The Detroit Tigers may be the team to beat in 2012.
The Tigers already had a strong team, led by 2011 Cy Young winner and American League MVP—Justin Verlander and batting champ Miguel Cabrera.
Then they went out and inked former Milwaukee Brewers slugger Prince Fielder to a monster contract.
The Tigers have everything they need to compete for the American League pennant, and then some. On paper, they are easily one of the strongest teams in baseball.
But will they live up to the hype?
Well, let's take a look.
2011 Record: 95-67
Key Departures: 2B Will Rhymes (FA), SS Carlos Guillen (FA), 3B Wilson Betemit (FA), OF Magglio Ordonez (FA), SP Brad Penny (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- Justin Verlander (24-5, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP)
- Doug Fister (11-13, 2.83, 1.06)
- Max Scherzer (15-9, 4.43, 1.35)
- Rick Porcello (14-9, 4.75, 1.41)
- Jacob Turner (0-1, 8.53, 1.66)
- Andrew Oliver (0-1, 6.52, 1.97)
- Drew Smyly (N/A)
Projected Starting Positions
C: Alex Avila (.295/.389/.506)
1B: Prince Fielder (.299/.415/.566)
2B: Ryan Raburn (.256/.297/.432)
3B: Miguel Cabrera (.344/.448/.586)
SS: Jhonny Peralta (.299/.345/.478)
LF: Delmon Young (.274/.298/.458)
CF: Austin Jackson (.249/.317/.374)
RF: Brennan Boesch (.283/.341/.458)
UPDATE: March 3
According to the Detroit Free Press, Jim Leyland is not going to have a full-time DH this season. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder will both get their turns, as will Delmon Young.
Closer: Jose Valverde (R) (2-4, 49 SV, 2.24 ERA, 1.19 WHIP)
Joaquin Benoit (R) (4-3, 2 SV, 29 HLD, 5 BLSV, 2.95, 1.05)
Octavio Dotel (R) (5-4, 3 SV, 9 HLD, 3.50, 0.98)
Phil Coke (L) (3-9, 1 SV, 8 HLD, 1 BLSV, 4.47, 1.45)
Al Alburquerque (R) (6-1, 6 HLD, 1.87, 1.15)
Daniel Schlereth (L) (2-2, 7 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.49, 1.37)
Collin Balester (R) (1-4, 2 HLD, 1 BLSV, 4.54, 1.46)
David Pauley (R) (5-6, 8 HLD, 2 BLSV, 3.16, 1.16)
Duane Below (L) (0-2, 4.34, 1.34)
Adam Wilk (L) (0-0, 5.40, 1.28)
Matt Hoffman (L) (N/A)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
Justin Verlander was an absolute stud in 2011, but as a whole Detroit's starting pitching was pretty mediocre.
Detroit's starting rotation logged 991 innings last season, which placed them right in the middle of the American League in that category. Though Detroit's starters logged a respectable 90 quality starts, the rotation had a 4.10 ERA.
These numbers don't look awful at first glance, but keep in mind that Verlander helped make this rotation look better than it actually was. He balanced things out, to say the least.
The Tigers won't complain if Verlander did what he did in 2011 all over again in 2012.
I'm going to take a deeper dive into Verlander's numbers a little later in this preview, but it suffices to say he was virtually unhittable last season. He had one of the most dominant seasons in recent baseball history.
Behind Verlander, the Tigers are hoping that Doug Fister can be as effective as he was for them after coming over from the Seattle Mariners.
He was pretty good for the Mariners, but he was great for the Tigers, going 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA and a 0.84 WHIP. He provided the stability that Detroit's rotation was lacking after Verlander.
Fister doesn't do anything fancy when he's on the mound. He gets by with great control and by pitching mainly to contact. Guys who pitch to contact can be unpredictable from season to season, but Fister can be trusted because he just doesn't allow opponents to make solid contact.
Hitters slugged .385 off him in 2010, and .339 off him in 2011. He was particularly good at Comerica Park last season, allowing an opponents' average of under .200 and posting a 1.61 ERA.
So fear not, Tigers fans.
Fister likely won't be as dominant as he was in the latter half of 2011, but he's a legit pitcher.
The key to this rotation is Max Scherzer. He's always had ace potential, but he has yet to find the kind of balance that allows him to be an ace.
Truth be told, his situation is a little complicated. I'm going to discuss it in further depth a little later on.
The back end of Detroit's rotation is not unlike the back end of any other rotation. There are some question marks, and it's a good bet there will be some moving parts throughout the course of the season.
The Tigers can take nothing for granted with Rick Porcello.
Control has never been an issue for him, and that's actually something of a problem. Porcello just hasn't missed many bats early in his career. Hitters have hit .283 off him in his three seasons, and they hit .292 off him in 2011. Worse, they've tended to hit the ball hard.
Jacob Turner is a wild card. He got called up to make three starts last season, and he didn't perform well at all. He managed just 12.2 innings, giving up 17 hits and 12 earned runs.
On the bright side, stuff is not the problem when it comes to Turner. His fastball, curveball and changeup are all major league-ready pitches, and he showed pretty good control in the minors. If he puts it all together, he's a legit Rookie of the Year candidate.
Detroit's rotation is a top-heavy unit on paper, but that's not such a bad thing.
Even if the guys at the back end of this rotation struggle, they're going to be picked up by the Tigers' vaunted offense.
To that end, this rotation is plenty good enough.
Scouting the Bullpen
Detroit's bullpen was a little on the unpredictable side in 2011.
More than anything, the Tigers' bullpen was plagued by bad control. Tigers relievers combined to post a BB/9 of 4.37, the highest mark in the American League. With so many extra runners on base, it's no wonder Detroit's bullpen had a 3.93 ERA, fourth-highest in the AL.
Closer Jose Valverde was one of the most unpredictable relievers the Tigers had last season. Fortunately, he was also the most dominant reliever the Tigers had. Valverde didn't blow a save in 49 chances, and he held opponents to a .198 average.
This is more or less par for the course when it comes to Valverde. He's going to make it interesting, and it's rarely pretty, but he has a knack for sneaking out of trouble and nailing down the save. The numbers suggests that Valverde should be awful, but he's proven throughout his career that numbers only count for so much when he's at the center of the discussion.
Valverde has the ninth inning on lockdown, and Joaquin Benoit will have the eighth inning on lockdown (health permitting). He'll come in and strike guys out while limiting his walks and keeping the ball in the yard.
Benoit wasn't as dominant in 2011 as he was in 2010, but one thing caught me eye. Benoit had an ERA of 2.95 last season, and he had a FIP of 2.96. The rough translation there is that everything Benoit achieved last season was totally legit.
The Tigers are returning a lot of the same guys who struggled last season, but the addition of Octavio Dotel will help level things out. He's been a productive reliever for a long time, and I'll wager he'll be a productive reliever again for the Tigers in 2012.
Don't be surprised when this bullpen hits some speedbumps this season. But because the Tigers have the late innings under control, and because these relievers are likely to be working with big leads more often than not, this bullpen won't kill the team.
Scouting the Hitting
Scoring runs was not a problem for the Tigers in 2011.
They scored 787 of them, fourth-most in the AL. They also finished third in the league in team batting average (.277), on-base percentage (.340) and fourth in slugging percentage (.434).
The Tigers could mash with the best of 'em.
The bad news is that they won't have Victor Martinez in 2012. He tore his ACL earlier this offseason.
The good news is that his spot in the lineup was subsequently filled when the Tigers signed Prince Fielder.
Not a bad upgrade.
Fielder is going to make too much money on the Tigers, but he's easily one of the five best left-handed hitters in baseball. The Tigers also happen to have one of the very best right-handed hitters in baseball in Miguel Cabrera.
So yeah, beware the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in this order.
Per the Detroit Free Press, Fielder is likely to at cleanup with Cabrera batting in the No. 3 spot. This eases some of the concerns I have about Cabrera being distracted by his move across the diamond to third base, as he will surely get plenty of good pitches to hit batting in front of Fielder. I wouldn't be at all surprised if he makes a run at a second straight AL batting title.
This lineup isn't all about the two guys in the middle, though. From top to bottom, this is one of the deepest lineups in baseball.
There's plenty to like when you look at Detroit's projected starters. Jhonny Peralta was an All-Star last season, and so was Alex Avila. Brennan Boesch showed off good power in limited at-bats, and the same is true of Ryan Raburn.
The two of them could stand to become more efficient, but it's not exactly a must given the depth of the lineup they'll be hitting in. Nobody will be in a position to complain as long as the two of them provide some pop.
The only real gripe I have with this lineup is that Austin Jackson is an awful leadoff hitter. As many expected he would, Jackson regressed mightily in 2011 after his breakout season in 2010. His average and his on-base percentage went way down, and his strikeouts went way up.
He finished third in the majors with 181 strikeouts. He struck out 27 percent of the time he was at the dish.
When Jackson puts the bat on the ball, he's pretty good. He had a .396 BABIP in 2010 and a .340 BABIP in 2011. He doesn't have a whole lot of pop, but he knows how to hit it where they ain't. All he needs to do is hit it more often.
Because this Detroit lineup is so deep, it's not exactly imperative for Jackson to evolve into a capable leadoff guy. If he does, though, there's not going to be an easy out in this order from top to bottom.
No matter what happens at the top, the Tigers are going to score a ton of runs this season.
Justin Verlander said it best when he spoke about the lineup after the Prince Fielder signing.
"I wouldn’t want to face it," he said.
Justin Verlander was pretty good last season. He won the American League triple crown, leading the AL in wins, ERA and strikeouts. He also pitched more innings than any other starter in baseball.
That inning count is a big reason why Verlander struck out so many hitters. Believe it or not, his K/9 was a mere 8.96, a figure that ranked ninth in the majors. Verlander's K/BB of 4.39 wasn't even one of the top five marks in the majors.
As you can tell, I'm nitpicking. Verlander may not have been the best strikeout artist in the majors, but his other numbers do back up the widely-held notion that he was the best pitcher in baseball last season.
Opponents simply couldn't hit Verlander. In fact, they hit .192 off him, the lowest such mark for any starting pitcher. He held hitters to a .242 on-base percentage, which was also lowest in the majors. Hitters slugged .313 off him, which was the second-lowest mark in the majors.
Will Verlander repeat what he did in 2011 in 2012?
No. As great as he was, everything went right for him. His .236 BABIP was a little too good, and his FIP of 2.99 was significantly higher than his 2.40 ERA. Verlander benefited from some luck last season.
Take that luck out of the equation, and Verlander is still an elite pitcher. Even if he doesn't benefit from good luck this season, I fully expect him to be one of the top pitchers in the American League.
With all respect to Detroit's new $200 million man, Miguel Cabrera has to go here.
Cabrera had his best season yet in 2011, leading the majors with a .344 batting average and a .448 on-base percentage. Only Jose Bautista had a higher OPS than Cabrera's 1.033 mark.
The remarkable part of Cabrera's 2011 season was how consistently great he was. He had one month in which he hit .286, and another in which he hit .250.
In every other month, he didn't bat lower than .330. When the Tigers were in the middle of their playoff push in September, Cabrera hit a ridiculous .429 with a ridiculous .758 slugging percentage.
There's really nothing to complain about with Cabrera. He's one of the most patient hitters in baseball, and he's one of the smartest hitters in baseball. He'll wait patiently for his pitch, and he won't miss it when he gets it.
And like I mentioned above, Cabrera will benefit from hitting in front of Fielder if that is indeed the way Jim Leyland chooses to play it. His great season in 2011 may be followed by an even better season in 2012.
It's time to talk about how frustrating Max Scherzer is.
Scherzer is frustrating because it seems like every step forward that he takes comes with a step back. He'll make an adjustment he needed to make, but an entirely new problem will arise.
Case in point, Scherzer's control got a lot better last season, as he lowered his BB/9 from 3.22 to 2.58. He was throwing strikes more consistently, which is something he needed to do.
The only trouble is that Scherzer left too many pitches over the plate and up in the zone, and his mistakes were hit a long way. He gave up 29 home runs, third-most in the American League. Nearly 13 percent of the fly balls he induced ended up going over the fence.
It's easy for me to say, but this is another thing Scherzer has to get squared away. If he can keep hitters from blasting home runs left and right, I see no reason why Scherzer couldn't develop into a third ace.
If the Tigers are going to go all the way to the World Series, they're going to need a third ace. The Los Angeles Angels, Texas Rangers, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays all have great rotations, and they're Detroit's main competition in the American League.
The Tigers have the lineup to compete with them, but they don't have the pitching.
If Scherzer comes into his own, they will.
Prospect to Watch
Jacob Turner looks like a lock to start the season with the big club so I have to go with Nick Castellanos here.
Before you ask, you're not going to be seeing Castellanos in the majors this year. He's only 19, and he only has one full year of minor league experience under his belt. He's still a few years away from breaking into the show.
On the bright side, Castellanos' first full year in the minors went very well.
He hit .312 with seven homers and 76 RBI. He struck out too much and he didn't take enough walks, but that's true of virtually every minor league hitter in the world.
ESPN's Keith Law ranked Castellanos at No. 37 on his list of the Top 100 prospects in baseball, saying he projects as an "impact power hitter with above-average defense at third base."
A couple years down the road, Castellanos may be Cabrera's heir apparent at third base. He's only signed through 2015, and it may be easier for the Tigers to hand their third base job over to Castellanos rather than re-signing Cabrera.
Giving it to Castellanos will certainly be cheaper.
What the Tigers Will Do Well
This team is going to hit, make no mistake about that.
On paper, Cabrera and Fielder represent the best hitting duo in baseball. Thanks to them, pitchers are going to fear doing business with the middle of Detroit's batting order.
Pitchers won't be out of the woods before and after Cabrera and Fielder, though. There's more than enough talent to go around in this lineup.
The Tigers will also get great work out of the first two guys in their starting rotation.
Verlander will get all the hype, but in the end Fister may end up being just as good. He's not to be underestimated.
What the Tigers Won’t Do Well
There are better bullpens out there than Detroit's, and the back end of the team's rotation will likely frustrate Tigers fans for the better part of the season.
Also, the Tigers won't be the best fielding team in the league.
Fielder is not an elite defensive first baseman, and Cabrera was nothing special when we last saw him at third base.
Infield defense is going to be an issue.
In the grand scheme of things, these are minor complaints. The Tigers aren't perfect, but they're a damn good team.
This is a championship or bust team.
The Tigers are not without issues, but any team with a stacked lineup and two great starting pitchers is going to go far. If the Tigers underachieve this season, it won't be because of a lack of talent.
The Tigers are easily the best team in the AL Central. So much so, in fact, that winning the division should be a foregone conclusion for them. Their ultimate goal will be to win the World Series.
To that end, the Tigers are going to have some tough competition once the postseason rolls around. The American League is stronger than it's been in years.
But hey, at least the Tigers will get to the postseason without any trouble.
Projected Record: 98-64, first in AL Central.
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge mancrush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter:
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