The Tigers were one of the least active teams this winter, making only one significant acquisition in new rightfielder Torii Hunter. They re-signed Anibal Sanchez and cut some of the fat letting Delmon Young and Jose Valverde walk, but ostensibly, this is mostly the same team that won the American League pennant for the second time in seven years.
The Tigers struggled for much of the year in 2012. They were under .500 as late as July 5th and although they were much better in the second half, they still won only 88 games—the lowest of any division winner—and needed the White Sox to stumble in September to squeeze into the playoffs. The addition of Anibal Sanchez, the health of Doug Fister and a more consistent lineup led to a 47-32 record after July 5th and with addition of Hunter and an otherwise weak division, the Tigers are poised to win a lot of games in 2013.
Depth will again be a concern for Detroit. There’s little question that the Major League roster is loaded with talent, but should injuries strike, there’s not a lot of farm system depth to speak of and the bench doesn’t have much in the way of above-replacement-level players.
The Tigers allowed the fifth-fewest runs of any AL team in 2012 and should be even better in that regard in 2013 with a full season from Sanchez and an improved outfield defense with the addition of Hunter. Justin Verlander was great again in 2012 posting the highest WAR among any AL pitcher and also leading the league in innings pitched while striking out more than a batter per inning. Any rotation that starts with Verlander stands to be pretty good.
Luckily for the Tigers, they have a damn good supporting cast as well. Sanchez has been as steady as they come over the last three seasons posting solid peripherals and remaining durable. He’s thrown at least 195 innings in each of those seasons and has an average 4 WAR over that time.
Max Scherzer took a big step forward last year and finally started to consistently live up to his stuff. He led all qualified starters in strike out percentage and kept his walk-rate very respectable. He still gives up a few too many home runs, but if he can consistently pitch the way he did last year, he’s a top-of-the-rotation pitcher.
Fister continues to pitch well beyond what many talent evaluators thought he was capable of. He was excellent in 26 starts last year posting a 3.45 ERA and a walk-rate that was bested by only seven AL pitchers with more than 150 innings pitched.
The final spot in the rotation will go to Rick Porcello, who staved off trade rumours all winter. He’s still just 24 and drastically under-pitched his peripherals in 2012. He could still get better and if he’s your fifth-best starter, you have a great rotation. Still, the Tigers also have Drew Smyly who was decent in just under 100 innings last year so there’s still a chance the Tigers trade Porcello before the season starts.
The bullpen was a problem last season for Detroit, but rather than throw money at the problem and sign an expensive closer, the Tigers decided to let Jose Valverde (who was a disaster last year) walk and fix from within promoting young fireballer Bruce Rondon to close out games. Rondon throws very hard and strikes out a lot of batters, but doesn’t have the best command. It’ll be interesting to see how he makes the jump from the minors. He’s pitched under 30 innings above A-ball and could struggle to adjust to big league hitting.
Outside of Rondon, the Tigers are hoping that Al Alburquerque can stay healthy and find some of the success he had in 2011. Joaquin Benoit was good again and lefty Phil Coke emerged in the second half as a legitimate high-leverage reliever.
Somehow, Octavio Dotel wasn’t terrible but should still never face a lefty and Brayan Villarreal was excellent in 54 big league innings last season. The final bullpen spot could go to Smyly if Porcello’s not dealt, but fellow left-handers Duane Below and Darin Downs along with righty Luis Marte could also be in the mix.
No, Miguel Cabrera should not have won the AL MVP last season, but he was still his unbelievable—at least at the plate. The transition back to the hot corner certainly did not affect his ability to produce runs as he led the AL in batting average, slugging percentage, wOBA, and home runs with 44. He was bad defensively, but maybe not as bad as most expected and so he’ll be back at third for at least another year.
On the other infield corner, Prince Fielder was his usual awesome self in 2012 and continues to defy his own body type by being maybe the most durable player in the game. He has missed a total of one game (1!) in the last four years. At the plate, he posted his fourth straight year of an on-base percentage of at least .410 and hit 30 home runs.
Austin Jackson was terrific seeming to prove that his crazy batted-ball numbers might actually be the result of skill rather than luck. His walk-rate continues to climb every year and so does his slugging percentage which wound up at an excellent .479. Joining him in the outfield will be Hunter whose addition potentially gives them a fourth above-average bat—something they lacked last season. Hunter will assuredly regress this season, but even at 37 seems to put up solid campaigns year after year.
Designated hitter Victor Martinez returns after missing all of last year with a knee injury. How he responds to all that time off will be an intriguing storyline for the Tigers this season. If he can return to the level he was at pre-injury, the Tigers offense could be scarily good. If he struggles, the back end of the lineup might become a problem.
Alex Avila came back down to earth after a breakout 2011 campaign, but was much better in the second half. At worst, he’s an average hitter which is a plus at his position. The middle infield combo of Omar Infante at second and Jhonny Peralta at short returns for 2013, but both players were below average last season.
Andy Dirks is slated to get the majority of the time in left field after an impressive .322/.370/.487 slash line last season in 344 plate appearances. The problem for Dirks is that he had a crazy high .365 batted-ball average and isn’t the most prolific walker around. If his BABIP normalizes in 2013, he’s probably not good enough to be an everyday player. If that’s the case, Brennan Boesch could end up as a decent platoon option.
Only Kansas City had a worse defensive efficiency than the Tigers last season and it’s not difficult to see why. An infield whose left-side consists of Cabrera and Peralta is going to be a thorn in the side of successful run prevention and Prince Fielder is no glove wizard at first either. A full season of Infante at second will help things, but Peralta is another year older and slower—so is Cabrera—despite everything you hear about players being in the best shape of their lives. Peralta had ridiculous defensive numbers according to UZR, but Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA saw him as well-below-average and the eye would suggest it’s probably the more accurate of the two.
The outfield defense should receive a boost from the addition of Hunter along with the steady glove work of Jackson in center. Dirks was similar to Peralta in that the metrics did not agree on his defensive performance. FRAA had him at more than 15 runs above average, while UZR had him at -5.7. Avila continues to improve overall, but is by no means a stud behind the plate.
Overall, it’s probably not wise to project the Tigers as a good defensive ballclub—or even a below-average one. The Tigers good pitching would no doubt benefit from better run prevention in the field, but with strike out pitchers like Verlander and Scherzer at the top, they should still be alright. Still, how good with this team be with even an average defensive infield?
The Tigers are a legitimately good team. In fact, they’re probably in the conversation with the very best in the American League. Add in the fact that they play in baseball’s weakest division and the Tigers’ 2013 win total could be gargantuan. Their rotation is five or six deep and their lineup could be scary if Hunter remains above average and Martinez can bounce back. Despite all the apparent improvements from their division rivals in Kansas City and Cleveland, Detroit is still by far the best team in the AL Central and with that many good pitchers at the top of the rotation, they’re once again poised for a deep playoff run.
2013 Prediction: 96-66, 1st AL Central