October 5th, 2010

Wanted: One run producer (at least) for Tigers

Miguel Cabrera is a physical presence at 6-foot-4, with a listed weight of 240. In real life, he doesn’t need a whole lot of protection.

In baseball, Miguel Cabrera received 32 intentional walks this season, more than any American League player received since 1993, and more than the next two highest AL totals this year. He could use some protection in the lineup.

In a year when the Tigers have potentially more than $50 million to spend on upgrading the club, protecting Cabrera with at least one proven hitter will be one of team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski’s two biggest goals, if not the biggest.

Help could be in the form of a corner outfielder, of which there are many potentially set to hit the mark. It could be in the form of a designated hitter, and Dombrowski didn’t rule out the idea of going back to a full-time DH again. They could do multiple signings, something Dombrowski hinted at when he talked Sunday about being nimble in this market. But some way, they need to bulk up the heart of the lineup.

“We need a middle of the order bat to drive in runs,” Dombrowski said. “We have to have that. And it’s most likely going to come either in the outfield or at DH, or both, because we already have that type of bat at first base. There are other areas [where it could come], and that’s why we need to be flexible this winter in what we do. But those are the most likely areas that it would come.”

The difference that support makes can be seen in the splits. Cabrera, and in turn the Tigers, were at their best in May, June and early July, when Magglio Ordonez was getting on base in front of Cabrera, and rookie Brennan Boesch was proving to be a potent run producer behind him. His top two months in terms of OPS were May and July, and three of his top four months for RBIs came in that span.

Once opposing pitchers began approaching Boesch differently after the All-Star break, and his amazing production went south, the walk totals on Cabrera logically soared. Once Ordonez suffered his season-ending ankle fracture, of course, Cabrera’s RBI opportunities dipped.

Ordonez’s injury set in motion a lot of moving parts. Once it became clear he wouldn’t get enough at-bats to best his $15 million option, it became the club’s decision whether to pick it up. Dombrowski announced Sunday that they won’t pick it up, making Ordonez a free agent this winter.

The Tigers and Ordonez have mutual interest in working out a deal, but it’s going to take some creativity, beyond simply the contract terms. The Tigers have to look at Ordonez’s recovery from ankle surgery as it goes along and project how much time he can realistically play in the field at age 37.

“At this point, I don’t know how much you consider him being an outfielder compared to also where it fits into [him] being a DH,” Dombrowski said. “I think you have two spots you’re talking about, and see where eventually he kind of fits into that.”
If the Tigers re-sign Ordonez, Dombrowski indicated, it likely wouldn’t be their only signing. But if Ordonez is back, can they still sign someone for the DH slot, or would they need that fifth hitter to play the outfield at least some?

For what it’s worth, Dombrowski’s comments indicate he’s more open to having a full-time DH again than he might’ve been, say, two years ago with an older lineup.

“I guess you’d prefer not to,” Dombrowski said, “but would we consider that? I think we’ll consider anything that gives us some offense in the middle of the lineup at this time, that we think we need, somebody that can drive in some runs. Ideally you’d prefer not to have it, but if that’s the way it fit in, that’s the way it fit in.

“One thing is that we don’t have as many players going forward that are older. I mean, we’ve kind of turned into a little bit younger club. So most guys can go out there and play most days. You might look to give a day off to somebody once in a while, and then [manager Jim Leyland] can decide who he wants to DH at that particular time, but we don’t have a lot of older players. … If the right guy fit, we’d sign a DH.”

Dombrowski said the Tigers would prefer to add at least one left-handed bat to their lineup. That could come internally, if Carlos Guillen is ready for the start of the season after microfracture surgery, or if Boesch wins an expected competition for an outfield spot. More likely, though, they’d like one of the bats they sign to come from the left side.

That shouldn’t be a big problem to find on the free-agent market, where the top end could potentially include slugger Adam Dunn and multi-tooled catalyst Carl Crawford, among others. Dunn, specifically, would seem to fit a DH type of role, though he has told reporters in Washington he’d rather not do that full-time.

Dombrowski isn’t getting into any names at this point, other than the guys on his team, but he believes there’s enough on the free-agent market for them to find help. He also has players on the team who can supplement that.

One of those guys is Ryan Raburn, who might finally be poised for close to an everyday role. Dombrowski stopped just shy of labeling him as such, but made it clear he has stepped up in importance to the lineup.

“I don’t know if he’ll be an everyday outfielder or not, but I think we feel he could be a primary guy,” Dombrowski said. “How many at-bats that entails, I don’t know. It depends on who else is with our club at that time, how the manager makes out the lineup, how he produces. But we look at him as being an important part of our team, and a guy that’s going to play a lot. I wouldn’t say he’s an everyday outfielder yet, but he’s going to play a lot.”