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Springtime Storylines: Can anyone in the AL Central beat the Detroit Tigers?

Apr 2, 2012, 11:51 AM EDT

Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Can anyone in the AL Central beat the Detroit Tigers?

After winning their division by an MLB-high 15 games last year the Tigers lost designated hitter Victor Martinez to a season-ending knee injury in January … and responded by signing Prince Fielder to a $214 million contract that shocked the baseball world.

Fielder essentially replaces Martinez in the lineup, albeit with some defensive tinkering that raises plenty of questions, and teaming him with Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers a devastating middle of the order featuring two of the five best hitters in the entire league. Toss in reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and Detroit’s roster has as much superstar power as any in baseball.

And their non-superstars aren’t bad either, as Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young, and Brennan Boesch are capable of providing significant thump alongside the Fielder-Cabrera duo, Max Scherzer has seemingly been on the verge of a breakout for a couple years, second-half pickup Doug Fister will be around for the entire season, and well-traveled, always effective Octavio Dotel joins a potentially dominant late-inning bullpen trio with Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit.

Last season the Tigers were the smartest kid in the dumb class and no one else in the division spent the offseason studying, so while this may not be a truly great team it also doesn’t have to be because the AL Central is so weak overall and so lacking in potential 90-win teams that plenty could go wrong and they’d still be capable of winning by double-digit games.

What else is going on?

  • When your lineup includes Fielder, Cabrera, Young, and Ryan Raburn, plus Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, there’s really no way to avoid some ugliness defensively. However, by avoiding the seemingly obvious option of sticking Fielder or Cabrera at designated hitter the Tigers have compounded their defensive issues by moving Cabrera to third base, where he wasn’t much good five years and 30 pounds ago, while leaving Young to botch plays in left field and moving Raburn to second base. Austin Jackson can still run down just about anything in center field, but aside from that the Tigers are somewhere between below average and terrible all over the diamond, and at some point that’s going to catch up to the pitching staff.
  • One way around being hurt by a poor defense is to rack up strikeouts, which Verlander, Scherzer, and the Valverde-Benoit-Dotel bullpen trio are very capable of doing. Fister and Rick Porcello have two of the worst career strikeout rates among AL starters, which makes them much more reliant on the defense turning their many balls in play into outs and sets them up for disappointing seasons. Of course, while their ERAs may suffer they also won’t mind the additional run support and it’s also possible the Tigers will do some defensive rearranging once Jim Leyland gets a look at his initial group in range-impaired action.
  • Young is a key player for the Tigers. He’ll get tons of RBI chances hitting behind Cabrera and Fielder, and provided some reason for optimism with a postseason power surge. On the other hand, the hype surrounding him as a prospect is no longer very relevant now that he’s 26 years old, with six seasons of big-league experience, and has slugged just .428 with an average of 14 homers per 150 games. Young will drive in tons of runs simply by virtue of his lineup spot, but the Tigers actually need him to avoid making outs 70 percent of the time and show consistent power.
  • Verlander is obviously in no danger of losing his status as the Tigers’ ace, but Scherzer is a strong breakout candidate. He’s been plenty solid since joining the Tigers in 2010, starting 64 games with a 3.96 ERA, but his strikeout rate of 8.2 per nine innings along with improved control and a mid-90s fastball suggest he’s ready for even more. Detroit is very likely to be playing in October and if Scherzer takes a step forward they’ll be extremely dangerous when they get there.

How are they gonna do?

Even if they don’t quite live up to the hype that comes from the Fielder signing the Tigers play enough games against the AL Central’s quartet of mediocrity that 90-plus wins seems almost certain. They won 95 last season and Las Vegas has their over/under for this year around 92 wins, which sounds about right. Expect lots of power and lots of runs, lots of shaky defense, lots of dominant starts from Verlander and Scherzer, and not a whole lot of division-related drama down the stretch.

  1. Ben - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:13 PM

    Quick summary–no. And as a Twins fan, it stings.

    • kopy - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:34 PM

      Yup. The Twins actually have the capability of scoring a lot of runs (solid lineup, surprisingly effective bench), but that’s only if everyone stays healthy – which they won’t. Throw in the fact that defense and pitching are both highly suspect, and it’s easy to see it will be a long year.

  2. AK47 - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:20 PM

    You didn’t really answer the question Aaron – unless it was asked rhetorically – I think it’s possible that another AL Central team could best the Tigers, but it’s definitely not likely. Either the Twins or the White Sox would have to have a magical bounceback year and the Tigers would have to have several injuries in order for that to happen.

    That said, aside from Verlander and Scherzer at the top of the Tigs rotation, there isn’t a whole lot to get excited about. That offense should cover over plenty though.

  3. spudchukar - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:25 PM

    Great analysis Aaron. Like Ben indicated the short answer is no, but that is mostly due to the competition. Perhaps the better question could be phrased something like, which will be the more extreme; the offense or defense. Like you I wonder about the wisdom of having two sinkerball hurlers like Fister and Porcello with that infield. This might just be the worst defensive infield in a generation. Then again if Rayburn, Jackson and Boesch all blossum, this team could score the most runs in a generation.

    When you look at the pitching staffs of the other Central competitors, and I use that word loosely, big offensive numbers are insured even if the Tigers were the Phillies.

  4. Francisco (FC) - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:27 PM

    That shaky defense may cost them in the playoffs.

    • - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:43 PM

      Just ask Prince Fielder

  5. yankeesgameday - Apr 2, 2012 at 12:56 PM

    No one beats the tigers this year. They’re going 162-0 and sweeping the series.

    And I am only slightly exaggerating. This is the year of the Tiger and the rest of mlb needs to sit up and pay attention.

    • paperlions - Apr 2, 2012 at 1:15 PM

      Actually, the Year of the Tiger was 2010; this is the year of the Dragon.

      • bravojawja - Apr 2, 2012 at 1:26 PM

        Good thing Chunichi plays in Japan, then.

  6. mrbiz8505 - Apr 2, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    Tigers are the paper champions! Cancel the season

  7. savocabol1 - Apr 2, 2012 at 2:42 PM

    The Tigers are the Miami Heat of baseball this year. No one likes them besides their own town and they will ultimately fall flat when the moment counts.

    Good luck Detroit fans.

    • byjiminy - Apr 2, 2012 at 6:02 PM

      Who hates Detroit? I’m a twins fan and I don’t hate them. I like them fine. Fellow midwesterners, in a hard luck city that really loves its team, a once-proud historic franchise that’s standing up to the big buck bullies on the coasts. I’ve got no problem rooting for them in the playoffs against rich teams like the yankers, red sox, angels, and rangers. I’d root for any AL Central team over them.

  8. karaterobot - Apr 2, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    Yeah, man, the Twins like, got this, man.

    But in some seriousness, let’s not hand Detroit the series, league, or even division yet. Wasn’t Boston supposed to win the World Series, on paper, last year?

    • Ben - Apr 2, 2012 at 6:09 PM

      The difference is the competition. The Tigers have holes, and might struggle at times, but the rest of the division is so bad it’s not even funny.

  9. buffalomafia - Apr 2, 2012 at 4:48 PM

    This is the year of the Yankees!

  10. ezthinking - Apr 2, 2012 at 5:25 PM

    Funny, Delmon is considered a hindrance at 26 and Alex Gordon is a sure thing now at 28. I don’t thing neither is as bad or as good as they seem. Both quality, not great. A bigger issue is too many people sleeping on the White Sox. They were favored at or near the top last season; this year the prognosticator have them at or in the cellar. 79-83 with nothing from Dunn, Rios, Beckham, Peavy, and Morel means that even a slight return to average performance puts them over .500 and in the hunt with a couple above average performances.

    • byjiminy - Apr 2, 2012 at 6:12 PM

      Delmon Young’s career WAR is negative. Disappointing hitter, terrible fielder.

    • brewcitybummer - Apr 2, 2012 at 8:02 PM

      The white sox could surprise with bounceback years from key players. Or maybe Dunnn has lost his fast twitch muscles and can’t bounce back. Konerko begins to age and loses his consistency. Beckam has holes in his swing that advanced scouting has exposed. Viciedo can’t get on base enough and strikes out like a fat mark Reynolds.

      White sox might surprise. Or they might be f-ing terrible.

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