Saturday, April 3, 2010

2010 Tigers Season Preview

Admittedly, I know a lot less about baseball than I know about the NBA or NFL. It's a more cerebral game, from both a player and a fan's standpoint. The numbers really do tell the whole story - if a guy hits .300 over a 162 game season, that tells you exactly how effective he is as a hitter. In football or basketball, stats can be easily skewed to make you think a chump like Tracy McGrady or Eli Manning is actually good. In baseball, you can't be good without good stats. There are no 'Ben Wallace Plays,' quality plays that don't show up on the stat sheet. There's a stat for everything.

And all that being said, I'm cautiosly optimistic about the Tigers' chances in 2010. For a few good reasons:

Reason #1: The AL Central lacks a clear front-runner. Every MLB expert likes the Twins, but aside from Joe Mauer they don't have much. Their pitching is suspect and they lost their closer Joe Nathan. The White Sox, in my opinion, are scarier than the Twins, and I wouldn't completely sleep on either Cleveland or Kansas City as possible contenders. It's probably the most competitive division in baseball, though certainly not the best division. The Tigers won't have A+ hitting or pitching, but I think a solid B in both categories could win them the division.

Reason #2: Magglio Ordonez. Last season, Mags hit a measly .240 for the first four months of the season, and was eventually benched for Clete Thomas in an effort to help him re-focus. Whatever happened over that time, it worked, and once again, Jim Leyland is a genius. In the month of August, Magglio returned to hit around .350 and then in September he hit over .400, best BA in the MLB for that month. Tigers' writers say his swing looks great this spring and he should pick up where he left off. If he does, and his numbers even remotely resemble those from 2007 when he hit .363 with 140 RBIs, the duo of Maggs and Miggs could be absolutely lethal, and make up for a possible lack of production from the rest of the order.

Reason #3: Depth. The Tigers' starting 9 isn't going to scare the pants off anyone, but the key to a long, long season is great depth and flexibility. Only three teams - the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies - have 90-wins-guaranteed lineups that are built to dominate. The Tigers' strength is their ability to endure injuries and indidviduals' slumps and produce offensively from a lot of different players and positions. In fact, my personal feeling is that the back-ups at several positions are actually better baseball players than the starters, at least offensively. I'll trust the Tigers' coaching staff that they know what they're doing, but it seems to me that Ramon Santiago and Alex Avila are better players than Alex Everett and Gerald Laird. Ryan Raburn and Don Kelly add extra offense and can both play at least four positions defensively. I wouldn't even be surprised to see Raburn or Avila play DH sometimes, and then move the usual DH (who I assume will be Carlos Guillen) to second or third. There's a lot of flexibility and room for creativity when it comes to using speed and bunts and sacrifices to manufacture runs, and no one is better at that than Jim Leyland. I don't think we're going to be a lineup that's rich in power or home runs, but I think we'll have plenty of stolen bases and one-run innings that can change a lot of L's to W's in the standings.

Reason #4: New faces. The 2009 Tigers lost two staples - Curtis Granderson and Placido Polanco, but weren't lazy in replacing them. Austin Jackson will replace Curtis in center field, and he has a great shot at winning AL Rookie of the Year. With his rare combination of speed and power, he could actually replicate Granderson's offensive numbers in his first season. Polanco was also replaced by a rookie, Scott Sizemore, who will play second and is being counted on to start from day one. The key addition on offense was former Yankee Johnny Damon, a lifetime .280 hitter with good speed and a knack for drawing walks. Damon's OBP (on-base percentage) is right around .360, which would have ranked third on last year's team, behind only Magglio and Miguel. Jackson and Damon will probably bat first and second, paving the way for the big bats to drive in a lot of runs. After the 4th batter, it looks like Guillen, Inge, Sizemore, Laird, and Everett. Admittedly, that's a weak lineup from 5-9, but if you add Raburn or Avila it looks a bit better. Especially if Sizemore hits around .290 like the Tigers hope he will.

Reason #5: New Closer. Ding dong, Fernando Rodney is dead. Our new closer is named Jose Valverde and he had a sparkling 2.33 ERA last year in Houston. In the past three seasons, he's racked up over 100 saves. He throws a consistent 97-99 fastball and get this, he actually hits the strike zone. He had only 21 walks last year, and 56 Ks. Compare those numbers to Rodney: 4.40 ERA, 41 walks, 61 Ks, and you can see why I'm excited.

Reason #6: Zumaya is Back. We've been waiting for Zoom-Zoom Zumaya to return from injury since 2006 when he pitched 83 innings of blistering, 100 MPH baseball. In the three seasons since then, he's pitched a total of 87 innings, and ailed from at least a dozen little injuries. Now, it appears he's finally, really, actually, honestly, back. And he better be ready to dazzle in the 8th inning, because we haven't had a consistent and reliable set-up man since I started following the team for real in 2004. Zumaya might be that guy, and that could really help in a lot of ways.

Reason #7: Coaching. We've still got the best skipper in the AL in my humble opinion. Leyland's mastery of any game situation is unmatched. He knows players' emotions better than anyone. Baseball is a much more mental sport than any sport I can think of except golf, especially for pitchers. And Leyland is the boss of knowing what to say, and exactly when to pull the guy. He gets a lot of flack for pulling pitchers too early, but it's not his fault the bullpen stinks. This year, I actually think the bullpen will be slightly better.

And to be fair, there are several reasons why I'm not confident at all that the 2010 Tigers will win the AL Central or even win 70 games. Among them,

Worry #1: Starting Pitching. Verlander is an ace, but from there, I am uncertain. Everyone wants to pencil Rick Porcello in as an ace too, but he's entering just his second season and wasn't exactly unhittable last year. I think he'll be a fine #2 starter, but not dominant. The #3 starter is going to be Max Scherzer, which isn't overwhlemingly wonderful, but again, not bad. He has a solid ERA of 3.86 in two years with Arizona, and in terms of strikeouts per innings, he was the 3rd best in the NL last season. But the #4 and #5 pitchers ... I don't even want to say this ... but Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman. And I'd love to give them both the benefit of the doubt, but I've been doing that for 2 seasons and now all they get is the doubt. I don't think Willis makes it past the 3rd inning once all season, which is to say he fakes yet another injury in April. He doesn't have the mental toughness to be an MLB pitcher anymore, plain and simple, and if the Tigers haven't learned that by now, shame on them. Bonderman is just too much risk and not enough reward. They really should have worked on a different starting pitching prospect during the offseason rather than rely on these bozos. Put it this way: last year Verlander pitched about 200 innings more than Willis, and yet they walked almost the same number of batters.

Worry #2: Lack of Lefties. As I learn more about the subtlties of baseball, I realize that when experts talk about the need of a lefty in the rotation it really is vital, and not just something they like to say to sound cool. Same goes for having a good left-handed bat or two in the order.If you don't have qualities lefties, your opponent can expose you and throw mismatches at you that you aren't prepared to handle. Dombrowski tried to address the lefty issue last year with Audrey Huff and Jarrod Washburn, but they were both busts. This year, Johnny Damon represents the only lefty in the lineup, along with Guillen who hits switch. Clete Thomas was stupidly sent to the minors, even though he's a lefty with both power and speed and also a knack for coming up with clutch hits in big moments. The other lefty bats all come off the bench - Avila, Kelly and Santiago (switch). Let's hope that Leyland employs them frequently and isn't afraid to insert them in the starting lineup from time to time, especially Avila at catcher. Not only is Gerald Laird an atrocious hitter and an automatic out, his .218 average against right-handed pitchers is one of the worst in the MLB. As far as lefties in the rotation, the Tigers really struck out there, pardon the pun. All they have is Willis. Ugh. I'm glad we added Scherzer, because we sorely needed another starter, but what we really needed was a lefty starter. Even our closer and set-up guys are all righties. Well, except for Seay and Fu-Te Ni.

Worry #3: Lack of Power. Outside of Maggs and Miggs, I don't see very many home runs coming from this lineup, and that worries me. I know that manufacturing runs is all the rage in modern baseball, but it's also a good way to lead the league in Runners Left on Base if you can't clear the bases every once in a while. Inge is probably good for 20-30 homers, along with his usual .240 average and 120 embarassing strikeouts. Damon hit 24 HRs last year, but that was with 80 games in hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium. I expect maybe 15 from him this year. Austin Jackson is supposed to have some power, but I wouldn't hope for any more than 10. Guillen might be the wildcard when it comes to power. He needs to hit at least 20 like he did in 2007. Hopefully Laird can hit more than the whopping 4 HRs he hit in 135 games last year; he's already hit 3 in 18 games of exhibition play. Sizemore and Kelly have each hit 3 as well this spring. I'd love to see 20 homers out of both Tigers rookies. In fact, we might need to see that to replace the 40 combined from Curtis and Placido, as well as the 13 from Marcus Thames, who's now on the Yankees. However, the 2009 Ghost of Magglio Ordonez only hit 9 homers, and he'll increase that number by at least 20 I'm pretty sure.

Worry #4: Potential Superstar Injury. I know this is nit-picky, but if either Cabrera or Verlander goes down for two months or more, the Tigers chances of playing in the postseason drop down to zero. That's how important those two guys are; our entire lineup revolves around Cabrera, and our entire pitching rotation relies on Verlander. Even if they play, but don't play great, we could be in big trouble. We need Miguel to hit at least .320 and knock in at least 100 RBI, and Verlander has to win at least 15 games, with an ERA under 4.00 and if he could match last year's 269 strike-outs, that would be nice too. Basically, in order to make a World Series push we need Cabrera to be in the MVP debate and Verlander to be in consideration for the Cy Young. Is that too much to ask?

Worry #5: Fielding. Not as big a deal in baseball as they sometimes make it seem, but it is important over the course of the long season. And the Tigers lost not only their two best fielders in the off-season, but two of the best fielders in all of major league baseball. Polanco's .997 was actually the best fielding percentage of any second-baseman, and Granderson wasn't far off the best center-fielder. (You may think Inge is a stud at third, but his .955 was just 15th best at his position). Replacing Granderson and Polanco with rookies won't be easy. Fortunately, they are good rookies who are known for sound fielding. But you can't just replace Gold Glovers like it's no big deal. Damon is pretty solid in left field (better than Thames by a mile), so that will help. And amazingly, the Tigers' Gerald Laird has the best fielding percentage of any catcher in the Majors, narrowly ahead of Mauer and Varitek. He also led the MLB in runners caught stealing and had the best caught-stealing percentage. That amazes and surprises me. However, I still want to see Avila get 40% of the starts. I'll give up a few steals a week if it means improving from a .220 righty to a .290 lefty, especially considering that Avila hit more homers than Laird last year in one-fifth as many games. Sorry, I'm off on a tangent.

Okay, so to recap, I'm really excited about Tigers season, and cautiously optimistic, and interested to see how the rookies play and how Damon plays and how Scherzer pitches on Wednesady, and I'm hoping to bring home the MVP, the Cy Young and the Rookie of the Year all in 2010. And I don't think that's out of the question, at all. I also want to say that I wish Granderson and Polanco the very best, and hope we see Placido in the World Series (where I guarantee Philly will be for the third straight season).

Last year we finished 86-76 and tied the Twins for the AL Central. This year, I think we'll need at least 90 to beat out the White Sox, and I think we'll hit 91. I think Minnesota drops to about 80 and KC improves from 65 wins to 75, while Cleveland stinks again.

From Pittsburgh, I'm out. Happy Easter to all, and enjoy Opening Day.

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