Monday, March 28, 2011

The Tigers Amateur Analysis 2011 Season Preview

After yet another stressful offseason, "real" baseball is almost upon us. Glancing through both blogs and the mainstream media, Detroit writers seem to be the most excited they've been about the team since early 2008. And there is reason for excitement. The offense and bullpen seemed to have been given significant upgrades (you're not going to convince me that the rotation is markedly better, so I'll leave them out of the "excitement" chatter), and against most people's expectations, the team has been competitive for most of the last two years without these new players onboard. And yet I just can't shake this tiny bit of hesitation that I have. Maybe it's because the hype reminds me somewhat of 2008 (and for the record, I was hesitant back then as well, but I kept quiet about it because I figured all those writers and bloggers knew better than I did). The Tigers have put up a good record this spring and the pitching has been especially strong (although as I type this, Max Scherzer has just imploded against the Orioles, giving up three home runs, two to Luke Scott). I know spring performance doesn't necessarily correlate to the regular season, so there's no reason to be cynical as yet, but there have been a couple potential warning signs. Back in early February, the ZiPS projections for the Tigers were released. I don't really pay much attention to these computerized projections, nor do I like making predictions myself, but the projection did say something that I'm inclined to agree with: 

 I still think that the Tigers are likely to win somewhere between 84 and 90 games, but 70 wins would surprise me a lot less than 95 wins - you combine age and lack of depth for emergencies and there's at least the potential for a wheels-coming-off season.
I'm not going to get into what they project for each individual player. What I am going to do is go through each facet of the team and discuss what might go right or wrong. 

Offense: This was probably the big priority of the offseason, and with that, the big signing was Victor Martinez. At the time, I wasn't really enamored of any of the potential big bats the Tigers could sign, but there really weren't any all-around players out there that weren't going to cost an arm and a leg. The choice basically came down to Victor Martinez and Adam Dunn, and given those two, I find Martinez to be more desirable. Dunn has a lot of power (moreso than Martinez, who's no slouch), but he also strikes out a lot. Martinez is a much more selective hitter and doesn't strike out as often, and he hits for higher average. Therefore, he provides better protection for Miguel Cabrera. Martinez may be a sub-par catcher (and so I'd be happy if they kept his stints behind the plate to a minimum), but he is a very good hitter, and not only that, he's a very good switch-hitter. He hits well from both sides of the plate. Detroit is primed to have a very good 3-4-5 in the batting order. 
Potential Warning Signs: For some reason, the offense just hasn't been that impressive in the spring. I can't really point to one particular cause. It's just that for the most part, it's been rather blah. Granted, it's sometimes hard to tell in spring training because of all the minor leaguers and prospects that are sprinkled into the lineup, but it still sometimes felt like they needed to get four or five baserunners in an inning to score one run. Both Magglio OrdoƱez and Jhonny Peralta in particular have had slow springs. I don't really know how either of them usually fare in the spring, but I do know that Magglio generally starts off the season a little slow and it takes him a couple weeks to get going. If he does that, though, there's going to be people bringing up his age, his ankle, and/or the hamstring problems that he's had off and on during the spring. As for me, however, I'll only get worried if his hypothetical slow start spills over into May. Peralta doesn't have an RBI (and he's only got one more game to get one). He's not expected to hit for a super-high average, and I think it's a bit premature for Lynn Henning to be advocating trading him. Age shouldn't be an issue with Peralta, since he's only 28. When you think about it, you could probably find the potential for something to go wrong with just about every position player on the team (Austin Jackson starting his sophomore year, Victor Martinez being primarily a DH for the first time, Miguel Cabrera's alcohol battles, etc). Odds are that someone's going to have an off year, but it's highly unlikely that everyone will.

Defense: Actually, I'm not going to separate this into "good" and "bad." I'm just going to discuss it. This is probably the area with the biggest potential for meltdown. In terms of good defense among the starters, they have Austin Jackson and Brandon Inge. I still maintain that Miguel Cabrera is a better first baseman than people give him credit for, but he is still error-prone. Everyone else has issues with either lack of range or errors (or both). I'm a little bit worried that after a couple years emphasizing pitching and defense that they're starting to go too far back in the other direction, but at this point, it is what it is.

Starting Pitching: If everyone plays to their potential, the Tigers could have a strong front three in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello. I'm not sure what they'll get from Phil Coke or Brad Penny, but Coke at least has shown the ability to make in-game adjustments. Penny may well become my whipping boy for the season, mostly due to the circumstances surrounding his arrival. I'm not saying he's a bad pitcher, just that there are pitchers with his level of ability that I'd rather watch. I don't think he makes that big of a difference. If the Tigers weren't good enough without him, they're not going to be good enough with him. But as I said, as long as the front three pitch the way they're capable of and the other two don't totally suck, things should be good.
Potential Warning Signs: Justin Verlander's really the only starting pitcher who has had a good spring. Scherzer and Porcello have been wobbly, Coke's had a few growing pains, and while Penny's numbers look good on the surface, several of the outs he's gotten have been hit quite hard (that and the fact that he's so slow that moss probably starts to grow on his defenders). Penny also has the injury history, as he hasn't pitched for than 100 innings in several years.

Bullpen: Joaquin Benoit was probably the most dominant setup man in baseball last year, and he kind of came out of nowhere to do it. Jose Valverde's looked like he regained his form during the spring (which I guess is to be expected, because his struggles during the second half last year made no sense). There's also quite a few talented hard-throwers in Ryan Perry, Brayan Villarreal (who I still want to see as a starting pitcher), and Daniel Schlereth. With that group, they have to potential to rack up strikeouts in the late innings.
Potential Warning Signs: Benoit's had a good spring, but it's still a good idea to be a little cautious about a guy coming off a breakout year (that and the fact that the very first time I saw him, he was with the Texas Rangers and he was walking Pudge Rodriguez with the bases loaded; I love Pudge, but he is the hardest guy in the world to walk). There's also quite a bit of inexperience, especially with Schlereth and Villarreal. Joel Zumaya should rejoin the team at some point (since from what I've read, what he's going through right now isn't so much "setback" as "slow recovery") but he's got such a tendency for weird injuries that I wouldn't be surprised to see a satellite fall out of the sky and land on him while he's on the mound.

Other tidbits: This is the final year on the contracts of both Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski. I think both have done a good job (though Dombrowski has now on two occasions ripped my heart out, smashed it on the ground, and run over it with a pickup truck). I'm not one to get into GM politics, so I'll leave that to other bloggers. As far as Leyland is concerned, a manager's job is always a tenuous one. He will be fired someday. That's just how it goes. Very few managers go the way Bobby Cox did and simply retire. Whether it's this year, next year, or ten years from now, I can't say. Another thing to keep an eye on is the home vs. road record. What's happened the last few years makes no sense. And obviously, they've got to do a lot better than 29-52 on the road if they want to win the division. 

I hope I'm not coming off as cynical, because I don't want to. I've spent the better part of the last three years trying to drag the other Tiger fans out of the darkness, after all. I can see this team going in either direction this year, but the odds are that they'll be competitive. They'll be a flawed good team, but they may well be "good enough."


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