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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Who's Brent Clevlen?

He's the reason the Detroit Tigers are the best team in baseball.

Let me explain.

Sometime around the beginning of February The Sporting News publishes the first of dozens of baseball preview magazines. While every one is slightly different - which is why I must own them all - they all provide a variety of preseason predictions and projections. And, for the hopelessly Emersonian among us who cannot believe in any conclusions we do not come to ourselves, they provide the likely opening day starting lineups and rotations for each of the thirty franchises. It's easy to see by looking at the murderers row that is the Yankees starting nine that they're the best team in the league, right? They very well may prove to be. But, last year's projected starters for the Yankees included Gary Sheffield, Hideki Matsui, Shawn Chacon, and Aaron Small. Sheffield & Matsui totaled less than 350 ABs between them and only 40 of the Yankees' 1622 runs produced (Runs Produced = [R+RBI] - HR). Aaron Small made 3 starts, went 0-3 with an 8.46 ERA, and never made another appearance. Chacon made 11 starts, went 5-3 with a 7.00 ERA, and was dealt to the Pirates for Craig Wilson. Meanwhile, Melky Cabrera produced 118 runs, Bernie Williams another 114, and Jaret Wright went 11-7 with a 4.49 ERA. True, the Yankees also compensated for their injury bug by trading money for Bobby Abreu and Cory Lidle. Had you not Cashman's financial resources, would you have hung a Sorry. sign in front of the stadium and given up on the season?

Yes, if you were the Cubs. On April 19 they were 9-5 when they lost Derreck Lee to a freak wrist injury much like Hideki Matsui's, in the following two months they replaced their top hitter (1080 OPS in 2005) primarily with a combination of Neifi Perez (609 OPS) and John Mabry (607 OPS). They went 19-41. Season over. Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the Dodgers lost two of their best hitters, Nomar Garciaparra (867 OPS) and Jeff Kent (862 OPS), for extended periods. They went 24-16 without Garciaparra, 27-20 without Kent, and survived their downtime to make a late season run at a wildcard berth, primarily because their primary replacements were James Loney (901 OPS) and Willy Aybar (770 OPS). Because of the litany of injuries throughout the year, eighteen players got a hundred or more ABs for the Dodgers in 2006, as compared to 15 for the Cubs, and only one of them (Julio Lugo) finished with an OPS under 700.

So, getting back to Brent Clevlen. Brent Clevlen is, like James Loney and Willy Aybar, a top tier prospect, an outfielder in the Tigers organization. In a cup of coffee callup last season he hit 3 homers, accumulated 3 outfield assists, and had a 958 OPS in 39 ABs. Could he keep up that pace over the course of a season? Definitely not. Witness his 15 strikeouts. But could he give the Tigers a few dozen good ABs over the course of a couple of weeks? Quite certainly.

The sports cliche is that "you're only as good as the last player on your bench." In baseball, it extends all the way to the bottom of the 40 man roster. In extremely tight divisional races, like the ones we're likely to see this year in the NL West and the AL Central, the projected lineups and rotations published during the preseason aren't satisfactory evidence of a teams ability to compete over the 162 game stretch. Of the eight teams in the postseason last year, none had more than five position players who made it into 140 games. Only the Tigers and Twins were lucky enough to have five. And only the Tigers had four pitchers who made 30 starts. The Tigers know how lucky they were. And, this season, they bring superior depth. Brent Cleven isn't going to get a call if Gary Sheffield or Magglio Ordonez goes down. That call will go to Marcus Thames - he of the 26 home runs and 882 OPS in 2006. He may not even get the call if Gary Sheffield & Magglio Ordonez go down. Not with Chris Shelton (16 HR, 806 OPS in 373 AB) and Omar Infante (735 OPS in 224 ABs) already traveling with the team. On the pitching side Jim Leyland can call upon Zach Miner, Wil Ledezma, and Andrew Miller to give him quality starts, with Miner and Ledezma capable swingmen.

Putting talent aside - because all four contenders in the AL Central are rife with talent - this is why I believe the race for the divisional crown (and perhaps the wild card) will come down to the Tigers and Indians. While Minnesota and Chicago have struggled to fill out their rotations to begin the season, Cleveland and Detroit have no need to rush players dealing with injuries (Cliff Lee) or high end prospects (Andrew Miller). While there competitors make difficult choices between mediocre options (Rondell White or Lew Ford for LF in Minnesota; Darin Erstad or Brian Anderson for CF in Chicago), Cleveland has five outfielders spending significant time on the bench (David Dellucci, Shin-Soo Choo, Jason Michaels, Trot Nixon, and Casey Blake) any one of whom could be a everyday starter on many teams, including the Twins and the White Sox.

Meanwhile, much has been made of the Cubs offseason spending spree. Have they gotten deeper? I think so, but not deep enough. In the outfield they have nice rotating parts with Jacque Jones, Matt Murton, and Cliff Floyd vying for the cornes spots, as well as Mark DeRosa getting some time there and at second and third. Ryan Theriot also appears to be an extremely valuable utilityman, perhaps in the Chone Figgins/Ryan Freel mode. And it certainly feels less harrowing this spring to learn that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior are both going to stay behind for a little extended spring training, because of the presence of Wade Miller, Angel Guzman, and Sean Marshall. It could be better. But, in their division, it may be enough.

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