2008 MLB Preview: Detroit Tigers

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2008 MLB Preview: Detroit Tigers

Manager: Jim Leyland
Arrivals: RP Denny Bautista, 3B Miguel Cabrera, OF Jacque Jones, SS Edgar Renteria, SP Dontrelle Willis
Departures: RP Jose Capellan, 1B Sean Casey, SP Chad Durbin, IF Omar Infante, SP Jair Jurrjens, OF Cameron Maybin, SP Andrew Miller, SS Neifi Perez*, C Mike Rabelo

Offseason grade: A-

Starting rotation 

Detroit's starting rotation gets a lot of buzz now that Dontrelle Willis was added to it, but here's a little fun fact: 

Only one member of Detroit's 2008 starting rotation–Justin Verlander–had an ERA below 4.40 last year.

Am I saying that Detroit has a terrible rotation? Of course not. But are they a sure bet? I don't think so. 

Of course, Verlander is an excellent pitcher. He's a durable righty with an power fastball that consistently clocks in somewhere in the upper 90's and can easily touch 100. Along with that fastball, he has a devastating curveball and a great changeup that can baffle hitters after they've seen two 99-mph fastballs go whizzing by.

He's won 35 games in the last two years and posted ERAs of 3.63 and 3.66.

And, the scariest part? Verlander is only 25 years old.

Verlander will put up the stats of a top-notch ace again in 2008. But how will the rest of the rotation fair?

Kenny Rogers is 43 and found himself on the disabled list twice last season. Granted, the first time was somewhat of a freak occurrence, as his "fatigued shoulder" was actually due to a blood clot. His second stint came in August when he went on the shelf with elbow inflammation. 

If Rogers is healthy, I would expect his ERA to hover around 4 and him to win his fair share of ballgames. However, I'd be shocked if Rogers was to stay healthy for the entire season.

Despite starting last season with a 10-1 record, Jeremy Bonderman had a down year in 2007. Why? Because he went 2-8 with a 7.38 ERA after the All-Star break.

Yikes. Perhaps those numbers had something to do with the sore elbow that landed Bonderman on the disabled list at the end of the season.

However, there's a growing school of thought that believes Bonderman is an extremely overrated pitcher. To back up that claim, they'll show that Bonderman never has had an ERA below 4.00 in his entire career. 

I haven't bought into that notion that Bonderman is overrated just yet. He's got incredible talent as a pitcher and is still only 25 years old. But which Bonderman will show up this year? The one that went 9-1 with a 3.48 ERA before the All-Star game or the one that put up those aforementioned horrendous stats after? 

I'm not going to go out on a limb and try to predict what Bonderman will do this year. If he gets lit up like the second half of last year, Detroit will have major problems in their starting rotation. If he dominates like he did in the first half of last year, the Tigers will have a rotation that is more than good enough to compete in the division.

There's a legitimate argument to be made that Dontrelle Willis lost all motivation to pitch while wasting away in Florida last year, when he went 10-15 with a 5.17 ERA. Remember, this is the same Willis that went an eye-popping 22-10 with a 2.63 ERA for Florida in 2005. It's the same Willis that kept his ERA at 3.87 in 2006.

So what Willis can the Tigers expect? 

I think he'll return to his usually-good form and pitch well, but the shift from the NL to AL might hurt him a bit at the start. Once he gets fully adjusted to the league, he should settle in and pitch well, but don't be surprised if his career as a Tiger gets off to a rocky start.

Despite his 9-13 record and 4.76 ERA last year, I've always thought Nate Robertson is a good pitcher. He knows how to use his cut fastball to get inside on hitters and mixes in a very good changeup. From a lefty, that combination should do wonders, but for one reason or another, Robertson has been knocked around for most of his career (outside of 2006). 

There are a lot of questions for this Detroit rotation. Will Kenny Rogers stay healthy? Which Jeremy Bonderman will show up? Which Dontrelle Willis will show up? Can Nate Robertson regain what he had going for him in 2006?

While I think, in the end, this rotation will turn out okay, I'm not sold that they're a staff that can carry a division as tough as the central.

Starting rotation grade: B

 

Bullpen

With Joel Zumaya out until at least June, Fernando Rodney beginning the season on the disabled list, and Todd Jones still closing, the Tigers could have some real problems in their bullpen, at least early in the season.

Zumaya may win the award for saddest (shed a tear sad, not pitiful sad) offseason injury. While moving items during the California wildfires in the fall, a 50-60lb box fell on Zumaya's right shoulder, damaging it to the point where surgery was necessary.  

While he didn't suffer any damage to his rotator cuff or labrum, it still was serious enough that he wasn't able to throw a baseball until February.

Zumaya appeared to be the favorite to close this year before the injury, but those duties should stay with Jones for most, if not all, of the 2008 season.  

It's a real shame, too. Zumaya has one of the livest arms in baseball, frequently seeing his fastball reach upwards of 100mph. He also features an absolutely devastating power curve that complemented his fastball perfectly for a closer's role.  

Many of you know my allegiances to the White Sox, but as a baseball fan, I hope Zumaya didn't lose the kind of electric stuff he had before the injury.

While Rodney struggled last year, he still gives (if healthy) Detroit another excellent arm in their bullpen. Rodney's fastball tops out in the high-90's and he has a very good changeup to go along with it.

While he shouldn't be out for an extended period of time, the fact that he will be missing from Detroit's bullpen when spring training ends will give Detroit this projected Opening Day bullpen: Jones, Yorman Bazardo, Zach Miner, Denny Bautista, Jason Grilli, Bobby Seay and Tim Byrdak.

That's hardly a contending bullpen.

Jones has blown 12 saves over the last two years and has seen his ERA rise from 2.10 in 2005 to 3.94 and 4.26 in 2006 and 2007, respectively. While I don't expect Jones to completely tank it this year, I just can't see him being the closer of a contending team. While I said the same thing about Cleveland's Joe Borowski, the difference with the Indians is that they have a surplus of available arms who are more than capable of stepping in for Borowski.

With Zumaya on the disabled list, the Tigers don't have that luxury.

Barzado only threw 12 innings out of Detroit's bullpen last year (he started two games and threw 11.2 innings over those outings) but was still pretty decent, posting an ERA of 3.00.

He never has been dominant in the minors, but he's been good with a 3.53 ERA over six seasons. 

Miner was pretty good as an early-inning reliever out of Detroit's bullpen, appearing in 33 games, throwing 48.1 innings, and posting a 3.17 ERA in those innings. However, I wouldn't exactly count on Miner to be a setup man–his stuff is tailored more towards early inning work and spot starting.

Before spring training started, Bautista was a major long shot to make Detroit's bullpen. However, he's been so incredibly dominant–10.1 innings, 10 strikeouts, three walks, and zero earned runs–that Jim Leyland essentially has to take him to Detroit to pitch in the bullpen.

Bautista's career ERA of 6.93 seems to indicate that his spring performance is more of an aberration than a trend, though. Don't be surprised if Bautista struggles throughout 2008–if he even makes deep into the season with the major-league bullpen. 

Grilli, like Miner, is best used in early-inning situations. He's a solid mop-up man or innings-eater if a starter gets knocked out of a game early, but, according to MLB.com's "late innings of close games" stat, Grilli isn't so great when the game is on the line, posting an ERA of 6.52 in 12 of those situations.

Bobby Seay is a lights out left-handed one out guy, sporting an ERA of 0.70 in 25.2 innings against left-handed batters in 2007. Against righties, Seay struggled, seeing his ERA climb to 4.35 in 20.2 innings against right-handed batters.

With a righty like Zumaya or Rodney in the bullpen, Seay has tremendous value as a LOOGY, but without that dominant right-handed setup man, Seay may find himself facing more and more righties–and giving up more and more hits.

Byrdak is a solid lefty who may be one of the better setup options for Detroit this year. While he may not have a whole lot of experience in the 8th inning, Byrdak showed his value as a reliever last year when he compiled a 3.20 ERA over 45 innings.

Overall, this bullpen isn't exactly what you're looking for in a contending bullpen. If Zumaya and Rodney come back full strength, it will significantly improve the overall quality of the bullpen, but until they come back, don't be surprised if this group costs Detroit more than a few early-season games.

Bullpen grade: C+ (if Zumaya and Rodney return healthy and are effective, will be a B to B+ bullpen)

 

Lineup

I'm going to keep this one short. Everybody knows how ridiculously good this Detroit lineup is.

From top to bottom, they easily have the best lineup of the last ten years and, when its all said and done, this lineup could be one of the top five best batting orders in the history of the game.

Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Guillen, Edgar Renteria, and Placido Polanco all should make the AL All-Star team and don't be surprised if Ivan Rodriguez makes it, too. 

Gary Sheffield is still an excellent hitter if healthy, but even if not, the Tigers have their fair share of capable fill-ins, including Marcus Thames, Brandon Inge (for now, and if Sheffield was to get injured I recognize that Cabrera would DH and Inge would play third), and Ryan Raburn.

Keep an eye on Jacque Jones, who will likely bat 9th in this lineup as Detroit's starting left fielder. Despite incessant boos from Cubs fans over the last two years, Jones managed to hit .285 in his time on the North Side. He only hit five home runs last year, a number that is extremely below his career average of around 20. 

To drive home the point about Detroit's lineup being ridiculously good again: If Jones returns to his career numbers like I think he will, that'll give the Tigers a .285 hitter who can belt 20+ home runs as the ninth hitter in the lineup. 

A lot of clubs would take that as their No. 6 hitter, but, oh, Detroit only has a .300/20/100 guy in Guillen hitting there. If need be, Sheffield might get dropped there. Moving on...

Lineup grade: A+

 

Bench

If Detroit doesn't move Inge, he could easily be the best reserve player in the league. It's not that he's an exceptional hitter–his career .241 batting average indicates he's not–but it's that he's a slick fielder who can play all over the diamond. Third base? Check. Shortstop? Check. Outfield? Check. Emergency catcher? He may not want to, but check.

Raburn's another one of those gifted athletes who can play all over the field. Detroit has him listed as a reserve at all three outfield positions and second & third base. He's a very good pinch-hitter (not like Detroit will need that outside of interleague play, though), too.

Vance Wilson is a very serviceable backup catcher who Leyland has no problems using to keep Rodriguez fresh.

Bench grade: A

 

There's absolutely no question that this Detroit team is going to mash the ball this year. A lot of people, myself included, wouldn't be surprised if they scored 1,000 runs over the course of the season.

But, as the old saying goes, "pitching and defense win championships."

And I'm not sold on Detroit having the pitching to win a championship.  

 

 

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