With the decision to move Carlos Guillen from shortstop to first base full time in 2008, the Tigers opened up a huge hole on the left side. Guillen had been an anchor for the team there for the past four seasons, providing solid defense, excellent offense and leadership around the diamond.
Guillen's offensive production will remain in the lineup, but his defense has slowly declined, prompting the Tigers to decide to make the move even before the '07 season came to an end. That meant of course that the Tigers were opening up a gaping hole, especially defensively.
The Tigers didn’t believe they had an internal candidate to fill the role – Ramon Santiago doesn't have the bat, Omar Infante doesn't have the defense, and the organization’s closest everyday shortstop prospect, Mike Hollimon, is still probably a year away from being completely big league ready. That meant the Tigers would have to go about replacing Guillen via either free agency or trade.
The pickings were slim, and the Tigers jumped at the opportunity to acquire Edgar Renteria from the Atlanta Braves. The 32-year old shortstop hit .332 last year for the Braves, with 12 home runs and 57 RBI. Renteria was viewed by many as expendable to the Braves with the emergence of youngster Yunel Escobar, who is expected to be Atlanta's everyday shortstop.
In exchange for Renteria, the Braves acquired right-handed starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens, and minor league outfielder Gorkys Hernandez.
The price was a steep one for the Tigers. Not only are they assuming most of Renteria's $9 million salary for 2008 (the cash considerations were not disclosed), but the team forfeited two of their top five prospects in the process.
Jurrjens, at just 21 years of age, has already held his own at the big league level (posting a 3-1 record in seven starts for the Tigers) and was poised to compete for a starting spot in the Tigers' rotation in 2008. Hernandez meanwhile played his first full season of pro ball for the low-A West Michigan Whitecaps, where he put up a .293 average, swiped 54 bases, and was named the Midwest League's Most Valuable Player.
In summary, the Tigers traded two of their best prospects (including a likely starter in 2008) for an aging, 32-year old shortstop that will likely cost the team $20 million for two seasons of production (assuming the Tigers pick up Renteria's $11 million option for 2009).
In this day and age, there comes a time when you have to give up something to get something, and when options are limited, the price tag can get steep. But the Tigers are making a huge gamble, basically betting that Renteria can solve many of the team's existing problems and put them in position to get back into the playoffs and the World Series.
But Renteria won't solve the Tigers problems in left field where they currently have slotted some combination of Marcus Thames, Ryan Raburn and Timo Perez. He won't add a left-handed bat to a righty-dominated lineup. He won't provide insurance in case Gary Sheffield can't return to full strength, or if Brandon Inge doesn't return to his 2006 form. And that's not even mentioning the numerous pitching problems the Tigers had in 2007 when they ranked a pedestrian 18th in baseball in earned run average.
And not only that, but Renteria has now severely limited the Tigers ability to make moves elsewhere, by adding another large salary to the payroll, and costing the team some if its key trading chips.
Losing Hernandez might not be a great loss in the immediate future, as he is likely still several years away from contributing at the big league level, and would eventually be blocked by Curtis Granderson and possibly stud prospect Cameron Maybin. But Jurrjens emerged as reliable at a time in which the Tigers were desperate for someone to step up; and did so while being a 21-year old with a fastball that could touch 97-MPH and incredible control.
Now the team no longer has Jurrjens as an option to help. The team's closer and elder starter from 2007 (Todd Jones and Kenny Rogers) are both free agents, and neither are locks to return. And the flame-throwing Joel Zumaya is now out for at least the first half of the 2008 season after undergoing shoulder surgery to repair his shoulder he injured while escaping the Southern California fires.
And on top of the money and prospects gone, it was all for a shortstop who has no guarantee to produce at the level the Tigers are hoping. His career average OPS is actually over 100 points lower (.756) than his OPS in '07 (.860). His only year playing in the American League, his OPS was even lower (.720). Not exactly a lock, and certainly not something you want to be as your blockbuster move and the centerpiece of your offseason plans.
Is David Eckstein as good as Renteria? Maybe, maybe not – but he wouldn’t have cost the Tigers two key prospects. Is Jack Wilson as good as Renteria? Maybe, maybe not – but he would have cost the Tigers less money, and not both Hernandez and Jurrjens. Is a Santiago/Hollimon platoon as good as any of the above options? Probably not – but it wouldn’t have cost the prospects or the money.
The Tigers had other options, but elected to gamble on Renteria.
If Renteria can produce like he did in 2007 while staying healthy. If the Tigers can bring back Jones and Rogers, or upgrade those roles if they don't. If someone emerges as the team's left fielder. If, If, If. The Tigers still have a lot of 'if's' in the equation, and just used up top prospects and a lot of money without answering any of those problems.
Everything could work out, and the Tigers could emerge as baseball's best in 2008. But that's a big 'if'.