Five questions: Detroit Tigers

In December of 2007, the Tigers made some noise. They pulled off one of the blockbuster trades of the offseason by shipping a package of prospects to the Florida Marlins for former Cy Young contender Dontrelle Willis and slugger Miguel Cabrera. From that point on, the Tigers were mentioned amongst the teams that would compete for a World Series title, and there was speculation that the team could reach the vaunted 1,000 runs scored mark with the stacked lineup.

It didn’t take long for the train to fall off the track. The Tigers dropped their first seven games of the season and fell to as far down as 2-10 in April. They did have a bit of a flurry and after a 19-8 June, the Tigers put themselves back into contention. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, the games following the All-Star break didn’t convince the brass that the Tigers were going to run with the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, and future Hall of Fame catcher Ivan Rodriguez was dealt to the Yankees. From the time that trade was made, the Tigers went 19-36 the rest of the way and the team proved to be one of the biggest disappointments of the 2008 season.

Which brings us to now. The Detroit area economy is in shambles and the Tigers didn’t make any substantial moves. They are even being picked as low as last place by a lot of “experts.” In that same vein, this is largely the same team that everyone picked to rock the world in 2008. Opening day is less than two weeks away, and here’s what we need to look at as the 2009 season starts up.

1. Can the Tigers’ starting rotation bounce back from a disastrous 2008 season?

Sometimes, in the whole prediction game, you wish you would have been wrong. Heading into the 2008 season, the focus was on the weaknesses in the bullpen. I brought up some concerns about the rotation but not even I expected the total collapse that happened last year. By mid-June, both Dontrelle Willis and Jeremy Bonderman were out. Throw in an ineffective season by Justin Verlander and pretty poor seasons by Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson and the end result was a 5.03 ERA by Tigers starters in 2008.

Heading into 2009, we have most of the usual suspects. Verlander will try to bounce back from the worst season of his short career and Bonderman is trying to come back from his surgery. Verlander’s results have been mixed this spring. While his ERA is a solid 3.10, he’s walked more batters (14) than he’s struck out (11). Last year, his velocity was down so until we see if he’s back in the mid-to-high-90s, it’s hard to tell what we can expect from Verlander. Bonderman is still coming back from his shoulder injury, and he’s pitched a couple of shutout frames since missing the early part of spring training because of soreness in said shoulder.

After that, there are even more question marks. Armando Galarraga was the biggest surprise and the most effective starter last season, but I’ve talked to no one who expects him to repeat. Then again, many people said the same thing about Carlos Guillen when he broke out in 2004. The Tigers also picked up Edwin Jackson in an offseason trade. Once a blue chip prospect, Jackson has never lived up to the hype that was thrown on him, but he finally broke out with a decent season for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. Even his 2008 season is a little deceptive because while he had a 14-11 record and a 4.42 ERA, he struck out just 108 batters and walked 77 in 183 1/3 innings. He’s also just one year removed from a 5-15, 5.76 ERA season.

That brings us to the No. 5 starter. Right now, it appears to be a two-horse race with Willis and Robertson vying for the final rotation spot. Swing man Zach Miner was in the mix but it was recently announced that he’ll start the season in the pen. Over the course of the spring, Willis has continued to struggle, and while Robertson was knocked around early, he’s bounced back with two consecutive solid outings so he’s the favorite. Of course there’s still the chance that Bonderman starts the season on the disabled list, opening the door for one more starter.

There’s also another pitcher who’s forced himself into the rotation mix. He shares his own question though.

2. What kind of impact will either of the Tigers’ top two prospects make on the 2009 Tigers?

After the big trade that brought Cabrera and Willis to Detroit, the Tigers farm system has thinned out. While there are several intriguing names, there are really only two standouts with a bunch of question marks following them. Rick Porcello and Ryan Perry, the Tigers’ top draft picks in 2007 and 2008 respectively, are those two standouts and both have turned some heads this spring. Porcello walked away with the Florida State League player of the year award last year, and after a couple of solid outings, it looked like the Tigers hand might be forced but he’s recently just come back from a cut on his throwing hand. Odds are good that Porcello starts the season in the minors, but there’s a very good chance he’ll be in the rotation by midseason.

In 2008, one of the reasons the Tigers drafted Ryan Perry was because, with the depleted minor league system, he’d be best able to make it to the big leagues in short order. This spring, he’s impressed the brass with his 100 mph fastball, and he’s given up just one run and five hits with seven strikeouts and four walks in seven innings. He’s probably just as good as anyone else in the pen, but like Porcello, they’re probably going to be a little cautious. Also like Porcello, he’ll probably start the season in the minors, but he should be pitching with the Tigers by sometime this summer. It also wouldn’t surprise me if he’s the team’s closer in 2010.

Will the focus on defense bear fruit for the Tigers?

2005 – .713 (2)
2006 – .704 (1)
2007 – .706 (1)
2008 – .712 (1)

First, a little explanation. The first number is obviously the year. The second number is the defensive efficiency of the team that won the American League pennant, and the number in parentheses is that team’s rank in the American League. Bottom line, over the past four years, defense has helped win championships. You have to go all the way back to 2004 when the Tampa Bay Rays and Seattle Mariners finished first and second in the American League and neither team made the postseason. Just as a side note, this is a good reason to have every Hardball Times Baseball Annual on your shelf because it made this analysis a piece of cake.

That 2006 number is your very own Detroit Tigers. It also helps explain how the Tigers were able to net a league-leading 3.84 team ERA. The pitching was good but the defense deserves at least some of the credit.

In 2007 and 2008, the team started to get away from this defensive mindset, and last year, with the addition of Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, the Tigers finished with a .686 DER, which was below the league average of .691. To address this, the Tigers made some moves. Brandon Inge, who probably warranted a gold glove in 2006 or 2007, was moved back to third base and the Tigers signed defensive specialist Adam Everett to man shortstop. This should be a huge improvement over Carlos Guillen and Edgar Renteria, who manned those two spots last year.

Of course with every positive you have a negative, and the big minus sign is that Inge and Everett are both mediocre at the plate. Inge has a career .696 OPS, but this looks solid compared to Everett’s .653 career mark. Inge had some of his best years at the plate while playing third base so the hope is that he can turn that around as well. You just hope the help on defense makes up for any inadequacies at the plate.

4. Does Gary Sheffield have one more big season left in the tank?

If the Tigers carry Gary Sheffield’s contract through the end of this season, they’ll have paid him $41 million for his services. For their money, the Tigers have gotten all of two good months from Sheffield, and that was back in mid-2007. While guys like Miguel Cabrera and Magglio Ordoñez should put up their usual numbers, the Tigers might really be able to thrive if they could get one more solid season from Sheffield.

On the one hand, this is the first time in a while that Sheffield hasn’t gone into a spring training either with an injury or rehabbing from one since he joined the Tigers. He does lead the Tigers with three home runs, but unfortunately those are almost half of his seven hits. He’s getting on base at a .418 clip, but his batting average is just .205. Last year, Sheffield took a lot of walks early but eventually, the pitchers started challenging him and he couldn’t catch up.

On the other hand, some numbers point to a serious decline with Sheffield. In 2007, when he was injured, he posted a line drive percentage of 17, which was just below the league average of 19 percent. Last year, just 14 percent of his balls in play were line drives, well below the 20 percent average. Let’s just say this trend doesn’t bode well. Still, Sheffield will have some motivation because he’s basically playing to extend his career with his contract being up at the end of 2009.

5. Who will be the Tigers’ closer in 2009 and does it matter?

To date, Juan Rincon has been the most effective reliever of the spring. Still, as a career set up man, it looks like the Tigers are still banking on either former Diamondbacks closer Brandon Lyon or Fernando Rodney, who closed for Detroit at the end of last year. My bet and hope is Lyon gets the nod, not because he’s a better pitcher, but because as a guy who doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, that’s the job he’s best suited for. Rodney walks too many batters but he can get the punch out when he needs it so I think he’s better suited to the earlier innings. I’d rather see him coming in with runners on first and third and nobody out in the seventh then Lyon, where as Lyon will have room to work when he comes in with nobody on and nobody out in the ninth.

And while Juan Rincon has been the best reliever so far, Ryan Perry has been second. We already talked about Perry, but if Joel Zumaya can come back from yet another injury, the idea of having a Rincon, Rodney, Lyon, Zumaya and Perry bullpen around the All-Star break doesn’t sound that bad.

In conclusion, 2009 is tough to call. If things go right, this could be a 95-win team. Of course if they go wrong, you just have to look back at 2008. I think the Tigers put it together though and they challenge the Cleveland Indians for the American League Central title.

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