Offense a problem for these Tigers

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The Tigers possess MLB’s first Triple Crown winner in 45 years in Miguel Cabrera and a second premium bat in Prince Fielder, but the offense as a whole is really quite average. And even average seems kind given its performance so far against the A’s in the ALDS.

Shut out in Tuesday’s loss, the Tigers have totaled eight runs in three games while amassing a 2-1 series lead over the A’s. That’s overselling it, though. Three of those runs were the direct result of errors. In three games, the Tigers haven’t had a single hit that knocked in a baserunner. They did get Alex Avila’s solo homer in Game 1. The rest of the runs have scored on Oakland’s miscues, groundouts and Don Kelly’s Game 2-winning sac fly.

But the Tigers weren’t so great offensively during the regular season, either. Particularly not late in the year. They were tied for seventh in the AL in runs during the second half. Their 339 runs scored put them right about at the midpoint between the top-ranked A’s (394 runs) and the Indians and Mariners (282) at the bottom. For the full year, they were sixth in runs scored.

And that’s because while Cabrera, Fielder and Austin Jackson were great, the bottom half of the lineup was dreadful. Going by OPS, Tigers No. 5 hitters ranked 13th in the AL and their No. 6 hitters were dead last.

With the A’s throwing right-handers in both Games 4 and 5 now, Delmon Young could well be key for Detroit. Fielder did his best to come up big for the Tigers tonight, only to be robbed of a homer by Coco Crisp and a double by Yoenis Cespedes. Now that the A’s are going back to right-handers after starting lefties the last two games, it’s going to make tons of sense to pitch around Fielder in big situations and go after Young in the five-hole. The slumping Young hasn’t come through with a hit in an RBI situation in 11 games, and he’s delivered one homer in a month. He’s lucky he’s still in the lineup at all, much less in such prime real estate behind Cabrera and Fielder.

Of course, Max Scherzer or Justin Verlander could make Detroit’s offensive problem moot by hurling a shutout one of the next two days. Those two are certainly capable. That said, the Tigers’ offense is quite obviously overrated, and it figures to catch up with them soon if it hasn’t already.

Meanwhile, on the cold, cold Hot Stove . . .

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It’s Hot Stove Season baby! You know what that means! Yep: time to watch some teams sign a few relievers to minor league deals and then wait everyone out until February while talking about the need to maintain financial flexibility! FEEL THE BURN.

In more specific news:

We’ve talked a lot about Betts this winter already, and that seems like madness. Bryant’s career with the Cubs began with business-side acrimony, it’s still simmering, and there is no sense that either side is amenable to a long-term deal before he hits free agency. The Indians have been signaling for some time that they have no interest in keeping Lindor long term.

It’s quite the thing when three teams who are supposed to be contending are, instead, looking to deal recent MVP award winners and candidates who are 27 and 26 years old, but these are the times in which we are living.

  • Joe Sheehan wrote an excellent column for Baseball America last week analyzing the attendance drop MLB experienced in 2019. Which is just the latest in a series of attendance drops. As Joe notes there is a very, very strong connection between teams (a) signaling to fans during the offseason that they are not interested in signing or retaining players or otherwise being competitive; and (b) teams suffering attendance losses.

As I wrote last offseason, there is an increasing disconnect between attendance and other proxies of broad fan interest and revenue. Which is to say that, as long as teams continue to get fat on long-term TV deals, side businesses like real estate development, and soaking a smaller and wealthier segment of the fan base with higher and higher prices, they really have no reason to care if several thousand common or casual fans become alienated by their teams’ lack of desire to compete.

Sullivan doesn’t offer ideas about how that can happen, but over the past couple of seasons we’ve seen a number of proposals, some broad, some specific, about how MLB can turn its free agency/trading period into frantic, 1-3 day scrambles-to-sign like we see in both the NBA and NFL. I’m sympathetic to that desire — it’s exciting! — but any attempt to do that in Major League Baseball, at least as things are currently set up, would be a disaster for the players.

In the NBA and NFL you have salary caps and floors and, in the NBA, you have max contracts. As a result, teams both have a set amount of money to spend and an incentive to spend that money. We can quibble with whether those incentives are the best ones or if they benefit the players as much as other systems might, but there’s at least something inherent in their systems which inspires teams to sign free agents.

In Major League Baseball, there is no such incentive. May teams want to keep payrolls as low as possible under the guise of rebuilding or tanking and there is no effective mechanism to keep them from doing so. Even nominal contenders — see the Cubs, Indians and Red sox in item 1 above — spend more time thinking about how to cut payroll rather than add talent. This is bolstered by the stuff in item 2 above in which attendance and even winning has less of an impact on the bottom line than it ever has.

So, why scramble to sign players by a set deadline? Under most of the scenarios I see floated — like the laughably horrible one MLB reportedly suggested to the MLBPA — teams would just wait out free agents until deadline day, give them crappy take-it-or-leave-it offers and then leave them all scrambling to sign one-year deals or to sit the season out.

For such a thing to happen — or for teams to want to keep their bright young stars or for the league to want to maintain fan interest and keep attendance from continuing to slide — there must be incentives put in place to make them want to sign and retain players. To make them want to win. To make them want to excite the fan base.

At present, such incentives are not there. And, as such, we are faced with yet another winter with a cold, cold stove.