The Detroit Tigers are coming off their second American League pennant in the last seven seasons and have officially established themselves as the scourge of the Yankees, knocking the Pinstripes out of the playoffs for the third time since 2006. But there’s one thing Detroit hasn’t done under manager Jim Leyland and that’s win the World Series. Will the 2013 edition of the Tigers take the final step? TheSportsNotebook will evaluate Detroit and will also check in on their Rustbelt rival in Cleveland, where Terry Francona has undertaken the job of rebuilding the Indians.
Detroit’s talent was top-heavy last year, meaning that the stars were outstanding, but the depth within the starting lineup and rotation was often lacking. Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown won him the MVP, but the third baseman has been one of the best offensive corner infielders for several years now. Prince Fielder came over from Milwaukee and delivered a .412/.528 stat line for on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Fielder, whose bat has provided cover for Cabrera and Ryan Braun the past two seasons, both MVP, appears to be running the best protection racket this side of Al Neri in The Godfather.
Justin Verlander did what he always does—he took the ball for a minimum of thirty starts and pitched like a #1 starter. Then he appeared to be moving past some of the problems that have plagued him in recent postseasons with a dominant showing against Oakland, virtually singlehandedly pushing his team past the A’s. Then Verlander shut down the Yankees in the ALCS.
The supporting cast in the lineup and rotation had its share of problems last year, a reason the Tigers only won 86 games, the worst of all American League playoff entrants, including wild-cards Texas & Baltimore. As late as mid-September it looked like Detroit would lose out to Chicago in the AL Central race. While the Central doesn’t look great this year, the Tigers would clearly prefer to just win 93-95 games and give themselves some comfort in the season’s final month.
If that’s going to happen, it has to begin with pitching and there’s reason for Leyland to feel optimistic. Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are all under 30. Fister was hurt much of last year and Sanchez didn’t come over until the July 31 trade deadline. A full season from both pitchers automatically makes Detroit significantly better. Scherzer can be inconsistent, but even he doesn’t level out, the lefty is good for 30-plus starts and an ERA that will hover around 4—in short, an ideal back-of-the-rotation arm.
Austin Jackson had a breakout year in the everyday lineup, with a .377/.479 stat line. Even if the centerfielder doesn’t continue to hit with that kind of power, it’s his ability to get on base that matters. Cabrera and Fielder just need someone to get on base in front of them. Furthermore, Detroit will welcome back designated hitter Victor Martinez, who missed all of last season. When last seen in 2011, Martinez was hitting .330 and driving the ball into the alleys. We should give him some time to really get back into the swing of things—no pun intended, but there’s every reason to think that by midsummer at the latest, Detroit will have another potent bat in the middle of the lineup.
The team signed 37-year-old Tori Hunter to play right fielder. Hunter can still hit and be a good supporting bat, and he’s got the veteran experience the Tigers need in the postseason. On the other end of the age spectrum, third-year catcher Alex Avila is a reliable bat. His home runs dropped from 19 to 9 last year, with the slugging percentage tailing off. But Avila’s solid on-base percentage from 2011 sustained into last year, and as long as he keeps getting on base, Detroit should be happy. And the Tigers will give Andy Dirks a shot at the left field job on a full-time basis, after Dirks posted an impressive .370/.487 stat line in part-time duty last year.
There are just not a lot of weaknesses in the Detroit lineup, even if it didn’t always seem that way last year. Even the middle infield spots—Omar Infante at second and Jhonny Peralta at short—that are the weak links, aren’t truly awful. This is a good, solid American League lineup, and I think they’ll be hitting in support of a good, solid starting rotation.
Which brings us to the bullpen. Jose Valverde has been let go, after an inconsistent regular season and awful postseason. 23-year-old rookie Bruce Rondon is getting a chance at the closer’s job, along with Joaquin Benoit. Overall, the relief corps has enough decent arms—Al Albuquerque is healthy, to go with Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and Bryan Villarreal—to at least avoid a train wreck. But it’s far from an asset and could result in Detroit’s win total coming in below expectations.
And that brings to the question of win expectations. TheSportsNotebook’s regular readers know that a staple of our preseason MLB coverage is to look at each team’s Over/Under win projection in Las Vegas and make a pick. Detroit’s a hefty 92.5. This puts me in a tough spot—when I make my final picks online here on Opening Day and predict each team’s record, there’s a good chance Detroit will be one of the teams I pick to hit the 95-96 win level. But when picking Over/Unders, I also think you have to be cognizant of the downside. If the bullpen has problems, an 88-win campaign is also realistic. That puts the Vegas number right in the middle of where I think they’ll be. But because I think caution has to be in order when it comes to numbers this high, I’m going to pick the Under.
CLEVELAND TRIES TO REBUILD
Terry Francona was in the opposing dugout the last time Cleveland was relevant—it was the 2007 American League Championship Series, when the Indians got out to a 3-1 lead in games on Francona’s Red Sox, before losing the final three. It’s a long road back, but there are some good young position players to build with and the hope that many some talented, young starting pitchers can reverse some alarming trends.
The infield includes second baseman Jason Kipnis, third baseman Lonny Chisenhall and shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, all between the ages of 25-27. Cabrera has already established himself a solid shortstop, Kipnis had a good second half a year ago and Chisenhall is one who’s shown flashes of some power to the alleys—a .430 slugging percentage last year. The Tribe went out and added Nick Swisher, perpetually underappreciated by the Yankees the past four years, to play first base. Cleveland also signed Mark Reynolds, a hero of Baltimore’s playoff run, to be the DH, and added Atlanta’s Michael Bourn to play centerfield.
Swisher, Reynolds and Bourn aren’t stars, but they’re all solid major league players who have a demonstrated ability to be contributing members to playoff teams. They join a lineup where catcher Carlos Santana is an undervalued asset. The young hitter doesn’t have a high average, but he has great plate discipline, takes his walks and shows some power.
Now we come to the starting pitching. Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jiminez have the talent—particularly Jiminez—but each regressed last year. In the case of Jiminez, he’s been regressing since the All-Star break of 2010. They both need to turn it around and at least become respectable #3-caliber starters (I know, they’re at the top of the rotation in Cleveland, but one step at a time). The rotation has its own veteran addition in Brett Myers, and they’ll also give a look to 26-year-old Zach McAllister, who had a 4.24 ERA in limited 2012 duty.
Chris Perez is a solid anchor in the bullpen, and while the setup crew isn’t deep, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith are both pretty good. They’d be even better if Masterson and Jiminez could go deep into games frequently and take some pressure off.
Cleveland’s win projection number is 78.5, which I find to be on the high side. If the pitching doesn’t come through—and I’m not optimistic, I can easily see the Tribe not making it past 70. And it requires a big leap of faith on every player discussed in this article coming through to even see them getting to 75. I’m going Under. It’s going to be a long first year for Francona while they get the starting pitching figured out.