Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder Lead Pre-Season Starting Nine

J Cook@JCookBRCorrespondent IFebruary 14, 2012

Detroit Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder Lead Pre-Season Starting Nine

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    Plenty of pitchers will be wishing they could skip their turn in the rotation this season in the MLB's American League. If the Motor City Cats get heated up, nobody will blame them. 

    Outside of a lack of team speed, the Tigers possess all the offensive weaponry necessary to cripple even the strongest of A.L. pitching targets. All of this, without Victor Martinez. A few weeks ago, Leyland addressed his concerns about a lack of speed, simply stating, "if they hit them were they're supposed to hit them, they can trot." 

    Not a bad problem to have. The baseball world has been clamoring for several weeks about the potential for an explosive offense in Detroit since the huge contract deal with Prince Fielder that surprised most everyone. Again, an offense that doesn't include Martinez. That will come in 2013, and with it even greater firepower.

    Outside questions at the lead off spot and the fervor of Miguel Cabrera playing third base as though it's blasphemous, the Tigers lineup has the promise to be solid everywhere but out of the chute. Austin Jackson must again find the stars that had him wrapped up during 2011. If he can shine at the plate the way he dazzles in the field Detroit will be deadly.

    Even without a great Jackson, the Tigers could be absolutely brutal on American League pitching. Let's take a look.

No. 1 Austin Jackson (CF)

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    Austin Jackson had a stellar first year in the majors, almost earning him American League Rookie of the Year honors. His sophomore year wasn't anywhere near the same performance band.

    After a great year with the Yankees and discussion of MVP honors, the Tigers have to still be wondering about the loss of Curtis Granderson in exchange for Austin Jackson as part of a confusing three-team trade that included several other players. 

    Jackson heads into his third season with higher expectations and a shorter leash having struggled at the plate last season, including 181 strikeouts, 11 more than he had in 2010 when he led the A.L. He has yet to learn lead off hitter patience and consistently chases high fastballs deep in the count. His sub-par .249 batting average was more than 40 points lower than his rookie campaign when he nearly touched the .300 mark, finishing at .293. Jackson has a career .317 on base percentage, not good enough to hold the lead off spot should his downward trend continue. 

    Jackson has 91 career extra-base hits in just two year, and last year hit more triples (11) than anyone else in the league. Leyland has yet to give him the green-light at first, so he's still not a serious threat on the bases, but he can motor when he slices one into the gap.

    Defensively, Jackson is the Tigers greatest asset. In his first two seasons he's committed nine errors, and only three last season while sporting a dependable .989 fielding percentage. Jackson also covers some serious ground in the spacious galley outfield of Comerica Park.

    Jackson should be in serious contention for a gold-glove this season; he really is one of the best in the game. A better job at the plate will allow him to score a ton of runs with the big fellas that follow him in the order. It may also allow him to carry less "feeling of failure baggage" out to the field, ultimately allowing him to better concentrate on both sides of the ball. 

No. 2 Brennan Boesch (RF)

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    Brennan Boesch had a great late-season surge headed into the pennant chase when he injured his thumb and wound up on the DL, never coming off the bench during the Tigers post-season run. After successful surgery, he is ready to go and will lead the charge of explosive hitters that follow him in the lineup.

    The 26 year old is set to come into his own this season after finishing his injury-shortened 2011 season at .283 in 472 plate appearances. He also has 85 extra-base hits in two seasons with the Tigers, including 30 home runs and 51 doubles.

    On the base paths, Boesch is actually one of the fleetest of foot on the Tigers squad. His tendency to hit the ball sharply on a line into the deep gaps of Comerica Park bodes well for his extra-base smashing to continue.

    Defensively, Boesch could get better. With decent speed, he should be able to cover his fair share of ground in the outfield so that Jackson can shade to left to help the slower Delmon Young. Boesch committed seven errors last year, and nine the year before.

    He will be counted on to improve his numbers in that category. However, he does have a better than average arm and will pick runners who test him should the opportunity arise. With 16 assists in only 219 career games, Boesch will have A.L. runners thinking twice about advancing an extra-base.

    Boesch's consistency at the plate will be crucial for him to continue his progression as an everyday player and potential All-Star. He demonstrated greater patience last season and will get to see some of the better pitches in all of baseball with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder right behind him in the order. A good season for Boesch means a lot of RBIs for the Tigers crunchers and a lot of runs scored for him.

No. 3 Miguel Cabrera (3B)

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    Leyland has long flirted with the idea of Cabrera hitting third for his Tigers. When Martinez went down and Fielder was signed, the potential protection Cabrera was going to miss vanished and instead created an opportunity that allowed Leyland to finally shift Cabrera up one spot and slot Fielder as the Tigers cleanup man.

    Right now it's less about the excitement of the offensive powerhouse the Tigers have built and more about the concerns and quiet questioning of Cabrera's move to third base. There has been plenty of talk around baseball questioning the Tigers move. His .992 fielding percentage since coming to the Tigers and taking over responsibilities at first base is one of the best in the league, and much better than his .951 average at third base in 387 career games. 

    According to ESPN's Buster Olney, major league baseball executives are criticizing that Miguel Cabrera will be able to fill the role as the Tigers every day third baseman. Regardless, it isn't his first trip to third. Although it doesn't seem the best fit from a defensive perspective, it really is the best option the Tigers have, for now. 

    Cabrera's fantastic season in 2011 was somewhat overshadowed by the historic MVP season of his teammate Justin Verlander. However, Cabrera continues to build on his career .317 batting average, hitting an A.L. high .344 last season. While his 30 home run season was down from previous high-marks, and the lowest it has been since joining the Tigers, he has also improved his batting average by 52 points in the last three seasons after a sub-par for Cabrera .292 in 2008. 

    With Fielder hitting behind him, Cabrera will be afforded even greater protection than in the past and should see better pitches and fewer intentional walks, which means an even better opportunity to hit home runs and for average as well. All the sports pundits in the world can give me their arguments about who is the best hitter in baseball, I'll take this guy every day of the week and twice on Sunday. 

No. 4 Prince Fielder (1B)

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    Apparently when it came time to answer the bell the Tigers wasted no time exceeding even what Prince Fielder may have expected. After Fielder's agent Scott Boras takes his sizable cut, the Tigers new first baseman will still have more money than he'll ever need. What the Tigers get from Fielder could even be greater.

    Fielder was born the same year the Tigers were last crowned World Champions, 1984. A few seasons later, his father Cecil joined the team, and the rest is history. Cecil and Prince are the only father/son combination to hit 50-plus home runs in a season, Cecil in 1990 (51) and Prince in 2007 (50). Now, the young prince has usurped his father's crown as the hometown favorite. Fans will be clamoring for Fielder to outdo his old man. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. One certainty is that Prince hits the ball in the same smashing manner as Cecil did. Like father, like son. 

    In over 4000 career plate appearances, Fielder holds a respectable .282 batting average and has hit 32 or more home runs in his last 5 seasons. His 439 career extra-base hits and 656 RBIs will compliment his predecessor Cabrera in the lineup well. It will be interesting to see how Fielder's wide swing and high-fly ball hitting style melds with deep and spacious Comerica Park, as well as all the other American League parks he'll be visiting for the first time in his career.  

    The Tigers lose nothing with Fielder at first base other than a little less cat-like reflexes. He's a solid .992 career fielder at first and provides a nice target for the other Tigers infielders. Its likely that Fielder will also DH, but he's a workhorse so A.L. opponents shouldn't expect much of a breather from Fielder taking days off. Since 2006 he's played all but 13 regular season games, including two perfect attendance records in 2009 and 2011. 

    Detroit fans were awfully welcoming to the last new guy at first base, Fielder should expect no different.

No. 5 Delmon Young (LF)

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    The Tigers made several late season deals in 2011. The deal for Delmon Young has already paid considerable dividends. Not too bad for two guys (Cole Nelson and Lester Oliveros) that are still in Minnesota's farm system and yet to be proven as any type of serious major league talent. Young's talent display last fall was more than enough to win over Tigers fans.

    Young's career began in Tampa Bay where he finished second in American League Rookie of the Year honors after hitting .288 in 2007. The Devil Rays were in the market to deal Young and Minnesota was looking for someone that could drive the ball. Following an excellent rookie year, he was traded to the Twins. There, he never quite lived up to expectation and failed to be the run-producer that Minnesota had envisioned.

    The Twins' loss has been a clear gain for the Tigers. Since joining Detroit, Young has caught fire much like the way Minnesota was hoping he would for their club. In 40 regular season games with the Tigers he hit. 298 with 32 RBIs and 14 extra-base hits. In the 2011 ALDS, Young hit .319 with six hits, including three home runs.

    Since donning the Old English D he's been about as near perfect offensively as the Tigers could have dreamed. If Young can parlay that into the start of 2012 he has the potential for a load of RBIs. 

    The greatest defensive concern for the Tigers this season might be Young. He lacks speed and doesn't read balls well off the bat either, a mix that could lead to an uncomfortable number of errors should Young remain Leyland's every day left fielder. His career .977 fielding percentage is average at best and behind Cabrera he'll be expected to be cleaner with the ball than he has been in the past. 

    Young is a free-agent at the end of this season and will be looking to earn a healthy ransom in the free-agent market next year so he has every incentive to play up to his potential and prove that he can handle the duties on defense as well. 

No. 6 Alex Avila (Catcher)

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    One thing was certain about Alex Avila’s post-season performance in 2011, he was worn-out and tired. Avila had the best season of his young career, but Detroit over-used his talents as a result of too many injuries and an inability to juggle their major league roster to include another backstop.

    Another certainty, Avila will need to get rest in 2012 from time to time if the Tigers expect him to carry the type of stats he had last season, hitting .295 and knocking in 82 runs, including an impressive 33 doubles and 19 HRs. However, he sat behind the dish 141 times, for any catcher that’s a lot of games, 15-20 fewer beatings per season would most likely keep Avila healthier and more productive down the stretch and into post-season play.

    At one point late last season, a ball ricocheted so hard off of Avila’s facemask that replay video showed sparks shooting. That's the type of beating Avila took. The type of beating that cannot be repeated in 2012. Avila has the makings of a perennial All-Star catcher and provides power from the left-side of the plate in the middle of a potent Detroit lineup.

    The Tigers brought Gerald Laird back into the fold to get Avila rest on a more consistent basis in 2012 than they did last season. Leyland won’t expect much from his bat—Tigers fans shouldn't either. It isn't his job to shine, instead his role is simple—assist Avila so that he can endure the toughest physical  position in a very long season. Laird's only responsibility is to keep Avila healthy and ready to go beyond game 162.

    The Tigers did right by Avila in finding him a suitable backup that understands and appreciates the Detroit organization. Last time Laird was in town he was the starter-mentor, and Avila the young backup apprentice. Laird hasn’t been a catcher for the Detroit Tigers in over a year, but as a backup to his former self he puts Avila and the 2012 Tigers in a much better position.

No. 7 Jhonny Peralta (SS)

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    After an All-Star season last year Jhonny Peralta has cemented himself as an integral part of the Tigers lineup and a solid defender in the field. Peralta had a career season last year and will look to build on those successes in a star-studded Detroit lineup in 2012.

    A career .268 hitter, Peralta had the best season of his nine major league seasons last year with the Tigers and returned to a comfortable home at shortstop. Although he doesn't possess the range of some of baseball's best, he also makes few errors on playable balls and continues to work on his lateral movement to sharply hit balls. With Cabrera at third, he'll be expected to cover and shade toward third more than he has in the past.

    Peralta's 49 extra base hits and 86 RBIs last season, the second most of his career, was a pleasant surprise, but his .299 average was well beyond what the could have expected. He also finished the season with the highest slugging percentage of his career at .478, nearly 100 points higher than his previous four season average.

    A guy that the Tigers essentially picked up in 2010 to get them through the remainder of the season has parlayed his success into an enviable role on the Tigers roster. For the first time in his career Peralta made the cut for the Summer Classic and visited Milwaukee in July for his All-Star team debut. It would seem that things are falling together at just the right time for Peralta, another of the many late season trade steals by Tigers president/general Manager Dave Dombrowski.

    Peralta will have plenty of opportunities with Avila, Young, and Fielder in front of him to drive in 100-plus RBIs for the first time in his career this upcoming season. He's definitely home in the D now.

No. 8 the Big ?

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    The Tigers have a bevy of potential options to fill their now vacated DH spot in the wake of Martinez's injury. Several potential young stars have earned an opportunity to play a vital role in the Tigers day to day lineup, including Andy Dirks, Don Kelly, and Clete Thomas.

    Each hitter offers Leyland an opportunity to put the ball in play as all three are solid contact hitters that are going to drive plenty of balls to the outfield gaps in Comerica Park. And, while none of them possess blazing speed, they are all solid base runners that can also be used late in games when situations warrant the need to force a run across the plate.

    Dirks just finished an amazing winter season in the Dominican and batted .315 for Toros del Este during the regular season. He was the first pick of the import draft by Escogido when their playoff season began and he had the series clinching game winning hit in Game 9 of their championship series. In 78 games for the Tigers last season Dirks had 20 extra base hits and drove in 28 runs while seeing inconsistent action. He proved in the Dominican that day to day exposure may earn him a more consistent place in Leyland's lineup.

    Last season Kelly was lightning in a bottle down the stretch when the inconsistent play of Brandon Inge forced Kelly to put in more time at third base as well as the plate. He did not disappoint. During Detroit's victory over the Bronx Bombers in the ALDS Kelly hit .364 with four hits including a huge home run to sink New York in their final game of the season.

    Thomas has seen limited action for the Tigers over the past two seasons but is expected to make a roster spot push in Lakeland. He is a a reliable albeit not spectacular defender and make great contact with the ball at the plate. Thomas needs consistency to get better, something he's not been able to fully attain in a Tigers uniform and may find difficult this upcoming year with Dirks' and Kelly's star on the rise. 

No. 9—Ryan Raburn (2B)

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    The Tigers need Ryan Raburn to bust loose early this season instead of waiting to pour it on down the stretch. Raburn has been the late-season shot in the arm the Tigers have needed but it's taken him the first three months of the season to heat up over the last two years. Something that hasn't sat well with Tigers fans in general.

    The Tigers change second base personnel like most people change their underwear—whenever they stink, and that's been often. The ghost of Placido Polanco still hants the second base grounds for Detroit players and Leyland has struggled to find the right fit for nearly four seasons now. 

    Again, this season, its Raburn's to lose.  His 2009 and 2010 late season push produced solid numbers in the 113 games he played in each of those seasons, hitting .291 and .280 respectively. He also has a live bat and can hit to all fields. However, a slow spring last year lead to a lowly .256 average even with the great performances he provided in August and September when the Tigers separated from the rest of their A.L. Central contenders.

    With a more consistent performance as the every day starter at second Raburn should have a shot at 80-plus RBIs, 20 or more homers, and another 20-30 extra base hits as well. When he's hot he's as good as any stick in the Detroit lineup.