Around the Division: The Tigers Realize their Mistake

This is the first in a series of four, each focusing on the Twins’ division opponents this year. Though the Twins looks like it might be the Twins’ to lose, there is a lot more that any dedicated Twins fan should know, and it’s my job to try to help you out with that. As always, follow me at @calltothepen on Twitter and subscribe to updates of this page via the link on the sidebar!

The Detroit Tigers have been a mystery for the last few years. Few teams have been so hyped, then so derided, then so doubted, then so resurgent. Last year the Tigers nearly made the playoffs, and would have if not for the Twins’ desperate late-season charge and a slight fade of their own. This year, though the blogocracy seems to be united in the belief that the Tigers are rebuilding, and that they won’t do much to challenge the Twins, though they could theoretically end in second place in the division.

So, let’s take a look at the Tigers, below the fold.

Off-season Moves

The Tigers, Yankees, and Diamondbacks made probably the marquee trade of the offseason, exchanging a total of seven players. The Tigers sent Curtis Granderson to New York and Edwin Jackson to Arizona, while receiving Max Scherzer and Daniel Schlereth from Arizona and Phil Coke and Austin Jackson from New York. At the time, everyone thought about how full of win this trade was for the Tigers and Yankees and how badly the D-Backs got shafted. In retrospect, I think the same still holds true. The Tigers traded a good pitcher who probably pitched significantly above his head last season at the height of his value and a good but very expensive centerfielder and got an excellent, if inconsistent, young starting pitcher in Scherzer, their center-fielder of the future in Austin Jackson, an effective lefty specialist in Coke, and a future closer in Schlereth. That’s a pretty big haul. New York only figures into the mix because they had one big hole this offseason – centerfield – and they filled it with one of the best in this trade. The D’Backs got hosed, but that’s a story for another day. Though the Tiggers gave up Edwin Jackson, they got Max Scherzer, who is probably equal in talent, though he is more inconsistent. Overall grade: A-

The Tigers also re-signed their shortstop, Adam Everett, who demonstrated last year just how good he can be when not hampered by a shoulder injury. He should fill the SS position nicely, while making up for his utter lack of bat with a very flashy glove. Overall grade: B

The Tigers extended the contract of ace Justin Verlander to the tune of $80 million. Hard to find fault with this in the near term. Verlander has been arguably the best pitcher in the central the last four years, and keeping him around is worth every penny of this contract to the Tigers. Overall grade: A.

Finally, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch gave uberagent and conflict-of-interest maven Scott Boras a major bailout when he agreed, going around his front office, to give a 1-year, $8 million deal to Johnny Damon. Now, this was a really stupid move. The only other competition for Damon were the White Sox, and they pulled their offer off the table a day or two before the Tigers signed Damon. The Tigers’ response? They raised their offer by $1 million. Anyone who knows economics knows that is stupid. More about Damon later. Grade: D

Overall Grade: B+

The Rookies/Young’uns

At least three of Baseball America’s Top Ten Tigers Prospects will break camp with the big club this season, and together with uberprospect and last year’s Rookie of the Year candidate Rick Porcello will give the Tigers their youngest look in at least three years. Austin Jackson will likely struggle off the bat, as he has little if any MLB experience, but he’s a high-average hitter and will probably be the best defensive center-fielder in the Central this season, so he’ll turn out just fine. Daniel Schlereth will provide the Tigers’ Ryan Perry with competition for the future closer’s role. Porcello will continue to be a high-quality, low-strikeout machine (fun fact – if one searches for “Rick Porcello Girlfriend” on the google, the first image is of Porcello and Kevin Youkilis embracing. Of course, they were fighting at the time, but still, it’s a beautiful image). Max Scherzer will give a bunch of hit-or-miss innings, trending toward “hit.” Scott Sizemore will likely struggle mightily at the plate, as he has in Spring Training, but he should figure things out, as he’s a very good prospect, and should provide an apt replacement for Placido Polanco, who bolted to the NL. Overall, the Tigers have a quality bunch of rookies (or near-rookies).

Overall Grade: B+

"How sweet it is to be loved by Youk..." Who knew Youk had a soft side?

The Vets

What a motley crew we have here. As a whole, if the Tigers are healthy, their veterans are formidable. Including such past luminaries as Carlos Guillen, Miguel Cabrera (I guess he isn’t THAT old), Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge, and Johnny Damon, the Tigers’ vets should be able to hit. However, the real question is whether they can hit consistently and play defense. Despite the presence of Adam Everett and Scott Sizemore, the defense of the 2010 tigers will be, well, terrible. Damon is leaving a relatively small right field at Yankee Stadium for one of the largest, where his complete lack of arm strength will be on display. Ordonez is decent, albeit a bit slow, in the outfield, but all eyes will be on his hitting, which declined drastically last year from his career highs. If the Tigers have any sense, they’ll restrict his at-bats so his 2011 option doesn’t vest (for a lot of $$). However, they didn’t last year, so odds are they’ll vest him for another year this year. Guillen is decent on good days and just-below-decent on bad days. Nothing to write home about anymore. Inge has spent basically the last two years either hurt or playing through injuries. Last season he played most of the year on two bad knees. If he can stay healthy, he can be a good third-baseman.

Overall Grade: C

The Rotation

Now, this is an interesting thing. Justin Verlander is the ace, and a good ace at that. Rick Porcello will fit in nicely behind him. But behind there? Well, it gets confusing. Max Scherzer should take the third spot, although he can be one of the most inconsistent, yet maddeningly talented, pitchers in the majors. The fourth and fifth spot will be filled by some combination of Armando Galarraga, Nate Robertson, Jeremy Bonderman, and Dontrelle Willis. It seemed like Galarraga would be slotted into the fourth spot, but then he was, somewhat mystifyingly, optioned to AAA Toledo. Bonderman was the clear favorite for the fifth spot, but he’s struggled mightily all spring training. As an aside, where the heck did the Bonderman of 2006 go? Granted, he’s been hurt and sick and his career prior to 2006 didn’t exactly give reason to hope, but man, talk about a Shooter Hunt-esque fall from grace. Willis has been bad for years, with such major confidence issues since getting an enormous $29-million contract that he actually consented to being sent to the minors (which happens VERY rarely). Division rival aside, I really hope he’s got his head on straight, because the D-Train is one of the most fun players to watch. Results in ST are encouraging, but man, who knows. I would have expected Robertson to get the easy nod, but news came out today that Robertson is being shopped. I can’t help thinking the Tigers are crazy for doing it, as no one will want to take on his $10 million, and it isn’t like there is another option that is so ready it’s worth having to pay off a chunk of that salary. This is why I’m not a major league manager.

Overall Grade: B-

The ‘Pen

The Tigers’ pen is a position of strength for them this season. I’d expect their ‘pen to include closer Jose Valverde, Joel Zumaya (if healthy, which is a huge if for the fireballer),  Ryan Perry, Phil CokeZach Miner, Fu-Te Ni, and Daniel Schlereth. Seay has been very effective as a Loogy the last couple years, but has only pitched about a dozen or so innings each year. Right now he’s hurt with an unknown shoulder injury, so we shouldn’t expect to hear from him anytime soon. Fu-Te Ni has been wretched in ST but was very good last year. Yeah, small sample size. He should see a lot of action this season, especially with Seay’s injury. Schlereth and Perry will likely spend this season duking it out to try to impress the Tigers’ office, as one or the other will likely be the next Tigers’ closer (where the heck did Todd Jones go? I liked him! It was like an overweight, beer-drinking uncle had randomly become closer for an MLB Team!) after Valverde. Miner will reprise his not-great role as long-relief/mop-up, and Coke will, at least for now, replace Seay as LOOGY. Valverde is a bit of an enigma, but he’ll probably be strong, even in a division where most of the power threats are lefties. The real question is Joel Zumaya, who can throw in the 100s when healthy, but I can’t remember a time he was fully healthy. He’s having arm problems again, and could possibly start the season on the DL.

Overall Grade: B-

Getting Younger

A few years ago, the Tigers were the talk of the off-season, snapping up every notable free agent hitter and giving them more money than most could believe. This led them to enter the 2008 season with the third-highest salary in baseball. Well, the 2008 season was a debacle, as we were all reminded that you can’t buy a World Series and the Tigers finished in fourth place in the division. Everything that could have gone wrong did, and the old veterans played like, well, old veterans. This was a season that everyone would rather forget.

Last year, the Tigers led it until the end, and in the process, gave a lot of hope to the slowly collapsing state of Michigan. Not fair to expect, but man, it was a nice story. All of this was despite Miguel Cabrera showing up hung-over and/or drunk to at least one game that we know of and likely others. However, the team fell apart on the home stretch and just couldn’t make it fit together in the end. However, last year Clete Thomas and Ryan Raburn and other young players began to make noise for the first time in a few seasons. This younging trend will continue this year, as the Tigers will start more rookies than they likely have in years. This is all for the best for the Tigers, and it’s good to see the Detroit team moving in the right direction.

Take-Away

The Tigers will not be as good as last year. Last year happened on the back of some unlikely performances and some injuries to starters that allowed rookies and backups to thrive. This season, though, they are back to the same old, overpaid starters, with the rookies that almost saved the season last year relegated to their bench roles. However, the top two starters are likely better than any in the division, with the possible exception of the White Sox, though I worry a lot about the final two spots. The same goes for the bullpen – Jose Valverde could very well be the best closer in the division this season with Nathan out for the count (EDIT: forgot about Soria, but Valverde could be as good as Soria, or at least nearly as good), but after Valverde comes a bunch of question marks and small sample sizes. On the field, they will be relying on some very inexperienced rookies (Sizemore and Jackson) and some veterans that can almost be expected to be too fragile to be expected to stand up to a full season. There are a lot of things that could go wrong with this team, and only so many to go right.

Despite all this, I half-expect Verlander, Porcello, and Cabrera to drag the Tigers kicking and screaming over the finish line, and fully expect them to contend for at least half the season. But to get there, they’ll have to exorcise the ghosts of game 163, which can be hard to do (ask last year’s Twins).

Overall Grade: B

Prediction: Third Place in the Division, but could contend for second if the rotation shapes up, mostly Scherzer.

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3 Responses

  1. The Tigers should certainly be in the running for the division but I think Polanco will be missed for his plate presence . It would be interesting to see how many more K’s his replacement will have. I’ll look forward to Johnny Damon and his double cutoffs to the infield. Ordonez is mysteriously powerless lately but who knows what a sober Cabrera will be if a drunk one was still a monster.

    Good article. I’d take Joakim Soria as best closer in the division though now that Nathans out.

  2. Oops… forgot about Soria! Odd that I did that, since I wrote about him earlier today. Will be corrected!

  3. […] really a baseball blog. However, it lifted effectively my entire previews of the season for the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox (among other posts) and re-posted them without attribution or permission. […]

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