Baseball is a funny game, more now than ever before.
Every year we watch teams like the News York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Boston Red Sox fill rosters with all-stars and big money free agents only to be beaten by the Tampa Bay Rays or the San Francisco Giants or the comeback kids (St. Louis Cardinals) or even the Florida Marlins.
MLB has become much like the NCAA basketball March madness, i.e., rooting for Florida Gulf Coast to beat Georgetown or LaSalle to beat Kansas State. How small can you keep a payroll and still win a World Series?
The $110 million Giants won versus the $132 million Detroit Tigers last year. The $197 million Yankees were sitting at home. In 2011, it was the $105 million Cardinals prevailing over the $92 million Texas Rangers. Both were way below the $201 million Yankees, the $173 million Phillies, or the $161 million Red Sox.
In 2010, it was the Giants again, this time at $97 million defeating the $55 million Rangers. While the 2011 Kansas City Royals spending $36 million aren’t winning championships, in a sport with no salary cap, it’s refreshing to see that money doesn’t buy championships and it’s just as improbable as the NCAA tournament to pick the World Series winner.
Needless to say, in 162 games, a lot can happen and usually does. Perhaps baseball team psychologists should become in greater demand, because momentum and teamwork seem to rise up and surpass all the numbers, home runs and salaries.
For the Detroit Tigers, on paper there is very little to complain about. Coming off a World Series appearance, owning the greatest pitcher in baseball, Justin Verlander, and owning the greatest hitter in baseball, triple-crown champ Miguel Cabrera, these “paper Tigers” are a fan’s dream. Expectations can become titanic in a 162-game season.
So which was the last team to be in the Tigers’ current position? Which team lost in the World Series and then won it the following year? It was the 1989 Oakland Athletics. Before that, it was the 1977 Yankees. Not a regular occurrence, but these paper Tigers have some bite.
The lineup has no holes. Top to bottom, it’s a beautiful blend of power, run producers, speed, youth and experience.
Young speedster and breakout player Austin Jackson leads off followed by Hall of Fame candidate and four-time all star Torii Hunter coming off a .317 season. Both can run and hit for average. Exciting start.
Then the meat. Best hitter in the world, Cabrera, followed by a young perennial all-star and possible MVP candidate in his own right, Prince Fielder.
Follow that up with the veteran Mr. Clutch, Victor Martinez, one of the best hitters with runners in scoring position in the last decade and a four time all-star. If you survive that, you get an eager bottom of the lineup. Young upcoming .322 hitter Andy Dirks bats sixth and is followed by 2011 all-star shortstop Jhonny Peralta. One of the better young catchers in the game and 2011 all-star Alex Avila bats eight. Batting last, with a little speed, is 2010 all-star Omar Infante.
It’s hard to not get excited about the potential. Certainly there are no holes and on paper it looks as good as any other line-up in baseball.
However, baseball always comes down to pitching. So let’s throw at them the best young rotation in the game, led by Verlander. The Cy Young and MVP winner is followed by last year’s strikeout king (he finished second), Max Scherzer, who won 16 games. Throw in Doug Fister and Anibal Sanchez and this staff is scary.
As their fifth starter, Manager Jim Leyland, a Perrysburg native, has to chose between Rick Porcello, who’s won 48 games in his first four years and is only 24 years old, or top prospect Drew Smyly, who dominated the minors and broke through in the majors and the playoffs in a big way last season.
The bullpen is filled with reliable veterans like Joaquin Benoit, Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel and three flame throwing youngsters primed to make their breakthrough in Al Alburquerque, Bryan Villarreal and 104 mile-per-hour throwing Bruce Rondon. While it’s a little disturbing they don’t have an established closer to start the season, they certainly have the talent there to grab the job and in worst case scenario they have trade bait in Porcello to acquire one if necessary.
The bench is improved but filled with weak-hitting versatile role players. The defense is questionable as it was last year, although having Infante at second full time and Hunter in the outfield are upgrades.
Ultimately it’s a World Series-worthy roster, but we’ve all seen that story before. Expectations will be high, perhaps too high. Ultimately it will come down to injuries or lack thereof and clubhouse momentum.
Can this team survive the grind and peak at the end of 200 games, counting spring training? If they can survive the regular season, that pitching staff will be formidable for any team head to head in a five or seven-game series.
I predict 93 wins, AL Central champs and the ALCS comes down to the two best paper teams, the Angels and the Tigers, and don’t count out the Cleveland Indians.
Detroit Tigers skipper Jim Leyland. (Press photo by Scott Grau)