DETROIT TIGERS: 93-69 (First in AL Central)
Projected Lineup/Batting Order:
CF Austin Jackson
RF Torrii Hunter
1B Miguel Cabrera
DH Victor Martinez
2B Ian Kinsler
LF Andy Dirks
C Alex Avila
3B Nick Castellanos
SS Jose Iglesias
Projected Starting Rotation/Key Bullpen Arms:
SP Justin Verlander
SP Max Scherzer
SP Anibal Sanchez
SP Rick Porcello
SP Drew Smyly
RP Joe Nathan
RP Phil Coke
RP Joba Chamberlain
In modern sports today, every team has one goal: to win a championship. This means that in each sport, every team but one fails. The Detroit Tigers were one of the teams that failed. Now, they won their division, won over 90 games, beat the A’s in the ALDS and took the Red Sox to 6 games in the ALCS, before losing to them and losing the pennant. Most teams would consider that a fairly successful season. But not the Tigers. They were the preseason favorites and expected to run away with the AL. They have been for about 2 years. And they have been unable to win the ultimate prize. Two years ago they won the AL pennant, but technically took a step back last year. So this offseason they needed to make some changes. That’s difficult for teams that have as much money invested in winning now and have been so close to success. But they did make changes. And for that I applaud Detroit. They made a big trade to fill second base with an All Star. It also provided some salary relief. And while they lost a power bat in Prince Fielder, they drastically improved their infield defense moving Miguel Cabrera to first. They have plenty of pop in this lineup and it’s still to be feared, even without Prince. The real area the Tigers needed to improve upon was their bullpen. They were stuck financially last year and couldn’t get a real closer. With the money they saved sending Prince to Texas, they added Joe Nathan to close and Joba Chamberlain to the middle relief corps. This was the final step for this team. So now they hope they can finally take that last step, and become World Series champs.
The offense looks stacked once again. They were led by Miguel Cabrera in all three of the Triple Crown categories. He hit 348 with 44 HR and 137 RBI. While Trout is probably the best player in the game, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Cabrera is the best hitter. And he did all that in 148 games as he got hurt at the end of the year and played in the playoffs at less than 100%. He’ll get his numbers and I think he’s a cinch for 330+ with 40+ HR and 120+ RBI. That’s an incredible floor. He’ll be hitting behind two very good hitters in Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter. Jackson hit 272 last year with 12 HR and 99 R. He does everything you’d expect from a leadoff hitter but steal bases (8 for 12…not good). His OBP is below what the ideal leadoff man does (337) but it’s not bad. He had an MVP caliber season in 2012, and maybe splitting the difference will net the Tigers a 300 leadoff man with the 350 OBP they want and perhaps 10+ SB and 110 R. But he’s great atop the lineup and adds double digit HR. Torii Hunter was second on the team with a 304 AVG last year. The ageless one also added 17 HR, 84 RBI and 90 R. I think to expect a repeat is unlikely, but 270+ with double digit HR, 70 RBI and 80 R is a real possibility, unless age finally drops him off the map. But I don’t think that’s likely. The new cleanup hitter will be Victor Martinez, as he moves up from the 5 hole to fill Prince’s vacancy. He was third on the team with a 301 AVG to go with 14 HR and 83 RBI. Not a huge drop off for Detroit. What Martinez lacks in power he makes up for in AVG. Then you have Ian Kinsler to consider. I put him 5th, but he can hit anywhere in the top 5. If for some reason Jackson can’t get on base or starts hitting too many long-balls to justify a spot outside of the heart of the order, Kinsler spent the majority of his career hitting leadoff. If Torii Hunter falls off his pace or gets hurt, he’d be a perfect number 2 hitter. In fact I really like him there. If Victor isn’t getting it done in the cleanup spot, I could see moving Kinsler to third, Cabrera to 4th and letting Martinez settle back in hitting 5th. I think that’s the least likely scenario, but Kinsler could roll with it. In an interview with Dan Dickerson, the Tigers radio voice on my radio show The Foul Pole, Dan believed that Kinsler would lead off with Austin Jackson hitting second and Torii Hunter moving his power to the 5th spot in the order. Though he conceded he wasn’t sure and thought that Jackson and Hunter could switch spots. Kinsler has always had crazy seasons, hitting either 300 with 15 HR or 260 with 30 HR. Seriously. Here are his AVG/HR splits since 2008:
He seemed to be on a power surge with lower AVG recently, until last year when he finally split the difference. Injury limited him to 136 games last year where he hit 277/13/72/85/15. He’s a 5-tool player, just not displaying all 5 tools on a yearly basis. To me, he is one of the most interesting players in the game. But his OBP is always high, and he can adjust to what a team needs. I’ll put him down for 270 with 15 HR and SB again, but that may change depending on where he hits. If it’s 5th, expect 250 with 20-25 HR. If it’s first or second, 270 with about 15 HR. Then, beyond the top 5 guys it’s filler with some good but not great players. Andy Dirks came his closest to a full season so far in the major leagues (131 games) hitting 256 with 9 HR. Pretty average. We didn’t get the expected results from a full year (in 2012, he hit 322 with 8 HR in 88 games) but that’s not too unexpected as pitchers got to know him better. Alex Avila is a former All Star, but that year may be an anomaly. Since his All Star season of 295/19/82 he’s hit 243/9/48 and last year was 227/11/47. If he’s good it’s a bonus, if not, well he’s hitting 7th. Rookie Nick Castellanos played 11 games last year, so we will get a better look at him this season. Third base is his to lose. And Jose Iglesias wielded a stellar glove at short while hitting better than expected in his first year. In 109 games with Boston and Detroit he hit 303 with 3 HR, 29 RBI and 39 R. But he was much better with Boston (330) than with Detroit (259). He’ll stick because of his glove. Any offense is a bonus. This lineup may not be as deep as it was a year ago, but it’s still scary to behold.
Defensively this team got a lot better with the loss of Fielder. He wasn’t necessarily bad at first, but he wasn’t that good. Most importantly his [resence moved Cabrera to third, which was definitely not a good thing. Now Cabrera moves to first, where he’s actually pretty good. Kinsler and Iglesias are stellar up the middle, and Castellanos, while an unknown quantity at third is already an upgrade from Cabrera. Dirks is fine in left and Avila is fine catching. Jackson is very good in center and we all know how great Hunter is in right. Rajai Davis can play left or center and is incredibly fast. He’s a great 4th outfielder and Don Kelly can play either corner. Steve Lombardozzi can back up the short, second and third while Victor Martinez is the emergency catcher and backup first baseman. This team won’t win many Gold Gloves, but Torii Hunter already has enough for all of them. And he could win another in right this year.
This pitching staff really has 3 aces. Justin Verlander lost the mantle of best pitcher in baseball and best pitcher on his team in one year. But he’s still one of the best. His 13-12 record doesn’t fairly represent how good he was with a 3.46 ERA and 217 Ks in 218 IP. He may not be the best anymore, but he’s still top 5. And he’s a horse who led the team with those 218 IP and 34 starts. And with his experience, I think he still gets the opening day start, especially with his success at the end of last year and in the playoffs. The new ace is Max Scherzer, last year’s Cy Young winner. He led baseball with 21 Wins to go with his 2.90 ERA and 240 Ks in 214 IP. That’s incredible. His WHIP was under 1 and his BAA was under 200. He was easily the best pitcher in the AL last year. He’s the real ace, but probably the number 2 starter due to Verlander’s experience. And the other ace is Anibal Sanchez, who had the best ERA in the AL last year with a 2.57 mark. That came in 29 starts with a 14-8 record and 202 Ks in 182 IP. That’s right. The Tigers had 3 pitchers with 200+ Ks. 2 of them had ERAs under 3. And one of them broke 20 Wins. This may be the best group of starters in the game, certainly in the AL. Beyond that murder’s row, Rick Porcello is a solid number 4 man (13-8, 4.32) and Drew Smyly moves out of the bullpen into the starting rotation as the 5 man. They love his stuff and makeup. There may be an innings limit on him, but being the 5th starter will keep him around longer than most other young starters. In 18 starts and 5 relief appearances in 2012 he was 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA. More impressively he had 94 Ks in 99 IP. His WHIP was a tad above average (1.27) but his BAA was slightly below average (247). Then in 63 games out of the pen he was 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA. His WHIP and BAA dropped precipitously (1.04/219). He will get a chance to start exclusively, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up outpitching Porcello, who is a pretty average pitcher. But with those 2 the only questions, this is shaping up to be a great starting group. The Tigers biggest win this offseason was signing Joe Nathan. He has fully returned from Tommy John in 2010. In 2011 he had 14 Saves and 8 Holds with Minnesota. That was enough for Texas to take a chance on him closing for them the last 2 years. He proceeded to lock up 37 Saves with a 2.80 ERA in 2012 and then 43 with a 1.39 ERA last year. He had a WHIP below 1 and a phenomenal 162 BAA. He struck out 73 in 64 innings showing he’s back to being a premier closer in this league. And the Tigers think he can continue doing it for them. I think they are right, and moving out of Texas helps any pitcher. If his numbers get any better, which they should, we are talking about a top 5 closer in baseball. They also added Joba Chamberlain in free agency, which gives them a late inning righty. He is coming off a tough year (4.93 ERA) but still has potential in him. And as a reliever who won’t be counted on to close or be the primary set up man, perhaps he can find what scouts loved about him. Another former Yankee, Phil Coke will be the primary lefty. He too is coming off a disastrous year with a 5.40 ERA. If those 2 can become stars again, this team will be unstoppable in the late innings. But that’s a big if. The middle relief may be the weakness for this team (and most others) but they have other options with Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen. The bullpen should be fine, with most starters going deep into games and Nathan in the 9th. They just have to get to him.
Once again Detroit is one of the best teams in the league. Their long term outlook isn’t as good as their short term, but they still have some talent in the minors and there are young players (Jackson, Castellanos, Iglesias, Smyly) on this team. And unloading Prince’s contract gave them some space to maneuver. For now, they are the best team in the weakest division. That bodes well for them. I like what they have and would expect another season of 90-95 wins and a first place finish in the AL Central. The only question for them is, can they finally get a World Series win?