The Detroit Tigers look to improve on what most teams would consider a fantastic 2012 campaign.
Yet, the Tigers struggled to win the division and saw the San Francisco Giants sweep them out of the World Series.
As 2013 gets underway, manager Jim Leyland guides a club that is better on paper than his championship team was a year ago.
The mood here is optimistic even as the expectations are sky high.
2012 Record: 88-74 (American League Central Division Champions)
Offseason Departures (via MLB Depth Charts):
C Gerald Laird (Braves via free agency), OF/DH Delmon Young (Phillies via free agency), RHP Jose Valverde, LHP Daniel Schlereth (Orioles via free agency after being non-tendered), 2B/OF Ryan Raburn (released)
Offseason Arrivals (via MLB Depth Charts):
RF Torii Hunter (signed via free agency from the Angels)
Projected Starting Lineup (Avg/OBP/Slugging):
CF: Austin Jackson (.300/.377/.479 in 137 games)
RF: Torii Hunter (.313/.365/.451 in 140 games with the Angels)
3B: Miguel Cabrera (.330/.393/.606 in 161 games)
1B: Prince Fielder (.313/.412/.528 in 162 games)
DH: Victor Martinez (Did not play due to injury in 2012)
LF: Andy Dirks (.322/.370/.487 in 88 games)
SS: Jhonny Peralta (.239/.305/.384 in 150 games)
C: Alex Avila (.243/.352/.384 in 116 games)
2B: Omar Infante (.257/.283/.385 in 64 games with Detroit)
Projected Starting Rotation (Record, Innings Pitched, ERA, WHIP and K/BB from 2012):
Justin Verlander R (17-8, 238.1, 2.64, 1.057, 3.98)
Max Scherzer R (16-7, 187.2, 3.74, 1.274, 3.85)
Doug Fister R (10-10, 161.2, 3.45, 1.194, 3.70)
Anibal Sanchez R (4-6, 74.2, 3.74, 1.286, 3.80 with Tigers)
Drew Smyly L (4-3, 99.1, 3.99, 1.268, 2.85)
Rick Porcello R (10-12, 176.1, 4.59, 1.531, 2.43)
Projected Bullpen (Record, Innings Pitched, ERA, WHIP and K/BB from 2012):
Al Alburquerque R (0-0, 13.1, 0.68, 1.050, 2.25)
Brayan Villarreal R (3-5, 54.2, 2.63, 1.207, 2.36)
Octavio Dotel R (5-3, 58.0, 3.57, 1.069, 5.17)
Phil Coke L (2-3, 54.0, 4.00, 1.648, 2.83)
Joaquin Benoit R (5-3, 71.0, 3.68, 1.141, 3.82)
Bruce Rondon (2-1 29 SVS, 53.0, 1.094, 2.54 in three levels of minor-league baseball)
All statistics above are from Baseball-Reference.com
Scouting the Starting Pitching:
The Tigers return the same starting pitchers in 2013 that they ended the 2012 regular season with.
With Anibal Sanchez staying after testing the free agent waters, the Tigers boast one of the deepest rotations in all of baseball.
Justin Verlander will anchor that rotation.
Verlander posted a staff-leading starting ERA of 2.64 in 2012 along with a league-high 239 strikeouts. In throwing a league-high six complete games, he also led the league in innings pitched with 238.1. He averaged seven innings a start—7.22, or just under 22 outs, to be precise.
Verlander is in the middle of the prime of his career. He is arguably the best pitcher of the game and an absolute workhorse. If the Tigers are to return to the World Series, they need Verlander on the hill every fifth day the entire season. Expect him to average a strikeout an inning and to walk under 2.5 per nine innings.
He will help keep the bullpen rested and prevent the Tigers from getting into any prolonged losing streak.
Max Scherzer figures to be the second man in the rotation.
Coming off a career-high in wins with 16 and strikeouts with 231, Scherzer seems poised to continue to grow in his fourth season in the Tigers rotation.
He was able to lower his WHIP from 1.349 to 1.274 the last two years, while increasing his K/9 rate from 8.0 to 11.1.
Scherzer’s control has improved every year he has been a starter and that trend will need to continue if he is to improve on his win total from last year.
The Tigers will have to watch for problems with his right shoulder, as fatigue forced him to leave a start in September early. If his velocity starts to trend downward, then it will be time to worry. Expect his workload to be rather strictly enforced the beginning part of the season until all sides think he can let it fly down the stretch.
Doug Fister is slated to take the third spot in the rotation.
Coming off a lackluster 10-10 record in 2012, the Tigers need Fister to win 14-16 games if they hope to win the AL Central easily.
The good news for Fister is that his K/9 rate climbed to a career-high 7.6 last year. The bad news is that his H/9 and BB/9 rates climbed as well, although he still possesses great control and allows less than 9.0 H/9.
Fister will need to work close to 190 innings this year to have an effective season. He can get hitters out and is good at keeping the ball in the park. In his second full year in the Tigers rotation, he just needs to grind out his six-plus innings as a start, as his stuff is better than his won-loss record indicates.
Sanchez will start the year as the fourth starter.
In his short tenure with the Tigers last year, Sanchez was much more of a pitch-to-contact pitcher rather than the power pitcher he was with the Florida/Miami Marlins. In doing that, his control was the best of his career. He dropped his K/9 rate to 6.9 and his BB/9 rate to a career-best 1.8. On the flip side, his H/9 rate climbed to 9.8 from the 8.9 registered with the Marlins.
Sanchez is an above-average pitcher for his slot. He will get wins this season solely based on the Tigers offense clobbering the back end of other team’s starting pitching. He has never won more than 13 games in a given season before. This is, perhaps, the year that changes.
The fifth spot comes down to a competition between Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly.
Porcello pitched himself out of the rotation last year mainly because he gave up a whopping 11.5 H/9. He will never be a strikeout compiler, but he does eat innings. If he does win the fifth spot, Porcello averages just under six innings per start.
For a back of the rotation pitcher, that is pretty good.
Porcello is also very durable, starting a minimum of 27 games a year in four seasons, and is only 24. Can he put behind all the trade talk this winter and win this job?
Drew Smyly, on the other hand, impressed the Tigers during his rookie season. The only left-handed starter in the rotation, Smyly nearly averaged a strikeout an inning while keeping his H/9 at a tidy 8.4. If the Tigers feel they need a lefty in the rotation, he is their man. If not, he can get his work in with Toledo at Triple-A until Porcello pitches himself out of the rotation or an injury by one of the big four presses him into service in Detroit.
Scouting the Bullpen:
If there is an uncertainty for the Tigers as they try to repeat as AL champions, it is in the back end of the bullpen.
After Jose Valverde pitched himself out of a job in Game 1 of the ALCS against the Yankees, the Tigers started a search for his replacement.
They offered Porcello to any team that might want to part with a closer, but found no takers.
Instead, they will audition 22-year-old rookie, Bruce Rondon, as their closer this spring.
A highly-touted prospect, Rondon has never pitched an inning of Major League Baseball before. In fact, he pitched part of last year at Advanced-A Lakeland and only has eight innings of Triple-A baseball under his belt.
Rondon, however, does strike out batters by the ton. He posted an impressive 11.2 K/9 rate in the minors and only allowed 32 hits in 53 innings. This is his job to lose.
Setting up Rondon will be the lefty-righty combination of Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit.
Coke does all right against left-handed hitters—they hit .263 off him last year—but right-handers ate him alive, hitting a whopping .396 in 101 at-bats.
Benoit was much more miserly to hitters overall. But, he gave up 14 home runs over 71 innings making that 7.5 H/9 rate look a bit better than the reality. Both pitchers need to keep their ERA under 4.00 this year to help bridge the gap between the starters and Rondon a successful one.
Al Alburquerque, Octavio Dotel and Brayan Villarreal will also have spots in the pen, either coming out for the sixth or seventh inning or to finish games the Tigers are losing. Do not be surprised if Dotel gets a shot to close if Rondon struggles this spring or early this season.
While not ideal, they can get away with closer by committee if needed while Rondon learns the basics closing in Toledo.
Scouting the Offense:
The Tigers have improved an offense that was already one of the most potent in the AL.
The return of Victor Martinez and the addition of Torii Hunter to the offense should easily replace the production lost by the departure of Delmon Young and the benching of Brennan Boesch.
As a team in 2012, the Tigers hit a collective .268—good for third in the AL. With the light-hitting Boesch replaced by perennial .300-hitting Hunter and Young’s abysmal .296 on-base percentage taken by Martinez, the Tigers should create more chances to generate runs even with the slight loss of power.
While the Tigers had the second-best OBP in the league at .335, they were sixth in run production with 726.
They are not going to steal bases in mass quantities, but Austin Jackson and Hunter will set the table for Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder to drive them home.
Jackson scored 103 runs—good enough for fifth in the AL—and hit .300. With Hunter behind him in the lineup, he will see good pitches to hit, if he does not miss them. He whiffed 134 times last year.
Jackson does have speed and hit a team-high 10 triples.
Hunter’s arrival, along with Martinez’s return, gives the Tigers six potential .300 hitters. Hunter needs to cut down on his free swinging. He struck out 133 times last year with the Angels.
If they get on, then Cabrera and Fielder can bring them home.
Coming off a Triple Crown year, there is no reason to think that Cabrera cannot match his .330 batting average and 139 RBI. If he can stroke 44 home runs again, then he could repeat his Triple Crown, but even a return to the 35-40 homer level would still mean a massive year for Cabrera.
Fielder not only brings a power bat that can hit for average, he walks more than he strikes out. With an OBP of .412, he sets the table again for Victor Martinez to clean up a second time, and gives the Tigers a top five that rivals the revamped Angels at the plate.
Even with Martinez not as powerful at the plate as Young, he will hit for average and drive in close to 100 runs. He says he wants to catch some, but he really will be the everyday designated hitter, except to spell Alex Avila behind the plate every once in a while and to give Hunter a day out of the outfield.
Behind Martinez is Andy Dirks. Dirks hit .322 last year in a platoon role with Quintin Berry and hopes to have left field all to his own this year. Dirks has good speed and certainly can stretch out extra-base hits. He had 18 doubles and five triples in 88 games last year. A full season could see him try for 35 and 10.
The bottom three in the order may not hit for average, but they do have pop in the bat.
Jhonny Peralta would like to silence his critics by having another 30-plus doubles year at short.
Omar Infante hit five triples in a third of a season after coming over from Miami and Alex Avila has some power from the catcher’s spot. It may not look impressive as compared to the top of the lineup, but these three hitters hit 10 triples last year and should improve on that.
Miguel Cabrera is coming off a Triple Crown year.
Aside from reaching base 7.3 percent more than league average—having an OBP of .393 compared to .326—Cabrera created a league-high 139 runs last year. 2012 was the third year in a row that he led the AL in that category.
With Prince Fielder protecting him in the lineup, Cabrera saw his intentional walk number drop from 22 to 17. Now that Victor Martinez is behind Fielder, pitchers are going to really have to pick and choose when to not give Cabrera a pitch to swing at.
He is also 198 hits away from 2,000 in his career. He could get that this year at only 30 years old. In 10 seasons, he averages a .318 batting average, 32 home runs, 112 RBI and 180 hits a year.
Expect him to beat those averages in year 11.
Justin Verlander is the very definition of the term.
In his seven full years in the rotation, Verlander has failed to win at least 17 games only once.
The last two years, his ERA+ led the league. His 172 in his MVP season of 2011 and 160 last year were the mark to beat for a starter.
ERA+ compares his ERA to the rest of the league, adjusts it for ballpark and gives us an average. An average ERA+ is 100, therefore, Verlander’s ERA was 60 percent better than the league.
He has led the league three times the last four years in innings pitched and strikeouts. He also faced an average of 28.96 batters a start, pitching into the eighth inning often and having a pitch count above 120.
If you want a guy that can get your bullpen rested and win, then Justin Verlander is your man.
The x-factor for the Tigers is their defense. It is just not very good.
One of the reasons the Tigers struggled so much last year to win was that the defense relied too heavily on pitchers striking out hitters.
When it comes to defensive efficiency, the Tigers were next to dead last in 2012 at .678. No team turned fewer double plays as well.
How much the Tigers can improve with their glove will tell us whether they can win the division comfortably or get caught by surprise again by an improved team like the Kansas City Royals or Cleveland Indians.
If Jhonny Peralta struggles early at short, there will be a trade made to improve that position. Along with Bruce Rondon, Peralta’s defense will be watched like a hawk.
While most team previews will feature a player we will see in a year or two, the Tigers are gambling on Bruce Rondon to have an everyday impact at closer without any major league experience.
The flamethrower from Venezuela can hit triple digits on the radar gun and strike batters out at will. Last year, as he progressed through the minors, he only gave up 5.4 H/9 and struck out 11.2 per nine.
It is very rare that a team will put someone with so little experience right into such an important spot. Rondon only has three full seasons of pitching in the United States and was converted into a reliever only in 2010.
There are others in the Tigers system to watch for in the future, such as Nick Castellanos, but Rondon has been handed the keys to his destiny right now.
If he can find the strike zone, he will do well. Control is his biggest issue.
Why the Tigers Should Dominate:
On paper last year, the Tigers were the best team in the AL.
With Hunter and Martinez in the lineup and Sanchez in the rotation for a full year, they are an improved club.
They can score runs, keep opposition batters tied up in knots at the plate and feature the game’s most dominant hitter and pitcher.
Even as off as they looked last year in winning only 88 games, they did not fold under the weight of their expectations and won the AL pennant.
With an improved team this year, the Tigers could break the 100 win mark. They are the best team in a weak division and should run away with things early on.
They will also be playing with a chip on their shoulder this year as well. Being swept last year in the World Series did not sit all that well and the Tigers spent the offseason addressing those needs.
In Hunter, they get a good clubhouse influence, and, in keeping Sanchez, they have a pitching talent that certainly is better than his won-loss record and better than any other fourth starter in the AL.
This is their moment. They know the time is now.
Why the Tigers Could Struggle:
For such an awesome team on paper, there are a couple of glaring weaknesses.
They failed to land an established closer and their defense is just plain bad.
They also have very little bench depth and would be very hard placed to recover from a major injury in the field. They do not have anyone on that bench that could start for any other contending team.
If they do decide to trade Rick Porcello this year, then they lose the depth they need in covering any injury they might have in the starting rotation. With Smyly, they do have six quality starters for the five slots, but you can never have enough starting pitching.
In short, injuries could derail this team, maybe not for the division, but certainly in the playoffs.
Final Prediction: 98-64 (AL Central Champs)
All statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.