Thursday, March 28, 2013

2013 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Detroit Tigers
2012: 88-74 (1st place, AL Central)  
Full Count Prediction: 1st place, AL Central

The Tigers' 2012 season could be summarized as "not enough."  With the big (literally) off-season signing of Prince Fielder, perhaps some unfair expectation were put on their shoulders on a squad with plenty talent, but a few glaring flaws.  

After sputtering around .500 most of the year, it was clear that Detroit was a top heavy lineup with MVP-caliber mashers in the heart of the order, but also scrubs that at times seemed like they were conspiring to erase everything nice from rally killing double-plays, botched defensive plays and wince-inducing strikeouts in clutch spots.  

Eventually, Detroit figured out it was a good enough team to breeze past the White Sox in September and after a shaky Division series, swept the Yankees (AWESOME) to advance to the World Series for the first time since 2006.  

I don't want to talk about what happened next. 

But time to forget about that.  The Tiger's had another busy winter, taking advantage of owner Mike Ilitch's deep pockets and short life remaining (the dude really, really wants to win a World Series) and should return with both a deeper lineup and a deeper rotation.  

Bad players went bye-bye, good players came in to fill the voids.  It was an off-season any team would have loved to have.  

So that's an easy AL Central title again, right?  Well, there's also a current glaring hole on this team and it starts in the 9th inning.  The ability to find a steady closer will probably determine much of the Tiger's success.  If you've read before, you know who my favorite team is from past stuff.  

Let's jump right in and find out more about the 2013 Motor City Bengals...


PITCHING

No problem here, right?  Detroit retains one of the deepest and talented rotations in baseball.  Max Scherzer seemed to finally straighten out his mechanics and put it all together in 2012.  I dare you to name a starter with a better strikeout rate than Mad Max.  I win because there was none.  Doug Fister looks to keep utilizing his tall frame and hilarious name to follow up another successful (albeit, injury-plagued) season.  

Deadline acquisition Anibal Sanchez cashed in with a brilliant postseason with a big contract ($80 million, five years).  Sure they may have overpaid, but in an era where Adam Wainwright gets $20 million a year, I'll take a pitcher averaging 4 WAR or higher the past three years without a single DL stint. 

Behind these three, perennial innings-eater/trade bait Rick Porcello won the final starting spot with a sizzling spring training.  While fellow young gun Drew Smyly struck out nearly a batter per inning last season, he'll be stashed in long relief in the event of an injury or Porcello trade as a quality insurance option.  Oh, and there's also a guy named Justin Verlander who's pretty good.  


Overall, it's a rotation that could be the best in all of baseball and should hold opposing lineups in check night in and night out.  Unless the Royals or White Sox or some team, schemes with baseball Satan to field a lineup of nine Pablo Sandoval clones or something, the Tigers should be able to ride pitching to an AL Division title.  

Unless...well, you knew there was a catch.  The Tiger's have opted to start 2013 with a closer-by-committee after sending highly touted flame-thrower Bruce Rondon down to Triple A Toledo and can anyone honestly name a time when a closer-by-committee went well?  At least there are veteran arms in the pen.  Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke and Octavio Dotel all have experience shutting the door in the 9th inning.  

And there's still a good possibility we will see more of Rondon later in the season.  The big Venezuelan certainly has the stuff to close with an Aroldis Chapman-like fastball, but with Rick Ankiel-like control, he'll need to refine his game if he wants to close in the big leagues.  He can either be the second coming of Chapman or a poor man's Carlos Marmol.   Much of the Tiger's success will depend on which one Rondon will be.  


LINEUP

The 2012 season was a baseball personification of Katy Perry's, Hot n Cold.   You may now kick me in the face and take the rest of my man card's for dropping a Katy Perry reference here.  But it really was a tale of two offenses.  If the 2012 Tiger's weren't hitting 3-run bombs and posting big innings and rallies, they were shutout by rookie pitchers, hitting into rage-inducing double plays or striking out to end a rally.  

Eventually talent won out during the regular season, led by Miguel Cabrera's historic Triple Crown/MVP season but the Tiger's choose like, the worst time to go on a cold streak during the World Series.  

This maddening inconsistency shouldn't be a problem after GM Dave Dombrowski upgraded a couple of vital positions.  Veteran Torii Hunter will instantly be a major upgrade in right field over the now departed Brennan Boesch.  It's the type of signig that makes Tiger's fans crap their pants with glee.  Like I did here in December.  While DH Victor Martinez probably won't replicate his 2011 season where he hit .330 and drove in 100+, he should fit in nicely as he return's from an entire 2012 on the DL.  V-Mart will be another significant upgrade in practically every category compared to the also departed DH Delmon Young, with the only downgrade being alcohol and Antisemitism.  Welcome back Victor, we missed you.  

At the top of the order, speedy Austin Jackson looks to continue his breakout year from last year as the catalyst for the squad while continuing to steal base hits and souls of opposing hitters with his leather.  Hunter should fit in nicely at the two spot where he helped Mike Trout out last year with the Angels while Miggy Cabrera and Prince Fielder will drive in over 100 with 30+ bombs each.  Martinez will follow giving the Tiger's a lineup no one will ever want to face.  

The key will be the bottom of the order.  Look for C Alex Avila and SS Jhonny Peralta to bounce back from disappointing 2012 campaigns.  2B Omar Infante is not flashy but he's not really, really, really freakin' godawful either, which is who the Tiger's were starting at second base before Infante came over as part of the Anibal Sanchez deal.  If LF Andy Dirks can't keep it up all season, a few hot outfield prospects in Nick Castellanos and Avisail Garcia are waiting in the wings in Toledo.  Expect one or both of them to show their faces at Comerica at some point this summer.  

The final point.  This lineup will score runs and they will score them in bunches.   


BEST CASE SCENARIO

With arguably the best rotation in baseball and best lineups in baseball, a best case situation for the Tiger's is reminiscent of last time they won it all in 1984 -- a hot start and lead the division start to finish.  Avila, Peralta, and Infante post bounce back seasons and the maddening offensive inconsistency is gone and the team puts up close to a thousand runs.  Cabrera wins the Triple Crown/MVP combo again and flips off the sabermetricians for the second year in a row.  Prince Fielder finishes second.  On the other side, Verlander wins the pitching Triple Crown and another Cy Young.  Scherzer keeps striking everyone out.  Fister, Sanchez and Porcello/Smyly all post sub 4 ERAs and win 12+ games.  Rondon is called up in April and saves 45+ games with a 27K/per 9 IP or something ridiculous like that.  

Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter provide the locker room leadership that veterans like that are expected.  The Tigers run away with the AL Central and end as the best team in the American League.  Detroit breezes through the AL playoffs, and hoists their first World Series Championship in 29 years.  Owner Mike Ilitch dies in peace, leaving a trust fund of $200 billion for the new owner to play with.  Manager Jim Leyland quits smoking.   Detroit is alive again.  The world ends immediately after the final pitch so I can die and say the Detroit Tigers were the last champions of baseball.  


WORST CASE SCENARIO

All the offense and starting pitching goes to waste in the 9th inning when the closer committee can't hold a lead and Rondon's wildness makes fans yearn for the days of Papa Grande.  Torii Hunter starts to show his age.  Any one of the starters goes down for an extended period of time.  Next thing you know the Tigers are in a dogfight in the AL Central while they limp to an 87 win season (which is still probably enough to win this lousy division).  
Porcello is traded to the Cubs or something where he becomes a star for a washed up closer when Leyland and Dombrowski panic about Rondon.  In the playoffs they melt and are eliminated right away.  Mike Ilitch dies of heartbreak while the team is sold to the Ford family who hires Matt Millen as the GM.  Jim Leyland develops lung cancer and they hire Ozzie Guillen.  I give up on baseball and life, develop a diet of Cheetos and Code Red and gain 300 pounds.  


LIKELY SCENARIO/PROGNOSIS

I don't like making predictions for my favorite teams.  Michigan sports has been cursed as far as I can remember and I'm superstitious enough to avoid picking a team that I have an abiding, yet unrequited love for from winning the whole thing.  But screw it.  This is the year.  At the expense of sounding like a Cubs fan, I believe that the 2013 version of the Detroit Tigers are the best Tigers' squad that I've seen in my life.  If that's not enough to win the World Series, what is?  You have to start to believe.  And I'm starting to believe.  The Tigers have a stacked, balanced lineup with the perfect blend of youth, veterans, stars and role players.  The rotation is one of the best in baseball.  

Sometime I wonder how much I take for granted guys like Verlander and Cabrera, or how rare it is when the best pitcher and best hitter in the game both play for my favorite team.  I've been burnt so many teams before but this year, I'm bold enough to call it.  The Detroit Tigers will ride their revamped lineup and stacked rotation all the way to the title.  The bullpen will do just enough to complete the championship formula.  

You have to believe you can win in order to win.  And when Bruce Rondon, Phil Coke or Justin Verlander releases the final pitch of the final game of the Fall Classic and the team runs out of the dugout to pile in the middle of the diamond, my life so far as a baseball fan will be complete.  

I'm looking forward to it.  I believe.  See you all in October.


NON ROSTER INVITEE TO WATCH

Opening Day is Monday for the Tigers.  There are literally no more non-roster invitees to watch for as their final 25 man roster was finalized today.  However, keep an eye on Rick Porcello early to see if his sizzling spring carries over into the regular season.  Also watch Bruce Rondon in Toledo (yeah, like anyone that's not a Tiger's fan is going to do that).  Like we mentioned earlier, the kid's got great stuff but needs to harness it to be the closer we all expect him to be.  


TWITTER ACCOUNT TO FOLLOW

Prince Fielder is the not the most engaging personality on Twitter, but one glimpse of his Twitter feed explains a lot of his big character.  Follow him at @RealPFielder28 .  I'd recommend following @JustinVerlander too.



YOU GOTTA BELIEVE