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2013 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Mar 20, 2013, 12:48 PM EDT

leyland and dombrowski tigers

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 2013 season. Today: the Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers the American League’s best team?

Last season the Tigers won 88 games, beat the A’s in the ALDS, swept the Yankees in the ALCS, and then lost to the Giants in the World Series. And on paper at least they got significantly better this offseason. Delmon Young and Jose Valverde are the only major departures from last year’s team and that qualifies mostly as addition by subtraction based on their 2012 performances.

Jim Leyland has yet to decide who’ll replace Valverde as closer, but the Tigers’ overall bullpen depth isn’t bad and playing things by ear in the late innings worked well in the playoffs. Torii Hunter essentially replaces Young, which is a big upgrade offensively and a massive upgrade defensively. Victor Martinez returns to the middle of the lineup after sitting out all of last season following knee surgery, which is basically like adding an elite free agent signing. And both Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante will be around for the entire season after arriving as midseason pickups last year.

If you take an 88-win, AL-champion team and subtract Young and Valverde while adding Hunter, Martinez, and full seasons from Sanchez and Infante it’s hard not to think the Tigers are improved. And even if there’s a little doubt about that there’s no doubt that Detroit has the easiest path to the playoffs among AL contenders, as the rest of the AL Central once again looks weak. Can the White Sox, Indians, or Royals (or Twins, in some alternate universe or something) provide a legitimate late-season challenge by winning 85-plus games?

If that were to happen–which seems unlikely to me, at least–there’s a strong chance that the Tigers will make it a moot point by beating up on the unbalanced schedule so much that they clear 90 wins with ease.  Of course, it’s worth noting that I thought the Tigers would run away with the AL Central last season as well and instead they ended up having to overtake the slumping White Sox in September. However, now the Tigers appear stronger, the White Sox appear weaker, and I’m not buying into the Indians or Royals being ready to take a big leap yet.

There’s plenty of room for debate about whether Detroit is the best team in the American League, but more so than any other team in the league– or in baseball, period–I’ll be shocked if the Tigers don’t win their division. They’re too good, the rest of the division is too mediocre, and the unbalanced schedule is too favorable for it not to happen.

What else is going on?

• I’m fairly convinced that the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball. Justin Verlander is obviously amazing, Max Scherzer led MLB in strikeout rate last season and went 15-4 with a 3.14 ERA after a rough April, Anibal Sanchez has averaged 196 innings with a 3.70 ERA in the past three seasons, and Doug Fister has largely flown under the radar despite a 3.48 career ERA. And while Rick Porcello has underwhelmed so far he’s still a helluva fifth starter. For all the focus on Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder putting up huge numbers in the middle of the lineup, starting pitching can carry the Tigers.

• This time last year the Tigers’ defense was a big worry and that proved accurate, as Detroit turned the league’s second-fewest balls in play into outs and ranked 27th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Defense cost the Tigers a bunch of runs, but the pitching staff racking up the league’s second-most strikeouts minimized that somewhat and the rest of the team was strong enough that it didn’t matter. This season the pitching staff again looks capable of missing a ton of bats and the defense should be improved with Hunter in the outfield and Infante full time at second base.

• Nick Castellanos will begin the season at Triple-A because he’s 21 years old and has spent all of two months above Single-A, but if Dirks struggles as the primary left fielder the Tigers could turn to their top prospect pretty quickly. Castellanos was a first-round pick in 2010 and shifted from third base to the outfield last year. MLB.com and Baseball America each rated him as a top-25 prospect and he’s hit .316 in 276 pro games (although he did struggle some at Double-A). And if the Tigers decide Castellanos needs a bit more time in the minors Avisail Garcia is another outfield option.

• Cabrera begins his 30s this season, so it’s a good time to look back at how amazing his 20s were. Because he debuted at age 20, was almost immediately an elite hitter, and has avoided injuries Cabrera has piled up some incredible totals. Among all hitters in MLB history through age 29 he ranks third in doubles, fourth in intentional walks, sixth in RBIs, seventh in extra-base hits, eighth in total bases, eighth in times on base, and is also in the top 20 for hits, homers, runs, and games. His defense leaves a lot to be desired, but purely in terms of hitting Cabrera is on track to truly become one of the all-time greats.

Prediction: First place, American League Central

  1. jarathen - Mar 20, 2013 at 12:55 PM

    The real drama here is who takes second place, and how Leyland keeps his talented team motivated to improve on last year. This team is built for the playoffs.

  2. Ben - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:04 PM

    I just wanna watch Max Scherzer strike dudes out. My favorite player in baseball right now. Nobody more mercurial, and human.

    • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:12 PM

      Agreed. I still think he was a big part of the end of the season pick up, and he gets totally overlooked. I love watching him develop on the sly in V’s shadow.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:22 PM

        Which reminds me: I still need to find some two-colored celebration goggles. :)

      • Ben - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:24 PM

        Not only that, but he seemed to approach his brother’s suicide last year in a really thoughtful way that eschewed a lot of the tough-guy bullsh*t that can come with being a professional athlete. I appreciated that.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:29 PM

        Dude has focus, and how he handled that proved it — but, yeah, it wasn’t in this silly win it for him way. Instead, it was about digging in and being substantive, which was my sense of what he got from his relationship with his brother (based on his comments about him). I appreciate that Scherzer didn’t come out early with flash. I don’t think that’s him. I think he wants to mature in the game as much as he wants to win…if that makes sense.

      • kindasporty - Mar 20, 2013 at 7:15 PM

        He’s been mostly overlooked because he hasn’t started the season off strong the last two years. By the end of the year, people who don’t know, only see an ERA inflated largely because of early season struggles. I think it’s kind of a fluke and I wouldn’t be surprised if he breaks out this year and everyone starts paying attention.

    • timmmah10 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:30 PM

      Only Porcello trade I would want to see happen:

      -Peralta to the Angels (who are running with Kozma now at SS) for Mitchell Boggs.
      -Porcello, Avisail Garcia, Bryan Villarreal, and Nick Castellanos to Texas for Profar (They take Castellanos in the OF instead of moving Kinsler there)

      Defense improved, Bullpen gets a arm in his prime, and other teams get pieces they need.

      I know it’s a pipe dream! It would be selling the farm, but with the only piece on the team needed to be replaced in the next 4 seasons due to age being Torii Hunter and V Mart, they can stomach that. Especially with Tuiosopo looking like a decent OF/DH option in the minors, Hernan being the 2B of the future, and lots of James McCann love…

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:33 PM

        Uh, no.

      • timmmah10 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:41 PM

        If you’re going to reply, explain your no.

        Do you think:

        They won’t go for it.

        or

        It doesn’t help the Tigers.

        Because you’d be wrong if it’s the latter. Defensively, offensively, and pitching help. Some remember history, others look to create it.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:05 PM

        Firstly, I think you mean the Cards rather than the Angels, but we don’t need Boggs like that. If we pick up a pitcher for a WS run, it should be an experienced closer.

        Secondly, you are giving away the farm for Profar, and there’s no sense in that. The Rangers won’t part with him anyway, and it would be a waste for us. SS is not our greatest weakness. Jhonny is ohkay — not our most serious issue. Meanwhile, Garcia and Castellanos have strong potential for the outfield which we need (Hunter is older and meant as a short-term option and Dirks isn’t totally reliable at this point), and I would prefer they hang onto Porcello as a chit for a closer later, if needed (after we know what’s gonna happen with Beard Wilson).

      • asimonetti88 - Mar 20, 2013 at 4:22 PM

        Angels’ shortstop is Erick Aybar not Kozma. I believe you’re referring to the Cardinals.

  3. historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:21 PM

    I think the thing people missed in assessing the team last year was that there were significant weaknesses on the team. People blamed Miggy or Fielder for the team’s failure to win more games, but the problem often was the outfield and bottom of the order. To me, of equal importance to gaining Hunter & V-Mart for this year, was the shedding of Raburn, Boesch, & Laird (and, of course, Valverde & Young). We dumped a bunch of crap, and that’s a good thing. We do not have all the problems we had last year. Dirks is still a weakness in the outfield, but he was the lesser of our issues and he does have potential. If only we had stuck with dumping Kelly too… I hope A-Jax has another great year — I think he was often unappreciated by people outside of the D last year too.

    Thanks, Aaron, for that mega-dose of Tigers awesomeness. <3

    • unclemosesgreen - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:25 PM

      Austin Jackson was indeed, covered in wonderfulness last season. Even though 2011 was an off season for him in many regards, he began to make some gains in batting eye, and last season he extended those gains without sacrificing aggression. Having a player reform his hacking ways at the major league level is extremely rare, and it will be fun to see if he can hold onto or even add to those gains this season.

    • proudlycanadian - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:22 PM

      This is an interesting team. Their batting order will have 3 DH types in the muddle. Even if they have a Fielder in the infield, defence will be problematical. As a pitch to contact guy, Porcello is doomed. Still, I can see them winning a couple of more games this season than last year and should win their division.

  4. 2dmo4 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:23 PM

    Historphiliac…..scherzer was not a late season pick up. We got him in the Granderson 3 team trade from AZ during the offseason a few yrs back.

    • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:30 PM

      Now try re-reading that while employing more subtle thinking.

      • timmmah10 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:38 PM

        I could have sworn the during that opening game against Boston, Scherzer was pitching like he was a member of the Red Sox and it was batting practice. Are you sure he was a Tiger that game?

        His 180 last year hopefully is the trend, and the roller coaster numbers aren’t the trend for the rest of his career…

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:51 PM

        I’m really optimistic that he is finally coming into his own.

  5. sdelmonte - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    Remember how sure we all were that the Tigers would win the Central going away last spring? Yeah, they did win out in the end, but it was far from a sure thing. On paper, they should win and win big. But I have the tiniest of doubts after seeing essentially the same team struggle so much early on last year.

    That said, the Tigers are the closest thing to a sure thing this year.

    • timmmah10 - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:46 PM

      “Essentially the same team”

      Please reread the article. They explained how this isn’t the same team pretty damn well.

      Infante, Sanchez, VMart, Hunter IN (since the struggling team from the first half of last year)

      Boesch, Raburn, Valverde, Delmon, Inge OUT

      I guess adding in 3 All Star players and removing Quad A players isn’t improving the team in your world?

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:53 PM

        Oh, yeah! How could I forget Inge! That jackass!

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:09 PM

        Clearly, I don’t miss him. he he

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:26 PM

        Boo – Brandon Inge was a true professional. Not truly good or anything, but not a worthy target for that kind of hate.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:42 PM

        Re: Inge –

        2 errors, 1 play 2006 WS (led the AL in errors by 3B three times)
        completely whiffing in the HR Derby — and Robbie Cano’s dad wasn’t pitching
        >128 SO/season FIVE times
        made $40mil for all that

        If you don’t hate him, you’re not a Tigers fan.

      • proudlycanadian - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:24 PM

        Sigh! I for one will miss Inge.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 20, 2013 at 3:27 PM

        You need to change your handle to trollycanadian, PC.

        Boooo!

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 21, 2013 at 9:03 AM

        Brandon Inge was too busy playing CF and then catcher to be the best 3B he could be because an incompetent front office was incapable of filling those positions. I may not be a Tigers fan, but at least I remember what was actually happening during Inge’s time there. All he ever did was play 3 of the 4 hardest positions on the field to the best of his ability and never ever whine about it.

        I’ve been a Boston fan since I was born, and I’m a big Billy Buckner fan. Being a fan means you root for your team, and against the other teams. It doesn’t mean you get to slag your good soldiers like that.

        There are plenty of players who deserve that sort of enmity from fans, Inge is most certainly not among them.

      • timmmah10 - Mar 21, 2013 at 1:41 PM

        LOL – oh yes, it’s the front office’s fault! I could I miss that?!?

        He was moved around because he said he didn’t want to play catcher anymore, bro. So they had to find a place for him on the diamond. There was a time where I viewed Inge as a good soldier, and that time ended years ago. After that he was just a guy making wayyy too much money to be a .220 hitter.

        IF you’re the type of fan that loves EVERYTHING that your team does just because it’s your team, then I consider you on the lowest tiers of fans. You sir, are the classic Detroit Lions fan. Expect nothing, pay anything and even in a historically poor 0-16 season, fans like you still sell out the stadium.

        If you’re OK with a guy hitting .590 OPS when the league average for 3B is around .780, then you celebrate mediocrity. Inge is to the Tigers as Rudy was to Notre Dame, the only problem is that Inge played more than a snap or two.

      • historiophiliac - Mar 21, 2013 at 11:35 PM

        timmmah, you are being too generous with that .220. Try .180…and injured his groin doing it. Inge was inconsistent as hell and overrated. He was the classic example of people being enamored of his “grit” and being oblivious to how he sucked. Yeah, yeah, he worked hard. Whatever. He still wasn’t good…and it didn’t matter what position they put him in. Ask the A’s how well that worked out for them. There was a reason we couldn’t even trade him away.

        There’s being a homer and then there’s being disconnected from reality, right?

  6. aiede - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:34 PM

    in 2012, the Tigers gave a combined 1,200 plate appearances to Delmon Young (-1.2 WAR), Brennan Boesch (-1.4 WAR) and Ryan Raburn (-2.0 WAR). Simply removing them from the roster is an upgrade, even if Victor Martinez, Torii Hunter and Omar Infante don’t have career years.

  7. beelza - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    I have the same thoughts today as I did last November. Can the Tigers hit left-hand pitching consistently. I heard, “Tigers threaten do not score” way too much last season. (RISP) Jim Leyland is 1-8 in world series games with Detroit. Detroit turned in the third worst offensive performance in world series history. That screams small ball and stealing bases. No excuse for Leyland’s line-up not being able to bunt, especially coming off a world series sweep.

  8. watchfullhose - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:44 PM

    link to other previews?

  9. spudchukar - Mar 20, 2013 at 1:45 PM

    Not sure I buy into the “easiest path to the play-offs” scenario. I agree that the Tigers are loaded for bear, but both the Indians and Royals are much improved, and the Twins are better. Actually, this may be the most intriguing division in MLB.

    For whatever reason the Tigers have under performed when heavy favorites, the past few years, and while it is hard to see how this team won’t win 95 games, they may still be challenged. The White Sox certainly surprised me last year, and while I believe they are the 4th best team in this division, they proved last year they can contend, making this arguably the only division with 4 legitimate teams (talking about you New York, Boston, Seattle, and Houston.)

  10. danaking - Mar 20, 2013 at 2:23 PM

    I think the Tigers will win, too, but citing the unbalanced schedule as among the reasons is questionable. The teams they have to beat also play the majority of their games in the Al Central. Except for the fact the other teams have to play Detroit and the Tigers don’t, the unbalanced schedule is moot for divisional play, but may be key for wild cards.

    • joerymi - Mar 20, 2013 at 9:30 PM

      The difference is that the 4 other teams in the Central are all closer in talent to eachother than they are to the Tigers.

      All of the other legit AL contenders (Rangers, Angels, Blue Jays, Rays) would love to be in the Central.

      The Tigers would probably still be favored if they were in the East, but it would be a breakdown for them not to win the Central.

      • tc4306 - Mar 20, 2013 at 10:27 PM

        Pretty much agree except that I’d include the A’s and the O’s on your list of legit contenders.

  11. Minoring In Baseball - Mar 20, 2013 at 10:45 PM

    It should be a really fun year for Tiger fans. As a Detroit fan, of course I hope they win the WS, but there’s no guarantee in a season this long. There should be a lot of great moments this season from individual players and the team as a whole. Let’s get this season started!
    -Mike
    http://minoringinbaseball.com/

  12. xjokerz - Mar 21, 2013 at 6:50 AM

    Hey timmmmay guy, really you think you could land porcello Garcia and castalennos for some prospect in Texas ? You must be high

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