To win it all, Tigers need better defense at shortstop

Jhonny Peralta’s range and athleticism at shortstop are average at best by major league standards.

The Tigers got to the World Series last year by the skin of their teeth. They won their weak division because the White Sox collapsed. They got by Oakland, routed a toothless Yankees team, and then left their hearts in San Francisco.

This season, Torii Hunter will help on offense and defense. They trimmed payroll fat (Delmon Young and Jose Valverde), signed Anibal Sanchez, and get Victor Martinez back. All looks promising.

But as strong as they seem, they still have a big hole to fill. The infield has about as much range as an over-40 softball team. At the corners, the huge offensive clout outweighs the obvious defensive deficiencies. And Omar Infante is a proven veteran who contributes timely hits and plays adequate defense — a vast improvement over last spring’s motley crew of weak second basemen.

That leaves one big problem: Jhonny Peralta. Since the Tigers are now locked into Miguel Cabrera at third, you’d think they’d understand the crying need to have a rangy guy to play next to him. But Peralta was moved from shortstop to the hot corner in his twenties. That’s not some flaw correctable by a change in venue or coaching. Peralta didn’t have the range to cut it at shortstop in Cleveland, so how can a team shooting to win it all depend on him at the most important spot in the infield?

Under their current management, the Tigers have swung wildly back and forth philosophically, from vastly overvaluing defense to vastly undervaluing it. It was only in 2009 that the front office thought that Adam Everett was the solution at shortstop, where he hit, well, like Adam Everett. So the club then lurched to the other extreme by acquiring Peralta.

To justify the hits he allows to scoot past him at shortstop, a guy with Peralta’s terrible range has to be an offensive monster. In his first full year as a Tiger in 2011, Peralta did produce. He has some power, but he lacks plate discipline, walking too little and striking out too much. His .689 OPS in 2012 basically repeated the mediocre offensive seasons he had in 2006, 2009, and 2010. His good 2011 season was similar to his other three full MLB seasons, but the poorer years are coming more often as he ages.

Peralta is making $6 million this season in the final year of his contract. The team’s offense, with V-Mart and Hunter added, is solid enough that Peralta is a superfluous batter the Tigers can no longer afford to have in the lineup and ruin their defense. Replace him with someone, anyone, who’d let fewer ground balls get through the gaping hole on the left side of their infield. Doing so would make their pitching — especially ground-ball-inducing machine Doug Fister (and pitch-to-contact Rick Porcello) — so much better.

At short, the Tigers really need someone more like Ray Oyler to win another pennant. It worked in ’68, and it would work again.

This ought to be at the top of Dave Dombrowski’s to-do list. The Tigers have been rumored to be one of many clubs looking at Cuban prospect Aledmys Diaz, whose age may or may not be twenty-three. There were mild trade rumors involving Peralta a few weeks ago. But until help arrives from the farm system a few years from now in the form of Eugenio Suarez, the Tigers must find a good defender at short now, even if he can’t hit a lick.

The likes of Paul Janish would be a perfect solution: you’d have to live with his .577 OPS, but that’s only about 100 points less than you’ll likely get from Jhonny P, and it’d be worth eating the six mil and paying Janish, or some Janish clone, an eighth of that. There must be a guy available somewhere who’s even a worse hitter than Janish but a better defender.

The runs saved would justify the middling disinvestment in Peralta. If the Tigers want to win it all in 2013, they just have to get more D in “The D” at short.

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About Michael Betzold

Author of Queen of Diamonds: The Tiger Stadium Story and other books, former Detroit Free Press reporter Michael Betzold always wore #4 to honor his first hero, the "Sunday Punch," Charlie "Paw Paw" Maxwell.