For the past month I've been trying to write a Detroit Tigers preview. But I can only say this in so many ways, so I'll keep it brief: the team is almost Leyland-proof. The Tigers have assembled the best roster in baseball, including the two best players in baseball, and they've fixed most of their glaring weaknesses.
Terrible DH Delmon Young ... replaced by the patient, smart, likable Victor Martinez.
Terrible 2B platoon of Inge & Raburn ... replaced by the well-rounded and competent Omar Infante.
Terrible closer Jose Valverde ... replaced by either super-rookie Bruce Rondon or a committee of relievers, either way, an obvious improvement.
Annoying platoon in right field consisting of Dirks/Boesch/Berry/Kelly/Garcia ... replaced by the ultra-consistent and lovable veteran Torii Hunter, who doubles as one of the best defensive outfielders ever.
Shaky back-end of the rotation (Porcello and Smyly) ... replaced by the consistent Annibal Sanchez and the winner of a Porcello/Smyly duel.
If you look back at the start of the 2012 season, the Tigers were a great team with some obvious weaknesses. The weaknesses were Inge, Raburn, Valverde, Delmon, and starting pitching. All of those weaknesses have been addressed and improved upon. Now, only one glaring weakness remains.
Jim Leyland, the worst manager in pro sports, will try to take an All Star lineup, the league's best pitching rotation, 2 MVP candidates who are also Cooperstown locks in their primes, and a pretty solid bullpen, and somehow, against all odds, mangle the team into a .500 season.
Make no mistake, that is his mission. However insane that sounds, Jim Leyland does strive for mediocrity. He hates the fans, hates the media, hates the idea of winning streaks or homefield advantage, and probably hates half his players. He's an angry, delusional, crazy old man who lost his mind about 4 years ago, and now only stays in the game because he likes telling the media how experienced he is.
So, just how Leyland-proof is this team? With Verlander obliterating the competition every 5th start and Cabrera aiming for another triple crown, and Fielder quietly aiming for an MVP season of his own (which might be feasible with V-Mart hitting behind him), not to mention emerging superstars in Jackson and Scherzer, can this team possibly not win the division? Especially given they play in the worst division in baseball, or any pro sport for that matter.
I don't think it's possible for Detroit to not win the AL Central and make another World Series run. But then again, I didn't think it was possible last year. 50 out of 50 baseball experts picked the Tigers to win the division in 2012, and it was only accomplished because the White Sox went on a 2-10 stretch in September. Remember, the Tigers may have won the Central in 2012, but we had the 7th best record in the AL, a worse record than three teams that missed the postseason.
So, I don't know. It's been a good offseason for Detroit, and a good preseason. Everyone's healthy, the riffraff are gone, the owner is willing to spend big money to win now (which probably means another trade deadline blockbuster), and need I mention again, we have the two best players in the world in their primes. That's a pretty damn big deal, and I can't stand to watch Leyland botch it again.
But, it just might happen. We very well might be hovering around .500 in August, with the stupid Royals or Indians two games back. That's Leyland's hope, and he might be able to make it happen.
Hopefully the roster is Leyland-proof.
Now, about those Lions.
Free agency was too busy to recap, for Detroit and just about every team. The splashiest move was Reggie Bush (to replace the comatose Jahvid Best), but the most important occurrences were the retirement of Backus and the loss of Gosder, who signed with Indy. Now, Riley Reiff steps into the left tackle spot, and nobody plays right tackle. We also released Stephen Peterman.
Everyone knows the key to a good offensive line is continuity. Detroit has preached that for years, and exemplified it (the continuity part, not the good offensive line part). Now, we are pretty much forced to draft an OT with the #5 pick, unless Jake Long decides to take a major hometown discount and come rescue the Lions (but since he just turned down the Rams for money reasons, that's probably unlikely).
That #5 pick could be Central Michigan's Eric Fisher, a worthy pick, except that Detroit's decimated defense needs so much help.
With Fisher and Reiff, the bookends of the O-line would be young and talented, and the platoon of Leshoure and Bush would nicely complement Calvin and the gang, while Pettigrew continues to suck and Stafford wastes his immeasurable talent by flicking stupid sidearm passes all over the place. But, it would be a good offense.
The defense as it currently stands lost both defensive ends (Avril and KVB), which isn't as detrimental as people are saying. Both guys were overrated, especially KVB who was basically worthless. Avril was a sieve in run support, and only accrued sacks because he played next to Suh. The bigger issue is that Detroit lost a lot of their depth on the defensive line (Sammie Hill is gone, Lawrence Jackson is on his way out). We added a dude named Jason Jones, who can adequately replace KVB, but we need to add another defensive lineman or two, and we don't have much cash to do so.
If Suh and Fairley can live up to their draft statuses, the D-line will be fine. But that's an 'if' that I don't have much faith in.
Fortunately, the Lions managed to keep Chris Houston and DeAndre Levy, two very important pieces of the defense. They also kept Louis Delmas, which doesn't mean much to me. His perception is much better than his reality. Adding Glover Quin (safety from the Texans) was solid, and adding Dee Milliner with the #5 pick would make this secondary formidable.
It's very likely going to be either Milliner or Fisher. Either guy would be a good pick; both guys are needed. Unfortunately, whichever position isn't addressed is going to be a gaping weakness.
I'm not getting my hopes up for this season. I don't trust Schwartz or Stafford to lead this team. Both guys are about their own egos and I think Stafford is one of the lazier quarterbacks in the NFL. He doesn't have the obsessive will to win that seems prevalent among most QBs. It's very sad that he was bypassed on the QB Ranking list by 3 rookies and a Kaepernick last year. He's struggling to stay in the top 20, no matter what the numbers say. It goes to figure that without Calvin Johnson, he might be a total bust.
So the NFL Draft will be interesting. The Lions can't afford to waste any more picks by trying to outthink the room. Just address your needs with good players and don't take any Titus Youngs.
With the Packers losing Jennings, the Vikes losing Harvin, and the Bears still having Cutler, the division could be winnable next year.
As for the rest of the NFL .... the Broncos, Seahawks and Colts got way better, the Chargers and Cardinals aren't even trying, the Ravens won't be back in the playoffs, and Freeney, Woodson, Dumervil and John Abraham still need jobs. Also, the NFL Draft is going to be fascinating because at least 5 teams desperately need quarterbacks and the only real QB prospect worth getting is Geno Smith.
It's too early to say right now, but I think Geno will end up as the #1 pick. The question is, who will trade up with KC, and how much will they give? If Oakland, Jacksonville, Arizona and the Jets all want Geno pretty badly, and they all fear the surprise trade-up on draft day, somebody might give KC two 1st round picks and a 2nd just to move up a handful of spots in the draft.
Which would make KC a team to watch out for in about 3 years, once they get a QB of their own. (Hint: not Alex Smith).
All that to say, April is going to be a good month. NFL Draft, Opening Day, and winter is finally over.