Rick Porcello and 9 Other Detroit Tigers with Something to Prove in 2012
As most baseball fans know, when it comes to America's pastime, there are never any guarantees. Last year's World Series is a great example of this, as the St. Louis Cardinals came out of nowhere to win it all when it mattered the most.
The Detroit Tigers must also adhere to this rule. While the team is widely being picked to win the American League Central—one Michigan radio personality has even said the Tigers will win the Central by at least 20 games—Detroit is far from a flawless team.
Obviously, the biggest story of the offseason in Detroit has been the Prince Fielder signing. There's little doubt that this guy will perform and probably perform well. But there's still a chance that he'll slump, as his numbers outside of Milwaukee were not nearly as impressive as his home numbers in 2011.
However, Fielder is not the only player that needs to perform this season. The following is a list of 10 players that need to step up in a big way for Detroit in 2012.
Miguel Cabrera, 3B
Before you become irate and question my baseball IQ, I'm not referring to his play at the plate. It's obvious that he's a great hitter, and he's just about to reach his prime.
The bigger concern has to be his defense. There were many games last year in which Cabrera looked, to put it in the nicest terms possible, not extremely athletic. Playing third base requires an extreme degree of athleticism and defensive prowess, and Cabrera is questionable in both of these areas.
The upside is that it sounds as though he is getting into better shape. According to catcher Alex Avila, Cabby has already lost about 25 pounds.
That being said, he's still got a long way to go. Depending on his performance at the position, it wouldn't be too surprising to see him move into more of a designated hitter role as the season moves along. Especially since the DH position has the potential to be a bit of a revolving door.
If Cabrera doesn't move into that role this year, he probably will sometime in the near future. Top hitting prospect Nick Castellanos continues to climb the ranks of Detroit's top prospects and will probably jump into the show sometime in the next three years.
Unless Castellanos moves back to shortstop—a questionable move, considering many prospects think he has shaky range, at best—Castellanos will likely take over at third base, moving Miggy to either the outfield or DH.
Rick Porcello, SP
Perhaps Rick Porcello has the ceiling of a No. 4 four starter in Major League Baseball. That's certainly what he is in Detroit, so no one is expecting much else from him this season.
However, Porcello's spot in the rotation is far from guaranteed going forward. With prospects like Jacob Turner and Drew Smyly rising up the ranks, Porcello may have to perform better than he has recently just to hang on to his job.
Last year, Porcello went 14-9 with a 4.75 ERA—not impressive by any stretch. However, that has been the status quo for him.
Assuming that Justin Verlander doesn't have the stellar, historic year that he had in 2011, it's safe to think that the Tigers will need a few other pitchers to step up and carry the load. The record isn't that great of a concern. Porcello should stack up wins regardless of how well he performs.
However, he needs to improve upon a few numbers this year; namely, his ERA and WHIP. As mentioned before, a 4.75 ERA is not impressive for a starting pitcher. If he could get that number under or slightly above four, that could be worth a few more wins.
The same is true of his WHIP. Last season, his WHIP was higher than it's ever been, sitting at a very underwhelming 1.41.
All in all, Porcello may have already hit his ceiling. Perhaps he was brought up too early, and now the pressure is too high. But if he can pitch like a No. 2 starter from the No. 4 spot this season, the Tigers could be looking at a great deal of success in their rotation.
Austin Jackson, OF
I wrote a column a few weeks back questioning whether or not Jackson should even be a leadoff hitter with the team. A colleague suggested that Brennan Boesch should get a shake at it. Regardless of the various opinions, it seems as though Jackson has the spot locked up going into Opening Day.
But his 2011 numbers cannot be overlooked. Jackson struck out far too often in the No. 1 spot and saw his OBP decline to .317. His average sat at .249, also lower than what you'd like to see in your leadoff hitter.
What Jackson needs to practice is patience at the plate. He's an excellent defender, so it's hard to think that manager Jim Leyland will be taking him out of the lineup completely anytime soon. And, perhaps the team will go after a new leadoff man at the trade deadline if Jackson isn't getting the job done.
Assuming that they avoid doing that, though, Jackson's OBP could be crucial to Detroit's success. If Jackson can find a way to get on base more than he did in 2011, Detroit's 1-2 punch of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder will likely be able to drive him in more often than not.
Max Scherzer, SP
Like Porcello, Max Scherzer didn't really live up to his potential in 2011. His 15-9 record was solid, though not spectacular, and his ERA was higher than it normally is, sitting well above four.
In this year's rotation, Scherzer is either going to be a fringe No. 2 starter or pitch third behind Justin Verlander and Doug Fister. If Fister repeats his performance of last year, there's little doubt that Scherzer will be the No. 3 man.
Consistency is something that Scherzer needs to show in 2012. Fans saw signs of dominance from the righty in 2011, but too often he struggled on the mound early in games. Plus, it's hard to forget his last game of 2011, in which he flopped against Texas in the ALCS.
Look for Scherzer to improve upon his numbers in 2012. Since he is more of a strikeout pitcher, the defensive struggles that Detroit may have should do nothing to affect his stats.
Prince Fielder, 1B
There's no doubt that Prince Fielder is one of the biggest signings that Detroit has had in quite a while. However, with great contract comes great expectations, and fans are expecting Fielder to come up big in 2012.
It wouldn't be surprising if he came out of the gate struggling a bit. Detroit doesn't have the same kind of hitter's park that Fielder had in Milwaukee. Outside of his home field, Fielder did not put up nearly as solid numbers.
With all of that being said, Fielder will be successful in Detroit. He's following Cabrera in the lineup, so he'll have a good chance to boost his RBI total if Cabrera is getting on base as much as he was last season.
Defensively, Fielder is probably a bit better than Cabrera, so the defense at first base should improve slightly.
Jose Valverde, RP
Jose Valverde had a record-setting year in 2011, going 49-for-49 in saves on his way to earning the Delivery Man of the Year Award, which recognizes baseball's top reliever.
That's the good.
Here's the bad.
If you're a fan, Valverde is usually terrifying to watch on the mound. Not that he isn't a great reliever, because he seems to be excellent. But he has a career WHIP of 1.17. That's an extremely underwhelming stat. Plus, he is generally a train wreck in non-save situations.
Which brings us to 2012. There's little doubt that Valverde will have another great year in terms of number of saves accrued. Where he needs to improve is non-save opportunities. When the game is tied, Valverde needs to come out with the same tenacity that he has in a save situation. If he can do that, it could add anywhere from two to four more wins to Detroit's record in 2012.
Alex Avila, C
Alex Avila started the 2011 season on a hot streak but fizzled out toward the end of the season and was almost useless in the playoffs.
With Gerald Laird in the dugout to back up Avila in 2012, look for Avila's numbers to jump a bit. Avila played in far too many games last season, so it isn't surprising that he fizzled a bit toward the end of the year.
However, 2011 was a coming-out party of sorts for the catcher, and in 2012 he should build upon this. As I wrote in one of my previous columns, the rest factor should send Avila up the ranks as one of the best hitting catchers in all of baseball.
Doug Fister, SP
Numbers don't lie. After being traded to Detroit from Seattle in 2011, Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA. There is no place in baseball where that isn't impressive.
My concern has nothing to do with this. What worries me is Detroit's defensive ability and how it'll relate to Fister on the mound.
Fister isn't much of a strikeout pitcher; in fact, he relies heavily on the ground ball. Say what you will about Brandon Inge, but he's a much better defender than Miguel Cabrera. So, as Cabrera goes, so does Fister. To an extent.
Fister should be Detroit's No. 2 starter coming out of spring training, and I have him projected to win 15 games in 2012. His ERA should rise slightly, but that's to be expected.
However, if Cabrera somehow becomes an above-average defender at third base, look for Fister to have an even better year in 2012.
I know; he's not technically a player. But Leyland's performance will be crucial for Detroit in 2012.
Last year, fans watched Leyland make some questionable decisions to say the least.
Truth be told, most of Leyland's decisions are solid. But, occasionally, he makes a move that leaves everyone puzzled and simply asking the question, "Why?"
Will Leyland change the way that he does things? At first, I would have said no, but Leyland did talk about adjusting his management style to cater to his team. If he does this properly, Detroit could make a deep playoff run this season.
The Second Baseman TBD
Detroit's biggest question mark is at second base. Who fills this spot could be big for the Tigers going forward.
Regardless of who takes the job, the player probably will not be a long-term solution. In my next column, I'll discuss a few of the options Detroit has to fill the role.