In 2011, the Tigers broke a string of second-half disappointments and went on to clinch their first playoff berth since their World Series run in 2006. With none of the other teams in the division making impact moves in the free-agent market, the Tigers looked set to contend this year in what was a weak American League Central. Then disaster struck and catcher/designated hitter Victor Martinez went down for the 2012 season with a knee injury.
With the free agent season winding down, the Tigers then shocked a lot of people and signed slugger Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal. This instantly pushed the Tigers to the top of the contenders list in the division, but of course, we all know things rarely happen as they should. What could go wrong? What could go even more right? Let’s take a look.
Will Miguel Cabrera stick at third base?
This has been the talk of the town. With Fielder signing on and Cabrera a little too young to go over as the team’s full-time designated hitter, the Tigers had two pegs for one slot. Cabrera has played other positions, with the most recent being third base when the Tigers traded for him prior to the 2008 season. Before that, Cabrera was the Florida Marlins’ full-time third baseman for the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The problem is, he wasn’t very good.
Of course, a lot of this doesn’t matter if Cabrera continues to rake. He’s replacing a Brandon Inge/-Wilson Betemit combination, so even if he’s bad at third base, it’s going to be an overall upgrade. What could cause problems is if playing at a more intense position hurts him at the plate. Cabrera, while he’s supposed to be in great shape this year, has never been a physical specimen, so the wear and tear could be there; we just might not see it until the second half of the season.
My guess is the Tigers force the issue and keep Cabrera at third base. He’s got good enough hands that he shouldn’t make too many errors, so the mainstream baseball media will keep off his back. Unless he’s getting hurt or his hitting goes into the tank, we should see Cabrera at third base come September.
How will having negative defenders at all four infield spots affect the pitching staff?
First off, I’m not a huge “numbers” guy. I know about the more advanced metrics and understand them enough to be able to grasp them on a general level but not nearly enough to be able to write about them. With that, my Tigers previews have been criticized for being a bit light. So I’m going to waddle through this fielding discussion without getting too technical and as best as I can, so please bear with me.
With the weight jokes aside, and assuming Ryan Raburn gets the bulk of the time at second base, the Tigers have negative defenders at all four infield spots, and this is going to affect the pitching numbers. For guys like Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, who strike out about a batter an inning, this effect shouldn’t be as bad. For guys like Doug Fister and Rick Porcello, who live and die by the ground ball, the effect could be a little more pronounced.
We have more data on Porcello, so he’s the easiest to look at. His best season was his rookie year in 2009 when he had a career-best 3.96 ERA and 1.336 WHIP. That was also the last time the Tigers had a “good” infield defense. Since then, his ERA has hovered in the high 4.00s, and his hit rate was about one hit per game more than that rookie season. Now the defense is potentially going to be even worse.
For Fister, I think the decline could be less pronounced because he’s able to punch guys out a little more then Porcello, although you could see a decline by Fister just because he could come back to earth after posting a .274 batting average on balls in play in 2011.
Who will be the team’s fifth starter?
It’s likely that the Tigers’ fifth starter is going to be someone who isn’t even on the team right now. There are a couple of decent arms floating around out there, and there was also some discussion that the Tigers were talking to the Chicago Cubs about a deal for Matt Garza, but that fell through when the Cubs wanted Jacob Turner. In the event the Tigers don’t make a deal to round out their rotation, the guy at the top of most people’s wish list is Turner.
The Tigers’ top pick in the 2009 draft, Turner got a few spot starts in 2011 with the Tigers, but he spent most of his time with the Detroit’s Double-A affiliate, the Erie SeaWolves. There he had a very solid season and then even had a nice showing in three starts for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens.
Turner is only 20, though, and I don’t think the Tigers want to rush him up to a team that won’t be able to work with him because they’re considered contending from day one. Unless he forces the Tigers’ hand and has a lights-out spring, he’ll start the season back in Triple-A with an eventual call-up during the season.
That leaves a few other Tigers pitching prospects. Drew Smyly had a really nice season last year, but he’s had only eight appearances at the Double-A level. Andrew Oliver is a guy I thought would be more of a contender, but he struggled in the minors for most of the 2011 season. Adam Wilk is a soft-throwing lefthander who got some time with the club in 2011, and Duane Below held his own, mostly out of the pen but also in two starts, for the Tigers in 2011.
The guy I think could come out of the mix—and he’s a dark-horse candidate—is Casey Crosby. Crosby was Detroit’s fifth-round pick in 2007, but he slipped to the Tigers that far in the draft because of signability issues. Then the injuries hit.
He had Tommy John surgery in 2007 and missed most of the 2008 season. Crosby posted a nice campaign in 2009 before missing most of the 2010 season because his elbow acted up again. He then bounced back with a solid season at Double-A in 2011. Walks were an issue, but if he gets them under control, and the Tigers don’t push him into the pen too soon, he could end up as Detroit’s fifth starter.
Will we see 2011 numbers from Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta in 2012
In July of 2010, the Tigers were on the cusp of being called out of contention after a rough start to the second half of the season. Rather than throw in the towel completely, they made a deal with the Cleveland Indians that brought a struggling Peralta to the team to fill the Tigers’ hole at shortstop. He finished the season strong enough, and with no affordable free agents on the market, the Tigers decided to re-sign Peralta to a two-year deal and make him their shortstop.
For the Tigers’ troubles in 2011, Peralta finished with an .824 OPS (his best since 2005), made the All-Star team and even showed he wasn’t as bad in the field as Indians fans may have thought. Not too shabby for a guy who hit seventh in the order most of the season.
Avila was drafted in the fifth round of the 2008 draft. His dad is in the front office, and I remember reading at the time that this was higher than most people thought Avila would go. He backed up Gerald Laird in 2009 and to start the 2010 season, but by the end of 2010, Avila was getting more of the time behind the plate despite hitting .228.
In 2011, Avila was named the starter, and the plan was to have Martinez spot him from time to time. He then broke out, finished with an .895 OPS, made the All-Star team and was one of the Tigers’ best hitters all season long.
Avila worries me more than Peralta. Avila had a strong finish to the regular season, but he looked broken down come playoff time. It was painful to watch him walk out there every inning and get behind the plate. The Tigers did sign Laird, so they now have a true backup catcher so Avila doesn’t have to catch every game. That should help, but I’m wondering how that long 2011 season affects him this year.
Peralta has shown some durability in his career, so I’m not as worried about him. The Tigers also have Ramon Santiago to give him a day off now and then, while Avila had to catch just about every game for the final two months of the season. Still, Peralta had a career year of sorts, and Detroit could see both of these guys come down to earth in 2012.
Do the Tigers have the parts for a good enough bullpen?
In the 2011 playoffs, the Tigers’ lack of bullpen depth was exposed. By the American League Championship Series, manager Jim Leyland was riding his two horses, Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, and eventually Valverde faltered and blew an important game. Still, we’re not talking about playoffs yet, and the Tigers have the makings of a solid pen in 2012.
A lot was made of Valverde’s 49 straight saves in 2011, but if you look at the numbers a little more closely, he was probably the third-best reliever on the team. Still, the Tigers picked up his option, and while he’s overpaid at $9 million, he’ll be the closer for at least one more year. He’s solid with about a strikeout an inning, but his walk rate is a little higher than I’d like.
Benoit bounced back from a horrible start to the season, and in the second half he was about as reliable as you could ask. He’ll be the setup man, and while I we won’t see a repeat of his breakout 2010 season where he posted a 0.680 WHIP, he can hit his 2011 numbers again and do the Tigers proud.
Both of these guys are solid, and this foursome should do the trick in games where the Tigers have a starter make it through only five innings. Al Alburquerque, the big pitching surprise last year, is hurt and he probably won’t pitch until around the All-Star break, so getting him back—assuming he’s effective—could help the Tigers down the stretch.
On paper, the Tigers should win 95 games and the division by about 15. Fielder and Cabrera should be one of baseball’s more dangerous hitting combinations, and Verlander should contend for another Cy Young award. Of course, we all know there’s a reason they play the games, and things could turn out much different, but here’s hoping—for all of you fellow Tiger fans out there—this is a year things go as they should.