The big news from the Detroit Tigers off season was no news.
After being baseball’s most aggressive team in the off season last year, the Tigers stayed under the radar this winter. Three years removed from a World Series appearance, the Tigers have been on a gradual down slide, going from 95 wins, to 88 wins, to 74 wins.
General Manager Dave Dombrowski thinks the club has a strong foundation and has shored up the defense with veterans like starting pitcher Edwin Jackson, catcher George Laird, closer Brandon Lyon and shortstop Adam Everett. Gone are Edgar Renteria, Todd Jones, Pudge Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, Kyle Farnsworth and Gary Sheffield. If the new players do well, the Tigers should fair better in close games.
The club continues to do a nice job of building within. Two first round picks, both pitchers, Ryan Perry, 22, and Rick Porcello, 20, have made the team. The last time the Tigers had two young highly talented guys make the roster was 2006, when Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya led the Tigers to a World Series appearance.
The hope is that with proven hitters, a young talented rotation and improved defense that the Tigers can contend in the AL Central. However, most prognosticators have Detroit finishing near the bottom. Favored are the Twins or Indians.
Starting pitching was the team’s Achilles Heel. Only the first three spots seem solid with Justin Verlander, Edwin Jackson, and Armando Galarraga.
Verlander has been named the opening day starter. He went from being perhaps the hottest young pitcher in the game, winning 17 games in 2006 and 18 games in 2007, to 2008’s biggest disappointment. He had trouble keeping the ball down in zone and seemed to have lost a little velocity. He finished the year 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA. He has had a solid spring though and looked like the Verlander of 2007.
Jackson was the Tiger’s big off season acquisition. He started 32 games for the Devil Rays last year and was 14-11 with a 4.42 ERA. He’s a reliable horse that eats up innings.
Galarraga was the team’s biggest surprise, starting in Toledo and ending up as Detroit’s best starter. He showed excellent poise and control and keeps the ball low and on the corners. He was 13-7 with a 3.73 ERA.
After that it becomes an adventure. Jeremy Bonderman has a sore shoulder and may miss his first couple starts. He was 3-4 with a 4.29 ERA before a blood clot in his shoulder cut his season short.
Bonderman has never developed into the elite pitcher most thought he would be, but he has been a solid middle rotation guy, winning 14 games both in 2005 and 2006. Zach Minor will fill his starting role while he is out.
First round pick Rick Porcello has earned the fifth starting spot. Porcello is a hard throwing right hander with electric stuff. The club raves about his maturity. He has allowed just four earned runs in 13.2 innings.
The Tigers have options if someone falters or is injured. Nate Robertson, Dontrelle Willis, Eddie Bonine, and Zach Minor give the Tigers depth.
Willis is hard to figure out, after winning 22 games in 2005, he walked 35 batters in 24 innings last year and has just been put on the disabled list with anxiety disorder. Minor was 8-5 and pitched well filling in as a spot starter. Robertson was the worst starter in baseball last year with a 6.35 ERA, but has had success in the past. Bonine pitched well for Toledo and has impressed this spring.
How the rotation performs will be the key to the Tigers season.
The bullpen has some new faces and better depth, but Leyland has not named a closer yet. Brandon Lyon was brought in to compete with Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya. Rodney has not impressed (He was 0-6 with a 4.91 ERA and 30 walks in 40 innings last year) and Zumaya will start the year on the DL, so Lyon has the edge. He had 26 saves last year, but was also 0-3 and gave up a record four straight home runs this spring.
Longtime Minnesota Twins reliever Juan Rincon threw 12.1 scoreless innings in the spring and will likely be used in the 7th and 8th innings. Hard throwing Ryan Perry has allowed only one run in 10.1 innings this spring. Bobby Seay, who has been one of Tigers’ best relievers, returns as the left handed specialist.
The lineup seemed burdened with expectations last year. Many thought it would be the most dangerous line up in baseball, but they were just average. There are enough big hitters at the top to put up some runs, but the bottom is filled with guys who don’t get on base enough.
The lineup will likely look something like this: 1.Curtis Granderson (.280, 22 HR, 66 RBI), 2. Placido Polanco (.307, 8 HR 58 RBI), 3. Magglio Ordonez (.317, 21 HR, 103 RBI), 4. Miguel Cabrera (.292, 37 HR, 127 RBI), 5. Carlos Guillen (.286, 10 HR, 54 RBI), 6. Marcus Thames (.241, 25 HR, 56 RBI), 7. Gerald Laird (.276, 6 HR, 41 RBI), 8. Brandon Inge (.205, 11 HR, 55 RBI), 9. Adam Everett (.213, 2 HR, 20 RBI).
In a surprise move the Tigers released Gary Sheffield. The move will allow Leyland to rotate players into the DH spot and rest some of the team’s older players. Marcus Thames looks to be in line to benefit the most, perhaps finally getting at bats on a regular basis. Thames has been one of the best in baseball in home runs to at bat ratio and there are quite a few Tigers fans eager to see if he’ll finally get to play full time.
Overall, I think GM Dave Dombrowski and Manager Jim Leyland know how to build an organization. I don’t think Detroit is ready to win the World Series yet, but I think they will surprise some people and compete for the Central crown. My fearless prediction is finishing 86-76 and falling out of the wild card race at the end of the year.