2011 was a year that critics generally considered a huge success for the Detroit Tigers. Jim Leyland’s squad won 95 games and made it all the way to Game 6 of the ALCS before finally being tripped up by the Texas Rangers.
Detroit plated the 4th most runs in the American League last year, so naturally they went out and got Prince Fielder in the offseason. In fairness, the season-ending injury to Victor Martinez set the Tigers’ in motion and they eventually went all-in on Fielder, proving team owner Mike Ilitch’s win-at-all costs approach.
The Tigers had some issues with their pitching staff in certain areas. Brad Penny broke the record for most time spent on the mound between pitches in a single season. However, he did manage to chew up some innings and serve as a decent #5. But now he’s in Japan. The Phil Coke-as-a-starter experiment blew up quickly but eventually Doug Fister filled his vacated spot in grand style. The Tigers will replace Penny with one of Duane Below, Adam Wilk, Drew Smyly, or Jacob Turner in an intriguing spring roster spot battle.
Other key offseason moves included adding Gerald Laird to the team as a backup catcher to lighten the load on budding star Alex Avila’s legs. Octavio Dotel joins the Tigers as he continues his trip around the majors, one team at a time. Dotel will look to solidify the Tigers’ 7th inning issues from a season ago.
Aside from the Fielder signing, it was a relatively quiet offseason, which means the Tigers are ready to do battle with what they have. How will it shake out in the end?
Best Case Scenario for 2012
The American League Central crown has been served up on a silver platter for the Tigers. Cleveland, Chicago, and Minnesota have a truckload of trouble and will fight to hang around .500. Kansas City is appealing but young, and their starting pitching is weak. Indeed, the Tigers have bigger goals in 2012 and they end with a World Series championship. Mike Ilitch wants it, he put his money where his mouth is, the fans have bought in and the stands will be jam-packed. The playoffs will be a wild scene in the Motor City this fall and the Tigers have the horses to bring it home, if they stay healthy enough and catch the right breaks.
Most Important Tigers
When you have the best hitter and pitcher in the league, it’s not much of a leap to say that they’re the most important players on their team. Miguel Cabrera is as consistent as it gets with the bat. When a guy hits .344 with 30 homers and 105 RBI’s and it’s sort of a down year, then yeah, you have something pretty special. If Austin Jackson can set the table then Cabrera’s RBI’s will naturally rise. And with the addition of Prince Fielder as his new lineup protection, Cabrera will continue to pound on opposing pitchers. Shedding some weight and moving to 3rd base will bear watching, but his numbers have been battle-tested on offense. Expect more of the same.
And then there’s that MVP/Cy Young winner guy, Justin Verlander. Improving on a 24-5 record, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 250 K’s is unlikely. What is likely is that he’ll start at least 30 games, like he has every year of his career, and carry an improving pitching staff toward a postseason run. Verlander has become the unquestioned face of the franchise, if not the face of Major League Baseball. He is a warrior. He’s the guy who gets his team a win the day after a team loss, the guy who can toss a no-hitter on any given night, and the guy who can make an entire opposing team shake their heads as they leave the batter’s box. He is arguably the best pitcher in the majors, Roy Halladay included.
Potential Breakout Players
The easy answer here is Brennan Boesch. I can’t think of one media outlet that covers the Tigers who hasn’t predicted near superhuman things from the soon-to-be 27-year old. At the pace this hype-machine is rolling, should he fall short of a .375 average and 40 homers, fans will be left in utter shock. To be fair, Boesch may have already broken out if not for his thumb injury in the 2nd half last year. The big, powerful lefty has played about a season and a half at the major league level. He’s hit .269 with 30 homers and 121 RBI’s combined. Last year when he got a chance to hit in front of Cabrera, he crushed. A slash line of .339/.370/.575 in that situation has fans drooling at what he might do for a full season hitting 2nd, directly in front of Cabrera.
On the mound, much like Boesch has been the hot topic; Rick Porcello has received a lot of press about his potential to break out in 2012. Still just 23-years old, Porcello has been learning on the job and doing reasonably well. He is entering his 4th full season in the big leagues and already has two 14-win seasons on his resume. The biggest knock on Porcello is his lack of a strikeout pitch. He has just 277 strikeouts in 515.1 career innings. Last year he gave up a startling 210 hits in 182 innings. If he can nudge his fastball up to 93-95 MPH, which we’ve seen from him on occasion, and get a little more tilt on his breaking ball, his ERA and WHIP will take an instant nosedive.
Worst Case Scenario
Anything is possible in baseball. Detroit is top-heavy with some serious talent in guys like Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder. Should the stars become injured, things could unravel a bit. Even so, the Tigers seem to have enough to win the division. As brash as it may sound, the Tigers’ worst-case scenario in 2012 would be a first round exit from the playoffs. Too much chemistry exists, too much money has been spent, and too many expectations have been placed on this team for a result like that to be tolerated. Win or bust.
Areas of Concern
It’s hard to find an obvious weakness when you glance at the stat sheet, and then you click the “fielding” button and realize that the Tigers are in deep trouble. Look for Jim Leyland to shake up his defense on days that Porcello is scheduled to pitch. The ultra-groundball pitcher must be experiencing some restless nights thinking of the lack of range behind him in Cabrera, Jhonny Peralta, Fielder, and potentially Brandon Inge, Ramon Santiago, and Ryan Raburn. Yikes. The all-time bunts-against record is sure to be set versus the Tigers this year. There will be moments when the defense looks bad, and it may cost the Tigers games here and there but the offense will pick up the slack. Fear not, if the Tigers’ front office has compartmentalized the importance of defense, then so should you.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2011
Austin Jackson must rebound from a poor 2011. His new approach (lowered leg kick, hands back, etc.) has already been well-documented this spring. If hitting coach Lloyd McClendon’s approach takes root with Austin, the opposition better look out because the Tigers’ offense will be a dominant force. What’s proven is that when Jackson makes contact, he gets on base better than 1/3 of the time. So imagine he strikes out 40 times less in 2012, which would still be too much: based on his stellar batting average on balls in play numbers that’s about 15 more hits on the season. Build that back into his 2011 numbers and now he’s hitting .274 instead of .249 – and we’re onto something. Jackson has electricity in his bat; he just needs to allow the ball to hit it.
On the hill, Max Scherzer has the ability to break through to stardom. Despite a career-high 15 wins a season ago, Max saw his ERA rise from 3.50 to 4.42 and his WHIP from 1.25 to 1.35. Max has far too much talent for a negative trend like this to persist. His dilemma is that he often walks a mechanics tightrope. When he’s off on his arm slot and follow-through, he is hittable. When he’s on, he’s lights out. If he can repeat his potential for excellence from start-to-start, he is an All-Star waiting to happen.
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