, 4.40 ERA, 37/38 SV OPP, 61 SO, 41 BB, Age: 33
Most relievers with a career ERA of 4.28 and an even higher ERA in his previous season woudln't get many serious offers on the free agent market, but most pitchers with those numbers wouldn't convert 37 of 38 save opportunities, either.
This is exactly Fernando Rodney's situation. Rodney has been affiliated with the Tigers for 12, yes 12, years now, having signed as an amateur free agent in 1997. He posted four more saves in 2009 than he had in his career up to that point, and had a 2.06 ERA in save situations, officially blowing only one. And even despite the heart-stopping experience of a Rodney save, his WHIP in save situations was also quite good, standing at 1.164.
The problem for Rodney is that it's currently impossible to tell if he simply got lucky this season or if he can only perform in high-pressure situations with a save on the line. Rodney never pitched well enough to be trusted with the ninth inning before, and he only got the job this season by default. Brandon Lyon was signed to be the closer, but with his abysmal performance in spring training the closer's role fell to Rodney.
Rodney features a nasty change-up, but he is a two-pitch pitcher. He does have something of a slider, but he rarely, if ever, uses it. Rodney's troubles all boil down to his difficulty locating his fastball. When a change-up doesn't change anything up, it's more appropriately called a meatball. Major league hitters tee off when they know that every pitch over the plate is traveling 86 miles per hour.
Frankly, Rodney has been too inconsistent with that fastball for the Tigers to take a chance on him. If no one else is out there offering tens of millions of dollars over several seasons, then perhaps Detroit can make a play, but let's not forget how the New York Yankees paid Kyle Farnsworth, whose career ERA is actually worse than Rodney's, $17 million for three years.
With all of those saves to his name, someone will pay Rodney, and it won't be Detroit.
Brandon Lyon, RP - 6-5, 65 GP, 78.2 IP, 2.86 ERA, 3/6 SV OPP, 15 HLD, 57 SO, 31 BB, Age: 30
After a tumultuous spring training and a slow start to the season, Brandon Lyon really rounded into shape by the year's end.
Lyon pitched a career high 78.2 innings and posted a team-best 2.86 ERA. Lyon's history is also slightly better than Rodney's. His career numbers are just about the same as Fernando's, but his best seasons are much better than Rodney's. That, and he doesn't wear his cap cocked to the side.
By the numbers, it could be argued that Brandon Lyon was Detroit's best pitcher in 2009. He didn't put up the power pitching numbers of the starters like Jackson and Verlander, but he kept hitters off the basepaths better than anyone on the team. By the end of the season, Lyon was the arm Tiger fans wanted to see trotting out of that bullpen.
Lyon's resurgence probably earned him a fair amount of cash as well, but he wasn't given the opportunity to close this season, and saves are one of the quickest ways to earn money in baseball. This could keep his value below that of Fernando Rodney, especially considering Lyon's one previous foray into closing produced a 4.40 ERA and five blown saves.
In a yard like Comerica Park, Lyon could continue to be an effective pitcher. He might be worth the money if he can come together with a developing Ryan Perry, and maybe a healthy Joel Zumaya, to form an effective late-inning pitching platoon.
The verdict: Brandon Lyon
If the Tigers are able to retain any of their three big free agents, they should target Lyon. He is the youngest of the group and is just as likely as the other two to be successful in the future. Furthermore, he will likely be more economical than Rodney or Polanco, and they would have a very difficult time trying to replace both relievers from within.
Keeping the Tigers competitive will prove a challenge going forward, but retaining Brandon Lyon could go a long way toward answering some of their bullpen questions.