2011 pre-season preview: AL Central – Detroit Tigers

Tigers 1B Miguel Cabrera

Detroit Tigers (2010 record: 81-81)

The Detroit Tigers finished the 2009 season tied for first place in the AL Central (86-76) after having relinquished a seven-game lead to the Minnesota Twins during the last four weeks of the season. They then lost a one-game playoff in The Metrodome in 12 innings, sending the club into the off-season on a down note.

With the economy in the Detroit area reeling from the deep depression that engulfed the auto industry, the Tigers entered the off-season looking to pare payroll. The front office pounced on a three-way deal, sending higher-priced veterans CF Curtis Granderson and RHP Edwin Jackson to the N Y Yankees and Arizona Diamondbacks, respectively, in return for fireballer Max Scherzer, LHP Phil Coke, and two highly-regarded prospects – CF Austin Jackson and LHP Daniel Schlereth. They later abandoned the plan to reduce payroll by adding OF Johnny Damon and closer Jose Valverde to the roster – increasing the club’s payroll to $133 million – its largest ever.

The organization and its fan base entered the 2010 season with lofty expectation, but they would soon be disappointed. Injuries to key players Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen hindered the offense. On the mound, veteran starters Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis were terribly ineffective and young Rick Porcello failed to take the next step in his development. Instead of taking the anticipated step forward to a division title, the club regressed to .500.

As 2011 approaches, the organization again has high hopes for the new year. The front office brought in Victor Martinez to jump-start the offense, Brad Penny to replace the increasingly-ineffective Bonderman and Benoit as insurance for Valverde (who struggled at times last year).

Notable additions: RHP Joaquin Benoit , C/DH Victor Martinez, RHP Brad Penny

Notable subtractions: RHP Jeremy Bonderman, DH Johnny Damon, RHP Armando Gallaraga, C Gerald Laird

The offense:

Catcher: Alex Avila

Infield: Miguel Cabrera (1B), Will Rhymes (2B), Jhonny Peralta (SS) and Brandon Inge (3B)

Outfield: Ryan Raburn (LF), Austin Jackson (CF) and Magglio Ordonez (RF)

Designated Hitter: Victor Martinez

The Tigers have upgraded at catcher and Designated Hitter. Alex Avila and Martinez will split duties behind the plate replacing no-hit Gerald Laird, who was largely a black hole on offense. Avila has struggled with both contact rate and hit rate in a part-time role, but the Tigers expect his offense to improve with consistent playing time. Martinez will be at DH when he isn’t catching, providing a huge improvement over both Laird and the aging Johnny Damon – who was last year’s primary DH.

Questions surround the mindset of perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera after he was arrested for DUI in February. He is now a two-time loser under the MLB substance abuse policy – after a 2009 incident of public drunkenness and a fight with his wife. The league announced that he will begin treatment in a multi-faceted program for alcohol abusers. It remains to be seen how Cabrera will respond to mandatory counseling after he wearies of the current period of contrition.

Will Rhymes begins the season as the starter at second base, but his minor league career doesn’t inspire confidence in his ability to perform adequately in the big leagues, though he hit .304 in 54 games for the Tigers last year. Regardless, I expect Scott Sizemore, who hit 14 HR and stole 17 bases in the minors in 2009, to earn the job by mid-May.

The club re-signed SS Jhonny Peralta to a two-year extension after acquiring him from Cleveland at the end of last summer. After struggling through 2009 and the first half of last season, he re-discovered the formula for success – increased contact rate. If he can hold onto his rediscovered offensive game, he should be good for 15-18 homers and 75-80 RBI.

Inge is another black hole on offense the front office would do well to rid itself of… he has a poor contact rate (72% +/-) and variations in his batting average closely mirror the fluctuations in his hit rate (which has fluctuated between 25-31% for the last five years). If he is on your fantasy team, plan on .225/12/65 and pray for something better.

Raburn is one of my sleeper candidates for 2011, poised to have a breakout season. He is never going to hit for an especially robust batting average due to the fact his contact rate hovers in the mid-70s year-to-year, but he could develop into a 20 HR / 75 RBI guy on a consistent basis while providing a league-average batting average.

As opposed to Raburn, Jackson is a candidate for a significant regression this year as his .396 BABIP suggests that his batting average (.293) was the product of a large measure of good fortune. Whether or not he’s getting on base, he will play outstanding defense.

Ordonez continues to be a valuable offensive contributor hitting in front of Cabrera. He makes contact at an elite level (87% over the last four years), but he has been much less of a power threat as he has aged, as there seems to be a relationship between his age and his ground ball rate (49%+ over the last two years combined). It is hard to hit the ball out of the park when you hit it on the ground.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: RHP Justin Verlander, RHP Max Scherzer, RHP Rick Porcello, RHP Brad Penny and LHP Phil Coke

Closer: Jose Valverde

The rotation had the fourth-worst ERA in the American League last year (4.46), so GM Dave Dombrowski & Company overhauled it, bidding adieu to Bonderman, Gallaraga and Willis, welcoming Penny from St Louis, and making Coke a starting pitcher.

After a brutal 2008 season, Verlander has re-established himself as the ace of the staff with back-to-back outstanding seasons, going 37-18, with a 3.42 ERA and 1.17 WHIP, while striking out more than 9 ½ hitters per 9 IP.

Scherzer struggled in his first year in the American League and earned an early-season demotion, but when he returned to the major leagues he was brilliant – although he was the beneficiary of the lowest hit rate and highest strand rate of his pro career. I look for him to regress a bit in 2011, likely winning 14 or 15 games while posting an ERA in the vicinity of 3.60.

Similarly, Porcello struggled early in the year but responded nicely to an early-season demotion. While his numbers were not as solid as Scherzer, his xERA (3.55 in the 2nd half) illustrates there is a quality pitcher lurking. He was victimize by a 66% strand rate last season… as that should trend back to 72% (+/-), his ERA should move into the mid- to high-3’s.

Penny has had trouble staying healthy, but if he manages to stay on the field he could be a Comeback Player of the Year candidate. He exhibits excellent control (1.5 BB / 9 IP) and regularly induces ground balls from opposing hitters (a 49% gb rate from 2007-10). His skill set should play well at Comerica Park and give him a chance to reach double-digits in wins.

Coke has decent skills for a No. 5 starter, but he has not pitched more than 65 innings as a big leaguer. It remains to be seen whether he’ll respond well to the increase in both the expectations of him and his workload.

Valverde struggled at various times last year, but still managed to convert 26 of the 29 save opportunities entrusted to him. Elbow injuries diminished his performance in the second half, when he walked far too many batters (5.8 BB / 9 IP) and had trouble with men on base (a strand rate of just 66%). Behind him the relief corps will be improved… of course, it almost HAS to be, after the bullpen posted the fifth-worst ERA in the AL (3.96). Benoit converted an exceptional season in Tampa (1.34 ERA and 0.68 WHIP) into a three-year, $16.5 million deal with the Tigers – the front office is betting that he will be able to give the club something resembling last season for at least the next few years.

Prediction for 2011: 3rd place (84-78)

If everything goes well the Tigers can push Chicago and Minnesota for the division title, but it says here that TOO much has to go according to Hoyle for that to happen. While the pitching will be much better, the offense and bullpen will be problems. Jackson will regress, Ordonez and Cabrera will struggle, Avila will prove to be the second coming of Laird, Inge will be Inge, etc. Add to that the likelihood that Valverde will miss time with an injury for the third straight season, and Benoit will not be able to replicate his Florida performance, and you have to conclude they won’t see the post-season. The margin for error is just too small.


Tigers top prospect, Jacob Turner

Top Five Prospects:

1. Jacob Turner, RHP
2. Andrew Oliver, LHP
3. Nick Castellanos, 3B
4. Jose Ortega, RHP
5. Drew Smyly, LHP

Turner was rated as the top high school righty in the 2009 draft. The Tigers selected him in the first round (9th overall) and then agreed to a $5.5 million contract, including a $4.7 million signing bonus, to convince him to forego his commitment to UNC.

At 6’5” and 210 lbs, he has the physical make-up to be a power pitcher. He throws both a two-seam and four-seam fastball with heavy sink that will top out at 96 mph. His fastball grades as a “70” on the scouts 20-80 scale.

Because he dominated high school competition with his fastball, he failed to develop his off-speed repertoire adequately. He worked diligently on his curveball and changeup last year and made decent progress with both – that said, he still has many miles to go before he sleeps. He has a 12-to-6 curveball that shows the most promise.

He will still need to improve his command to become an effective big leaguer, but that is entirely within his capabilities because he has solid mechanics. At this point, he needs to improve his off-speed pitches and work on his durability (he averaged less than 5 IP per start last year), but the stamina should come naturally with maturation. Look for him in Detroit in late 2012 or the first half of 2013.

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