I would not consider myself to be either an extreme optimist, nor a pessimist when it comes to my outlook on where my favorite baseball team stands among their rivals. In 2011, however, I feel that there is genuine reason for optimism. I believe that the Detroit Tigers have an excellent shot to win their first division title in almost a quarter century, ending a 24 year drought. Here’s why:
1. The lineup: Neither the Tigers nor their rivals have all stars, nor even stars, at every position on the diamond, but the Tigers, in my view, have the best lineup in their division. Nobody is better than Miguel Cabrera at driving in runs from the clean up spot, and he’ll have a professional hitter in Victor Martinez hitting behind him this summer. Magglio is back in the three slot, and he has shown that, even in a horrible season, he still gets on base at a .370 plus clip, even if he doesn’t hit 25 homers. Austin Jackson, while almost certainly due for some regression from his near world record BABIP in his rookie season, is still the best lead off man in the division. In fact, I don’t see many positions around the diamond, with the exception of Joe Mauer behind the plate, and Alexei Ramirez at shortstop, where the division rivals have a clearly better player than the Tigers have. The Tigers actually led the AL in runs scored for the months of August and September, even without Ordonez, Martinez, or Guillen in the lineup. This lineup will score runs.
2. Addition by subtraction: Since this time last year, gone are Adam Everett and Gerald Laird, two of the worst hitters in the league. Gone are Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson, three of the worst starting pitchers in the league. While their replacements may not be world beaters, they are clear upgrades over what the Tigers had when they went down to the wire in 2009, and held their own for half a season in 2010 before the wheels came off the wagon. As a result of these subtractions, the Tigers don’t have a glaring hole in the lineup, nor will they have to keep a batting practice pitcher in their rotation.
3. Rotation, Rotation, Rotation: This is the key to the 2011 season for which ever team will win the division. Verlander and Scherzer are the best one- two punch in the divison, if not in the league. Most observers agree on this point. Verlander is a perennial threat to win 20 games, and had the second highest WAR in the league last season behind only Cliff Lee (adios). No pitcher has won more games in the American League since 2006. Max Scherzer was not just good after his brief stint in Toledo last summer, he was downright dominant, ranking among the top five starters in the league in FIP and WAR for the last two months of the season. Bonderman and Galarraga were the two worst by this measure in September.
Rick Porcello did not show nearly the improvement that Max did after returning from his hiatus in Toledo, with an ERA still north of 4.00. However, Rick’s WHIP was 1.16, and he had an xFIP of 3.46 in the last month. He finished the season looking more like the pitcher that won 14 games in his rookie season, than the one that earned a trip to Toledo earlier in the season. Brad Penny was on his way to a nice rebound season in St. Louis before he went on the DL. The question with Brad is his health, but he’s the best fourth starter in the division when healthy. Phil Coke is still a mystery, but the Tigers are confident that he’ll make the transition back to the rotation, which they consider to be his natural position. Apply the "addition by subtraction" theory liberally here.
4. The bullpen: Jose Valverde is as good as any closer in the division. Joaquin Benoit was as good as any set up man in the game in 2010. Ryan Perry showed signs of being a dominant reliever in the second half of 2010, posting an ERA of 2.37, WHIP of 1.00, and nearly doubling his K/BB rate in 32 appearances after the break. Zoomer- IF- healthy- well, you know. Compare that with a Twins bullpen that has lost Matt Guerrier, Jon Rauch, Brian Fuentes, Dennys Reyes, and Jesse Crain. Their bullpen is anchored by Joe Nathan, fresh off the operating table. Compare it with a Chicago pen that has lost Bobby Jenks and JJ Putz and added only Crain and Will Ohman. I give the Tigers a clear advantage in the bullpen, plus there is a boat load of near major league ready talent with real live arms on the 40 man roster, just waiting for a ticket to the show. The only real question is what they've got for lefties, but they should be fine when the starters can get them through the sixth inning.
5. The Twinkies: While the Tigers are by no means without their issues, the Twins have even deeper issues going into the season. Justin Morneau has not been the same since taking a knee to the helmet while sliding into second base before last year’s all star break. He has yet to resume baseball activities, and there is a big question mark there. The Twins inexplicably traded JJ Hardy for basically nothing, and now they have Alexi Casilla as their shortstop. They’ve signed a Japanese player, Nishioka, to play second base, and I’ll just have to plead ignorance there. Jim Thome had a huge come back season with 25 homers and Delmon Young drove in 112 runs. Counting on repeat performances from them is risky.
The main flaw in Minnesota is their pitching. I’ve mentioned the mass exodus from the bullpen, but in the rotation, they have Liriano, who’s one of the best in the league, and very little after that. Scott Baker is everyone’s break out candidate, but he’s no Scherzer, nor even a Porcello in my opinion. I don’t see Pavano repeating his 2010 numbers, and the Tigers have figured him out anyway. Baker and Kevin Slowey, with their 4.5 ish ERA’s don’t scare anyone, and they have either Deunsing, Perkins, Manship, or Blackburn bringing up the rear. And you thought we’ve got issues at the back of the rotation?
6. The Black Sox: Seems that Chicago is the team most often picked to win the Central this season. Why? Jake Peavy is out again with big questions if or when he’ll ever be the same. Danks, Buehrle, and Floyd are their one- two- three punch, and they’re decent starters, but nothing like what the Tigers have. Edwin Jackson is inconsistent, but can be dominant at times. They’re reluctant to put Chris Sale, their wunderkid, in the rotation for fear that they’ll just have to move him out if and when Peavy returns, and he’d be out of gas by August. Things could all gel for Chicago, but I give the Tigers a much better shot of having a dominant rotation in 2011.
Many Tiger fans wanted the team to sign Adam Dunn. Not me. I’m happier with V Mart, who can at least play a position. Dunn is a lumbering oaf in the field, and Jose Quentin is no better. Juan Pierre is one of the worst offensive outfielders in the game and has an arm that makes Johnny Damon look like Dwight Evans. He’d make a fine pinch runner. Paul Konerko had a monster season that isn’t likely to be duplicated, after posting an OPS that was 122 points above his career number. Alex Rios hit .305 .361 .518 .879 before the break, but regressed to .258 .301 .383 .684 after the break. They have questions at second base, third base, and Pierzynski is like Avila at the plate, and Martinez behind the plate. Other than shortstop, there isn’t a position on the diamond where I’d swap players with this team.
7. The kids are all right: You never know which young players will step up and fill roles during the season. The Tigers would not have forecast Scott Sizemore’s struggles, nor Brennan Boesch bashing then crashing last season. Danny Valencia stepped up for the Twins and answered a question that they had starting the season, but they still have serious questions up the middle. Chicago will be experimenting at least with two positions in the infield, and the Tigers have about five guys that could be batting second and playing second base. I’ll just say this: I feel good about Scott Sizemore, and about Will Rhymes and others being able to carry the load. I feel good about Ryan Raburn in left field. I’ll put those guys up with Cuddyer, Kubel, Pierre, Nishioka, or whomever Chicago and Minnesota want to run out there at second base and in left field. If it comes down to bringing guys up from the minors to fill out the rotation, I like Andy Oliver’s chances of turning the corner. There are half a dozen right handed relievers, plus Dan Schlereth, that could be very effective in the bullpen. This is always an area of uncertainty for any team, but I see talent at the key positions where there may be a need.
8. Follow the money: The Tigers have a payroll that is still some $ 27 million below where it was in 2010. They have an owner that has shown a willingness to spend, and that seems to add up to some payroll flexibility to meet needs as the season rolls along. By contrast, the word out of Chicago was that they’d be unable to sign both Dunn and keep Konerko. They let Jenks and Putz go with money being cited as the primary reason. The Twins have committed a small fortune to a core group of players, and have just gone through ten arbitration eligible settlements, pushing their payroll to maximum density. Once again, finances were cited as reasons for unloading JJ Hardy and not replenishing the bullpen, even though there were relatively inexpensive replacements available.
Do the Tigers have questions? Of course they do. There could be issues with depth in the rotation if Oliver isn’t ready, their middle infield defense is nothing to write home about, and they’re putting a lot of faith in Phil Coke and Dan Schlereth to fill significant roles without much of a resume. I feel confident this season, moreso than any season in recent memory, that they also have answers. I picked the Tigers to finish a game behind the Twins in 2009, which they did (didn’t figure the extra game, though). I picked them to finish second with 84 wins last year, and they came in third with 81. I never bought into the "1,000 run lineup" hysteria in 2008, although I admit that I expected much better that season. So, I’m not just a bubbling optimist looking through rose colored glasses, here. I have been very critical of management’s decisions when I think they messed up or gone in the wrong direction, but I can’t poke a hole in the moves that were or were not made this winter, given what was available. I like where this team is at, and where they are headed. In 2011, I think the Tigers are headed to the playoffs.