Sometimes the problem with a surplus is that not only does it provide a false sense of security, it can also amplify the urgency when something goes terribly wrong. We see it often in rotations-teams get confident that they have enough pitching to last the season and trade arms to augment their roster, only to have injuries and regression make it difficult to fill a rotation (see, for example, last season's unexpectedly Billingsley-free Dodgers). It happens less often with position players because it's easier to hide a utility player's weaknesses than a starting pitcher's, but the Tigers have reached that point with outfielder Andy Dirks having been sidelined for back surgery.
Having made deals -- good, defensible deals though they were -- that depleted their pile of outfielders, the Tigers are feeling the strain of shifting from too much outfield help last year to potentially needing to make a trade or raid the reject pile before the season starts. They are already on backup Plan C and the season hasn't even started.
Plan C might work, of course, but it's going to be ugly if they get to Plan D.
Last July, the Tigers were in the enviable position of having, if not too many outfielders, a supply roughly sufficient for their needs, with Austin Jackson, Avisail Garcia, Andy Dirks, Torii Hunter, Matt Tuiasosopo, and Don Kelly, the last of whom Jim Leyland considered a major leaguer for reasons that remain obscure. Knowing they had top prospect Nick Castellanos waiting in the minors to take over duties in left field for 2014, the organization felt it had enough insurance for their pasture at the trade deadline to move the 22-year-old prospect Garcia, a right fielder whose upside boasts power and credible defense, to the White Sox in a three-team trade that sent pitcher Jake Peavy to Boston and defensively-excellent shortstop Jose Iglesias to the Tigers, the acquisition being a necessity with a Biogenesis suspension and free agency looming over Jhonny Peralta.
Even without Garcia, a Castellanos-Jackson-Hunter outfield seemed strong enough for a contender, but the Prince Fielder trade further complicated things. Flipping Fielder and cash considerations to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler was an opportunity too good to pass up for the Tigers, allowing them to shore up three positions at once. Miguel Cabrera's two years at the hot corner were spent nursing injuries and playing through pain, something that became more evident with every belabored waddle after bunts and soft grounders. It wasn't clear how much longer the organization could ask Cabrera to suffer (or suffer his poor defense, which cost them 18 runs last season, according to Defensive Runs Saved). With Cabrera back at first, that forced the Tigers to move Castellanos, Plan A for left field, back to third, the position he was drafted to play but had abandoned due to Cabrera's presence there. So far so good for the infield, but the shuffling forced the Tigers to move to Plan B in the outfield -- a left-field platoon of the left-handed-hitting Andy Dirks and the right-handed Rajai Davis, a combination that, while hardly likely to put up big numbers, could reasonably hoped to have been at least serviceable.
Over the last three seasons, major league left fielders have hit .258/.323/.417. Dirks is a career .278/.333/.418 hitter vs. right-handers, while Davis has hit .294/.354/.425 against southpaws. Both players are good fielders, so given consistency from each, it's easy to imagine that the platoon, while not making anyone forget Willie Horton, might have been a quietly effective part of the Tigers' winning efforts.
To paraphrase Robert Burns, the best laid plans of complacency and weak outfielders often go awry, and even though Plan B wasn't great, it got worse when it was announced that Dirks will miss at least 12 weeks, leaving a team that had too much outfield help eight months ago with just the less-utilized side of a platoon in Davis, the incapable Kelly, and a lot of questions like, "Well... what do we do now?" when it comes to left field.
In Plan C, the Tigers will likely use Davis as an everyday left fielder until Dirks returns. That would be a fine decision if games were won on stolen bases and strong defense alone, but while Davis does fine against left-handed pitchers, there's little benefit in letting him play against righties (.255/.297/.353) and since right-handedness is more ubiquitous, it will be harder to disguise his weaknesses. It's unclear how new manager Brad Ausmus will use Kelly, who was often Leyland's solution to problems much bigger than his ability, but even a quick glance at his numbers should tell him that he can't do much other than offer his starters an occasional off day. The Tigers added Steve Lombardozzi this offseason as a utility infielder, but given the shortage of outfielders and his experience playing left field for the Nationals, he could be another option. The bad news, however, is that he should only be used in dire situations, because his career 74 OPS+ (just three points higher than Kelly's) is just a step above fielding two outfielders.The team's cadre of outfield prospects is light on players who are either major-league ready or project as impact talents.
Plan C is ugly, but would be workable for teams that don't have ambitions as great as the Tigers. It's not the absence of Dirks that's a problem, really, because Dirks himself is limited, it's that we're not even to Opening Day and the Tigers have implemented their backup plan to their backup plan, and fielding a human reserve parachute for 162 games won't do. The Tigers have a little bit of wiggle room atop the AL Central as the projected favorites (FanGraphs has them as an eight-game favorite, while Baseball Prospectus suggests a nine-win margin), but it hasn't exactly been simple for the Tigers to win the division the past two seasons -- if panicking over the loss of Dirks is an overreaction, remember that it's not Plan C that is to be feared so much as the possibility that at some point this season the Tigers might have to default to Plan D, which at its catastrophic worst would be Davis, Kelly, and Lombardozzi in the same outfield. In such a catastrophic scenario the Tigers might even be forced to abandon their offseason plan, move Castellanos back to left, and hunt around for a third baseman (which would inevitably mean more Don Kelly). All it would take is more injuries. Maybe the Tigers' outfield has hit rock bottom now, but it's hard to imagine Hunter playing 140-plus games again at age 38, and considering that Jackson and Davis dealt with hamstring and oblique injuries last season that sidelined them for 20-plus games each, it's at least cause for concern.
If the Tigers do pursue additional help, they can take two approaches: short term platoon help for Davis until Dirks returns, or a long-term solution that can fill the vacancy that will be created at the end of the season by Hunter's free agency (even if the Tigers want to retain him, at 39 he'll finally be eligible to play for the Phillies). On the expensive end, there may be an opportunity to get Andre Ethier, who is signed through 2017 and getting handsomely paid, but the obvious downside, aside from the expense, is that he's spent the past eight seasons successfully hypnotizing the Dodgers into believing he's more than just a platoon player even though his splits would suggest otherwise. There were some rumblings earlier this offseason that the Cardinals might be willing to trade Jon Jay, who isn't good enough defensively for center and blocked on the corners by Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. The Rockies have said they aren't looking to trade an outfielder, but it would only make sense to at least consider moving Charlie Blackmon or Corey Dickerson before opening day given that teams surplus of fourth outfielder types.
If the Tigers just want to get through the next few months with a backup plan, they might find success in a trade with the White Sox for Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo, two floundering outfielders who are now blocked by the addition of better talent. The Yankees may be looking to trade Ichiro Suzuki, who has been pushed to the bench; though he might be at the end of his utility, he can still run and field well and perhaps can find another half-season of hitting .300 in singles in him. If they just want insurance, the Tigers may be able to take a flier on an excess outfielder like Justin Maxwell, in camp with the Royals but out of options, but a move like that would be more about adding warm bodies than depth.
The Tigers have perhaps the best hitter in baseball in Miguel Cabrera, three of the best pitchers in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez, and yet over the last three seasons we've seen them lose two championship series late and get blown out of a World Series because as good as they are, they're always just a little bit short. The little bit this time around could be left field. Sure, they could stand pat, figuring they weren't going to get a whole lot more from Dirks and Davis together than they will from Davis alone, but if you've come as close as they have, taking anything for granted seems like an unsupportable act of faith. The Tigers are a Torii Hunter sneeze away from having a defunct outfield. They don't have to make a move, but they should.