The Tigers infield squad in game 5 of the 2011 ALCS
The Detroit Tigers are consensus favorites to repeat as AL Central Champions. It's common knowledge, and might not even bear repeating. However, the Tigers crown from last year was won on the backs of several players who had exceptional, and in a few cases totally unexpected, performances. Jhonny Peralta had only batted over .290 one other time in his career, for instance. Justin Verlander's AL MVP performance was historic, and not many expected Alex Avila to be the AL All-Star starting catcher. These guys may have played over their heads, and it's important to keep that in mind heading into this year's season.
The flip side of that coin, of course, is that a few guys played well below expectations. Rick Porcello's ERA was just south of 5, Austin Jackson not only regressed in batting average on balls in play from his 2010 campaign, but also struck out more, and third base was an offensive black hole. Some of the guys who underperformed are bound to take a step forward in 2012.
The question going into this year's spring training is who are the Tigers most likely to take a step back, and who on the team is going to give us a pleasant surprise?
Justin Verlander facing the Texas Ranger in Game 5 of the ALCS
Boo! Hiss! Verlander is Superman! Agreed, but he's not superhuman, and the likelihood that he will be able to repeat, let alone improve on his 2011 performance is not great. He's a wonderful pitcher, but there's simply likely to be some bad luck coming his way.
That's not to say that he won't be phenomenal. He more than likely will be one of the best three pitchers in the AL, if not in all of baseball. But the numbers will be hard to keep up. Still, he is a huge asset for this team.
Jhonny Peralta during Game 6 of the ALCS
Peralta, as mentioned earlier, had only hit over .290 one other season in his career. Additionally, he's hit more than 20 homers in three seasons other than 2011, but no more than 15 in any of his other five seasons at the major league level. This may be a case of Peralta performing at a higher level because he needed a change of scenery, but it's at least as likely that he becomes less useful next year.
Furthermore, and don't take this as a prediction but rather pure speculation, he could find himself in the hot seat this summer. Should he regress substantially more than he is likely to with his bat, he could lose his job to a better fielder, for example Danny Worth. In Worth's short time in Detroit, he hit adequately and was a defensive asset. With the bad defense expected at the corners, shortstop needs to be a plus position. Peralta's best bet at being plus is with his bat.
Jose Valverde in Game 4 of the ALCS
Papa Grande. Big Papa. The Big Potato. He has a lot of names, and last year earned a lot of accolades, including Deliveryman of the Year, MLB's award for the best reliever. But Valverde is almost promised a letdown. That's what happens when you reach perfection and go 49-for-49 in save opportunities. Perfection is a peak, not a plateau, and you've got to go down the other side. Furthermore, there was some luck involved with more than a few of his saves last year (See: this game against the Indians).
Similar to Verlander, this doesn't mean that he won't be a huge asset for the club. The best save percentage last year was 85 percent for a club (The Philadelphia Phillies). If Valverde is used exclusively in a closer role, and not in non-save situations, he will probably have about 60 save opportunities. If he saves 85 percent of those games, he'd walk away with 51 saves. That seems around the right number to expect.
Doug Fister during Game 3 of the ALCS
Fister was acquired by Detroit with the expectation being that he would be a fifth starter. Instead, he increased his strikeouts per nine innings rate and out-performed Justin Verlander down the stretch. He didn't pitch like a number five starter, nor a number two, he pitched like a second ace. However, the chances of his matching the 1.79 earned run average or the opposing batting average of .188 for a whole season are not great, especially considering this year's infield defense, which will likely not be good.
However, that doesn't mean he'll be bad. Like Verlander and Valverde, a drop off should be expected, but he will still contribute a lot to this team. In fact, apart from the career won-loss record, his statistics indicate that he's more of a number two than Max Scherzer is. If he matches his career 3.49 ERA, there's no reason to think that he can't be very successful, especially if he keeps up his new K/9 rate.
Alex Avila in Game 5 of the ALCS
Alex Avila stunned the Major League Baseball by being the best catcher in the AL last year. He was phenomenal, hitting .295/.389/506 with 19 home runs, and was second in OPS on the team, and he made these improvements while being a defensive asset. This came one year after hitting .226/.316/.340 with seven homers and an OPS of .656. However, he also posted a BABIP of .366, well over his career mark of .329. This would seem to indicate that he will probably experience a slump in his batting average.
Take this information with a grain of salt, though. Of all the players on the regression list, it would seem like he should experience the least drop off. The kid's got a great swing, has learned how to play catcher, and is young, at just 25 years old. Furthermore, the mentoring of great hitters like Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez could help to explain his advances. With Prince Fielder on his team maybe we could expect 30 jacks?
Austin Jackson in Game 5 of the ALCS
Austin Jackson, known in some quarters as K-Jax and more affectionately in others as A-Jax, is a plus player. He has great defensive instincts, and would fit on any club in the AL, except perhaps for the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. That said, the irritation most fans felt at the slide from his 2009 rookie performance was justified (if not unexpected given his unsustainable BABIP in that year). However, there are a few reasons to hope for the best with Jackson, instead of expecting the worst.
Just to be clear, the worst was last year. He should not be expected to get worse, and if he does, he should probably be replaced, at least at the plate. For one thing, his career minor league strikeout rate was closer to 21 percent than his major league rate of 26 percent. Additionally, his major league walk rate is almost two percent lower than his minor league nine percent. This indicates one of two thing: he's considerably worse than his minor league rates indicate, or he's adjusting. If he can make those adjustments, which he says he is having success doing, he could become a hitter like Torii Hunter, or Michael Bourn with more power (each of whom had similar minor league numbers and eventually had success in the majors). The Tigers and their fans would certainly take that.
Brennan Boesch against the Kansas City Royals August 5, 2011
Brennan Boesch making this list should surprise no one who follows the Tigers very closely. He has been picked as a breakout star in 2012 in fantasy analysis and by Jim Bowden on ESPN.com. We more than likely know his story, first half All-Star in '10, second half flop. First half .300 hitter in 11, injured through the second half. This year is supposed to be his whole year. And it will.
Hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder is going to give Boesch more good pitches to hit than he knows what to...oh, wait, he knows exactly what to do it them: hit them. A long, long way. Barring another injury, the progress that he made in 2011 is only going to be built upon in '12, because of the different circumstances. This is especially true if he can adjust his swing somewhat and try to simply make more contact. He's going to have a very good year.
Delmon Young trotting home during Game 5 of the ALCS
Three outfield positions, three outfielders poised for big years. Young can't get on base worth a darn, and he's a defensive liability, but he's got a power bat, he's in a walk year, and he has the luxury of hitting behind perhaps the best 1-2, lefty-righty combination in the game. Although Young has been mostly a disappointment since being drafted with the overall No. 1 pick in the 2003 draft, it's not as though he's been a bad player. The additional pressure of playing for a contract is going to lift his average over .300, and he'll set a career high for homers. Unfortunately, his OBP is still going to look pretty ugly.
Scherzer in his Game 6 start against Texas in the ALCS
Scherzer can step up and be an ace No. 3 pitcher along with Verlander and Fister. We saw that ability in the second half of 2010, when he brought his ERA down from above 5.00, to 3.50. What bodes well for Scherzer is that he is a strikeout pitcher. His K/9 isn't a strikeout an inning, but it's still very good. Scherzer's bugaboos are pitching on the road and limiting the long ball. He's a flyball pitcher, and with his outfield defense being better than his infield defense (Raburn will play more than a few games there, limiting Young's deficiencies), that should help him get some outs he needs, but he needs to keep the ball in the park.
By the way, when Ryan Raburn is considered a defensive upgrade in left field, you know the other option is...below average.
Rick Porcello exiting Game 4 of the ALCS
As with Alex Avila being the least likely to have a meaningful regression, Porcello is probably the least likely among these players to really progress. In spite of the expected bad infield defense (not to beat a dead horse) and being a groundball pitcher, Porcello should make some important improvements this year.
Last year was a story of streaks for Porcello. He was either lights out, winning five or six starts in a row, or awful for a few starts, though the offense bailed him out a few times. His struggles were partly due to a lack of velocity, though that should be solved by throwing earlier this year. Another problem for him was his inability to strike batters out.
He's had three years in the majors now, and last year was the first that he cracked 100 strikeouts (104 in 182 innings). He either figures out how to make his secondary stuff work this year, or Dave Dombrowski probably finds him a new home before next year. It seems more likely that he'll figure it out and get closer to six or seven K/9, because a kid with his drive and talent doesn't usually end up just an inning eater.
What it all means: The good players who will regress are too young, and didn't play far enough above their heads to really cost the team too much. The guys who can really step it up are all young enough to break out or in situations that would indicate that this is their best chance to do so. Barring the defense being so brutal that they can't hold a lead, this team will be good enough to at least win the division.
Other players about to make it or break it:
David Pauley: Pauley and Fister were acquired in the same trade from Seattle. While Fister was a pitching titan, Pauley was a pitching Titanic, perhaps sunk after being put on ice by Jim Leyland for a long period after the acquisition.
Clete Thomas: The man with the best name in baseball needs to come back from microfracture surgery strong if he wants to head north with the team. He can do a little of everything, with pretty good speed. For a team that lacks speed as much as this one does, if he can hit some he'll have a spot.
Daniel Schlereth: Mark's son is a good pitcher with good stuff, particularly an outstanding breaking ball. Unfortunately for everyone, he walks too many batters to be reliable. He needs to pound the strike zone or he risks being traded (See: Ryan Perry) and losing his spot in the bullpen to one of the minor league southpaws.
Danny Worth: The club may need his glove, especially in 2013 and beyond. Both Peralta and Ryan Raburn will be free agents next year, and a rangy fielder (or two) up the middle would be a huge asset to combine with the power on the corners. He could possibly nail down a future every day spot if he does well this Spring Training and through the season.