Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

How the Detroit Tigers went from Worst to First in Defense

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I moved to Windsor, Ontario (In Canada, across the border from Detroit for the geographically disinclined) in the fall of 2003 from the Toronto area. If you recall, the Detroit Tigers at this time were not exactly the ’27 Yankees. As I settled into my new home, the Tigers were wrapping up a season in which they lost a near-modern day Major League record 119 games culminating a three-year stretch that saw them lose 321 total games. The year before, newly minted President and CEO Dave Dombrowski fired General Manager Randy Smith and named himself in his place.

Immediately things started to look up for the franchise even if the worst was yet to come. By 2004, the Tigers had signed generational catching talent Ivan Rodriguez and improved their win total by 29 games. Two years after that in 2006, the Tigers won 95 games and lost to a far inferior Cardinals team in the World Series. Since then, under Dombrowski’s guidance, the team has had only one losing season and has advanced at least to the ALCS in three consecutive years.

Dombrowski has proven, like he did in both Montréal and Miami, that he’s one of the more savvy GMs in the game. I’ll admit, however, I haven’t always seen it that way. You see, Dombrowski’s aggression has at times made it seem like he’s backed himself to the edge of a bridge and the only way out is down to the river where a long rebuild waits in the wings. But quietly, he continues to show the baseball world that he can build a perennial contender without the traditional tear-down every few years.

Two years ago, Dombrowski signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214-million which at the time was seen as an unnecessary overpay and an odd move considering the makeup of Detroit’s roster. Fielder was and is one of the game’s most feared hitters, sure, but his defensive ability relegates him to a poor first base and renders him best-suited at designated hitter. At the time Fielder was signed, of course, the Tigers already had a first baseman in Miguel Cabrera and a DH in Victor Martinez (albeit, he was injured, but the team still seemed committed to the idea that Delmon Young was worth playing).

The solution? To move Cabrera back to a position he hadn’t played in years and hadn’t played well probably ever. The move also forced the Tigers to keep Jhonny Peralta at short despite everyone in the known universe suggesting he should be moved to third or somewhere else. Couple all of that with a laterally-challenged Brennan Boesch in right field and the versatile but clunky Ryan Raburn at second and you had the makings of the worst defensive team in baseball—maybe baseball history.

Of course, the team was still going to be good. They played in the worst division in baseball and still had one of the best offensive teams in the game. And oh yeah, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Although their numbers would surely suffer at the hands of this defense.

The Tigers charged on, winning the division in 2012 despite an underachieving 88 wins and their pitching got them all the way to the World Series where they were unceremoniously swept by another inferior team in the San Francisco Giants.

That offseason, Dombrowski realized that there was a ceiling on how good this team could be with a defense so bad and began to make small, incremental changes that started to make a difference. He already had some pieces in this regard. Austin Jackson is a gifted centerfielder and one could do worse than Alex Avila behind the plate. He’d also acquired Omar Infante to play second part way through 2012, jettisoning the nightmare that was Raburn. Andy Dirks, though overachieving with the bat, seemed to be able to handle himself with aplomb in leftfield—even if he wasn’t a long-term solution. Hell, even Jhonny Peralta seemed to be playing a decent if not spectacular shortstop despite the appearance that he’d be more at home in an IHOP than on a ball diamond.

Still, Dombrowski must have realized that his phenomenal pitching staff would be greatly helped by some better gloves and arms behind them. The first thing to do: Sign Torii Hunter. Hunter had been one of the game’s best defensive centerfielders for a long time but had recently been hampered by age. Still, he was a well-above-average defensive rightfielder with a strong arm and so the Tigers inked the veteran to a two-year deal. Dirks, Jackson and Hunter in the outfield takes care of the flyballs, but the groundballs would need a bit more work to fix.

Then came Peralta’s 50-game suspension. The Tigers suddenly needed a shortstop and so they swooped in to grab Jose Iglesias from the Red Sox. Boston already had Stephen Drew at short and Xander Bogaerts waiting in the wings and although Iglesias had been impressive with the bat to that point in 2013, the industry opinion was that Jeff Francoeur with a fully-cooked spaghetti noodle as a bat would be a more effective hitter. So, Detroit grabbed him. Sure, he’d never hit, but Dombrowski and the Tigers weren’t acquiring him for his bat. With Cabrera and Martinez and Fielder and Jackson and Hunter already in the lineup, he didn’t need to hit. Iglesias was acquired because even without hitting, he produces enough value with his glove to make starting him worthwhile—at least on this team.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C-Z:

The 2013 Tigers were probably the best iteration of the franchise since this run of theirs starter in ’06. The pitching rotation was six deep with Verlander, Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, and Drew Smyly. The lineup scored nearly 800 runs and finished second to only the Red Sox in all of baseball. They were third in the American League in ERA and led all of baseball in fielding-independent pitching. They won 93 games and the division and lost to a superior Red Sox team in the ALCS. But they were still, although improved from the year before, one of the worst defensive teams in baseball.

At the end of the day, any team that plays Miguel Cabrera at third base with any seriousness is probably going to be bad defensively. He’s maybe the best hitter of his generation, but gifted with the glove, he is not. He needed to be moved back to first base. But with Fielder signed for forever and all of the dollars and Martinez still under contract, Dombrowski seemed stuck. Then there’s the issue of having to re-sign Cabrera down the line along with Scherzer, Jackson and other members of the core. So, Dombrowski killed all the birds with one stone. He sent Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers for Ian Kinsler.

Now, no one is going to make the case that Kinsler is anywhere close to as valuable as Fielder. He isn’t and probably won’t ever be in any single season going forward. But the money owed to him ($62-million over the next four years) pales in comparison to the $168-million owed to Fielder over the next seven years even when you factor in the $30-million the Tigers paid to the Rangers in the deal.

In terms of financial flexibility, the deal was a huge win for the Tigers who now, theoretically at least, have the money to re-sign Cabrera, Scherzer and Jackson long-term should they choose to do so. But the deal might also have made Detroit better now than it has ever been during their current run. No, Kinsler doesn’t provide the value that Fielder does in isolation, but factor in the defensive improvement the team makes by shifting Cabrera back to first—where he’s at least an average defender at a much less impactful position. The deal also allows them to hand their third base job to top prospect Nick Castellanos who by all accounts is a good defensive player.

In a little over a year, the Tigers have gone from historically bad defense to a team that has at least average if not significantly above average defenders at every position on the diamond. And even though they made what some have said is a questionable trade sending Doug Fister to the Nationals for pennies on the dollar, their prospective rotation of Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Porcello, and Smyly still rivals the best in baseball. Coupled with a lineup that includes Cabrera, Jackson, Martinez, Kinsler, Hunter, and Castellanos and maybe one of the better defensive lineups in the AL, the Tigers project to be a more well-rounded team than ever before. So even though the makeup of the team has changed quite a bit in the last couple seasons, for at least the time being the run should continue. Tigers’ fans have their savvy and talented GM, Dave Dombrowski to thank for much of it.

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Tags: Contracts Defense Detroit Tigers Ian Kinsler Jose Iglesias Miguel Cabrera Prince Fielder Torii Hunter Trades

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