August 25, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Kurt Mensching

Tigers have the stars, but might not have depth to make a World Series run

Tigers manager Brad Ausmus returns to the dugout after a lineup change in the ninth inning of Game 1 of Saturday's doubleheader. (Jim Mone / Associated Press)

The mark of a baseball roster compiled by Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski: Plenty of stars, but a few scrubs, too.

That has its advantages. The Tigers have won three consecutive division titles, for one. They have been in the World Series as recently as 2012. They could return to it in 2014. Could being the operative term here.

However, we saw over the weekend the disadvantage of a team without much depth. Friday the Tigers were shellacked, 20-6. On Saturday afternoon, with a starting pitcher who a month ago could be found pitching with the Single A West Michigan Whitecaps, Detroit lost, 12-4.

If we learned one thing, it’s that the cellar-dwellar Twins are still a darn sight better than Detroit’s minor league pitching staff.

Make no mistake, that’s what Minnesota faced during those 18 innings of horrible baseball.

Up too soon

Friday’s starter, Robbie Ray — the star prospect in the trade that sent Doug Fister to Washington — is not yet ready for prime time. Saturday’s starter, Buck Farmer, skipped a level in going from West Michigan to Double A Erie, then a few more in advancing to the Tigers after just two starts with the SeaWolves.

Neither made it past the second inning of their respective starts.

Meanwhile the bullpen may as well be nicknamed The Expendables, with the frequency of pitchers shuttling back and forth from the Mud Hens after again and again being overmatched by MLB batters. Most of the rest are too old to be in the minors, but pitch like they ought to be.

The position-player side has been more stable, with only shortstop being a revolving door this season. But you don’t exactly look down the bench and see a lot of reason for opposing teams to fear a late-innings substitution, either.

You probably would not be surprised to learn that teams with a better bench can often be found in playoff contention. Teams with weaker benches are thinking about next year right now.

The Tigers’ bench fell right in the middle according to an article at FanGraphs.com earlier this season. At that time, Detroit’s bench was exactly replacement level, or zero wins above replacement (WAR).

Looking at statistics from Baseball-Reference, an argument could be made it’s worse than that. Much worse.

Catcher Bryan Holaday (-0.4 WAR), utilityman Don Kelly (-0.8) and infielder Andrew Romine (-0.2) have compiled most of the bench innings this summer, with a handful of players no longer with the team after performing even worse.

The lone bright spot is the tandem of Rajai Davis (1.0) and J.D. Martinez (2.5), who have spent much of the season as a platoon in the outfield and combine for 3.5 WAR. Even then, the only time manager Brad Ausmus has instant offense on the bench is when Martinez is sitting.

The bullpen side of the issue is simply awful. Al Alburquerque (1.5), Blaine Hardy (0.9) and Joba Chamberlain (1.0) all have been better than replacement. Phil Coke (0.2) has been about replacement level.

The rest have all been worse, combining for about three wins worse than replacement-level players.

There are issues

The numbers confirm what we already knew: This team has absolutely no depth at all and is much worse off for it. Any day that the well-paid stars don’t perform will probably end in a loss. And when injuries come up, the Tigers are worse prepared to deal with them than most teams — as we saw when Anibal Sanchez hit the disabled list while Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera were ailing — because the farm system is empty.

When the stars align, there’s no reason to count this Tigers team out from anything. Even this year. We saw that during the 27-12 start to the season.

But that stars and scrubs philosophy makes not just a goal of winning a World Series title, but the goal of winning enough games to make the playoffs, that much more difficult, too.

One of these years, the whole house of cards is going to collapse. It might just be this one.

Kurt Mensching is editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com.

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