Monday, March 26, 2007

Detroit Tigers Opening Day Roster Analysis

Major League Baseball's Opening Day is week away and Detroit Tigers manager Jim Leyland has a tough decision to make as April 2nd approaches. While most of the Tigers roster is set (and stacked, which is why the Tigers are likely to have another very successful season) there is one bench position which, as of this writing, is still very much up for grabs. First baseman Chris Shelton is batting utility infielders Neifi Perez and Ramon Santiago for the 25th and final spot on the Tigers major league roster, and despite his struggles last season, and despite the hot spring at the plate for Shelton, the best move for the Tigers is to keep Perez and send both Santiago and Shelton to AAA Toledo.

Since Shelton makes a much more compelling case for making the Opening Day roster, eliminating Santiago from the equation is easy by comparison. Santiago and Perez are similar in a lot of ways and play the same positions, but there are a few key reasons why keeping Perez makes more sense. For one thing, Perez is a bit more versatile, playing third base as well as second and shortstop (playing Santiago at third would be a real stretch). Secondly, while his offensive struggles with the Tigers last season were obvious, Perez did not perform that much worse than Santiago. Santiago hit .225 in 80 at bats, while Perez batted an admittedly woeful .200 in 65 at bats. But, when you look at their career numbers, Santiago remains at .225 while Perez, over his 11 year career, has hit close to .270. Great? No. But solid for a backup infielder. Plus, Santiago can and will be sent to Toledo, where he can play regularly and be ready to be called up to the big league club in case of an injury, and Perez, no matter what the Tigers do, is guaranteed $2.5 million. May as well hold on to him if you are playing him anyway and there's no risk in losing Santiago.

Chris Shelton, on the other hand, has made a very strong argument that he deserves to make the Tigers Opening Day roster. After an incredible start to last season when he hit 10 home runs in April, Shelton hit only 6 more the rest of the season, and found himself back in AAA Toledo by August. Yet, this Spring Training, Shelton has showed signs he has recovered and matured as a batter, and has hit .391. If Shelton is back to being the player he was in April, 2006, the Tigers seemingly can't afford to send him to AAA. That, though, is exactly what they need to do.

What most people forgot last season, when Shelton raced out to such a hot start before crashing back to earth, was how young of a player Shelton is. He seemingly has been a Tiger forever, but that isn't really the case. Shelton, a former Rule V Draft Selection, lost an entire year of development in 2004. That's because instead of learning how to become a better hitter through playing everyday in the minor leagues, Shelton sat on the Detroit Tigers major league bench. That's how teams get to keep their Rule V selections. Had the Tigers opted to send Shelton to AAA Toledo before he spent the entire season on the Tigers roster, his original team (the Pittsburgh Pirates) would have had the chance to reclaim him, which they almost assuredly would have done. So to retain Shelton for the future, the Tigers essentially held his development back a season, playing him in only 27 games, where Shelton had less than 50 at bats.

In 2005, Shelton was finally able to get that everyday playing time he needed, starting the season in AAA Toledo. But by mid season, starting first baseman Carlos Pena had failed to live up to expectations, and Shelton made the most of his big league opportunity, batting .300 and socking 18 home runs in just over half a season. Not bad, but Shelton still had less than 400 career major league at bats when he was anointed the Tigers starting first baseman headed into last year.

Shelton is still a young kid, and he is still learning, and more importantly, still needs to learn. Tigers fans, spoiled by his hot April last season and his impressive rookie half-season in 2005, may not realize that sitting on the bench, playing once a week or less, is not going to do Shelton's career any favors. He needs to see as much live pitching as possible, and the only place to do that is AAA Toledo. Keeping Shelton at AAA also has another advantage. While Shelton's almost .400 spring may have increased his trade value, sitting on the bench for the Tigers won't. If Shelton goes to AAA, though, and performs as most expect, other teams will get interested in a hurry, and the Tigers may be able to make a deal quicker than they would if Shelton was inactive but on the major league roster.

Sending Shelton to AAA also makes the Tigers major league team better. If there is one thing almost everyone can agree on, it is outfielder Marcus Thames needs to see the field more often. Thames is a constant producer at the plate, so much so the Tigers have worked hard this spring to help Thames learn the first base position so he can crack the lineup somewhere. Keeping Shelton means less playing time for Thames, and despite Shelton's impressive spring, there's no question Thames, at least today, is a bigger offensive asset than Shelton. Comparing Shelton to Perez yields yet another point in Perez' favor. While Shelton is strictly a right handed hitter, Perez is a switch hitter who performs better a left handed batter, a position of need for the Tigers. Perez can create matchup problems for relievers and allow manager Jim Leyland some flexibility when calling a pinch-hitter to the plate. Shelton can't.

I know suggesting that Perez make the team over Shelton and Santiago may sound like sacrilege to some. Perez, rightly so in a lot of ways, has been heavily criticized, and his performances last season were dreadful. But, he has hit .333 this Spring, better than most of the Tigers regulars, and his experience, position flexibility and ability to hit left-handed are assets. Chris Shelton bats right handed, only increases his potential trade value if he plays everyday in AAA Toledo (of course, this assumes he would be successful in AAA, but, if he's not, then this argument is moot anyway) and he needs the at bats, because Shelton continues to be a young player who has still yet to play a full season in the major leagues.

Shelton did just about everything he could to make the team this spring, but despite that, for the good of the team (both its present and its future), the final roster spot should go to Neifi Perez, even if that will drive the most ardent of Tigers fans out of their collective minds.

Monday Morning Update: Jim Leyland agrees with me. (or, more likely, I agree with him). The Detroit Tigers sent Chris Shelton and Ramon Santiago to AAA Toledo this morning, holding on to Neifi Perez as the last player on the major league roster. While understanding why Shelton was the more popular choice, keeping Perez, at least for now, makes the most sense.

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