The Detroit Tigers are good, just how good remains to be seen. There are plenty of questions still to be answered throughout spring training before the team heads home to the blustery spring of Michigan.
But make no mistake: On paper, this is the best team fans have had to cheer for in nearly 30 years.
That year was 1984 and Sparky Anderson's Cats were 35-5 in their first 40 games—a start never seen before and never repeated since. The corner of Michigan and Trumbull had Motown rockin'.
In 2006, few had any real expectations that Jim Leyland's new team would do much more than in the previous decade of floundering. A small wager on the Tigers that season would have provided a long-shot gambler vast riches, as Leyland took his rag-tag bunch all the way to the World Series B.M.G. (Before Miguel Cabrera).
Six years later, the tables have turned and everyone will be gunning for the presumed preseason American League king of the hill. While the boys of summer are still working out the winter kinks in Lakeland, they'll soon head home to the comforts of Comerica Park to begin their prowl toward a second straight A.L. Central Division title.
Their arrival will be lead by defending American League Cy Young and MVP pitcher Justin Verlander, as well as last season's blockbuster pickup Doug Fister and third-year Tigers fire-baller Max Scherzer.
The Tigers will also have a now-seasoned Rick Porcello, who bounced back last season and finished 14-9—the same record as his rookie season, following a poor showing his sophomore season in 2009 when he went 10-12. This is a huge swing season for Porcello. A great year will lock him in Detroit's rotation for a long time to come. The organization has invested in that already.
Depending on which Vegas book sports fans favor, the Tigers are an odds-on favorite to win the World Series, second only to the Philadelphia Phillies. Against Vegas' best line makers, the Tigers seem a sure bet for postseason play. Where they stand at Game 162 will have to wait eight months. Plenty of forecasts will be wagered between now and then.
Here's a forecast of how things will shake out for Detroit's starting rotation.
I'm just going to come out without hesitation and make the call that the Tigers' No. 5 starter will be promising young star Jacob Turner. Turner isn't Justin Verlander, nor will he ever be, but the organization is ready for him to develop into a strong No. 2 or 3 in the rotation—a young kid that can give them a dozen years and win 180-200 games.
Porcello was 20 when he jumped into a Detroit uniform and began to toe the slab for the Tigers. Turner seems to be every bit as mature as Porcello was at that time in his career. A strong spring in Lakeland will have him packing for the Motor City instead of Toledo.
A solid April will have him booking a stay-over for longer than a couple of weeks, which is about the time he's spent with Detroit so far.
The problem for the Tigers is that Turner doesn't offer the left arm they so desperately need in a righty-laden rotation. For now, Leyland and the organization will accept that shortcoming. They really have no other choice.
That said, he might not make a full season in the bigs without a return minor-league stint, as often happens to young tweener-type pitchers like Turner. The Tigers either have to push a bit this spring or wait until July to shuffle the deck if necessary.
My baseball radar says he's all done with A-ball, at least for now. In the end, Turner will do well for himself and finish strong.
2012 Stats Prediction
Porcello will be arbitration eligible in 2013, which means he needs a strong 2012 performance to push more zeros onto the end of his salary figure. He's primed to capture a big raise if he can better his career-best 14-9 record.
The 23-year-old ground-ball pitcher will look to enter 2012 with command of his potentially wicked slider and enough off-speed to keep hitters guessing early on this season.
The Detroit Free Press reported Rick Porcello's approach to the upcoming season was jump-started from previous seasons.
"I'm trying to get as close to midseason form, by the time the season starts, as possible," he said. "In years prior, I haven't started throwing until the first of the year. This year, I started throwing a month earlier just because I felt like I needed to make sure my arm was stronger when I came to camp than it was last year... It's about making sure that my arm is strong at the beginning of the season. My goal is to pitch deep into the game every fifth day and give us a chance to win. Wherever that leads me at the end of the year, that's where it is."
Porcello seems focused and mature after three MLB seasons. He's ready to step it up to the next level and with the bats he'll have supporting him on the mound, he could push for 20 wins before he turns 25.
2012 Stats Prediction
The Tigers need Max Scherzer to do what he hasn't done yet in his 64 career games with the Tigers—finish a full season of consistent pitching. It's time, because he has too lively an arm to waste it bouncing down to minor league ballparks every now and then when he can't seem to find the right arm slot.
Those days need to be a part of the old Max Scherzer. The new Scherzer needs to be more calm and collected on the mound, a pitcher insistent on being his best all the time, not most of the time. A veteran, not a rookie.
His 27-20 two-year Tigers record could be better if not for consistent inconsistency. When he's hot, he's almost untouchable. But when he's bad, he's brutal. Scherzer seems to either mow down a baker's dozen or give up half as many before he's out of the third.
My prognostication is that he'll catch a groove three or four games in and ride a Tigers lineup that could knock in a couple thousand runs this season. He will finally find the consistency he's shown signs of all along and have a career season.
The Tigers will follow suit.
2012 Stats Prediction
There are few places in baseball that the Doug Fister who played for Detroit in 2011 wouldn't be some manager's ace—a lowly run-producing team like Seattle where his talents where squandered, or sitting behind the Tigers big hoss Justin Verlander at No. 2.
Those are the only two places he's been, and yet here he is poised to make a name for himself as one of the best in the American League.
Fister will take the latter option anytime. Since his arrival in Motown, he's been nothing but solid gold for the Tigers, winning eight of his 10 starts with the Tigers following the midseason trade with the Mariners.
Even more impressive than the wins were the other numbers in his stat line, including a smoking-hot 1.79 ERA and impressive 14 earned runs, with 57 strikeouts against only five walks. Yes, five walks.
That, in baseball talk, is "good stuff." Fister is great stuff for a potentially strong Tigers staff and he will bring plenty more of his good stuff in 2012. Look for him to challenge Verlander, which will make both the ace and his followers better.
2012 Stats Prediction
Other Awards: A.L. All-Star
A catch-22 prediction, Justin Verlander had such an amazing 2011 it would be tough to predict he'd repeat or even do better in 2012. Don't get me wrong, he could, and I'd be happy to be dead wrong.
However, Verlander had some magical moments last year and had some heroic measures keep his second-half streak of 12 straight victories intact before he couldn't be saved in his final game of the season and dropped only his fifth game all season.
Verlander is the face of MLB right now and his charisma has caught fire nationwide. He isn't so much a part of the best-pitcher-in-the-American-League talk anymore; Verlander is the talk about who is the best. A great 2012 will have him will target conversation about the best in the game. Period.
Any pitcher would be ecstatic with the stats below come September, Verlander will too. I still don't think 2012 will bring the best he has yet to give. That will save itself for 2013.
2012 Stats Prediction
Other Awards: A.L. All-Star Game Starter, A.L. Cy Young, Pitching Triple Crown, MVP – 4th Place
*No-Hitter (3rd Career)
If you were keeping count, in total that's 89 wins for the starting rotation. Anything above 80 is pretty impressive and with the lineup that Leyland will be sporting, there's no reason to think the arms he has on the rubber can't get him closer to 90 than 80.
The Tigers will pick up another dozen wins out of the bullpen and a couple of call-up victories will get them into triple digits.
That said, Verlander and his brethren will be the best in the game this year. The Tigers are just too good on the other side of the plate not to trounce throughout their division and do their fair share of knocking down cross-divisional foes as well.
They have a the makings of rotation that will carry plenty of innings and leave a well-rested bullpen for the post-season push. If that same bullpen can dominate as the starters are predicted to, the division race could be over early, with the Tigers dominating by 25-plus games.
Owning home field will be crucial for the divisional and league series. Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, Porcello, Turner and a mixed-bag bullpen that includes fan favorite Phil Coke, as well as a healthy Al Albuquerque, Joaquin Benoit and "Papa Grande" Jose Valverde.
Tigers 2012 Regular Season Record Prediction
Remember that 35-5 start? Are they that good? They might be better.