Saturday, March 03, 2007

Preseason Preview: Tigers

If you'd asked someone in 2003 who the absolute least likely team to be in the World Series in three years was, they would have answered, "The Tigers." '03 was the year that even the Royals stumbled accidentally into respectability, going 83-79 to finish with a .512 winning percentage seven short of division winner Minnesota. Not championship stuff by any stretch of the imagination, but not entirely terrible - and a full forty games better than the doleful Tigers, dragging along in the dregs of the Central at the well-chronicled 43-119/.265 record, one of the most wretched marks in the history of professional baseball and barely avoiding a dip into the nadir of baseball ridicule, the 1962 New York Mets. It was a hard fall for a once-proud franchise to take. But three years later, the Royals are the laughingstocks and the Tigers were the ones carrying the flag to the Fall Classic, having restored Motown's passion for baseball along the way - for someone who loves the game as much as I do, it was touching to see such an outpouring of support, even though I don't follow them and am totally neutral about the team in general. More baseball fans never go amiss.

So how do things stack up in 2007, one year after the team's first trip to the Classic since 1984?

The Detroit Tigers

1. Kenny Rogers, LHP
2. Justin Verlander, RHP
3. Jeremy Bonderman, RHP
4. Nate Robertson, LHP
5. Wilfredo Ledezma, LHP/Mike Maroth, LHP

1. Todd Jones, RHP
2. Joel Zumaya, RHP
3. Jose Mesa (AND WELCOME TO HIM...) RHP
4. Fernando Rodney, RHP
5. Jason Grilli, RHP
6. Zach Miner, RHP
7. Roman Colon, RHP

1B Sean Casey
2B Placido Polanco
SS Carlos Guillen
3B Brandon Inge
RF Magglio Ordonez
CF Curtis Granderson
LF Craig Monroe
C Ivan Rodriguez
DH Gary Sheffield

The 500 Word Rundown
The Tigers' unquestioned strength is their pitching. Each of the top three starters - Rogers, Verlander, and Bonderman - could be the number one on several other teams. Put together with Nate Robertson and Ledezma/Maroth, they comprise one of the best starting five in baseball, and Verlander won the AL Rookie of the Year award for going 17-9 with a 3.63 ERA and 124 K. A bona fide flamethrower whose fastball can top 100 mph even in the seventh and eighth innings, Verlander is a rising star and will be the unquestioned number one once 42-year-old Kenny Rogers finally hangs up his spikes. That, however, may not be for another few years, as the crafty lefty still has plenty left in his tank if his 17-8/3.84 line in 2006 was any indication. Bonderman, the former roommate of the A's Rich Harden, went 14-8/4.08 for a nice symmetrical line, but could, and probably will, do better. However, he was the only one of the Tigers' top guys who had an ERA above 4 - Nate Robertson won only 13 games but with a 3.84 ERA. This is a very good rotation, and, taken in the whole, better than that of chief competitor Minnesota.

There isn't any lack of offense either, as the Tigers added Gary Sheffield over the offseason to complement Magglio Ordonez, Brandon Inge, and Ivan Rodriguez, their already established mashers. However, the Kitties' bats have a lot more questions than those of the Twins. Sheffield, if left out in the sun and given plenty of water, will grow a scandal and/or complaint a day. Ordonez has recently missed a significant amount of time with injury. Inge hit .253 despite 27 homers, and I-Rod is no longer a dominant offensive force. He's great with pitchers and defense, and was widely credited with helping to lead the Tigers in their turnaround from doormat to champions, but his slugging days with the Rangers are well behind him now. Carlos Guillen, who hit .320 with 19 HR, should not be discounted entirely, but he definitely overachieved to a massive degree. Barring '06 and one 20-HR campaign in 2004, he has never hit more than 10 bombs in a season - there is room for a vast regression here. There are a lot of parts that may have to click just right for everyone to match their production from last year, and perhaps it's due to the Tigers' meteoric rise that everyone is expecting them to take a step back.

The Tigers have a decent-to-good bullpen, led by closer Todd Jones and young Joel Zumaya, who, like Verlander, is capable of hitting 100 with regularity - during the World Series, he was supposedly clocked at a stunning 103 mph. However, the Tigers made headlines in the Series not for their pitching, but rather for their pitchers, and not in a good way - they made errors almost every time they touched the ball, and as one helpful sign in Busch Stadium advised, "Hit it to the pitcher!" The absolute first thing that manager Jim Leyland did, upon reuniting his squad for spring training '07, was to run them through PFP - pitchers' fielding practice, as all the pitching in the world won't do a team a bit of good if the pitchers involved can't handle the ball cleanly when it's hit to them. The rotation is stellar, the bullpen good, the offense good with a potential for lethality, but there's a number of questions for the Tigers that the Twins don't have. Will Rogers defy age again? Will Verlander hit the sophomore slump? Will Bonderman transform into the true ace he's expected to be? Will all those gears in the offense hold together? And will there be the general aura of fairy-pixie-dust that spirited the Tigers onward last year? I'd definitely expect this team to win 90 games, but for some reason which later may prove to be entirely false, I don't see them catching the Twins - even if only missing by the slimmest of margins.

P.S. They have Jose Mesa, who single-handedly cost the Rockies close to ten games last year when you figure in the 1-5 record and the fact that he was staggeringly bad at converting chances – one successful save in eight save opportunities. If that’s not a recipe for bullpen doom, I don’t know what is.

Projected Finish: 92-70, second place, AL Central

1 comment:

madridbend said...

I agree with your assessment of the Tigers but would add that Todd Jones is not likely to finish the year as closer. He has closer experience and temperament, but his stuff is no longer particularly good, and I expect Zumaya and Rodney to push him out.