Five months ago, the roller coaster that is the current state of the Detroit Tigers began. Dave Dombrowski made some phone calls to pick up two promising free agent talents. The offensive void at the catcher position was solved with Victor Martinez, and the Tigers brought in a reliable arm in Joaquin Benoit to keep close games in check to hand over to Valverde.
It's only two weeks into the season, but the Tigers are one of the most confusing teams at the moment. In a 162 game season, a slow start hardly means anything. However, it's critical to understand the different aspects of this team, and how the Tigers are very different ball club than they were just one year ago.
From a logistical standpoint, signing Martinez and Benoit were two moves that Detroit needed the most. Last season, the catchers were Gerald Laird and Alex Avila. Laird brought excellent defense to the table, but couldn't hit the ball to save his life. Avila has reliable but not excellent defense, and hit just a shade below average for a catcher. Laird now plays as the backup for St. Louis, and Avila has taken over as the starting catcher.
Victor Martinez comes in and gives the Tigers a very important piece to the offense. Victor provides a reliable bat from either side of the plate, which is something that Detroit does not have (Carlos Guillen does not count).
His defense is average, but the only time he will really spend considerable time behind the plate is in National League ballparks or when Avila needs a day off. Detroit is a place where Victor can come and focus primarily on the best part of his game in a DH role: his bat.
Joaquin Benoit spent the last few seasons pitching in arguably the league's most explosive division, and put up great numbers while doing so. Dombrowski saw that Benoit was perhaps the best bullpen talent on the market this off-season, and pulled the trigger to make his signing a done deal.
The Benoit move is important for two reasons. Not only does it give the Tigers a power arm late in games, but it also frees up Phil Coke. Coke has now moved to the starting rotation, giving Detroit a potentially solid fourth or fifth lefty starter.
The Tigers also have new faces on the scene that aren't so familiar. A few players turned heads in spring training and fought their way onto the major league scene. The most obvious of these is Brayan Villarreal.
Villarreal has shown tremendous upside in his handful of appearances. His ERA stands right around 3.00. He has a great combination of a fastball, changeup, and slider to rack up the strikeouts, and he has shown one of the quickest pickoff moves the Major Leagues has seen in a while. A few months ago, nobody knew his name. Now, he has a great shot of bolstering the Tigers bullpen for a long time.
The development of Alex Avila is something we also need to keep an eye on. Now that the pressure of competing for the catcher spot is off his chest, Avila is free to focus on doing his best to improve his hitting. He has shown better power thus far, and we can only expect that to continue.
The future of Brandon Inge is in question this season. He isn't getting any younger, and his inconsistent bat has moved him to the bottom of the order the last few years.
He still has arguably the best defensive instincts of any third baseman in the game, but this season he will have some proving to do: can he stay healthy and hit well enough to show he is still worthy of being an everyday starter? This year will say a lot about Inge and the rest of his career.
The nightmares of Adam Everett are over, and the Tigers addressed the miserable shortstop situation by trading for Jhonny Peralta last season. Peralta doesn't have the range or the arm that Everett did, but he has a much more explosive bat. Peralta hits for a more consistent average than Everett, and throws power into the formula.
He won't be an All-Star by any stretch of the imagination, but he is a world of improvement over last year's opening day starter at his position.
Will Rhymes did in spring training exactly what he does on the field: fought hard. He outplayed Scott Sizemore and Danny Worth to obtain the starting second base job, and will look to pick off right where he left off last year with a great average and agile defensive plays. Again, he is an improvement over last year's opening day roster, which featured a rookie Scott Sizemore who wasn't quite ready for the big leagues.
Miguel Cabrera will continue to be Miguel Cabrera. He will have a serious shot at competing for a batting title or a triple crown again this season. Don't let the offseason antics fool you; this guy is still probably the best hitter in baseball. Miggy will still give the Tigers the clutch home runs and extra base hits to seal the deal, and will do so for years to come.
Ryan Raburn proved to the baseball world that he was a legitimate starter last year. He hit the ball well the last couple months of the 2010 season and finished with an average approaching .300. His excellent range in the outfield gives Detroit a reliable fielder in left.
Austin Jackson appears to be suffering from a case of the sophomore slump. It's hard to expect him to duplicate what he did his rookie year, but we still know one thing: Jackson still has the skills to be a tremendous player.
He is one of the best defensive center fielders in the AL (we all remember his catch in Galarraga's imperfect game). At this point, Jackson's slump is most likely a mental thing that he will have to sort out himself.
Magglio Ordonez made nightmares come true by re-aggravating his ankle injury early on. It's clear that Dombrowski thought Maggs was an important part of the Tigers lineup by giving him a new deal. The question, though, is can Magglio stay healthy enough to be a great starter on the team? He makes some unorthodox catches in right field and will still hit around .300, but that is no use to the Tigers if he is spending the majority of the season on the disabled list.
This brings us to Maggs's potential challenger in right. Brennan Boesch had a historic hitting streak last summer, only to cool off and finish with a low average.
Through spring training and into the season, he appears to be playing with a re-ignited confidence in having a spot in cement on a major league roster, and that may be just what he needs. He gives the Tigers a power hitting lefty that they have lacked for years. Boesch just needs to stay focused.
Individually, the Tigers lineup has some good hitters. To achieve success, though, they will all have to come together. That could be the issue with the offense.
The starting rotation brings three of last year's starters back. Verlander will continue to dominate opposing lineups. Porcello needs to use this year to show the rest of the league what kind of pitcher he really is.
There are still major question marks with the rotation, however. Can Scherzer pitch like he did the second half of last year? Will Brad Penny re-establish himself as a good starter or will he pitch like the journeyman he has become? Will strong bullpen pitching translate into good starting pitching for Phil Coke?
Nobody knows the answer to any of these, but if all three work out for the best, the Tigers will find themselves in a prime position to contend when September rolls around.
The middle bullpen is still very young and unproven. Gonzalez, Schlereth, and Brad Thomas are still questionable in ability. The middle of the bullpen is a very important part of winning games, so for the Tigers to do that these three will have to pitch well.
The late bullpen is as rock solid as any team out there. As mentioned before, Benoit will set up and Valverde will close. Valverde was one of the league's dominant closers up until the All-Star break, where afterwards he slumped. Later on Valverde admitted that an arm injury hampered him throughout last season to the point where he almost cried.
How will the 2011 Detroit Tigers finish?
A few months off should go a long way toward helping that situation out. The only problem here is that the TIgers need to give Valverde some leads to protect, and that could be a problem.
Finally, the most interesting part of this year's team is the skipper. Jim Leyland will be managing for his job this year. After taking the Tigers to the 2006 World Series, the team has failed to make the playoffs since, choking away late season division leads and playing well under their potential. If Leyland doesn't get the job done this year, there is a very good chance that he will not be managing the Tigers next season.
Detroit fans must face the painful reality. Although this roster is decent, it probably will not win the Tigers the division this year. Minnesota is always going to be in the mix, and Chicago has put together a heck of a ball club the last few years. Detroit has even struggled to play Cleveland or Kansas City well the past few years.
The fact that Detroit will be facing stronger talent than its own coupled with the struggle to win division games will likely end up crippling the Tigers for another year.
There are a lot of positives for the Tigers heading into this season. However, there are also big question marks. As shown in the past, the question marks could be what ends up killing the team or pushing them toward success.