Every year, it seems like the Tigers are too old and need to rebuild. Yet every year, they refuse to do so. Why should they? Why not go for it in a weak division when they still have the horses to do so in credible fashion? While the piper will eventually have to be paid for some of the less-than-optimal contracts signed during this past off-season, for now, the Tigers are certainly in the hunt for the 2011 American League Central.
One might be tempted to call this a “Star and Scrubs” lineup, but closer inspection shows that isn’t the case. Obviously, Cabrera is the one of the best hitters in baseball. But although there aren’tt any other particularly frightening hitters in the lineup, there are some good ones. Victor Martinez’s bat is impressive at catcher, merely “meh” at DH, and I suspect that Detroit will regret that contract fairly soon, but in the meantime he is another decent, .350-ish wOBA bat in the lineup. Ordonez is probably at about that same level of hitter at this point in his career, but that isn’t that bad for a right fielder in the recent run environment. The Tigers are finally giving Ryan Raburn a shot to play every day; they need to resist the urge to bench him in hopes of catching another Brennan Boesch BABIP-luck-fueled hot streak if Raburn slumps again to start the season.
The other hitters are less impressive, but are acceptable stopgaps. The power Peralta showed in 2005 isn’t coming back, but his bat is good enough for shortstop. Brandon Inge isn’t in there for his bat, either. Alex Avila should hit sufficiently for a catcher. Will Rhymes, on the other hand… are the Tigers serious? It’s highly unlikely that he can repeat 2010′s major league performance, and the Tigers really should give Scott Sizemore another extended chance to show what he can do. Austin Jackson’s BABIP luck has been discussed ad nauseum, but the point remains the same: despite his speed, his contact rate doesn’t indicate that his 2010 rate of hits on balls in play is sustainable. He will need to add some walks and power to continue his offensive development.
Overall, the Tigers offense should be pretty good. It’s a right-handed group, and the switch-hitting Martinez has hit lefties slightly better than righties over his career (although his carer split is fairly neutral). Right-handed hitters generally have smaller splits than left-handed hitters, and the Tigers’ home park is much more favorable to right-handed hitters than to lefties, which probably plays a role in the Tigers thinking.
Defensively, this group is an interesting mix. Jackson and Inge are good defenders at their positions, while Peralta, Raburn, Ordonez, and Cabrera are all various flavors of below average. The Tigers probably won’t be good in the field, but they won’t be dreadful, either.
Like the position players, the pitchers are a mix of stars and mediocrities. With Zack Greinke in Milwaukee, Verlander is probably the best pitcher in the division, a potential Cy Young candidate every season. After a rough start in 2010 after coming over from Arizona, Scherzer turned in an impressive 2010 season, and might be the third-best pitcher in the division after Verlander and Francisco Liriano. Scherzer and Verlander make a devastating one-two punch that can hang with almost any other in baseball, but after that, there is a drop-off. Rick Porcello had a nice little comeback in the second half of 2010, but it’s hard to project him as better than a league-average starter. That’s fine for a number three, but after that, there are questions. No one is expecting Phil Coke to pull a C.J. Wilson, but whether he can be more than a stopgap #4/#5 is one of the key questions for the Tigers in 2011. Brad Penny might be okay for short doses in the National League, but his health, conditioning, and past performance in the American League have leave much to be desired. This is not to say that the back of the Tigers’ rotation is especially poor compared to other teams, simply that there are a lot of questions about it. Whether or not this peculiar approach to rotation depth works out will go a long way in determining whether or not the Tigers can make a run at the playoffs.
The bullpen should be decent. Valverde isn’t a dominating closer like Rivera or Soria, but he gets the job done despite a lot of walks. The Benoit contract will probably be another one the Tigers regret down the road, but for now he shores up the ‘pen with a lot of strikeouts and provides insurance should Valverde falter. Joel Zumaya probably doesn’t have much left to offer at this point, but Schlereth and Perry have value if used properly.
It’s tempting to say that the key player for the Tigers is Miguel Cabrera’s sponsor/watchdog/whatever, but that would be a cheap joke. But I will also admit that I’m taking the boring, easy way out in naming Miguel Cabrera as the Tigers’ key player. It isn’t so much his recent, um, “troubles.” I know this is going to shock and dismay many readers, but “if” Miguel Cabrera has a drinking problem, it won’t be the only one in baseball. Remember back in 2009, when his season ended with an ugly “incident? ” Yeah, he had a .402 wOBA that season. Remember Mickey Mantle? You get the idea. On a human level, that may be callous, but on a baseball level, it’s the truth.
Cabrera is probably the best hitter in the American League. The gap between him and everyone else on the Tigers might be the biggest between any great hitter and his “sidekick(s)” in baseball. Albert Pujols has Matt Holliday. Joey Votto has Jay Bruce. Adrian Gonzalez has Kevin Youkilis (or Youkilis might have Gonzalez)… and Cabrera has… Magglio Ordonez? Victor Martinez? With Cabrera, the Tigers’ starting nine are above-average offensively. Without him, they’re barely average. While the effects of injuries to great players are often exaggerated, in this case, if Cabrera misses just a month and is replaced in the offense by Carlos Guillen (for example), that could still cost the Tigers a win, which, given that the Tigers are currently projected by one system to be in a virtual dead heat with the Twins and White Sox, is quite significant.
The Tigers are walking a bit of a tightrope due to a lack of depth. But their stars — Cabrera and Verlander — have been remarkably durable and are among the best in their league. While some of the role players are aging and/or overpaid, Detroit has put together enough talent that barring a major injury to one of their top players they should be in the race for the divisional title with the other flawed contenders for the 2011 American League Central crown.