MLB March Report: Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Tigers blew away the AL Central race down the stretch last year while Justin Verlander blew away both the Cy Young and MVP races in becoming the first starting pitcher to collect both honors since 1986 when Roger Clemens did it for Boston. The Tigers then won a decisive Game 5 in the Division Series over the Yankees before falling to Texas. Detroit didn’t sit quietly in the offseason, spending big to get first baseman Prince Fielder. Will it add up to their first pennant since 2006 and first World Series title since 1984? TheSportsNotebook takes a look at Detroit, as always using our four cornerstone eval points of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.

ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: This area isn’t as bleak as I’m about to make it look, because the power hitters, who will be taken up in the next section, are also effective at taking their walks and getting on base. But when it comes to true table-setters, Detroit’s in trouble. Austin Jackson may be only 25 and people may remember him from his great start to the 2010 season after being traded from the Yankees as part of the package for Curtis Granderson.  Jackson also has done nothing for a year and a half. Delmon Young’s plate discipline is terrible. Andy Dirks is 26, and like Jackson may improve. Unlike Jackson, Dirks doesn’t even a few good months under his belt. Ryan Raburn will step from part-time to full-time at second base, but his offense has still fallen off for two straight years. The best Jim Leyland can hope for is that shortstop Jhonny Peralta builds off his career year from 2011, when the shortstop had a .345 OBP and also had some pop. But the bottom line is that this Tiger team will be dependent on its muscle men.

POWER:  Now we get to Detroit’s strength. Fielder has hit anywhere from 32 to 46 home runs a year in Milwaukee, and even allowing that the dimensions of Comerica Park will hurt him, the first baseman is still as good a long ball threat as anyone. Miguel Cabrera, moving to third base to accommodate Fielder at first, is the most underappreciated offensive player in baseball. He only hits over .320 over year, takes his walks, meaning his OBP’s are a consistently a hundred points higher than his batting average, hits home runs and slugs in the .600 neighborhood. And his defense at first base was never as bad as it was made out. How he handles third is anyone’s guess, but that this guy can hit and should be getting more MVP love on an annual basis is indisputable. Catcher Alex Avila slugged .506 in his first full year as a starter. This area of the team was hurt by the season-ending injury of DH Victor Martinez, but Leyland can count on help from Peralta, rightfielder Brennan Boesch and possibly Young, who needs to hit 20 home runs to justify his position in the starting lineup.

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STARTING PITCHING: Let’s allow that Verlander probably won’t repeat his 24-5, 2.40 ERA in 250 IP season—at least he better not repeat the latter if Tiger fans want him around a long time. Let’s just look at the two years prior—he still goes 220+ IP, still has a respectable ERA in the 3.40 range and takes the ball every fifth day consistently. That’s if he doesn’t pitch well. Behind him is a solid 2-3 combo with Doug Fister and Max Scherzer. Fister was a great pickup at last year’s trade deadline, and finished with a 2.83 ERA in 31 starts. The former Mariner now has the most offensive support of his entire career. Scherzer could be better, but if he can keep his ERA under 4—something he didn’t do last year, but has done before—he’s a solid #3 man. Leyland’s issues are at the 4-5 spots. Rick Porcello has ERAs in the high  4s the past two seasons, which are concerning when you’re in a pitcher’s park. But on the flip side, Porcello is still only 23, and even if he doesn’t get better, his performance level is at least manageable. The fifth spot probably goes to Andrew Oliver and if not him, then Duane Below. Both are untested at the big-league level.

RELIEF PITCHING: Jose Valverde closed all 49 of his save chances last season with a 2.24 ERA. Like Verlander’ it’s safe to say that won’t be repeated, but that Valverde can still be a solid ninth-inning man. But there is one difference—while Verlander was still All-Star caliber, even in his “down” years, the same wasn’t true of Valverde. I’m not suggesting he’s about to go Calvin Schiraldi on us (a 1986-87 Red Sox reference), but how far Valverde slips will be a big factor in the Detroit season. Veterans Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel are acceptable in front of him, but overall this is a pen that is, at best, manageable. Fortunately they have a man who knows how to manage it in Leyland, but his life would be a  lot easier if he had Al Albuquerque, the 25-year-old who had a 1.87 ERA before elbow problems ended his season and his him out at least to the All-Star break. This is another case of bad luck for Detroit in the setup area, following up on the injury-plagued career of Joel Zumaya.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN TOTAL: 93—I’m going Under, but not because I’m all that down on Detroit. I like the top-end starting  pitching and the power hitting and seeing them get to 94-95 wins would hardly be shocking. But that’s a narrow window for the Over. If the on-base crew doesn’t improve it means long summer offensive droughts, and if the back end of the rotation and the bullpen struggles, Detroit can quite easily end up in the 85-90 win area. Do the math and there’s more room on the Under side, which is why I consider it the percentage play.