Five questions: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers are the class of the AL Central and a championship contender. Can they make their October dreams a reality?

What will they get from Victor Martinez?

Last season, the Tigers represented the American League in the World Series, eventually falling to the Giants in an October sweep that wasn’t worthy of the team’s excellent season. As the Tigers gear up for the 2013 campaign, however, it would be hard to argue that this year’s team isn’t a superior squad.

They return almost all of last year’s entire squad, with the only meaningful loss closer Jose Valverde while the have acquired Torii Hunter in free agency. The team’s biggest acquisition, though, is a player who was on the roster already.

Victor Martinez tore his ACL in offseason workouts last season, a huge blow to a team on which he was at the time the second-best bat in the lineup. GM Dave Dombrowski, with the support of owner Mike Ilitch (who, to his credit, may be more concerned with winning now as opposed to revenues and expenses than any other owner in the game), went out and replaced Martinez’s bat and then some, shocking the baseball world by signing Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal. Fielder and Miguel Cabrera led the team to the AL pennant, but the Tigers certainly missed Martinez’s presence.

Last year, Tigers designated hitters produced only 88 wRC+, making them the second worst-hitting group in the American League (besting only Texas). The lion’s share of those opportunities went to Delmon Young, who has since moved on to Philadelphia. Martinez will take over and create a core of the lineup that is simply fearsome. Detroit’s offense was good last season, without its third-best bat. If Martinez can return healthy and productive in 2013, the Tigers may have the best lineup in the AL.

Is Bruce Rondon ready for the spotlight?

Two years ago, Jose Valverde led the world with 49 saves in 49 chances. Last season, he wasn’t nearly as good, converting 35 saves in 40 opportunities and weakening in September. In the playoffs, Papa Grande fell apart, allowing nine runs (all earned) in just 2.2 innings and leading manager Jim Leyland to trust Phil Coke with the ninth inning in the team’s most important games of the season.

This offseason, with Valverde a free agent, the team showed no (public, at least) interest in relievers with closing experience, instead opting to bequeath the role to fireballing prospect Bruce Rondon, with Coke and Joaquin Benoit waiting in the wings should he falter. Not only does Rondon not have big-league closing experience; he’s never thrown a major league inning. He started at High-A and worked his way up to throw his final eight innings at the Triple-A level in 2012.

What Rondon lacks in experience, however, he makes up for in stuff, or so the Tigers brass hopes. With a fastball consistently in the upper 90s, the 22-year-old Venezuelan can pump it into triple digits, hitting 102 in the 2012 Futures game. He also features an effective slider and change-up, which he uses to keep hitters off balance. While his velocity is certainly impressive, his command is questionable, and while he could simply blow pitches by minor league hitters, he’ll need to locate if he wants to survive in the big show.

Rondon might struggle as he adjusts to the most difficult competition on the planet, but whatever happens he’ll certainly be fun to watch. The Tigers, however, are hoping for more than that—they believe he has the tools to be an elite closer. The team’s season may hinge on whether he can take on that challenge as a rookie.

Will they make Justin Verlander a Tiger for life?

Recently, the Mariners signed Felix Hernandez to the biggest-ever commitment for a pitcher, at seven years and $175 million. You can bet Verlander saw that number and thought, “ka-ching!” This contract will set the market for elite pitchers, and Verlander certainly belongs in that category.

One year removed from becoming the rare pitcher to win the MVP award, Verlander has two years left on his deal (as Hernandez did) and boasts a comparable, if not superior, track record. The only factor that might prevent Verlander from cashing in as big as King Felix is his age—he’s 29, while the Seattle superstar is only 26 (although it feels like Hernandez has been around forever, largely because he debuted at 19). Verlander is likely looking at a contract similar to the one Hernandez received from the Mariners, but if he reaches the free agent market and is available to the highest bidder, there’s a significant chance he could be the first $200 million pitcher.

Nonetheless, Verlander will certainly eclipse the six-year, $147+ million dollar deal signed this offseason by Zack Greinke, which was the largest in history for a right-handed pitcher when Greinke signed. Finishing second to King Felix wouldn’t exactly be a bad result, especially given that Verlander will feel like he’s got a pretty good shot at a championship during his tenure in Detroit, while Hernandez has completed his seventh season and is yet to get his first taste of postseason baseball.

Verlander’s going to get paid, if not now then when he becomes a free agent after the 2014 campaign. Tigers fans, executives, and I’d imagine Verlander himself hope it happens a lot sooner than that, with a long-term extension that makes him a Tiger for life.

Does Nick Castellanos make an impact?

By all accounts, this isn’t a team with a lot of minor league talent waiting in the wings. The Tigers’ time is now, and as a result much of the little minor league talent they did have has been swapped for pieces that can help them in the present. The obvious example is their deadline deal for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante last season, in which they sent a package including highly regarded prospects Jacob Turner and Rob Brantly to Miami. Detroit ranked 25th in Keith Law’s recent organizational rankings, with Castellanos the only prospect who cracked his top 100. at 38.

Castellanos, 20, was drafted out of high school with the 44th pick of the 2010 draft, the Tigers’ first pick that year. Another reason the Tigers’ farm system ranks poorly is because they’ve been willing to give up picks to sign major league free agents, losing their first rounder in 2010 to Houston for their signing of Valverde and sitting out the 2011 draft until the 75th pick because they inked Victor Martinez.

Castellanos was drafted as a third baseman, but with Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera entrenched on the infield corners for the foreseeable future, Castellanos spent time in the outfield last season at Double-A Erie to clear his path to the big roster. While he’s one of the better pure hitting prospects in the minors, moving to right field will put even more pressure on his bat, and although his combined line was excellent, he did struggle some when he was called up to Double-A for the second half of the season.

If Castellanos can come out strong in spring training, he might be able to set himself up for a midseason call-up. The team signed Torii Hunter this offseason, so there’s a chance he might be shifted again, to left field, but if he can make the transition, he’d likely be a big improvement (and certainly one with a lot more upside) than the Andy Dirks/right-handed-hitter-to-be-named platoon that seems to be the plan for the start of the season.

Can they complete the journey?

Simply put, the Tigers won the AL pennant last season and return a team that appears to be superior to last season’s squad. While they’d never say this publicly, I’d imagine that many within the team feel like it’s pretty much World Series or bust. Expectations will be high for this team, and the goal will surely be to bring home Motown’s first World Championship since the 1984 team.

That team was managed by Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson and included two players who deserve a closer look from Hall of Fame voters (Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker) and one who doesn’t but probably has a better chance at induction than either (Jack Morris). Like that squad, the 2013 Tigers are chock-full of some of the best players in the league at their positions, leading to extremely high expectations.

Much like last season, the Tigers will come into 2013 as heavy favorites for the AL Central crown. With that in mind, this team will be judged based on what it’s able to do in the postseason. It just may have what it takes to go all the way.

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  1. Chuck said...

    Here’s a sixth question for you: Whither Rick Porcello?  Is he trade chum or a potential front-line starter?

    Here’s a seventh question for you:  Will the bench be adequate enough to help the Tigers hold leads, or regain leads, in the late innings of close games?

  2. Jim G. said...

    I don’t think Rondon gets the job this year, especially with his performance in ST so far. An in-house name not mentioned as a potential closer is Al Alburquerque. He faced three and struck out three yesterday. (Granted they were Astros.) Another is Octavio Dotel. And besides, the idea of signing Benoit to a three year deal was that he would take over for Valverde when he left. I wouldn’t let last year’s struggles scare them off. But if I were a betting man:
    Coke = closer
    Smyly = lefty in bullpen
    Porcello = 5th starter
    No trades needed.

  3. guest said...

    These prospect rankings always make me laugh. I guy like Avisail Garcia wasn’t on anyone’s radar last year as even a top prospect in the organization let alone all of baseball.  DET thought enough of him to put him on the playoff and WS roster, where he was very solid.  His power may not be there yet, but watching him in person he has a nice solid stroke and the ball real nice coming off his bat.  They call him “Mini-Miggy”. So how is it that this guy isn’t in the top 100 of prospects?

  4. Will said...

    Garcia wasn’t on anyone’s radar?  What planet are you from.  He’s been on the radar since he was acquired as a free agent.  He’s just outside of top 100, and that’s due to his lack of plate discipline.  His tools aren’t in question, it’s his discipline.

  5. jerrel palmer said...

    on paper the tigers are a great team ! but thats why we play the games. having tori hunter in rf and hitting in the 2 hole along with having y-mart back at the DH has to make DETROIT the team to beat in the american leauge ! closer is a problem that will have to be fixed at some point in spring training . if rondon continues to struggle the tigers must either make a trade or go with phil coke ,dotel, or benoit . i like dotel myself . another kid i really like is TYLER COLLINS !! he has tore up big leauge pitchers this spring and is one player to keep an eye on !

  6. Brian B. said...

    I said this a while back but I always thought Rick Porcello would fill in as the closer.  Doesn’t give up a lot of home runs, ground ball pitcher and he should have some better defense behind him with the lead in the later innings.  Plus he’s a lot better the first time through the line up.

    Torii Hunter’s BABIP last year worries me.  I hope he’s solid but also think he may come down to earth pretty quick.

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