2009 Offseason: Detroit interested in Lugo

The Detroit Tigers have come knocking, and you won’t believe who they’re asking about. MLB.com is reporting that Julio Lugo could be headed to Detroit in return for a left-handed pitcher, perhaps Dontrelle Willis or Nate Robertson. Before you start dancing with joy, however, let’s take a closer look at this rumor:

Why they want Lugo

Edgar Renteria is a free agent this offseason, and that leaves a gaping vacancy at shortstop. Renteria was not horrible offensively this year (by shortstop standards), but the Tigers were not jazzed enough with his play to offer him a new contract.

2009 Projection: Edgar Renteria
.303/.361/.434 with 12 HR and 61 RBI in 534 AB

Dave Dombrowski has committed to a lot of longer-term contracts in the past few years, but injuries and pitching ineffectiveness, especially, have contributed to a team that has had trouble contending on a regular basis. Last offseason, the Tigers traded for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, making them preseason favorites, only to finish 74-88, good for last place in the AL Central. Now with the economy tanking, the Tigers need to do something with all these players who are locked up for several years.

Rather than tie up a lot of money in a free agent shortstop, Lugo is the the kind of buy-low candidate the Tigers are looking for. He is a fair hitter and (historically, anyway) adequate on defense. Because he’s ostensibly lost his starting job to Jed Lowrie, they’re looking at him as a temporary stopgap.

2009 Projection: Julio Lugo
.270/.333/.382 with 7 HR and 44 RBI in 423 AB

The average AL shortstop hit just .266/.314/.375 in 2008, so he’s still a valuable player if he plays at that level. Lugo is signed for two more years and $18M, but he also has a vesting option if he reaches 2,400 PA over his four years and 600 PA in 2010, the last year of his contract. So far he has 937 PA to his credit, so it’s doubtful that option will vest. If the Tigers are going to carry a bad contract, it might as well be for a player who can be decent at a position of need, so they’re looking to swap one of their other bad contracts for Lugo’s.

Who’s the better return?

Willis is the guy you’re more likely to know about. Having broken into the Majors at age 21 and immediately played a big part of the Marlins championship, it’s hard to remember that the big lefty is going to be just 27 years old next season. Despite his youth, the D-train’s arm has been ridden heavily in the Majors, and he’s got a lot of miles on him already.

Entering what should be his prime years, the D-train has suffered back-to-back disappointing seasons. 2008 was marked by 24 woeful innings in which Willis walked way more than a batter per inning, then short minor league stints, as much of the year was lost to patellar tendinitis in his right knee. His FIP numbers tell us that the high ERAs he’s posted have been earned; it wasn’t just bad luck. He’s still got a decent K-rate, but the walks are a big problem. A quick look at his Fangraphs page tells us that Willis has pretty much stopped throwing his cut fastball, and relied heavily on his fastball-slider combo. I wonder if that is not responsible for the jump in HR rate against him the past two years. He’s throwing in the high-80s now, and I wonder if that doesn’t make him better suited for the bullpen than a starter’s role. A two-pitch lefty with HR problems at Fenway? No thank you.

2009 Projection: Dontrelle Willis
8 W, 4.72 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in 26 GS and 152.2 IP

Bill James is even more unkind to Willis than I am, projecting him for just 8 starts and 31 IP in 2009. He predicts a sky-high ERA of 5.78. The problem for Detroit is that they signed Willis to a 3-year deal last season, buying out his arbitration years plus an extra year. He is slated to earn $22M over the next two years, which is a problem if you’re putting up those numbers. That’s a lot of cabbage to be paying for a left-handed reliever who might not be as good as what we already have.

31 years old, Robertson is also a fastball-slider lefty, though he mixes in a changeup about 16-17% of the time. While his control is not great, it is borderline acceptable for a lefty (3.15 BB/9 lifetime) and he throws more first strikes than Willis. He is also prone to the long ball, though he appears to induce a few more ground balls that Willis does. His stuff is not quite as good as Willis’, but as a true three-pitch guy, he’s a more viable back-end starter than his counterpart. Unlike Dontrelle, Robertson’s FIP ERAs are consistently better than his posted ERAs, and 2008 wasn’t as bad as it looks on the stat line.

2009 Projection: Nate Robertson
10 W, 4.79 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 30 GS and 184.2 IP

Bill James projects Robertson at 6-7 with a 4.77 ERA over 116 IP next year. He is due $17M over the next two years, after which he would become a free agent. He’s more of a solid pick, though there is very little upside with him. Someone like Robertson might be more open to a bullpen role than Willis, who has experienced being a superstar. Taking all of this into account, if I had to choose one, it would be Robertson over Willis.

I have to wonder why the Tigers are saddled with contracts to two mediocre lefties like this in their rotation. I think they would have been better off going younger; they should be non-tendering at least one of these guys, not extending them. Considering the money and commitment that’s involved, I would rather pay to keep Lugo as a good infield reserve than one of these guys to be a poor 5th starter. If Lowrie struggles this year, what is our plan then? We have plenty of in-house options for 5th starter, though I do expect the Sox to sign a free agent on a one-year deal. The Tigers would have to kick in an interesting prospect for me to even consider this deal.


3 Responses to 2009 Offseason: Detroit interested in Lugo

  1. Randy says:

    Hmm interesting stuff. I would not be sad to see Lugo go, but it sure doesn’t sound like such a great deal the way you lay it out.

    I wonder though; Is there any chance that either of these guys would benefit from working with Farrell and (maybe) Varitek? Willis at least has demonstrated that he knows how to win, maybe a little expert advice could go a long way? Clearly Detroit mismanaged their season in 2008, but I don’t know anything about their pitching coach staff.

  2. redsoxtalk says:

    Hey Randy, thanks for commenting. You can’t ever write off the difference a change in scenery can make (good or bad), that’s true. But it’s hard to coach Willis out of his declining velocity and limited pitch selection.

    The Tigers’ pitching coach is Chuck Hernandez, and he’s been there since the 2006 season. That year, the Tigers had a great rotation, with a career year from Kenny Rogers and a breakout year from Justin Verlander. Robertson and Jeremy Bonderman were good that year too. They ranked first in ERA, but have been steadily declining ever since, due to injury and age.

  3. Jerrod says:

    The old pitching coach for the Tigers (Chuck Hernandez) was a joke. While he might have had a good reputation before he came to Detroit, the pitching performance in 2006 was in spite of him, not because of him. Every year he was with the Tigers their ERA increased, and ace pitcher Justin Verlander turned into an average starter at best. The bullpen was a mess and the only bright spot in their rotation was rookie Armando Gallaraga who hadn’t been around Hernandez enough to get screwed up by him.

    Either Willis or Robertson would benefit from a change of scenery and a good sports psychologist. I don’t however think that there are many teams willing to pick up either contract that Detroit signed Willis and Robertson to.

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