Detroit Tigers: 2011 Season Review
Heading into the 2011 season, the Detroit Tigers were seen as a middle-of-the-road team. Best case expectations foresaw a division title, and the worst case scenario was a finish at the bottom of the division—but something strange happened.
The Tigers got good.
Although they ultimately lost the ALCS, the Tigers proved they were the second-best team in the AL—just a notch below the Rangers in the league's pecking order.
Some shrewd moves and player development led the Tigers to become serious title contenders, a label that is likely to stick throughout the off-season and into next year.
Regarding the 2011 season, what went right? What went wrong? What were the best and worst moments? Who was the MVP? What's next?
The Tigers' future is finally bright again, but let's take a brief look at how they got here.
1. What Went Right?
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Nearly every season, Tigers fans seem to be the ones on the outside looking in while opposing teams come together and make an epic autumn run.
Even the 2006 team that made the World Series struggled down the stretch, knocking off an overrated Yankees team and a mediocre Oakland A's squad to get to the World Series.
Not this year.
This year's team was better than the Tigers of 2006. With the AL Central still very much in doubt in August, this squad came together at precisely the right time—when nearly everyone thought they would collapse, yet they knocked off an extremely good Yankees team in the ALDS.
Jim Leyland enjoyed a fine season as the Tigers' manager. He did his best to keep the arms fresh, but it finally caught up with them in the ALCS as the much deeper pitching Rangers prevailed in six games.
While Leyland will always have criticism, there's no doubt after this season that the skipper can pull a team together, and that he can win with talent. His emotional breakdown while discussing Tigers fans and the city of Detroit after clinching the AL Central in Oakland was a special moment.
Justin Verlander not only lived up to his lofty career expectations, he surpassed them at the rate of one of his 100 MPH fastballs.
Verlander became the unquestioned ace of the American League; he's a surefire Cy Young winner and likely AL MVP favorite. He's still in his prime and should be a centerpiece for the pitching staff down the road.
Alex Avila, Brennan Boesch and Jhonny Peralta all stepped up tremendously. They could all be lineup mainstays for the next half decade.
Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski had a good year where his good moves (resigning Jhonny Peralta, signing Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit, and trading for Doug Fister and Delmon Young) vastly outweighed his poor moves (resigning Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez, and trading for David Purcey).
Miguel Cabrera silenced doubters after a winter DUI left many questioning his character. Cabrera led the league in hitting while posting another 30 HR/100 RBI season.
Finally, the fans and region rallied around a Tigers team that showed a lot of heart down the stretch.
They won the AL Central, took out the mighty New York Yankees on the road, and were battered and out-manned against the Rangers, but gave them a very competitive effort in the ALCS.
2011 isn't an end, but a beginning for an organization ready to take the next step.
2. What Went Wrong?
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Not everything was roses for the Tigers.
The ALCS uncovered some serious flaws in the roster. While they're not uncorrectable issues, they need to be addressed if the Tigers want to be a favorite again in 2012.
Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello were thought to be key to the 2011 season. Turns out, thanks to the deadline pick-up of Doug Fister, they weren't needed quite as much as we all thought.
With a record of 29-18 between them, you would expect that they had both turned the corner.
Far from it.
Each received a ton of help from a strong lineup.
After an excellent second half to 2010, Scherzer remained wildly inconsistent. Two good games followed by an awful game seemed to be his modus operandi.
He never really found his groove, and despite starting the playoffs well, his terrible start in Game 6 of the ALCS destroyed any chance of a comeback in the series.
If Scherzer can ever revert to how he pitched late in 2010 on a consistent basis, the Tigers will have an incredibly strong staff.
Rick Porcello, might just be morphing into a number four starter. After being drafted in the first round and signing a huge bonus, expectations might have been out of hand for Porcello.
He's a guy who can dominate lesser lineups but runs into trouble when strong teams with several left-handers can stack the lineup.
Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde had great seasons, but the rest of the bullpen was terrible.
Al Alburquerque had a tremendous first half, but after arm issues and a fluke concussion, he wasn't able to rediscover his early season ability.
Phil Coke was inconsistent after a ridiculous early season stint on the rotation, Joel Zumaya injured himself again (surprise!), Daniel Schlereth had some growing pains, and Ryan Perry is probably on his last leg in Detroit.
The bullpen needs to be shored up heavily for the team to be able to compete with the likes of the Rangers next season.
Third base and second base were a hodge-podge of role players after Brandon Inge and Ryan Raburn failed to prove they could contribute defensively everyday.
Austin Jackson slumped at the plate, team speed was terrible, and outside of Jackson, defense was bad in the outfield.
The Tigers are a very good team bordering on great with the right moves, but they were far from perfect in 2011.
3. Best Moment
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When a team wins the division, makes it to the ALCS, has multiple All-Stars, the batting champ and likely Cy Young and MVP winners on its roster, there are bound to be several good moments.
Justin Verlander's no-hitter, Carlos Guillen's stare-down home run off Jeff Weaver, Austin Jackson's game winning throw to the plate against the Cleveland Indians, clinching the division late at night in Oakland, and Jose Valverde striking out A-Rod to end the ALDS were all more meaningful moments.
However, the best moment, to me, was Brennan Boesch's 8th inning, rain-soaked go ahead home run off of Mike Adams in early August.
In an eventual matchup of the AL Championship combatants, and in a downpour, Boesch hit a rope over the left field wall off Mike Adams who was making his debut for the Rangers.
The Tigers had just lost the lead and it looked like the game would be suspended, but Boesch bailed out the Tigers in a sparks-flying moment reminiscent of Roy Hobbs' homer in The Natural.
After being written off for dead, with a strong 2011 Boesch firmly re-established himself in the Detroit Tigers' long-term plans, despite late season surgery that kept him out of the playoffs.
4. Worst Moment
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Luckily, the bad moments for the 2011 Tigers ended up being drastically outweighed by the good ones. In fact, the majority of the bad times listed below seem minuscule after all the team was able to accomplish.
Miguel Cabrera started off Spring Training with a highly-publicized DUI.
Joel Zumaya was shut down for the year before the season started.
Curtis Granderson came back to haunt the Tigers with a late inning home run in the opener in New York.
Carlos Santana hit a walk-off homer off of the struggling Joaquin Benoit to start an early season sweep by the Indians.
Brennan Boesch was placed on the IR on Sept. 4.
All were bad moments, but other than the Boesch and possibly Zumaya injuries, they meant little to the Tigers' ultimate fate.
The worst moment, bar none, was the third inning meltdown by Max Scherzer in Game 6 of the ALCS.
After taking an early 2-0 lead with solo home runs from Miguel Cabrera and Jhonny Peralta, Scherzer retired Ian Kinsler to start the inning, but allowed the next six runners to reach base, including three walks.
Daniel Schlereth and Rick Porcello were just as bad in relief, and the rout was on thanks to the nine-run inning.
Unfortunately, that inning ruined an otherwise stellar playoff showing by Scherzer and ended the Tigers season.
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Thanks to the greatest season in decades by a starting pitcher, the Tigers' MVP is an easy choice.
Justin Verlander rocked opposing lineups while rolling to a 24-5 record. He led the AL in Wins, ERA, Ks, innings, WHIP, and foolish-looking hitters.
Verlander went from great to the greatest in one season and looks to be the centerpiece for a team that will contend for several years.
Verlander wasn't quite as effective in the playoffs, so there's reason to believe that he will come out in 2012 just as hungry.
There probably isn't a player in either league that the Tigers would trade Verlander for.
Thanks to his domination on the mound, all other seasons paled in comparison.
Miguel Cabrera had another .300/30/100 season and led the AL in hitting.
Victor Martinez reached 100 RBIs and offered sorely needed protection for Cabrera.
Jose Valverde broke the franchise's single season save record, and Alex Avila matured into the AL's best catcher.
All worthy seasons in any other year, but Verlander's was a once-in-a-generation type season.
6. What's Next?
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Quietly, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski has built his team into a division favorite and title contender.
Everything came together this season as free agents paid off and young players developed. The single glaring difference between the Tigers and Rangers this postseason was bullpen depth.
With all of the talk about third and second base solutions, the focus really needs to be on acquiring arms to complement Albuquerque, Benoit and Valverde.
They're not going to go out and add a closer, but a lefty like the aging Darren Oliver would be a nice addition while the team determines if Daniel Schlereth will develop, and righties like Matt Capps and Jon Rauch would be big improvements that would come cheap.
Brad Penny is gone, so Leyland and Dombrowski need to determine where the fifth starter will come from, too.
Derek Lowe was attached in some circles to the Tigers, but he was traded by the Braves to the rival Indians.
There are still plenty of names on the free agent market that the Tigers could turn to (Paul Maholm, Roy Oswalt, Edwin Jackson) if they decide that Jacob Turner, Andrew Oliver or Duane Below aren't ready to assume the number five spot.
Also, look for the Tigers to heavily pursue either a second baseman like Aaron Hill, or a short term answer at third base like Aramis Ramirez, while Nick Castellanos continues to progress in the minors.
It's unlikely the Tigers would make a splash at both positions this off-season.
A backup catcher is a must as well, and again, there are plenty of veterans (like Rod Barajas) who can hit decent, field the position, and would come cheap.
Overall, the development of several key players like Fister, Avila, Boesch, Peralta and Jackson, added to the superstar factor of Verlander and Cabrera, gives the organization a lot of optimism for years to come.