Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Successful farm system has paid off for Tigers


Detroit Tigers owner Mike Ilitch deserves a new Porsche for his willingness to continually increase the Tigers' payroll the last few years in a valiant effort to push his team to its first World Series title since 1984.

With the addition of All-Stars Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins Tuesday, Detroit's payroll — once the new additions are secured through long-term contracts — will likely exceed $115 million. In 2003, when the Tigers hit rock bottom with 119 losses, their payroll was $49,168,000.

Yes, Ilitch must have won the lottery between then and now — or just become a much more willing spender. Of course, the greatly increased attendance (and, now, raised ticket prices) helps. But his open wallet has been a big key in Detroit becoming one of the American League's elite teams.

However, money doesn't make trades happen. It only attracts dollar-seeking free agents. And if you look at the Tigers' now-explosive lineup, several of the big hitters have been acquired through trades.

How have the Tigers made these trades? By giving up prospect after prospect from a highly successful farm system that continues to develop sought-after players.

Here's the projected lineup for 2008 (not necessarily in the right order): CF Curtis Granderson, 2B Placido Polanco, 3B Miguel Cabrera, RF Magglio Ordonez, DH Gary Sheffield, 1B Carlos Guillen, SS Edgar Renteria, LF Jacque Jones, C Ivan Rodriguez.

Granderson is the lone player in that lineup who came up from the Tigers farm system. Ordonez (2005) and Rodriguez ('04) are the two players Ilitch snagged in free agency by offering big money.

The remaining six players, five of whom have been All-Stars at some point during their careers, all came to Detroit via trades. And for the most part, the teams that dealt them weren't ripped off. They received several promising players in return.

In 2004, the Tigers received Guillen from Seattle for Ramon Santiago and minor league shortstop Juan Gonzalez. At the time, Guillen was an average shortstop. Since then, obviously, he's become an All-Star.

In one of just two moves that didn't involve minor leaguers, in 2005 Detroit acquired Polanco from Philadelphia for closer Ugueth Urbina and infielder Ramon Martinez. That deal has turned out to be completely one-sided as Polanco might be the league's best second baseman while neither player acquired by the Phillies still plays for them.

After the magical 2006 season, Detroit didn't relax, trading three highly touted minor league pitchers — Humberto Sanchez, Kevin Whelan and Anthony Claggett — to the Yankees for Sheffield. While Sheffield had a difficult time playing hurt down the stretch last season, when he's healthy, his bat is as dangerous as anybody's.

Then immediately after missing the playoffs in 2007, the Tigers went to work on filling their holes. With Guillen moving to first, they needed a top-notch shortstop, so they parted with very promising young pitcher Jair Jurrjens and highly touted minor league outfielder Gorkys Hernandez to land Renteria from Atlanta.

Then, less than two weeks later, Detroit traded utility player Omar Infante to the Cubs for Jones.

And finally, there was Tuesday's mega deal. There hadn't been any talk whatsoever of the Tigers going after Cabrera, but in swooped general manager Dave Dombrowski, sending six players to the Marlins for the All-Star third baseman and Willis, a 20-game winner in 2005.

The deal was huge for the Tigers because it erased their one tangible weak spot in the lineup. Brandon Inge was a great defensive third baseman, but he struggled mightily at the plate for the Tigers. Cabrera, just 24, is a huge upgrade at the position.

Willis, 25, who has had two down years since that dominant 2005 campaign, will feel the burden of being a No. 1 lifted from his shoulders as he'll be placed in the middle or even at the back of a Tigers rotation that — barring injury (always a big concern) — could have a huge season.

So how did Detroit get this deal done in a matter of nanoseconds? All it had to do was offer its prized prospects to the always-rebuilding Marlins. Detroit parted with lauded outfielder Cameron Maybin as well as ultra-talented pitcher Andrew Miller. Gone also are backup catcher Mike Rabelo and three lesser-known minor league pitchers.

Some are questioning whether the Tigers gave up too much in the deal. And I hear their concerns. I felt the same way a year ago after the Sheffield trade. But the bottom line is that Detroit continues to grow potential All-Stars in the minors, whom it is able to trade for proven All-Stars.

And it's not as if the well's now completely dry. Let's not forget about last year's draft choice Rick Porcello, a very talented pitcher whom other teams weren't willing to fork over the big bucks to like the Tigers did immediately after making the selection (a record $7.3 million over four years).

Now it's up to the players to get the job done. Ownership and management have done everything a manager could ask for to build this team into a championship-caliber club. The lineup is stacked. The starting pitching is stacked. The closer, Todd Jones, has been re-signed (probably for too much money, but it had to be done considering the injury to Joel Zumaya).

The pieces are in place for a memorable 2008.

Jim Leyland and his players can address their Christmas cards to Ilitch, Dombrowski and the coaches in the minor leagues who helped the growth of all the trade bait used to bring this All-Star cast to the Motor City.


Sportsattitude said...

I give the Tigers tremendous credit for continuing to operate as a franchise that not only wants to put fannies in the seats, but a winning product on the field. While I doubt Willis will be an all-star in the future (he may be an inning-eater but they'll need that explosive line-up to have his back), there is little doubt Cabrera looks to be the real deal for the long haul. I think they mortgaged their future a bit in the big picture because I don't see Willis "recovering," but in the short-term they may have themselves a couple of World Series in their immediate future by filling in that "spot" with Cabrera.

zekejennings said...

Good post, Jake. A producing farm system is essential for long-term winning. Whether or not you keep the players you turn out, bargaining pieces have to be there to make these kinds of deals.

Dombrowski was slow to get rid of former head scout Greg Smith and replace him with David Chadd, but the Tigers finally have a good farm system in place.

Tyler Hampton said...

I really think that Cabrera is a great pick up. Willis on the other hand, I believe has gone downhill and will stay there for a long time. Willis has a good game every once in a while, but he needs to be more consistent to produce at the level he did two years ago.

I really believe that Cabrera has what it takes. He can hit the long ball and hit for average. On the defensive side I think that he is stellar.

As for the farm system, that is crucial to continue the flow of proven and yet to be seen all stars in the Detroit team. They are doing a good job so far, but to be able to keep all this up means a high budget and if they can continue this then good job, but I don't think that it is easy to keep up that big of a budget.