The Detroit Tigers have begun Spring Training, and have taken the field in a way that they haven’t done since the spring of 1988: as defending division champions. In 2006, they made the World Series as the Wild Card team after stumbling during the second half of that year.
A major piece to their success in 2011 was Victor Martinez, who tore his ACL in January as he was training, and now will miss the 2012 campaign. Ordinarily, losing a great hitter in a lineup would cause problems for many teams, but in a move that shocked many, owner Mike Illitch went out and signed first baseman Prince Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal.
The move surprised many, since just a week before, Tigers president David Dombrowski stated that Fielder was “not really an option for them.” It has also led several experts and writers to give the Tigers an edge not only to win their division, but to be in serious contention to represent the American League in the World Series, a goal they missed by just two games a season ago.
Even with the addition of Fielder, the Tigers still have several issues to address, ranging from starting pitching to defensive options. Spring Training will give them a chance to iron out any problems and fine-tune the players. Those issues, in no particular order, are as follows:
There’s no easy way to say this, but it must be said: The Tigers infield, as it stands now, will not frighten very many people, aside from Tiger fans. The corner positions will be manned by Cabrera and Fielder at third and first, respectively, neither of whom have been particularly flashy with the glove.
So far this year in Lakeland, Cabrera has enjoyed the move back to his old position, and he has shed several pounds to help with his agility. He acknowledges that the shift isn’t easy, but his ability to adapt and desire to work should help him.
Jhonny Peralta will return at shortstop, and with the departure of Carlos Guillen, the likely starter at second base will be Ryan Raburn. Interestingly, Brandon Inge may see time at second as well, but it’s unknown how that will pan out.
Bottom Line: The Tigers have a defensive infield that probably won’t win a Gold Glove, at least at the corner positions, but playing wisely will keep problems down somewhat.
It’s a reasonably well-known fact that when a lead-off hitter gets on base, the chances of scoring at least one run are over 50 percent, but when the lead-off hitter makes an out, the chances drop considerably.
Austin Jackson has the tools to be a great lead-off hitter, except for his strikeout numbers. He struck out 188 times last season, which is more than the year before. According to ESPN writer Tim Kurkjian, he is changing his hitting mechanics, and wanted to do so last season, but didn’t.
Bottom line: Time will tell if the change will work, but initial reports are positive.
Starter No. 5
When the fifth spot in the starting rotation is one of the top problems on the team, it’s usually a good sign that the team will do well, because other teams will often have more pressing problems.
In this particular case, the Tigers need a left-handed starter to complement the arms of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. Likely candidates for that spot include Duane Below or Andy Oliver.
Bottom Line: Verlander leads a tough starting rotation for the Tigers, and it may not matter who takes up the fifth spot if the other four can replicate or even exceed their performance of 2011.
All told, the Tigers have the potential to be a force in the American League, provided they can remain healthy and not let the hype get to them. The defending AL Central champions should be able to repeat and possibly add a World Series ring to their growing resume.