In football, the strength of your team starts ‘in the trenches’ – at the line of scrimmage.
In hockey, a strong goalie, physical defensemen who lead their teams in plus/minus, can win you plenty of games.
In basketball, teams with 3 legitimate stars are the envy of the entire league.
And in baseball, strength up the middle is the foundation for building a great team.
A team has to start somewhere and in baseball, pitching and defense are key. Defense up the middle makes for a formidable team. Sure, you want those guys to hit too, but defense can negate a lot of sins.
Of course, outslugging your opponent is what fans like to see. To many, the game is the most exciting when lots of runs are scored resulting ultimately in your team winning a ball game.
But for the purists? They know this: Great pitching and defense up the middle can translate into demoralizing defeats for the opponent.
The 2015 World Champion Royals were great examples. They won their games from the 7th inning on. Their pitchers were not only dominant, they drew great confidence from the defense behind them, especially in the outfield where the ball rarely hit the ground.
For two seasons, the Royals had such a stifling bullpen and defensive ball club, it made scoring early the premium for their opponents. If you did not get to their starters before the 7th … forget about it. You were done.
And it’s a great model to copy for teams in smaller markets. The Royals did not have tremendous hitters; they beat you by squeezing the life out of you.
Their defense began with a tremendously gifted catcher in Salvador Perez, who was a leader, rarely let the ball get by him and had a gun for an arm. Alcides Escobar and Ben Zobrist (splitting time with Omar Infante) formed a solid keystone combination, and in centerfield, Lorenzo Cain ran down everything.
Unfortunately for the rest of us, the Royals continued their dominance at the corner outfield spots, especially in left with a gold glover in Alex Gordon and speedy Jarod Dyson in right and occasionally in center.
And you can’t discount the wizardry of Eric Hosmer who was probably the best defensive first baseman in the league.
Consider those Royals to be the best model for the Tigers. Sure, the latest World Series winner is always considered to be the next big thing to copy, but in the Houston Astros, the stars they drafted will be hard to duplicate.
So at a very early stage, where are the Tigers up the middle? Do they have any pieces that you can confidently say is THE guy? Are there any where you can check the box?
The Tigers have dedicated years now on the development of James McCann behind the plate, and he has improved moderately. He has shown very good leadership, but defensively he’s still not quite there. His strength is in his arm, but his weakness is in his bat. Does he get a check mark? I don’t think so, not at this point. Grayson Greiner and Jake Rogers down the road are still in the running.
Let’s head further north to the center of the infield. Any check marks there? Again, I would say no. Jose Iglesias is someone the Tigers want to move and Dixon Machado is playing out of position and given that, I don’t think you can fairly evaluate him defensively until he finds his spot at his natural shortstop position. So, consider these 2 positions still open for younger guys down in the farm. Until they begin to develop and find their way to Detroit, we won’t know.
The future in centerfield is JaCoby Jones. He has taken a big step forward this season. His combination of defense, speed and an improving bat makes me believe he is the player to beat for that check mark in center.
In the bullpen, The Royals pen consisted of 3 untouchable pieces who covered the 7th, 8th and 9th inning. That doesn’t mean the Tigers need that same formula, but the ultimate goal is to form a combination of pitchers that make it a bad thing for the opponent when they come in late in the game, just like KC.
So, who do we have? Any check marks?
Alex Wilson has logged plenty of time along with Daniel Stumpf, Buck Farmer, Joe Jimenez and Shane Greene.
But outside of Jimenez, who moves the needle? He is on an island all by himself, isn’t he? His live arm translates perfectly into the future closer spot. Check the box.
When you break it all down like this, it tells you how far we need to go.
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