Heading into 2012, the Tigers are the overwhelming favorites to win the AL Central, anchored by three MVP candidates in Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Fielder. They have a closer who went 49 for 49 in save opportunities, All Stars at catcher and shortstop, a solid pitching rotation, and a top 10 bullpen according to MLB.com. They've got good lefties, good righties, and a couple of elite defensive players. Unfortunately, they've also got Jim Leyland, looming over the whole project like a rain cloud.
With the three-headed monster of JV, Miggy and Prince, the Tigers are built to terrify opponents. No team in the Majors has a trio of stars to rival Detroit. And yet, the chinks in the armor are plentiful and no skipper could expose them more clumsily than Jimmy Smokes.
Let's break things down and offer a few thoughts and predictions:
The team's primary strength is the bats of Cabrera and Fielder, who combined for 68 homers and 225 RBI last year. Cabby bats right, Prince bats left, and both guys hit for average. As long as both players stay healthy, the offense will thrive.
But whether Detroit clinches the AL Central in July or September will be largely determined by the rest of the offense, namely the black holes at 1, 8 and 9.
Hitting in the 2-hole will likely be Brennan Boesch, who loves to bat in front of Cabrera. Hitting 5 and 6 will be Peralta and Avila on most nights, and that sequence of five batters is as good as any in baseball. But Leyland's primary objective this year has to be improving production from the leadoff spot and the bottom 3 batters in the lineup. Last year, those spots probably batted around .230 with little to no power; I'd grade them somewhere around a D+.
If Austin Jackson and Ryan Raburn can stop striking out and at least force opposing pitchers to work, it will open things up tremendously. And of course, Brandon Inge cannot be permitted to play one single inning in a Tigers jersey this year. (Just found out Inge is being considered for the everyday job at 2nd. Excuse me while I go outside and bury my face in the snow).
The rest of the offense will be a shuffle between Andy Dirks, Ramon Santiago, Don Kelly, Clete Thomas, and some promising youngsters like Castellanos and Santos. Delmon Young is still a Tiger but reportedly doesn't want to DH, so his departure might be forthcoming.
That brings up the biggest issue of the season. Who is the Tigers DH?
If Leyland sticks to his strategy of playing Cabrera at 3rd, that is.
If Leyland sticks to his strategy of playing Cabrera at 3rd, that is.
With Magglio gone, there's no obvious defensive liability, and no big fat slow guy. It could be Boesch occassionally, or Delmon if he stays on the team, or Peralta on some nights if Santiago can play shortstop. It could also be Raburn with Santiago at 2nd, or Clete if Leyland wants to go lefty-heavy. It'll also be Avila once every week or two, as long as Santos doesn't completely suck. And if Castellanos plays well at 3rd, we'll see Miggy in the DH spot regularly too.
So all that to say, here's my prediction: the 2012 Tigers will break the Major League record for 'Most Different Players in the DH Spot in a Single Season.'
I've done a bunch of searching and can't figure out what the record is, but whatever it is, I think Leyland will manufacture enough roster-tinkering bullcrap to break it.
We all saw Leyland's masterpiece last year, when he didn't use the same starting lineup two games in a row until August. He made mid-game substitutions in every single game, usually in the 8th or 9th inning, and he hit players like Raburn and Kelly in every different spot in the order except clean-up, all in the vain effort to turn .220 batters into .290 batters.
It didn't work.
Leyland's lineup antics were pointless at best, infuriating at worst. If the old curmudgeon would have listened to fans and critics way back in May instead of waiting until July (when Dombroski mandated certain changes), the Tigers would have clinched their division - the worst division in baseball - at least 30 days earlier than they did.
But no, every day we were treated to an enigma of a lineup, asking ourselves questions like "Why does Boesch need a rest? He just had a day off last week and he's only 24 years old!" Or, "Why the heck is Raburn batting 3rd?" Or my personal favorite, "Why is Inge hitting ahead of Avila??!??"
This year, it's folly to think Leyland will change. He won't. We'll see Cabrera at the DH spot and Inge starting at 3rd within a week, and we'll see Cabby at 3rd and Fielder hitting DH within two weeks. Then we'll see Clete DH, then Boesch, then Raburn, then Avila, then Dirks, then Mike Ilitich. The addition of Prince Fielder, while magnificent, gives Leyland the perfect excuse to micromanage this offense into oblivion.
To play devil's advocate, I honestly don't know what I would do in Leyland's position. There isn't a great answer for the DH conundrum. I agree with Cabby at 3rd, at least until he starts leading the league in errors. I'd probably try like crazy to keep Delmon Young and convince him to be a great DH, while Boesch, AJ, and Dirks play the outfield. Whatever I'd do, I'd make a decision to be consistent. Leyland detests consistency.
And so, for better or worse, get ready to see 15 different Tigers in the Designated Hitter position in 2012. The lineup will look completely different from night to night, depending on the opposing pitcher's handedness and horoscope.
...Oh, I almost forgot. Leyland brought back his favorite player, good old Gerald Laird. You may remember him as the guy who hit .207 back in 2010. I know this will shock you, but Leyland thinks he can take a useless hitter and revitalize him. We all saw how great that worked with Inge last year, going from a .089 average in June to a sparkling .200 in August.
Also should mention that Wilson Betemit signed with the Orioles, Casper Wells went to Seattle, Will Rhymes is in Tampa, and Guillen and Magglio are currently looking for jobs. Danny Worth (utility infielder) is still on the roster.
Overall, the offense is probably a 92 out of 100, as it stands now.
If Inge doesn't play a game all year, and if Jackson's OBP can get up around .330 (.345 as a rookie, .317 last year), and if Avila and Peralta and Boesch continue playing how they played last year, and if quick baserunners like Dirks and Santiago and AJax are allowed to use their speed once in a while, and if Leyland stays out of his own way and plays the best 9 guys each night, this offense could be a 97 out of 100, by far the best in baseball.
Or, if none of those things happen, and Leyland manages like an asshole again, our offense will be a mid-to-high 80s and we'll still dominate the AL Central.
Pitching and Defense
We can't count on another MVP season by Verlander, but we can certainly count on him being the best pitcher in baseball again. The AL Cy Young is his to lose.
Doug Fister was unbelievably good as soon as the Tigers traded for him, going 8-1 and allowing two or fewer runs in 10 of his 11 starts. The only exception was a brutal game against Baltimore where the Orioles racked up 12 hits, but I'm willing to call that an anomaly. Fister is easily the best #2 starter in the AL if he pitches the way he pitched late last season.
Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello were basically the same guy last year; Max had an ERA of 4.43 and a WHIP (walks+hits/inning pitched) of 1.35, while Porcello compiled a 4.75 and 1.41. Both pitchers were very inconsistent, at times looking dominant and at times looking terrible. They probably won't change much this year, as both pitchers have a limited arsenal of pitches. But for a third and fourth starter, they're good enough.
Brad Penny was a notch worse than Max and Rick. His ERA was a respectable 4.61 midway through the season, but in the final months of the year he fell apart, hurling a 6.75 ERA in September. He pitched less than 2 innings in the postseason, and allowed 5 runs and 7 hits. He's now a member of the Fukuoka Hawks.
Before Fister's arrival, and even after his arrival, the fifth spot in the rotation was a mess last year. Phil Coke got the first 14 starts and did pretty lousy before heading back to the bullpen; Duane Below, Andrew Oliver, and Charlie Furbush got 2 starts apiece and combined to go 1-4 with a +5 ERA.
The answer for the 5th starter is former 1st round pick Jacob Turner, who showed flashes of his potential last year in his first career start. Turner went 5 innings against the Angels, allowing 3 hits and 1 run, with 6 pretty awesome strikeouts. Then Leyland took Turner out too early, put in Cokey, and Detroit lost 5-1. Turner has been deemed untradeable by Dombrowski for the last two seasons, and has been compared to a young Verlander because of his size, poise, overpowering fastball and developing curveball. Sure, Turner has bust potential, but he also has potential to be the Tigers missing piece and give them the best starting rotation in the AL.
The bullpen was probably the weakest aspect of the 2011 Tigers, other than the bats of Inge and Jackson. Valverde was half-amazing, half-lucky, while Joaquin Benoit stunk for two months and then pitched 22 straight scoreless innings. Al Albuquerque showed a lot of promise, but got hurt three times and now he's out for the year. Daniel Schlereth was pretty below-average, and so were Ryan Perry, David Purcey and Brad Thomas. Coke was a decent addition to the bullpen midway through the year, but he's not exactly a stud.
The big addition this offseason was Octavio Dotel, a 38 year old Dominican who has pitched for 12 different MLB teams and tossed more than 800 innings in his career. His lifetime ERA is a modest 3.74, with a 1.24 WHIP. Dotel isn't stunning, but he's probably got another solid season in his arm and can be the 7th inning guy Detroit needs.
Defensively, the Tigers are anchored by arguably the best center fielder in the league and an elite catcher, but that's pretty much where the star power ends. Boesch and Dirks are capable outfielders, and Prince is a solid first baseman. Peralta and Cabrera are going to struggle, and the 2nd baseman platoon is average at best.
Look for Leyland to insert Santiago and/or Kelly and/or Inge late in close games, moving Cabby to DH. I'm okay with that as long as it doesn't screw up the offense, but it usually does. My personal opinion is - who cares about defense if you can score 8 runs a game? Play the best batters and score the most runs. But Leyland LOVES defense to the same irrational degree that he loves players like Laird and Perry. We'll see more defensive substitutions than we can count.
The Tigers went 95-67 last year, thanks in large part to a 12 game winning streak in September. They won the AL Central by 15 games, but it took a lot of wallowing in mediocrity before finally blowing away the under-talented Indians and White Sox.
Detroit was 4th in the AL in runs, 3rd in average, 7th in home runs, dead-last in stolen bases, 5th in strikeouts, 5th in walks. They lose the .330 average of Victor Martinez, but replace him with the .299 average of Prince Fielder, who was 2nd in the NL in home runs, 3rd in slugging percentage, 2nd in RBI, 2nd in walks, and 1st in intentional walks.
No doubt, we'll miss Martinez's ability to get hits with guys on base. His BA with runners in scoring position was the best in baseball. We'll miss his ability to work pitch counts and advance runners. But what we lose in batting average we gain in power, and in fear. Nobody really pitched around Cabrera last year with Victor behind him, but they'll be even more scared this year. Cabrera is the #1 rated player in fantasy baseball for a very good reason, and that reason is Prince Fielder.
The 2011 pitching staff ranked 7th in the AL (out of 14 teams) in terms of ERA with a 4.04. We were 8th in strikeouts, 8th in walks, 8th in WHIP, and 6th in strikeouts/walk. Obviously, those numbers aren't very good when you consider we had a pitcher who went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA, a 0.92 WHIP, and led the Majors in strikeouts by 20. A large part of the problem was the bullpen, but the starters weren't faultless.
It's unrealistic to think Detroit will improve in every single statistic without falling behind in other places, but I do think Detroit's a better team on offense and in pitching. Jacob Turner could be an invaluable addition, and removing Inge from the everyday lineup is almost as helpful as adding Fielder. I have an ugly feeling that somebody from the offense is going to completely fall apart for no good reason (my hunch is maybe Peralta), but I hope that doesn't happen.
My regular season prediction is 103-59, the best record in the AL and 15 games ahead of second place in the AL Central - surprising Kansas City. Maybe a tad brash, but we'll see. I think Cabrera finishes second in MVP voting to some chump like Evan Longoria or Eric Hosmer, JV narrowly loses the Cy Young to Dan Haren, and Turner completes the 2nd Place Trifecta by finished second for ROY to some guy I've not yet heard of. Leyland will inexplicably win Manager of the Year despite his feeble attempts to destroy the Tigers, and I'm going to hold off making any playoff predictions right now so I don't look stupid.
First game is April 5 vs Boston.