Heading into this season, there was more hype surrounding the Detroit Tigers than in any previous season since 2008.
In that year, the Tigers had brought in a bunch of high-priced, highly talented players and were just a year and a half removed from a World Series appearance.
Of course, that ended up being a disastrous season, and a lesson to fans in tempering expectations.
This year, the Tigers again brought in a high-priced, highly talented player and were just a half year removed from nearly getting to the World Series.
Most fans refused to compare the two seasons, and perhaps that is just a case of optimism.
We refuse to focus on the bad, but instead hope for the best.
I like that, but I'm an optimist.
And I am just as guilty as the rest in scoffing at the comparison.
But now that the Tigers have been scuffling a little bit, some of the Monday morning managers have resurfaced, and the comparisons are being laid out.
But instead of focusing on how terrible that 2008 season was, let's explore whether or not fans should be worried about the 2012 version.
The Tigers have had plenty of issues this season, not the least of which has been an inconsistent bullpen, especially at the back end.
Jose Valverde has already blown two saves, and has an ERA above 5.60.
Joaquin Benoit also has blown a save, and has given up five earned runs in only 13 appearances.
In fact, Collin Balester, Luke Putkonen, Daniel Schlereth, and Thad Weber have all been knocked around this year.
The only relievers that have been effective have been Phil Coke, Duane Below, Brayan Villareal, and the newly acquired Octavio Dotel.
So is this a sign of a weak bullpen, or just some early season rust?
Sure, I am an admitted optimist, but let's look at the likely scenario here.
Nobody thought that Valverde was going to equal last year's monster numbers. But nobody thought he would struggle this mightily through the first month of the season.
Part of this might be the fact that he lost a lot of weight in the offseason, and he is just trying to master his balance.
Part of it is the fact that the weather has been cold, which can effect some pitchers.
Historically, Valverde does not have a statistical trend as a slow starter.
Actually, Valverde only really has one trend when it comes to his month-to-month production and that is inconsistency.
In 2010 and 2011, he got off to great Aprils, but then bounced around from bad to good and back again.
In 2009, he got off to a terrible start, but then straightened it out.
Only one thing is certain about Valverde, and that is that when the season is over, he will probably have good numbers.
Benoit, on the other hand, is a much more consistent performer. He always plays poorly in April.
From 2009-2011, Benoit had a 5.56 ERA in April, but never had an ERA near 3.00 in the other months of the season.
The reason for this is the fact that Benoit is more of a feel pitcher, relying on off-speed pitches to bolster his fastball, which also needs to have movement.
The cold weather notoriously effects feel pitchers more than pure power pitchers.
So Benoit should be fine.
Now as for the rest of the bullpen, I wouldn't really worry too much about them.
Obviously Below is a good long reliever, Dotel is as consistent as rain in the Pacific Northwest, and Phil Coke has settled in masterfully back in the middle of the bullpen.
Schlereth is probably not in the team's plans this year, Balester and Putkonen are not vital members of the staff, and Weber is also just a bit player in this bullpen.
The most important part is the back end, which should still be considered a strength moving forward.
If the Tigers can rely on three or four other guys, then we should be golden.
Villareal should be considered a bright spot so far, and could have the makings of some good stuff.
Remember also that Luis Marte and Al Alburquerque should both return at some point this year, and both showed flashes of brilliance in the past.
The starting rotation, once billed as arguably the biggest strength of the team, has been erratic thus far.
Justin Verlander continues to impress, and Drew Smyly has been a surprise, but the rest of the rotation has struggled at times.
So should this group be given up on at this point?
First off, you need to throw out Adam Wilk's numbers as he was a last-minute replacement for the injured Doug Fister.
That's three losses that likely would not have been had Fister been around.
But Fister returns starting tonight, so this should provide a big boost.
So we are subbing out a guy with an ERA over 8.00 for a guy that had a 1.79 ERA over his 11 games with Detroit last year.
Even if that number jumps up to a reasonable 3.46 (Fister's career ERA), then the Tigers will be in all of his starts.
Rick Porcello is another pitcher that you need to be bullish on.
He is a sinkerball pitcher, a pitch that requires good feel and can be negatively effected by cold weather.
So far, all of his games have been either at home, or in bad weather ballparks on the road.
He also looked really good in his last two starts, both wins against A.L. Central teams.
So Porcello is trending upwards.
Now as for Max Scherzer, who the heck knows?
Scherzer has the potential to shut down even great teams, but he also struggles sometimes when you assume he will be good.
Moving forward, he really is the only question mark in the rotation.
Shouldn't that alone give fans reason for optimism?
Top to bottom, is there another rotation in the American League that you would rather have than ours?
The biggest strength of this team was supposed to be the lineup, but so far this group has struggled somewhat.
This group in 14th in baseball in batting average and runs, and is 17th in OBP.
Brennan Boesch, Delmon Young, Ryan Raburn and Jhonny Peralta have struggled.
So is there reason for concern?
The biggest questions in this lineup heading into the season were whether or not Austin Jackson would bounce back after a disappointing sophomore season, could Prince Fielder adapt to a new league, and would Alex Avila rebound after a disappointing stretch run.
Jackson has been superb, leading the team in batting average, runs, walks and OBP.
Fielder hasn't gotten a lot of good pitches to hit, but has taken what the opposition has given him. He is hitting .300 and has an OBP of .377.
Avila started out somewhat slowly, but is hitting .412 in the last week.
This lineup is only going to get better as the weather improves.
Young and Boesch have been pressing, and should both settle down. I really like the fact that manager Jim Leyland batted Boesch in the bottom third of the lineup yesterday, and this could be a good move going forward.
Boesch has never been a high OBP guy, so batting him number two makes little sense.
Young has been dealing with self-inflicted off-the-field issues, and if he plays half as well as he did last year in Detroit, the Tigers will be in good shape.
Peralta also has been heating up as of late, hitting .353 in the last week, including a walk-off home run this weekend.
Raburn, however, is a different story. Why the Tigers expect him to suddenly become a good hitter in the first half of the season is beyond me.
Look at his numbers over the past three years.
From 2009 through 2011, Raburn has hit .233 in April, .172 in May, .246 in June, and .241 in July.
Is it really a shock that he is hitting .174 so far this year?
The solution? Turn him into more of a situational player until July when he starts to heat up.
Ramon Santiago and Danny Worth are better first-half hitters, and both have more range on defense.
This really is a no-brainer.
The lineup will get better, and so too will the Tigers.
This team still should be considered the favorite to win their division, and a strong playoff contender.
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