2B Scott Sizemore and RF Magglio Ordonez
Just 24 games into the season, the Detroit Tigers are a disappointing 12-12. The team rebounded nicely from a dismal 3-7 start, but is chasing the surprising 15-8 Cleveland Indians for first place in the AL Central. There are a handful of baseball experts who picked the Tigers to win the AL Central, and there is no doubt the team has a lot of great parts.
What will it take to add cohesion to these parts and turn them into a great baseball team?
There's no easy answer to this million dollar question, but most of the problems can be fixed with pitching and defense. The Tigers have hitting, no doubt. Do they have the right kinds of hitters needed to fill out a balanced lineup, though?
The Tigers may not be completely loaded with prospects at either Triple-A Toledo or Double-A Erie, but they do have some pieces which could solve the pennant puzzle in Detriot.
Coming out of spring training, Jim Leyland had several tough decisions to make. With second baseman Carlos Guillen and relief pitcher Joel Zumaya on the disabled list, the the veteran manager had an opportunity to keep extra eyes on players he otherwise may not have considered bring north.
Although he wasn’t one of the players initially kept on the 25-man opening day roster, Al Albuquerque has done his best Zumaya impersonation. The 24-year-old right-hander has struck out 10 batters in just 5.1 innings out of the bullpen.
Another player performing well so far is outfielder Brennan Boesch. He’s hitting well early on (like last year), batting .342. Leyland committed to giving the left field job to the enigmatic Ryan Rayburn before camp even started, which gave legs to the feeling Boesch may not be a lock to make the team. So much for that. Good thing Rayburn—who’s hitting .247 with a team-leading 31 strikeouts—can play second base too.
LHP Andy Oliver
Andy Oliver needs to be on the first bus to Detroit from Toledo. After four starts (and two relief appearances), LHP Phil Coke is 1-4 with a 4.88 ERA. He's averaging just four innings per appearance and has thrown an alarming 86 pitches per appearance.
Oliver showed well in spring training, going 1-0, allowing only one run and striking out five in as many innings. In his four starts in Toledo, Oliver is 2-1 with 25 strikeouts and 10 walks in 20 innings.
Had it not been for Leyland's commitment towards giving Coke a shot at the starting rotation, the 23-year-old Oliver would have certainly been the favorite for that role. Coke was one of the best long relievers in recent Tiger history last year, where he was 7-5 (one loss as a starter) with a 3.76 ERA over 64.2 IP. He allowed just 67 hits, struck out 53 and walked just 26 batters and gave up a paltry two HR in 2010.
Coke is badly needed in the bullpen as a long reliever, where he would replace aging lefty Brad Thomas. The 33-year-old Aussie has allowed 15 hits in 8.1 innings with an ERA of 10.8. Maybe the Tigers can get something for Thomas, but they still need to make this move even if they can't.
SS Cale Iorg
When Detroit traded for Jhonny Peralta, Tiger fans felt the writing was probably on the wall about third baseman Brandon Inge's future with the ball club. When both were signed to contracts in the offseason, people were a bit confused. Leyland wasn't going to play Peralta—who'd been moved to third base years before—at shortstop full-time, was he?
Cleveland moved the linebacker-like Peralta (6'2", 225 pounds) to third base for a reason—he didn't have the range to play shortstop anymore. It would have made sense to sign Peralta if he was going to play third base, as he's one of the top fielders there in the AL. Otherwise, he's got the worst range of any shortstop in MLB. Yes, he's only been charged with one error, but you can only get charged for balls you can get a glove on. His lack of production in the field is much more evident in the amount of double plays he's turned—seven. To compare, Derek Jeter has 14 for the Yankees.
Cale Iorg is widely considered the best fielding shortstop in the Tiger organization, and has been for years. Iorg has turned 11 double plays in just 16 games, to Peralta's seven in 23 games. Considered a liability at the plate for most of his minor league career, the 25-year-old Iorg is hitting .276 this year to Peralta's .266. He's also stolen four bases, just one more than Peralta's stolen over the past three-plus seasons combined.
The Tigers need Iorg's glove if the are serious about contending, and whatever he could contribute on offense would be a luxury. Remember, once upon a time Alan Trammell was a light-hiting shortstop with a great glove.
2B Scott Sizemore
Scott Sizemore wasn't ready last year, plain and simple. Still recovering from a fractured ankle—with tendon damage to that same ankle—Sizemore looked stiff in the field and at the plate. He was kept on the opening day roster anyway, in hopes he would play his way into shape.
Things didn't work out, and Sizemore was sent back to Toledo early in the season. He was called back up late in the year with mixed results. Overall, he batted .224 with three HR in 143 AB in 2010. His fielding really suffered early on, and he finished the year with seven errors in a Detroit uniform.
Things have changed in a year.
The second baseman has recovered and is now in game shape. He's batting .403 with eight extra base hits and three SB through 19 games. His three errors still aren't ideal, but even if he hits .100 less in Detroit, he is worth having in the lineup. By comparison, Ramon Santiago is batting .196.
Rhymes at least showed flashes of being a dynamic offensive player a year ago, when he batted .304 in 54 games for the Tigers. Santiago is redundant talent on a roster which already carries Don Kelly as a utility player, and has Raburn who may ultimately serve in a similar capacity.
OF Andy Dirks
Non-roster invitee Andy Dirks spent most of spring training leading Detroit in hitting. Nobody counted on the left-handed hitting outfielder making the team, much less being its best hitter in March.
Dirks was sent down to Toledo by Leyland in spite of his performance, but nobody has forgotten about the scrappy 25-year-old outfielder. All Dirks has done since is bat .303, sock five HR and steal seven bases in Toledo. Dirks can also play all three outfield spots well, and his 15 assists from 2010 says it all about his throwing arm.
So what's keeping this guy in Toledo?
To be sure, nothing should keep Dirks in Toledo moving forward. Leyland's lineup could use a dose of both speed and production—Dirks can provide both. Tired of watching Raburn try to play left field? Look no further than Dirks.
The Tigers have tried several hitters in the second spot in the batting order, and have yet to find someone who can provide both solid hitting and a threat on the base paths.
Why isn't Dirks in Detroit, again?
RHP Jacob Turner
Jacob Turner is that storm on the horizon everyone sees coming, but can't prepare for. He's the best prospect in the Tigers' system, and is ranked the No. 21 prospect overall by Baseball America.
The 19-year-old fireballer looked great in spring training, and has looked dominant in three starts at Double-A Erie. Turner's struck out 20 and walked just three in 19.2 IP. It is early, and he's young, but there are some phenoms which just can't be held back. Turner, who throws in the high-90's, is one of them.
Brad Penny was a relatively low-priced gamble at $3 million this year, and Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski figured he could be a reliable inning-eater until either Oliver or Turner were ready to be called up to Detroit. Penny appears to be this year's Armando Galarraga, throwing a near no-hitter sandwiched between four other mediocre starts. He has an ERA of 6.11 through 35.1 IP with 19 strikeouts 19 and 15 walks. He was essentially a .500 pitcher after his back-to-back 16-win seasons with the Dodgers in 2006 and 2007, but he appears to have not yet recovered from the back injury which cut his season short in 2010.
The future is now for Detroit. Dombrowski needs to make these roster moves happen sooner than later.