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Quality Over Quantity: Detroit Tigers' Lineup Finding New Ways To Win

Jay Wierenga@@JayWierengaCorrespondent IMay 11, 2009

ANAHEIM, CA - APRIL 22:  Carlos Guillen #9 (L) Curtis Granderson #28 and Josh Anderson #13 (C) of the Detroit Tigers celebrate their come from behind win over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 12-10, at Angel Stadium on April 22, 2009  in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Detroit Tigers are having fun, and the fans are taking notice.

Coming off of their disastrous 2008 campaign, most prognosticators and fans alike had low expectations heading into 2009.  Most baseball people predicted that the Tigers would finish near the bottom of the American League Central.

In all honesty, most fans agreed. As a result, season ticket sales were noticeably down in Detroit. Obviously, the economic ramifications of the recession played a role in this indicator, however, most blogs and forums exhibited a real sense of pessimism regarding the motor city kitties. 

It is hard not to blame the fans for this view. The Tigers were relatively quiet this offseason, opting for complimentary players instead of big names. They signed shortstop Adam Everett and they made deals for catcher Gerald Laird, outfielder Josh Anderson and starting pitcher Edwin Jackson.

Furthermore, they cut Gary Sheffield (although most fans were excited to see him go) and promoted two very raw rookie pitchers, Ryan Perry and Rick Porcello.

A lineup that was truly feared heading into last year seemed to have gotten a lot weaker.  But there was a method to the madness.

Team president Dave Dombrowski apparently had a plan heading into this season, and it seems to reflect manager Jim Leyland's personality. It is as though Leyland, managing for his managerial life (he is on the last year of his contract) went to his bosses and said "let's do it my way."

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The result is a team constructed in the true sense of the word. Rather than a lineup composed exclusively of superstars, Dombrowski instead put together a team built with role players to fill the gaps between stars, sometimes referred to as "glue players."

Players like Everett, Laird, Anderson and shortstop Ramon Santiago fit this bill.  None of whom is particularly gifted offensively, but they are all effective big leaguers that know their role.

Additionally, they are all stellar defensive players and this, coupled with Brandon Inge returning to third base, represents a real dedication to one of the most underrated aspects of baseball, defense. 

The results have been exceptional. Thirty games into the season, the Tigers are tied for first place in the Central with a record of 17-13. What is amazing is that they are winning in a way not seen since 2006.   

Obviously, a huge part of this success lies in the improved starting pitching and bullpen.  The Tigers currently have the second best ERA in the A.L.

Their rotation is comprised of power arms and two of their highest paid pitchers, Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman, have yet to throw an inning (Willis is scheduled to make his first start of the season on Wednesday).  

To help their rotation, the lineup has been doing the little things. They are leading the league in sacrifice hits (11) and they are striking out a lot less while hitting a lot less fly balls.  

The good news is that for the most part, the Tigers' hitters have been largely disappointing. Many of the usually strong hitting batters are struggling mightily. As a team, the Tigers are near the bottom of the pack average-wise.  

You might be asking "how is that good news?" The point is that it is unlikely that the usually dependable hitters will continue to struggle all season. Therefore, if the Tigers are finding new ways of winning now, it will benefit them in the future once all the bats start to heat up.  

Essentially, they are learning how to play as a team early on in the season, doing all the little things and doing them well. This makes it likely that they are building a solid foundation for the rest of the season, making it less likely that this is "fool's gold," and more likely that the Tigers will be a major contender this year.

Here is a look at what the lineup has done thus far. 

The Lineup

Curtis Granderson

Granderson so far has performed more like a middle of the order player rather than a lead off man, and as a result Leyland has begun moving him around in the order.  He is hitting home runs at a torrid pace, topping the team with nine. 

However, with that added power he has been striking out more than normal, leading the team with 26. An encouraging sign is that he is beginning to become more aggressive on the base paths, putting him on pace to double his 12 steals of a year ago.

If the Tigers are going to continue to be successful, Granderson must raise his batting average above the middling .254 he is hitting now.

Placido Polanco

Since Polanco became a Tiger, he has always been a fan favorite due to his workman-like personality and play.  He is the perfect No. 2 hitter due to his propensity for good bat work.

However, this year Polanco has begun to slip, with his average dropping down to .270.  Obviously, a lot of this can be attributed to the fact that the number three hitter, Magglio Ordonez, has struggled mightily.  However, Detroit needs Polanco to raise his OBP above .315 in order to set the table for the power hitters.

Magglio Ordonez

Age seems to finally be catching up with Ordonez.  His power numbers are down (two homers), and his average is woefully out of character (.241).  Many people have said that he is a slow starter, but his recent history does not support this idea. Over the last two seasons, Magglio's average has been at least .315 by this point in the season. 

Regardless, Leyland is attempting to jump start his highest paid player by moving him around in the lineup.  One thing's for sure, it is imperative that Ordonez turns this season around, and it seems likely that his numbers will improve as the weather improves.

Miguel Cabrera

There is a strong possibility that Cabrera is the best and most dangerous hitter in the American League.  He seems to have a very similar game to the best hitter in baseball, Albert Pujols. 

In his second season in Detroit, Cabrera is endearing himself to fans with his amazing hitting and improved leadership role with the Tigers.  Free from the strong personalities of the past year (Sheffield, Pudge Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers), Cabrera has stepped from the shadows and become "the man" in Detroit.

His continued excellence will only make things easier for his teammates in the lineup.

Carlos Guillen

Guillen, more than any other player in the lineup, has been a huge disappointment thus far.  His average has hovered around the Mendoza line (.200) for the entire year.  More recently, an inflamed right shoulder has landed the switch-hitter on the disabled list.

Given his steady decline over the past few seasons, it is probably a safe bet to not expect much out of Guillen this year.  The key with Guillen is for the Tigers to bring him along slowly. 

They have acted smartly with him so far, switching him from the infield to the outfield in order to keep his bat in the lineup and reduce wear and tear on his body. However, he is in the second year of a four year extension that will see him earning a combined $26 million in 2010 and 2011 with a partial no-trade clause.

Given his salary, it is paramount that the Tigers get more productivity out of their former shortstop.  Seeing as the Tigers have done well so far this year without him, there will be no damage done by keeping him off the field until he looks fully healthy.

Gerald Laird 

The Tigers brought in the former Texas Ranger with the express purpose of improving their defense.  Laird has been perfect behind the plate, and has been a calming influence on a young pitching squad. 

His offense has been as advertised.  Essentially, any hits he gives the team is a bonus.  However, he has shown more speed on the base paths than most thought, resulting in a steal, a triple and two doubles.

Brandon Inge

Inge has been arguably the biggest surprise for the Tigers this year. After an atrocious 2008 season, he has shortened his swing and improved his numbers. He is currently hitting .280 with eight home runs. 

His defense has been excellent as well, showing off his range and arm on a regular basis.

The key for Inge will be to cut down on his strikeouts; he is currently on pace for 140 k's.  However, he is also on pace for over 40 homers and the Tigers would likely take this trade off.

Josh Anderson

After getting fleeced by the Atlanta Braves in the past regarding trades (Edgar Renteria for Jair Jurrjens, Doyle Alexander for John Smoltz), it is nice to see the Tigers get some value from their National League counterparts this time around.

Anderson has added a new dimension to the Tigers- speed. Anderson is on pace for over 40 steals this year while hitting .327 in only 55 plate appearances this year. 

With Guillen confined to the dl, look for Anderson to get more at bats as the season progresses. 

Adam Everett

Everett was brought in to help shore up the defense, and he has done a fine job with this assignment.  While he does have four errors, he has exhibited exceptional range at shortstop, getting to many balls that a year ago were getting past Renteria.

In addition, Everett has hit the ball fairly well, hitting five doubles with an average of .281.

The Bench

Ramon Santiago, Marcus Thames, Clete Thomas, Ryan Raburn, Jeff Larish, Dane Sardinha and Matt Treanor have been the primary bench players at one time or another for the Tigers this season.

Santiago has received the most time on the field, providing a solid glove and decent offense in small doses.  Combined with Everett, he keeps the shortstop position in good hands defensively.

Thames has been the primary power bat for the Tigers over the past few seasons, although a strained rib cage has limited the slugger this season.  When he returns, he likely will provide the same pop that he has over his career with Detroit.

Thomas is beginning to find a niche with the Tigers.  With a smooth left-handed swing and decent athletic ability, he provides Leyland with versatility, a trait that the skipper craves in his bench players.  In his first game this year, Thomas missed hitting for the cycle by just a home run.

Raburn is also a versatile player, one that is able to play both the infield and outfield positions. At the plate, he is rather limited, getting only one hit thus far in 20 at bats.

Sardinha and Treanor are both backup catchers, neither of whom provides much offense.  However, they are each exceptional defenders, and Treanor, when healthy, has a great arm.

The real key to the bench is Larish. Though his plate discipline needs work, Larish has shown tremendous pop at the plate. With Thames Guillen injured and struggling, Larish will be given every opportunity to take the designated hitter position. 

Barry Bonds spent time mentoring Larish a couple years ago, and the lefty would be well advised to model one part of his approach after the legendary former San Fransisco Giant- plate discipline. If he is able to wait for his pitch, he should be able to cut down on strikeouts while raising his walks. 

Right now, the Tigers are winning while doing the little things. If they ever start hitting, they will be a dangerous club this season.

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