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Tigers season preview: How they make the playoffs

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You've seen enough standard season previews by now. They all say the same things. Twins are the best in the division. White Sox have the best rotation in the division. Tigers have a few holes in the rotation and bullpen, and will have to panhandle for runs. Indians are young up-and-comers but nothing to worry about yet. And the Royals ... are.

This isn't going to be one of those.

No, I'm going to tell you the game plan for just how the Tigers win the American League Central Division, as improbable as that idea may seem to the national experts out there.

It's not an easy path, but it's not an impossible one either. Baseball Prospectus today projects the Twins winning the division with a .500 record. Detroit is just two wins behind at 79. While those exact winning percentages should not be thought of as exacts -- the system kind of accordions teams toward the middle, it does show you just how close the division can be.

So yes, it can be done.

Here's how:

The starting pitching

  • Justin Verlander cannot take too big of a step back in 2010. He made an incredible step forward in 2009, playing at a level among the best in the American League by exhibiting the best control and strikeout rates of his life. Expecting him to take a small step backward is fair. Anything bigger than that and the Tigers' rotation may not have enough to absorb it.
  • Ditto that for Rick Porcello, who will be a 21-year-old starting his second major league season. You should expect him to become a better pitcher overall this year, but he will have to overcome any possible lingering effects of having such a big innings leap on an arm that was at the time just two years removed from high school.
  • And ditto that for Max Scherzer, who will be making his American League debut. In his first full major league season, he looked like an ace-in-the-making in Arizona. That must continue.
  • It goes without saying Jeremy Bonderman will have to outperform the universally low expectations. I think that is probably quite possible.
  • The Tigers will have to have an extremely short leash on Dontrelle Willis. Last year, they allowed their fourth and fifth starters to falter for nearly a month before making moves to upgrade them. They ended up losing the division on the last day of the season for the second time in four years because of it. Decisions in April and May can and do have an impact in October.
  • If the three front-of-the-rotation guys do their job and the back-of-the-rotation guys don't completely suck, the Tigers have a great starting position for winning the division.

The bullpen

  • The Tigers were very good in the final two innings of games last year, which helped them convert more close games into wins than should be expected. They can't see a dropoff there. Phil Coke, Joel Zumaya and Ryan Perry must make the seventh and eighth innings impenetrable as the ball is handed off to closer Jose Valverde.
  • Brad Thomas and Fu-Te Ni must control the feared left-handed batters around the division, especially the M&M boys in Minnesota.

The defense

  • The Tigers corner outfielders have to beat what are pretty low expectations of them, or Austin Jackson is going to have to cover a lot of lawn in the outfield to make up for the defensive inefficiencies out there.
  • Rookie second baseman Scott Sizemore will have to make sure those ground balls forced by the pitchers don't get through a hole on the right side of the infield.

The run-scoring

  • It goes without saying the Tigers' offense is going to have to do a better job than most people expect. Because right now, expectations are pretty low. Baseball Prospectus projects 764 runs scored, for example.
  • So it again goes without saying the way the Tigers score more than expected is that Jackson and Sizemore make immediate contributions to the lineup more than they are expected to. And Magglio Ordonez must bounce back from a poor first four months in 2009 with more consistent play. And Carlos Guillen has to remain healthy and plays like he did last August more often than not. And Johnny Damon must prove his season numbers were not a product of Yankee Stadium (both of them) and his numbers at Comerica Park (363 average, .412 on-base percentage, .550 slugging average) were not a fluke and will remain high despite his age.
  • The Tigers must get more production out of the catcher's spot in the lineup than they did in the past, too. Gerald Laird has to hit better than a .225/.306/.320 line, and manager Jim Leyland has to use Alex Avila often enough to keep Laird rested and give an added run-scoring threat off the bench.
  • And Brandon Inge and Adam Everett cannot be black holes in the lineup, either.

The intangibles

  • Detroit has to avoid the big injury. While that can be said of all teams, the Tigers' opportunity to compete in the division demands that not a single main contributor hit the disabled list, because the system is not deep enough to absorb it.
  • The Twins must make the expected step backwards in their first season playing outside. Joe Mauer will have to come back to earth from an insanely good 2009.
  • The White Sox projected inability to score runs must remain true. And while we're talking about them, Jake Peavy must prove being a Cy Young quality pitcher in the National League is no guarantee of American League ace-dom.
  • The baseball gods must stop teasing Tigers fans, because I'm really getting sick of how close the team is coming to winning a division title before giving it away. That just ain't right of them. Just win, damn it.

Conclusion

As you can see, there is certainly room for the Tigers to make the playoffs. A lot of projections for where the Tigers fail seem to expect the absolute worst of many players. A few of those players being incrementally -- or more -- better than expected would really push Detroit forward.

For example, Baseball Prospectus projects Everett to be worse than your standard minor league replacement player. Willis is just above replacement. If the Tigers get better production out of the players or choose to upgrade them, you should expect improvement.

Will the studs produce? Can the rookies step up? Will injuries be avoided?

All of those questions are why we watch 162 baseball games a year, plus a month of spring training.

My best bet is an 82-80 record, but it wouldn't surprise me if they won 86 games and the division.

It can be done.

But will it?