It’s hard to believe that 2006 was half a decade ago. Back then Facebook and Twitter were only for nerds, General Motors wasn’t even in bankruptcy yet—let alone out of it, LeBron James and Brett Favre were beloved heroes rather than super villains, Alex Rodriguez was drug free (as far as we knew ) and the Detroit Tigers unexpectedly made the playoffs and rolled onto the World Series. That was the last time the Tigers made the playoffs…not to mention the first time since 1987.
However, even in 2006 the Tigers failed to do something that they will do this year. Win the AL Central Division. It won’t be easy. The Twins are the Twins and normally find a way to ruin the Tigers’ September, the White Sox added pop to their lineup and Ozzie Guillen can usually crazy talk his team into a few extra wins and, well, the Royals and Indians are in the division too.
It’s really not unreasonable to say the Tigers will win the AL Central. With all due respect to the Indians and Royals this division comes down to a three-team race. The Tigers and White Sox have both apparently taken a step up since last year and the Twins have slipped back. And let’s be honest…the Tigers may have been a Magglio Ordonez broken ankle and a Brennan Boesch free-fall from winning the division last year.
The Tigers might just have the most balanced team in the division with a potent lineup, strong rotation and a bullpen filled with power arms with upside. They have two superstars in Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, a few rising stars in Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer, brought back the underrated Magglio Ordonez, signed a couple of blue-chip free agents in Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit and have a few high-level prospects ready to contribute. Add an experienced manager, aggressive GM, generous owner and fanatic fanbase and you have a lot of the ingredients for a successful season.
Without any more delay, let’s get started with the 10 reasons the Tigers will win the AL Central and, as always, I welcome your comments (or criticisms from White Sox fans).
We all know the saying, "What goes around comes around." The past decade this team and city have faced a lot of adversary and seen their downs. The Tigers have confronted a 119-loss season in 2003, a World Series upset loss in 2006 and squandered the division and lost the craziest play-in game in history in 2009.
In the last year the team was featured in the national headlines for the Imperfect Game and the losses of three beloved men: Sparky Anderson, Bill Lajoie and everyone’s favorite uncle, Ernie Harwell.
Metro Detroit has seen the near collapse of the auto industry, political corruption and astronomical unemployment rates. However, like the Tigers, things are looking up for Detroit with leaner, more efficient auto companies showing better results, new leadership with fresh ideas and steadily declining unemployment.
Both the city and the team are due. A Tigers run would be another kick of self-confidence for the city and maybe, just maybe everything is finally coming around for both in 2011.
Saying the Tigers are going to win the AL Central isn’t like predicting Adam Sandler will someday win an Oscar for Best Actor. There’s a decent shot it could happen. Even the most bitter fans can’t say they’d be shocked if the Tigers won the division, because let’s be honest…this isn’t the AL East. The Tigers don’t have to contend with the Yankees and Red Sox. In my opinion, this division will ultimately come down to the White Sox and Tigers.
The Sox are a good team. Even with the loss of Bobby Jenks the bullpen looks to be a big strength. The inconsistent offense will get a charge from the re-signed Paul Konerko and newly signed slugger Adam Dunn could hit 50 home runs at U.S. Cellular Park. The rotation is deep but unless Jake Peavy rebounds to his former self you could say the Sox lack a true ace.
The Twins have been constantly overlooked but they always find a way to compete. I think, however, their luck will finally catch up with them this year. I mean it...for real this time.
They have an adequate rotation saved by the re-signing of Carl Pavano, the lineup will be fine with Mauer and Morneau but the bullpen could be uglier than nickel beer night. The bullpen suffered several key losses and Joe Nathan is coming off Tommy John surgery.
The Royals and Indians have a lot of young talent but are probably a couple of years away from being in the conversation, but at that point they’ll just trade away all their talent anyway.
Don’t underestimate this. These guys know if they want to stick around, they need to win now. Up until five years ago the expectations for the team were to make sure nobody spiked themselves (Major League reference if you missed it)…but not anymore.
A few years of competitive baseball and an owner willing to spend means breaking .500 isn’t acceptable. The Tigers need to make the playoffs this year for Dombrowski and Leyland to be back. I hate to break the news to everyone, but they ain’t getting the Wild Card. That’s got second place AL East written all over it. They need to win the division this year.
With this pressure to win and the expiring contracts, you’ll see an even more aggressive Dombrowski who might be willing to mortgage the future to win this year. If the Tigers are in a pennant chase around the trade deadline he could trade an Andrew Oliver or Jacob Turner to get immediate help because why not...he might be gone if he doesn’t get it done.
Leyland has driven fans crazy with his “best players need days off” theory often putting out a half-AAA lineup on day games following a night game. He’ll likely curb back on this thought process and when he does need to give a day off, the signing of Martinez, a healthy Ordonez and in all likelihood a fourth OF who can hit (Brennan Boesch or Casper Wells) will give Leyland a lot of flexibility.
For the first time, the Tigers will have a bottom-of-the-lineup order that can hit and has legitimate home run power.
In the past two years, Gerald Laird had nine home runs in nearly 700 at-bats for the Tigers. They wisely bid adieu to the pudgier than Pudge backstop. Wet noodler Adam Everett had three homers in over 400 at-bats before the Tigers had enough, cutting him early last season. These auto-outs had been bottom-of-the-order mainstays for the Tigers the last couple of years, leading to a lot of sides retired in order.
This year it appears that the No. 6 through No. 9 hitters will be Ryan Raburn, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge and Alex Avila. Inge has been a mainstay so nothing new there and there’s a shot that Raburn could hit second, but this is a best guess for the bottom of the lineup. None of the guys mentioned have ever been confused with Albert Pujols, but they’re not the guaranteed outs in the bottom of the lineup Tiger fans are used to seeing.
Raburn is a huge key to the Tigers season. He quietly had a better offensive second half to 2010 than Miguel Cabrera and amazingly has 31 HRs in just over 600 ABs the last two seasons. He’s finally getting the full-time shot that was derailed by the Johnny Damon signing of 2010.
Jhonny Peralta will put up similar numbers to Brandon Inge but with a better batting average. His numbers will project well to the average Major League shortstop and he looks like Ty Cobb compared to Adam Everett.
I’ve been critical of the overrated Brandon Inge but honestly the guy can get hot and hits for some power. He’s averaged 17 HRs and 70 RBI over the past seven seasons and has at times been one of the better hitters on the team.
Finally, Alex Avila hasn’t shown a ton offensively but he does have 12 HRs in just over 350 career ABs. I’m pretty sure Laird didn’t have 12 hits in his last 350 ABs.
Even with the apparent loss of Phil Coke to the starting rotation the Tigers enter 2011 with a bullpen that has the potential to be dynamic.
Jose Valverde was unhittable as the closer in the first half of 2010 before struggling with the rest of the team during the second half. Still, he’s a dependable closer and has proved to be a great locker room guy. He’s been a good signing by Dave Dombrowski and is a clear upgrade over the heart attack-inducing Todd Jones who closed for the team prior to Valverde.
After Valverde is where the bullpen gets really interesting. All-World setup guy Joaquin Benoit was signed away from Tampa Bay. Benoit was unhittable in 2010 for the Rays after missing 2009 because of surgery. He'll undoubtedly take a step back but will still put up similar numbers to the Tigers' last few setup men (Coke, Joel Zumaya and Brandon Lyon) and fans will be screaming for him to close if Valverde slips up at all.
All indications are that Dombrowski and Leyland are sold on Daniel Schlereth as the situational lefty. In an abbreviated 2010, Schlereth started out slowly but rebounded nicely finishing with a 2.89 ERA and 19 Ks in 18.2 innings. He doesn’t have a ton of experience but has a ton of potential and is key to the bullpen if Coke doesn’t move back.
The biggest bullpen question marks going into the season are Ryan Perry and Joel Zumaya. Perry has shown to be an inconsistent but talented pitcher who hits high 90s on the radar. His overall numbers don’t look that bad (3.59 ERA in 62 innings) but he struggled during the middle of the season. He’s another guy who pitched better late in the year after cutting down on walks.
There’s nothing left to be said about Zumaya other than he needs to stay healthy. He says he’s ready to go and is going to cut down on the heat and start to really pitch. We’ll see if that happens. One thing is for sure: if he’s healthy, he’s the best reliever the Tigers have and they’ll have a top three bullpen in the AL.
The No. 3 to No. 5 starters for the Tigers will be Rick Porcello, Phil Coke and Brad Penny. Again, like the bottom of the lineup, not the greatest but looking comparatively to what the last few Tigers teams have had while remaining competitive, things look better going into this season.
Rick Porcello was counted on to be the No. 2 starter last year and looked overmatched in the first half of the season. Porcello thrived in his rookie season as the No. 3 starter behind strikeout kings Justin Verlander and Edwin Jackson. With the emergence of Max Scherzer as the second starter, Porcello’s finesse style of pitching will follow two pitchers who will be near the league lead in strikeouts. He’ll catch a lot of teams off balance and should enjoy a bounce-back year.
Phil Coke and Brad Penny are two guys trying to prove something, Coke that he can be a starter and Penny that he is healthy enough to pitch. They’re not sure things but I’ll take both of these guys over the likes of Jeremy Bonderman, Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson any day.
The insurance of Armando Galarraga is gone but in case something goes wrong with the starters the team can turn to a trio of young prospects. The highly touted Jacob Turner, lefty Andrew Oliver and over-achieving Charlie Furbush are all waiting in the wings.
Mike Ilitch was the best thing that could have happened to this once dormant franchise. He wants the Tigers to win more than anything. Consequently, Tiger fans have been great to this team since Mr. Ilitch has shown a willingness to win and it all started with the signing of Pudge Rodriguez. He's made the Red Wings the model franchise in the NHL and he's trying to do the same with the Tigers in baseball.
He’s given Dombrowski the leeway to break the bank to extend Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander while still pursuing big-name free agents like Victor Martinez. The fans have noticed Ilitch’s efforts as the last five years have resulted in five of the six highest-attended seasons in the franchise’s century-plus history.
As fans have come back to the park in droves the team has responded with a 103-59 record at Comerica over the last two seasons. This is the best record at home in the division and only the Yankees have a better winning percentage in the entire league at home over that time span. This is all thanks to Mike Ilitch shaping the franchise to bring the fans back, who have made Comerica Park a hostile environment for opponents. Now they just have to find a way to play .500 on the road.
The AL Rookie of the Year runner-up contributed far more than what anyone could have expected. MLB Network recently ranked Jackson as the fifth-best center fielder in the game today. High accolades for such a young player traded for fan favorite Curtis Granderson.
Although Jackson lacks Granderson’s power, he’s a better hitter with more pure speed than Granderson. He’s the true leadoff hitter than Granderson wasn’t. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield and has several Gold Gloves in his future. The importance of his defense can’t be weighed enough as he’ll be counted on to cover for the aging Magglio Ordonez in right and the defensively suspect Ryan Raburn in left.
Jackson is a mature player for his age who provided an instant spark to the lineup. He hit .293 with 103 runs and 27 stolen bases. As he works to cut down on strikeouts and improve his speed out of the batter’s box, Jackson’s potential is unlimited. My guess is the Yankees would trade Granderson back to the Tigers for Jackson in a heartbeat.
Justin Verlander has matured into one of the best starters in the American League. He has a dynamic fastball that can hit 100 MPH but he’s really learned how to pitch the last two seasons after relying more on his off-speed pitches.
Verlander has 37 wins over the past two seasons averaging more than a strikeout per inning. With the added run support, improved bullpen and additional experience, Verlander will be in the Cy Young conversation. Verlander is not a Felix Hernandez or Roy Holliday but he is in that next rung of aces with guys like CC Sabathia and Jon Lester, which is good enough to push for 20 wins every year.
Early last year Max Scherzer looked like a bust after moving to the American League from the Arizona Diamondbacks. He pitched so poorly in the first month of the season that he was demoted to Toledo for a couple of weeks.
Scherzer came back with a vengeance finishing the season with a 3.5 ERA despite the miserable start. He went at least five innings in every start after his call back up to Detroit. He even often looked better than Verlander in the second half of the season. He’s a great No. 2 who is still developing and will only get better, fully living up to his high draft position. Scherzer would be the ace on a half dozen or so other teams.
No hitter has meant more to his team the last few years than Miguel Cabrera has to the Detroit Tigers. He’s up there with Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez as the best hitter in baseball over the past five years. He’s a complete hitter who drives in runs, hits homers and carries a high batting average.
Cabrera was running away with the AL MVP award at the All-Star break thanks to a torrid first half by Magglio Ordonez and Brennan Boesch’s amazing start to his MLB career, however, bad luck set in. Ordonez suffered a broken ankle and opposing pitchers stopped throwing Boesch first-pitch fastballs. Cabrera still finished second in MVP voting to Josh Hamilton of the Texas Rangers.
The signing of Victor Martinez and the re-signing of a now healthy Ordonez add further protection for Cabrera in the lineup. With Ordonez hitting before him and Martinez after, pitchers will be less likely to pitch around Cabrera meaning he could press again for the Triple Crown. He’s the best player in the division, the face of the Tigers and the biggest reason they will win the AL Central in 2011.