Monday, April 6, 2009

The Long-Awaited Tigers Amateur Analysis 2009 Season Preview

I’ve documented numerous times on this blog that around this time last year, I just wasn’t seeing what everyone else was seeing, but I largely ignored it, mostly because I didn’t want to be labeled as one of those who gets all dark and gloomy over one loss. As it turns out, I shouldn’t have. So I promised myself that I would listen to my gut a little more this year, but having reached the regular season now, it’s a little more complicated than that. You can’t just change your nature. When I get a bad feeling about a player or a game, I try to ignore it because I don’t want to be a cynic. On the other hand, if I have a good feeling about a player or game, I hesitate to announce it because I hate being wrong and I don’t want to come off as naïve. Another problem is that while my instincts have served me well the past couple years, they’re not exactly focused or specific. For instance, I could have a good feeling about a game, but it might manifest as a pitcher having a good outing or a hitter having a good day at the plate in a game in which the Tigers lose. Conversely, I could have a bad feeling about a game that ends up being a Tigers win, but maybe the starter got knocked around or someone prolonged a big hitting slump or somebody got injured. So you’re not going to get me to commit to predicting the team’s record or individual performances or anything like that. However, I suppose I have to put my neck on the line for something. It’s hard to get a clear impression of the team coming out of Spring Training when your observations are limited to four telecasts, a few radio broadcasts, box scores, some photos, news reports, columnists, other bloggers, and Jason Beck’s Twitter page (not to mention the fact that the WBC may have skewed the results of some games), but I still get the impression that once again, I didn’t see what everyone else saw. It’s not all sunny and rosy (after all, the Tigers are coming into the season NOT at full strength), and I know Spring Training results don’t always translate, but based on a lot of the pitching performances (and only that, no extraneous data), there’s no reason why the Tigers (if they get and/or remain healthy) CAN’T win at least 85-90 games. I’m not saying they will, but it’s far from impossible.

Last year, the central theme of my season preview was “Expectations.” This year, I’d have to say it’s “Ability.” It’s not as if the Tigers don’t have anything to work with (unlike some other clubs). Just about everyone on this roster has shown the ability to have success in the past. Perhaps I have an oversimplified view of this, but in my view, if you’re a baseball player, once you’ve had success, the only two circumstances that could make a repeat performance impossible are age or injury. Mental or mechanical problems can (in theory) be fixed. The challenge is finding out what the problem is and then figuring out how to fix it. This is why my usual approach to discussing a struggling player is asking “How can they fix his problem?” NOT “Who should they replace him with?” unless the struggle goes on for a very long time and attempting to fix it would be too much of a hindrance on the team’s performance. At any rate, nearly every one of the Tigers pitchers has either had Major League success in the past or has enough talent to be successful at the Major League level. As such, and when you add in the improved defense, the potential of the pitching staff is, I believe, very, very high. Realizing that potential? Therein lies the challenge.

Other plot points I’d like to touch on:

That All-Important Good Start: Just about every pundit, blogger, columnist, and prognosticator has hyped up the talking point that the Tigers can’t afford to start slow again like they did last year. And their reasons for it are all very good reasons. You need to build momentum, Leyland’s got a short leash, you don’t want May to be a firesale, etc. However, there is another very important reason that I think has been overlooked by everyone: The Tigers have shown that for some reason, they just plain suck in the second half. This isn’t a Jim Leyland thing, and it’s not a Dave Dombrowski thing. This is something that’s happened for years. At some point late last year, I read an article that stated that in the past 15 or 16 years, the only season in which the Tigers had a winning second half was 2000. I don’t know how you fix something like that, but it speaks to the importance of building a nice yourself a nice cushion and a lot of wiggle-room in the first half. That was part of the problem last year. It’s not like the Tigers sunk into last place in April and then stayed there. Remember, they spent most of the summer in third place, and only ended the season in last place cuz they collapsed during the final month or so.

On the Other Hand: I advise caution against placing TOO much emphasis on the start of the season. For one thing, you’re placing an enormous amount of pressure on the players, and too much pressure can definitely be a bad thing, especially when you consider the fact that even though the Tigers are largely viewed as having an “old” team, their oldest starting pitcher is only 27 (Hell, the oldest player on the team is Magglio at age 35). In past years, Leyland’s been known for saying that he tries not to overemphasize a fast start because if you don’t get off to a good start, then what? That kind of goes for both the players and the fans. Say Verlander doesn’t have a good start tonight, or Rodney blows a save or something. Are we supposed to just give up? For the players, they can’t fall into the trap of thinking “Oh no, it’s happening again.” That’ll just create a bad snowball effect, which is definitely NOT productive (Mental toughness is a very good thing). One other thing to consider is that in the past three years (yes, even last year), the Tigers’ real springboard has been Interleague play, which isn’t for several more weeks.

Leyland: You know, I was never one of the ones calling for Leyland’s head. You don’t lead a team to a surprise World Series berth and then suddenly forget how to manage two years later. That just doesn’t happen. I just can’t think of many instances last year where the Tigers lost on bad managing alone. A lot of decisions that were construed as “bad” weren’t really placed into context. I ask those of you who complained whenever Leyland brought Rodney into a save situation late in the season: Who would you have brought in? It’s not like he had a wide variety of “better” options. Lack of motivation also really isn’t a factor cuz we all know from past experience that if Leyland can’t motivate the troops, no one can. So firing in April probably would probably be pretty pointless.

Bullpen: This is the element that was actually quite strong during Spring Training, at least with the exception of Robertson, Rodney, and Lyon (and you could even characterize Robertson and Rodney’s springs as “uneven” rather than “consistently horrible”). Nate Robertson proceeded to say some things that really weren’t wise, considering his performance last year and the amount of money on his contract. Leyland’s making it clear that he’s giving Nate the opportunity to earn back the starting spot, but I would imagine Nate’s on a short leash. This is frustrating because I think he can be a serviceable starter again (he’s not that old and apparently not injured), but there’s still the matter of “finding” it and I’m not sure the Tigers’ bullpen is the best place for him to be doing that (Still, it is a better place than the starting rotation, for now). However, there’s really no other place to put him. Rodney’s spring actually went the way he pitches. At his best, he’s flat-out dominant, but he goes through these maddening stretches where he can’t locate any of his pitches. This has been his M.O. for years (the difference in 2006 was that he was somehow able to limit them). This is why Leyland thinks that Rodney is only a part-time closer, and there’s a reasonably good chance that he’ll give way to someone else later on (hopefully out of desire and not out of necessity). Still, he did start 2006 as the closer, filling in for Todd Jones and he ended up with quite a few saves, so again, he’s done it before. Lyon had trouble with giving up home runs (which is NOT his M.O., from what I’ve heard), but he throws strikes. However, if these guys are able to at least hold down the fort until Zumaya is ready, that’ll go a long way. And they may have help from Ryan Perry and the rest of the ‘pen, all of whom pitched well during the spring. I wasn’t sure what to make of the Tigers signing Juan Rincon, but he didn’t give up a single run in, like, 11 or 12 outings, and you can’t not reward that, so we’ll see what happens.

Offense: Very briefly, I wanted to say that the offense, outside of a couple games, never really wowed me during the spring, and maybe that’s a little bit cause for concern, but I don’t really have any impressions from it (and the WBC made it extremely difficult to gauge anything).

Random: You know, I’ll go on record and make a couple of random predictions based on my gut feelings. As much as I like rooting for the American League, I think the NL will win the All-Star Game this year (they’ve come very close to doing so the past three years in a row). Also, there will be one no-hitter, and it’ll be in the National League.

Bottom line: The Tigers CAN do it. That doesn't mean they WILL. That part is up to them. Realize that potential, boys.

And now it comes down to this. Verlander vs Roy Halladay. Yikes. Verlander will have to be on the top of his game, cuz I get the feeling that the Tigers will be lucky to even scratch out a run on Halladay, who many have predicted to win the Cy Young this year and who has a career ERA of under 2 against the Tigers (and there’s a lot of starts in that span). I’ll let you in on a little secret: I’ve never seen an Opening Day. In the past, I’ve either always been at school or work. I’ve also never seen a Tigers Home Opener, either, but we’ll save that for Friday.

No comments:

Post a Comment