The Tigers and Their Left Field Sort-Of Problem

So here’s the deal for the Tigers: they were planning to run with a platoon of Andy Dirks and Rajai Davis in left field. Davis is still his ordinary, healthy, surprisingly-33-year-old self. Dirks, however, is hurt, and he’s going to have back surgery, and the timetable has him maybe returning in three months. Neither the injury nor the procedure is expected to jeopardize Dirks’ career, but he’ll miss a lot of time in this year’s first half. The Tigers have a problem because one of their projected regulars won’t be able to be a regular for some time, and the guys behind regulars are worse than the regulars are.

The Tigers are trying to be a playoff team, so on the heels of the Dirks announcement, the natural question is, what’ll they do to patch this? Suddenly, the team has an obvious weakness. Playoff teams ought to address their obvious weaknesses. If you’ve mentally skipped ahead, perhaps you’ve concluded that this won’t actually be that big of a deal. It turns out I agree with you, but wait, I have several hundred words of explanation! Don’t go!

Let’s say left field was going to be Dirks and Davis. Dirks, being the left-handed hitter, was in line to play more, by maybe something like 50%. So let’s say Dirks would’ve played the equivalent of roughly 110 full games. Now he’s injured and he’s going to have his body opened up by professionals. The current timetable would have him miss about a third of the year, or about 37 of his games. Maybe things go a little slower. Maybe Dirks ends up healthy and ready again around the midpoint. Then he’d miss about 55 of his games. What is the value of 37-55 games of a platooned Andy Dirks in left field? That’s what the Tigers project to be without. At the absolute max, maybe that works out to a win. More likely, it’s a fraction of a win. The news does remarkably little to change the overall numbers.

The value to a team of a good player over a full season can be overstated. The value to a team of a good player over a partial season can be overstated. The value to a team of a decent player over a partial season can be overstated. The Tigers are losing a decent player for a partial season, and it’s not like left field was a team strength before this news anyway. They were planning a platoon. The fact that Dirks was going to be platooned in the first place is indicative of his value as a player.

Now, the season hasn’t even started yet, and the Tigers are worse off. Obviously, that’s not good news for them, and even a handful of runs can be enormously significant when you’re a team on the bubble. That’s the old familiar win-curve argument. But the thing is that the Tigers aren’t on the bubble. With Andy Dirks, without Andy Dirks — the Tigers project to win their division, by quite a bit.

According to our Playoff Odds page, there’s an eight-win gap between the Tigers and the Indians, which is the biggest between first and second place in any division. PECOTA, meanwhile, sees a nine-win gap, smaller only than the 11-win gap between the Dodgers and the Giants. Odds are just odds and things can go wrong — Andy Dirks just went wrong — but the Tigers project to have a relatively easy path to the ALDS, and that means when it comes to left field, there’s not really a sense of urgency. Being without Dirks for a few months hurts. A bubble team would need to find a short-term solution. The Tigers would survive just playing Don Kelly.

So it doesn’t look like this is that big of a deal. The Tigers will still need to do something, even if that’s just agreeing to play Rajai Davis every day. That’s not what he was signed for, and that’s not what the Tigers hope for, and it would be better to keep Davis as a part-timer. He doesn’t really hit righties, and by having him available on the bench, the Tigers could best make use of his baserunning, which is the area where he really shines. The Tigers are going to want to plug in a lefty.

There’s not a lot in the cupboard. Again, the team was going to play a lot of Andy Dirks. There’s Kelly, who’s a nothing player. There’s prospect Daniel Fields, but he doesn’t appear ready yet. Steve Lombardozzi could get outfield reps, but he’s just a younger Don Kelly type. Ezequiel Carrera’s in camp as a non-roster invitee. The same goes for Trevor Crowe and Tyler Collins. There are different player types here, but one thing they have in common is they’re all probably more or less replacement-level. In that sense, it’s a tough decision that isn’t.

And the Tigers would survive playing any of these guys, most probably. It would do little to shift their overall team playoff odds. The Tigers say they intend to patch the hole internally, but there are external options if they want to pick up the phone. And those options range from more sexy to less sexy.

In Dave’s chat earlier Wednesday, someone asked about Detroit picking up Andre Ethier. That would count as a splash. Dave countered with the idea of Michael Saunders, and that would be more of a…I don’t know, a littler splash. There might be an extra consideration here — after this season, Torii Hunter is a free agent, and there isn’t big-league-ready help on the farm. This could conceivably prompt the Tigers to look for a short-term bump who could also help down the road.

Bigger options could also include names like Jon Jay and Will Venable. To go almost completely off the map, the Tigers could try to pry away Ichiro Suzuki. Mike Carp could keep faking it in left, and the Rays might be beginning to sour on Matt Joyce, and the White Sox are taking called on Alejandro De Aza now that they have three other, younger outfielders. There are guys the Tigers might be able to get, in exchange for value. These would be more significant moves, and they could leave Dirks on the outside looking in, even upon his return.

But then there are simpler potential external options. It could be that the Rockies would give up Corey Dickerson, as he’s not guaranteed a job. Even less sexy than that are names like Ryan Sweeney and Brian Bogusevic. Sweeney, right now, is a backup lefty outfielder on a bad team. Bogusevic looks like a backup lefty outfielder on a worse team. They could be available for relatively cheap, and then they could give the Tigers Dirks-level production while Dirks is away. And when Dirks is back, the situation’s re-evaluated, and no one is necessarily guaranteed anything.

The most interesting decision would be the Tigers going after a legitimate everyday player. A guy who’d make them better in 2014, and then perhaps in 2015 after Hunter’s gone. A more likely decision would be the Tigers going after a Bogusevic type. The most likely decision would be the Tigers staying internal, even though, internally, they’re light on outfield talent. Dirks won’t be gone all that long. Being without Dirks isn’t all that damaging. And the Tigers are on top of the Central, looking down on inferior rivals. Nobody ever wants to be dealt a blow. But the Tigers are in good position to take one, and this blow could’ve hit a more critical spot.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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10 years ago

Good rundown, as always, but I have one minor correction: Ryan Sweeney is not a backup lefty outfielder on a bad team. Right now he is the starting center fielder on a team that is apparently worse than you thought it was.

triple-A city
10 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Ruggi-oh no!