2011 Record: 95-67, 1st AL Central
2011 Prediction: 82-80, 3rd Central
Impact Player: 3B Miguel Cabrera
Impact Pitcher: RHP Justin Verlander
Best Reliever: RHP Joaquin Benoit
Top Prospect: RHP Jacob Turner
Last season the Tigers rode the right arm of ace Justin Verlander to their first division title since 1987 and just their second playoff appearance since then. Verlander was named the unanimous AL Cy Young Award winner and perhaps more surprisingly, was named the AL MVP. Miguel Cabrera continued his Hall of Fame-calibre career, leading the AL in both batting average and on-base percentage while finishing second in wOBA and wRC+ and catcher Alex Avila had a massive breakout campaign and was probably the best all around catcher in baseball in 2011.
On July 30th, the Tigers lost to the Dan Haren and the Angels; it was their third loss in four games and it felled them to a 56-51 record, a mere game-and-a-half up on Cleveland. From that point, on Detroit was the best team in baseball going 39-16 in the last two months and finished 15 games up in the AL Central. The run continued into October when they dispatched the high-octane Yankees in five games in the ALDS before losing to the Rangers in the ALCS in six games.
With the addition of Prince Fielder to an already solid lineup, the Tigers appear poised to repeat as AL Central champs and be in contention once again for the World Series. But are there red flags abound? Are they really as good as they appeared down the stretch, or were their successes more of an aberration?
Verlander is one of the top two or three pitchers in the game and that shouldn’t change, but a lot of the ‘generational season’ narrative was overblown. He was the best pitcher in the AL, but he wasn’t light years ahead of pitchers like C.C. Sabathia or Haren. Writers and fans alike were guilty of more than a pinch of hyperbole when constructing the narrative around him. Still, a pitcher with the skill set that Verlander brings to the table will ensure your team has at least respectable starting pitching.
The pitchers after Verlander in the rotation are all steady if not slightly above average; at least they were in 2011. Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello all have likeable qualities, but all have rather major flaws that could be of some concern. Fister was terrific last season, especially after being traded to Detroit from Seattle at the deadline. In his eleven appearances with the Tigers, he posted a 1.79 ERA and a 2.75 xFIP. Combined with his solid numbers with the Mariners, Fister posted a 5.6 fWAR season, putting him in a tie for fifth in the AL with Jered Weaver. He is, however, due for at least a slight regression given his inordinately high infield flyball rate and noticeably low HR/FB ratio.
Scherzer has been a consistent three-ish WAR player of the last three seasons and he is still just 27, but he has a very funky delivery that worries some scouts over his long-term arm health. He tends to give up a lot of home runs which limits his overall potential. Still, as a middle-of-the-rotation arm, he’s certainly valuable. Porcello, meanwhile, is still just 23 and has plenty of room/time to improve. His ceiling is severely limited, however, unless he figures out some way to strike more batters out. His groundball and walk rates, although impressive, are not enough to make up for the fact that he has a career 4.84 K/9 rate.
The fifth spot in the rotation will likely go to top prospect Jacob Turner, whom the Tigers reportedly flirted with trading this offseason for Gio Gonzalez. Turner saw some big league action last season, but still has just six career starts above AA. The 21-year-old has the potential to be a frontline starter, but it’s doubtful he comes close to that ceiling this year, especially since it’s likely that Detroit will have a strict innings limit on him for 2012. A few others, including reliever Phil Coke and prospect Andy Oliver have a shot at the rotation but likely only if someone gets hurt or Turner vastly underperforms.
Jose Valverde did not blow save last season. Now that we have that useless tidbit of information out of the way, I can proceed to tell you that he’s no more than an average reliever. He was actually better in 2010 than he was last season. Still, the Tigers could do worse for their closer, but his blown save total and his ERA will both regress heavily in 2012. Setting him up will be Joaquin Benoit who was signed to an inadvisable three-year deal ahead of last year, but was still pretty good in his first year in the Motor City; he was certainly better than Valverde.
Joining those two will be 38-year-old Octavio Dotel who has some value if he’s used properly, which he was for the most part last year between Toronto and St. Louis. He should probably never face a left-handed hitter ever again. Coke and Daniel Schlereth will enter the year as the go-to lefties but Coke doesn’t strike out enough, while Schlereth walks too many. The remainder of the bullpen will likely be made up of righties David Pauley and Collin Balestar who was acquired in an offseason trade with Washington for Ryan Perry.
Should any player disappoint or get hurt, lefties Duane Below and Matt Hoffman could get a look along with right-handers Luis Marte, Chris Bootcheck and Brayan Villarreal among others. Al Alburquerque was excellent last season in the Tigers ‘pen, but will miss at least the first half after undergoing offseason elbow surgery.
The Tigers scored the fourth-most runs in the AL last season mostly due to a few awesome offensive performances. Cabrera had another MVP-worthy season while Avila enjoyed an excellent breakout year. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta also rebounded nicely after a so-so 2010, hitting to a .299/.345/.478 slash line while performing decently on defense (something that is debatable since he’s already been moved off the position once in his career). He’s still just 30 so he shouldn’t see too much of a decline at least offensively.
With Fielder entering the fold, however, it appears as though Tigers’ management is just punting defense altogether. Even with DH Victor Martinez out for the season with a knee injury, the Tigers are stubbornly moving Cabrera back to third base to accommodate Fielder at first. Cabrera was an awful third baseman five years ago when they first moved him off the position; expecting him to be even passable there now is optimistic at best and downright inane at worst. Couple that move with Delmon Young potentially playing every day in left field and Peralta at short and the Tigers defense could be an adventure to say the least.
Offensively speaking, Fielder should continue to be an excellent player. He was worth 5.5 fWAR last year in Milwaukee and has averaged just under that over the last five seasons. Even though his nine-year deal will likely turn out to be a foolish investment, there’s a good chance he’ll be better in that time than Albert Pujols, his free agent rival, will be over his ten-year deal.
Young, meanwhile, had another below-average season between Minnesota and Detroit in 2011 and was terrible as a Tiger. Moving him to DH solves the defensive problem, but his bat definitely does not play there. He probably shouldn’t be an everyday player. Austin Jackson provides solid defense in centerfield, but strikes out too often with too little power to be of much value, while rightfielder Brennan Boesch might be the best outfielder on the team. He posted a solid 116 wRC+ last season and has some room to get better; still, he’s a second-division starter.
Ryan Raburn should see plenty of time in both leftfield and at second base in 2012. He has some pop, but is not a very good hitter overall and he’s a nightmare in the infield defensively. Ramon Santiago is a better option at second on both fronts while Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, Clete Thomas and Eric Patterson will compete for time in left.
The backup catcher will likely be veteran Gerald Laird who signed a deal in the offseason, while Brandon Inge is still kicking around and might end up getting a lot of time at 3B if Cabrera completely flops there. The Tigers have also considered moving him over to second. Kelly, Dirks, Patterson and Thomas will be fighting for a spot as will infielders Audy Ciriaco, Argenis Diaz and Danny Worth.
As I posited in a post last month, the Fielder signing doesn’t necessarily make the Tigers a better team than they were before Martinez went down with his knee injury; at least as long as they continue to fool themselves into thinking that Cabrera playing third base is a good idea. Combine that with the fact that Young, Raburn, Dirks, and Santiago all figure to see significant time this year and predicting them to be among the league’s best is questionable. Talent will make up for poor roster construction to a point but terrible defense and an overall lack of depth could come back to haunt them. Playing in baseball’s worst division is their saving grace
2012 Prediction: 86-76, 1st AL Central