Coming into the winter meetings, it was widely discussed that the Tigers were going to look to make a move, potentially trading desirable commodities in an attempt to fill multiple holes.
Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson, both All-Stars in 2009, were at the top of the list. Beyond being All-Stars, both players reached new plateaus, Granderson belting a career-high 30 home runs, while Jackson had a career best ERA, innings pitched and strikeouts. Both are also heading into their best years and still affordable. Granderson is under contract for three more years, while Jackson has two years of arbitration before free agency.
For those reasons and then some, both players were in demand, and Tigers’ general manager Dave Dombrowski came with a steep asking price. While it’s likely he didn’t get everything he hoped for, he got enough to pull the trigger on the blockbuster deal that is just awaiting final details to be ironed out before its official.
For Tigers’ fans, it’s indeed a sad day. Both players were well-liked in the city, especially Granderson, who had emerged as an ambassador to the game in recent years. Getting involved in various charities throughout metro Detroit in addition to his work around the world on behalf of Major League Baseball, Granderson had established himself as one of the most recognizable men around the world in baseball, and he was a homegrown Tiger to top it off.
But Granderson was owed $24 million over the next three years, and while popular, had in many ways emerged as a platoon player, continuing to struggle against left-handers. He hit .183 against lefties in ’09, and for his career is just a .210 hitter when facing southpaws. His troubles against lefties become so extreme that it became a no-brainer for opposing managers to bring in a lefty to face Granderson in late game situations, virtually taking the bat out of the hands of the Tigers’ second most productive hitter.
To top that off, while Granderson saw his home run power increase, his gap power fell off considerably, hitting a career low 31 doubles and triples as a full-time player – he averaged 47 over the previous three years. Granderson became much more of a fly ball hitter in 2009, with his groundball to fly ball ratio falling to 0.45 while the ratio for his career was 0.66, which amounts to a huge swing in additional fly balls. And as most Tiger fans know, a home run hitter without much gap power isn’t an ideal fit for Comerica Park – and Granderson only hit ten of his 30 homers in ’09 at home anyway. In many ways, the player Granderson has become could be extremely beneficial for the Yankees, where the home-run friendly Yankee Stadium could allow Granderson to have a career year.
Jackson meanwhile came to the Tigers last winter in exchange for outfielder Matt Joyce, and quickly took the next step in his career, emerging as the team’s #2 starter and posting a 3.62 ERA in 214 innings. But things weren’t perfect for Jackson either.
While he got off to a great start, he appeared to tire down the stretch, and saw his second half ERA balloon to 5.07. His K:BB ratio fell dramatically as well, posting a 1.8, closer to career norms than career highs. To top it off, Jackson would likely be due significant raises after this season as well as 2010 via arbitration, and given his agent, Scott Boras, trying to sign him to an extension would be very unlikely.
In exchange for these well-established but flawed All-Stars, the Tigers got in return four players, including a pair of top prospects, and two pitchers that have some big league experience but are still many years away from free agency.
At 25 years of age, Max Scherzer will likely be expected to step into the rotation and take the spot that Jackson will vacate. Scherzer just completed his first full season in Arizona, going 9-11 with a 4.12 ERA. Scherzer also struck out more than a batter per inning, recording 174 strikeouts in 170 1/3 innings of work. Scherzer also posted an FIP (fielding independent pitching, on the same scale as ERA) of 3.90, indicating he likely pitched a bit better than even his ERA indicated.
Like virtually every other Dombrowski pitcher acquisition, Scherzer’s scouting report begins with his overpowering fastball, which he can dial up to 98mph, though he typically sits in the mid 90s. When he was drafted out of Missouri, there was concern Scherzer wouldn’t make it as a starter in the big leagues because he possessed what amounted to an inconsistent slider along with a decent change-up, but Scherzer has made strides with both pitchers since joining the Diamondbacks organization. Suffice it to say, Scherzer likely gives the Tigers yet another weapon in the starting rotation (assuming his mechanics allow him to remain there) and a potential top-of-the-rotation starter to grow along with Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello.
The most widely acclaimed player in the Tigers’ catch is one of the Yankees’ top prospects, center fielder Austin Jackson. The 22-year old Jackson spent most of ’09 playing in Triple-A where he more than held his own despite being young for the league, posting a .300/.359/.406 line in 527 at-bats.
But the true value of Jackson is the expectation of continued development, specifically that of his ability at the plate. Jackson is very comparable to Granderson when it comes to his walk rate, his defense, and his speed on the base paths. Granderson has been a bigger power hitter though, while Jackson projects to be a better overall hitter, a more natural leadoff man with solid gap power, and someone that isn’t susceptible to platooning (in ’09, he hit .301 vs. lefties and .299 against righties).
Ultimately, Jackson’s ceiling is likely very comparable to that of Granderson. But Jackson, who will likely have the inside track on the starting center fielder’s job this spring, will be at least three years away from arbitration, and at least six years away from free agency, all the while giving the Tigers a player that is likely a better fit for their home ballpark.
Moving onto the other Yankee the Tigers received, left-hander Phil Coke. Coke spent the ’09 season working as a middle reliever for the Yanks, posting a 4.50 ERA in 72 appearances for the club. Coke posted a solid 2.5 K:BB ratio, but was susceptible to the long ball, giving up 1.5 home runs for every nine innings pitched.
Coke was a starter for the majority of his minor league career but given the Yankees need for more bullpen help than help in the rotation, Coke found himself in the bullpen full-time. Coke has a three pitch arsenal and could work out of the ‘pen or as a starter, depending on how the Tigers needs work out as they enter spring training. He can dial his fastball up to the mid 90s, but typically sits around 90, especially when stretched out to start.
The final member of the quartet is hard-throwing left-hander Daniel Schlereth, who pitched some for the Diamondbacks in ’09 with mixed results. In 21 appearances, he posted a 5.89 ERA with 22 strikeouts but 15 walks. Schlereth was a first round pick of the D’Backs in 2008 and was also high on the Tigers draft board – the Tigers elected to go with current right-hander Ryan Perry over Schlereth however.
Schlereth again has a mid 90s fastball, with a curveball that has plus potential and could develop into a true out-pitch. Schlereth’s biggest issue that needs ironing out remains his control, as even beyond his high walk rate in the bigs, he walked nearly five batters every nine innings in his brief minor league career. Some additional seasoning will likely help Schlereth reach his lofty potential as a shutdown, late inning reliever.
So in exchange for the well-known players the Tigers gave up, there’s significant optimism that the team in reality has improved itself long-term. They’ve likely received their replacement for Jackson in Scherzer, and believe Austin Jackson can be just as good as Granderson, all the while being a better fit for the home park. And to top it all off, they’ve added a pair of young lefties that will likely help bolster a bullpen that could be looking to re-shape itself in 2010.
In the short-term, the Tigers may take a small step back. It’s hard to imagine a 22-year old rookie replicating the offensive success of an established All-Star in his first season in the big leagues. And Scherzer might not be able to replicate Edwin’s success in 2009, though there’s obviously reason to believe he wouldn’t have duplicated that season anyway.
But in one move, the Tigers got younger with a four player talent infusion, cleared approximately $10 million off the books for 2010, and likely improved the club for 2011 and beyond.
Yes, it’s hard to let go of established players, especially ones that have built up a great rapport with the team’s fans. But Dombrowski knows that love from the fans won’t make up for talent deficiencies, and this move helps solve more problems for the organization as they attempt to re-tool the team for the new decade.