Team Profile – Detroit Tigers
After a long-fought season, the Detroit Tigers find themselves in first place in the A.L. Central. The regular season is almost over, and the light at the end of the tunnel that is the postseason is almost upon them. The team came into the season with lofty expectations, given mostly by the fans and the media. Jim Leyland has always been one to play down expectations as much as possible around the clubhouse, but it was hard to not go into Spring Training believing that Detroit would easily score 1000 runs, coast through the A.L. Central, and be looking ahead to the postseason possibly before August was over.
Things haven’t quite turned out that way, with a resurgent White Sox team still lurking, ready to take the division back the minute the Tigers rest on their laurels. So how can Detroit maintain its hold and stave off a repeat of 2009?
Let’s take a minute to remember how spectacular Justin Verlander is. Even though this season hasn’t amounted to 2011 (and no season, ever, by any pitcher, may again), now that all his regular season starts are in the books, he still had really good numbers. He’s made another strong case for the Cy Young award. He’s 17-8 with a 2.64 ERA and 1.06 WHIP. He has 239 strikeouts, pitched 238 innings, almost threw a couple no-hitters (including one in May that gave me new reason to hate the Pittsburgh Pirates forever), and did throw six complete games. He was a stopper, he was an ace, and he really did act like the best pitcher in baseball all year long. Jered Weaver and David Price may have had better years in terms of record and ERA, but not one single pitcher in the league is even close to any of Verlander’s other numbers.
The contributions from the rest of the starting rotation were wonderful this season, as well. Max Scherzer had a career season, going 16-7, with a 3.82 ERA and 228 strikeouts (including a new franchise record for most strikeouts in a single game, with 15). Doug Fister was set back early on by an oblique injury, but returned to form in the second half, and is set to have his first winning season EVER in his major league career (current with a record of 10-9). If Doug can stave off injury next season, he is going to be a huge addition all season long.
Rick Porcello had a bit of setback this season, it would seem. I think we’ve seen Rick enough to get a good enough idea as to what kind of pitcher he’s going to be. On the one hand, it’s obvious that Leyland has never had much faith in his ability to hand stressful pitching. The minute things get tough, or his pitch count rises, Porcello’s out. On the other hand, I don’t think Rick’s ever going to be the pitcher he was drafted to be. He’s really good, and a big part of his skill set doesn’t work well in Detroit (ground ball pitcher, average-ish defense behind him). However, he’s had four years of professional experience, and it seems like every year we’re saying that “Maybe this year he’ll show us what he’s got.” Then he goes ahead and doesn’t show us anything. Now, in 2012, he’s had a significantly worse season than 2011. It may be time to go over Porcello’s future with a fine-toothed comb in the offseason.
Drew Smyly really shocked the Detroit fanbase in the first half of the season. He had never pitched in the majors before, and came out of the gate looking cool, collected, and confident on the mound. He was moderately successful in his limited starts, but he at least proved that Detroit has a serviceable left-handed pitcher that can be a real threat as the years progress. He was replaced at the trade deadline by the acquisition of Anibal Sanchez from the Marlins. Sanchez got off to a sluggish start in the American League, but I think this rental pitcher is going to turn out all right for the Tigers. The biggest question remaining for the rotation will be who, between Porcello and Sanchez, gets the fourth rotation spot if a playoff berth is attained here in the next few days?
It is scary how good Miguel Cabrera is. Normal people should fear him in real life, because he’s proven he may be just crazy enough to rip you in half. Baseball players should fear him because he’s such a stunning player, who can change the very flow of the season with a single at-bat. Now, in 2012, he’s chasing history. It’s been 45 years since someone achieved the batting Triple Crown (leading the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs), but Cabrera is knocking on history’s door. He has a .327 average, 43 home runs, and 136 RBIs. If Josh Hamilton and Edward Encarnacion can just cool off for four more days, then he should get there. (Hamilton has 43 home runs, as well, while Encarnacion has 42.) It’s hard to believe that someone in contention for a Triple Crown won’t win the MVP award. But, there are a lot of people who believe that Mike Trout should get it. Why, I’m not sure. I talked a lot last season about what I thought the MVP should be about, and I’ll probably talk some more about once awards are given out in November. But there’s no doubt in my mind – or the minds of 95% of MLB players – who the A.L. MVP is this year.
When you look at the hallmarks of great baseball teams, the first thing that will pop out will be how balanced they are. The rotation, bullpen, and offense/defense are all on a very high level at the same time. But when you break those areas down, you realize that the majority of the players on the team are also all great at the same time. Look at the Yankees, for instance. There’s no denying how talented almost all of those players are. This Detroit team is getting closer and closer every year. The rotation is getting there. The bullpen still has some serious work to do. But this offense is on the precipice of greatness. Behind Cabrera is Prince Fielder, who is poised to hit .300 for the first time in his career, while still knocking 30-ish home runs and over 100 RBIs. Austin Jackson is proving every day that he has what it takes to be an elite, award-winning center fielder. With the addition of Victor Martinez next season (and barring any more terrible injuries like that for other players), you’re looking at a team that is essentially loaded 1-5 (Andy Dirks will make a good Number 2 hitter). That really means there’s significantly less for the GM and Manager to deal with. Cabrera is still under contract for a few more seasons, as is Martinez. It’ll be amazing to see what this team is capable of in that time.
This has been an area for definite improvement in 2013. The bullpen hasn’t exactly been as stellar as it was in 2011, although it did start out that way. Jose Valverde seems to have lost whatever closer mojo he had last season, putting up an average 33/38 save opportunities. Joaquin Benoit can’t seem to throw an inning right now without giving up a home run. There are days when Phil Coke looks lost on the mound. Plus, your other guys have zero experience aside from this season, and make me cringe whenever they come into the game (except Al Alburquerque). Brayan Villareal started out the season as what seemed to be a diamond in the rough, with its potential almost realized. Now he looks like he’s just up there throwing, hoping that something hits the plate. It’s not a great bullpen, so it’s been helpful that lately the starters have been going extra deep into games. If the Tigers make it to the postseason again, hopes and dreams of a World Series trip will rest on the bullpen, and that may not be a place where they can survive.
Keys to Success
The biggest issue for Detroit this season has been consistency. There have been times where they look like the best team in baseball. But there have also been too many times when they look like the worst. There hasn’t been a lot of middle ground, or consistency in one extreme or the other. If the Tigers want to finish out the regular season strong, they have to simply make Kansas City beat them. That’s it. K.C. has sub-par pitching, and an offense that isn’t nearly as potent as Detroit’s. Make the Royals bring their A+++ game, while you bring your A game, and the season should end with another division crown. Otherwise, we could be looking at a Game 163 repeat from 2009, and that’s not something anyone wants (especially because, if it happens, Leyland will undoubtedly start Don Kelly in right field).