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Detroit Tigers must play capable defense

This week we will explore five keys for the Tigers as they make a run at the Central Division title. Those keys are staying healthy, playing better on the road, finding success against right-handed pitching, finding a starting pitcher to step up and join Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer as front line starters, and playing better defense than expected.

Do teams need a stellar defense to win Major League Baseball games? Of course not. Does it help? Of course it can help. For the Tigers, defensive will definitely play an important role.

Why's that? Pitchers who put the ball in play will be inhabiting the mound for quite a few innings this year. Obviously, that's not the case with Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. But look at the strikeout rates of the next three in the rotation: Brad Penny had rates of 5.66 strikeouts per nine innings each of the past two years. Rick Porcello's career rate is 4.67 strikeouts per nine innings. Phil Coke's rate was a more palatable 7.49 per nine innings but was just 5.81 during spring training.

Infield defense might be especially important to Penny and Porcello, both of whom have striven to keep the ball low in the zone and have the groundball rates to show for it: better than 50% groundball rates for each.

On paper, there's reason to worry about the Tigers defense. No one makes any claims that Jhonny Peralta is a good fielder. Even his general manager points out his range is limited. First baseman Miguel Cabrera may destroy the baseball at the plate, but he is not known for his range in the field, either. At second base, the scouting report on Will Rhymes and Scott Sizemore peaks at "average." If Carlos Guillen returns to the position with his surgically repaired knee, below average is likely to be seen. That leaves Brandon Inge as the infield's lone plus infielder, and even he has quickly dropped in his abilities the past few years.

Reason to worry? Maybe. I'm not sure I'd use the word "worry" quite yet though. A better word to choose might be "concerned." One should definitely be a bit concerned about the overall team defense this season.

So an early theme to watch will be the team's defense. The defensive efficiency is one way to do that. Basically, it's a measure of how many balls in play are turned into outs.

When Detroit went to the playoffs last, the DEF was .702, the best in the American League. In 2009, it was a division-leading .695. In 2008? A division-worst .685. How about 2010? The team finished in third place in the division, and the DEF was a middling .691.

Defense isn't everything. The idea in baseball isn't scoring the most runs, or allowing the least. It's run differential that helps you win ballgames. But putting a good defense on the field has helped the team in the past, and putting a poor one on the field managed to bring a highly-hyped 2008 club back to earth.

How the TIgers' defense actually plays out will go a long way to deciding if they are a true Central Division contender this year.