Prince Fielder caught the last out as the Detroit Tigers swept the New York Yankees and advanced to the World Series last October. Might there be a repeat this year? (multimediaimpre, AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, Fickr)
“This is gonna do it. Prince Fielder wants it. The Tigers are going to the World Series for the eleventh time in franchise history!” -Ernie Johnson of TBS, October 18, 2012.
After that harmless pop up was squeezed, the Detroit Tigers concluded an amazing run through the regular season and American League playoffs by mowing down the pitiful New York Yankees in the ALCS. Once again, though, misfortune would meet the team in the fall classic, as the San Francisco Giants hammered the Tigers to the tune of a shocking four game sweep in which nothing went right. Now, after adding Torii Hunter to the mix and keeping Anibal Sanchez, Detroit looks locked in for another big year.
What can fans in the Motor City expect from their baseball kitties this year? Part one of our two part season preview focuses on a few questions regarding the roster.
What’s The Most Important Position To Watch?
Chris Burke: Closer. I’m not sure if this technically counts as a position per se, but it’s clearly the Tigers’ biggest potential problem spot. Depending on how you look at it, they either proved in the playoffs that you don’t need a set closer … or that they don’t have a set closer.
Max DeMara: Setup man. Notice I didn’t say closer, which is the easier answer (no offense, Chris). In order to help out young Bruce Rondon, the Tigers are going to need great performances out of everyone else in the bullpen rotation. Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Joaquin Benoit and Al Albuqurque need to step up big for the Tigers late in games. Any of them need to be ready to close, too, being Jim Leyland claims he’ll go with a bullpen by committee if Rondon looks overwhelmed. As always, how well the whole bullpen gels will determine how far the Tigers go all season long.
Andrew Tomlinson: Pitching. As always, the most important position is going to be on the mound. It is all about pitching in baseball and with the amount of money the Tigers have invested in their starting rotation and bullpen, it should be good. Biggest question is can Bruce Rondon hold on to the closer job, if not, the Tigers have a big problem.
Rob Starrs: The bullpen is of great concern, so that means it is the most important position on this offensively loaded Tigers squad. The starters should be fine, which will relieve some of that pressure but it will be interesting to see who closes and how the back end works out.
Who’s One Tigers’ Player Primed For A Breakout Season?
Chris: Alex Avila. He kind of had his breakout year already, back in 2011 when he hit .295 with 19 homers. Last year, he was hurt all season and those numbers dropped to .243 and nine. I’d expect a move back toward the ’11 stats — Avila’s a better hitter than we saw last year.
Max: Andy Dirks. Though Detroit didn’t find anyone to platoon with Dirks on the free agent market (sans journeyman Matt Tuiasosopo), I’m counting on him to have a fantastic season and grab the solo job. Late in the season, Dirks impressed with his hustle, especially during a game against Kansas City where he broke up a double play helping the Tigers win. He hits for enough power and average to do damage, and is solid as a left handed bat. Dirks played in 10 more games in 2012 than he did in 2011 and his numbers improved. That trend will continue into 2013.
Andrew: Austin Jackson has always been nice and a solid leadoff hitter, but he is certainly poised to be a top leadoff man in the league. The power continues to develop and if he can string together an above .300 average all year, he’ll be a top outfielder in the league.
Rob: Rick Porcello is poised for a big year. Nobody is talking about him besides in trade talks. I think his age and experience are key. He’s the age of most rookie pitchers, yet he already has 48 career wins. Watch out for the Tigers’ fifth starter this year, as he could make some noise.
What’s The Biggest Issue The Tigers Will Face?
Chris: Expectations. Not only are the Tigers considered shoo-ins to win the AL Central, they’re being picked by plenty of people to roll through to a World Series title. Considering that they nearly bombed last year when tabbed the odds-on Central favorites, that’s a concern. The World Series loss should motivate them, but it’s tough to come back from such a long season.
Max: Pressure. The Tigers will be considered a lock to win the easier Central Division from opening day on again. Moreover, they’re counted on as a favorite in the American League and a probable World Series representative. Many people will also count on them to be hungry after last fall’s disaster. Despite all that, baseball is a year to year game more than most other sports. How the Tigers deal with these lofty expectations will be interesting. It will either push them to new highs or cause them to play tight and choke.
Andrew: Hitting. This team is supposed to hit the cover off the ball, especially with Torii Hunter added to the roster. Of course, the Tigers have been here before after the 2006 season. As a result, the biggest issue for this team is going to be making sure they can hit consistently to support the top pitching they should be getting.
Rob: This relates to the first question. Without a pure closer on the team, the bullpen is going to have a tough road. Closer by committee isn’t the best, but they should be able to handle it for now. Look for Dave Dombrowski to try and make a move, but not in the immediate future.
Will Detroit’s Prime-Time Players From 2012 (Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander and Prince Fielder) Replicate Their Big Production?
Chris: Yes, no and yes, respectively. I don’t think Cabrera’s in line for a big drop-off, but expecting him to win the Triple Crown again is unrealistic. Verlander has shown now signs of slowing down. And Fielder could bump his numbers up — I’d expect a lower average from him with more power.
Max: Yes, but perhaps not as dramatically. Nobody should expect Cabrera to win another triple crown (you can’t really count him out, either) but he should still remain a formidable force. Verlander will remain the top pitcher in the American League, while maybe not quite approaching his dominating 2011 numbers. Fielder, though, will be the one who has a great statistical year. He’ll be helped by feeling relaxed in his second year in Detroit and having a healthy Victor Martinez back. Count on some big numbers from Fielder.
Andrew: Expect Prince Fielder to get a lot of love this year. Yes, Miguel Cabrera was fantastic last year, but Fielder was just as good with the bat and he is starting to get some notice around the league. With Victor Martinez now protecting him, expect Prince to light it up.
Rob: In short, yes. Cabrera and Fielder have gained protection in front and behind them with the addition of Hunter and with a healthy Victor Martinez , the hits and runs should be in abundance. Verlander had a few shaky starts this spring, but in April he will be ready and geared for another great year leading the pitching staff.
– You can check out Part II of our season preview on Sunday, March 31
Max DeMara is a senior editor at The Detroit Sports Site. You can find him on Twitter @SportsGuyTheMax