MLB Preview: The Detroit Tigers

Prior to the upcoming 2008 season, TMR is going to take a division-by-division and team-by-team looking into Major League Baseball.

First thing’s first” let’s take a look at the American League Central. Talk about a stock-piled division! Take these names into consideration:

  • CF Curtis Granderson
  • 2B Placido Polanco
  • RF Magglio Ordonez
  • 3B Miguel Cabrera
  • DH Gary Sheffield
  • 1B Carlos Guillen
  • SS Edgar Renteria
  • C Ivan Rodriguez
  • LF Jacque Jones
  • And this is just the Detroit Tigers” projected starting lineup. Are you kidding me? Where is there a weakness here? Jacque Jones is batting 9th? A career .280 hitter, Jones hit .285 for the Cubs the past 2 years in a row, while in 2006 he got 152 hits, 27 HR 81 RBI. In 2004, his last year in the AL, prior to this season, he hit .249 for the Twins with 141 hits, 24 HR and 80 RBI. Not bad for a 9-hole hitter.

    Ivan Rodriguez, the Tigers” 12-time All-Star catcher, is projected to bat 8th in the lineup. Pudge, a lifetime .303 hitter batted a paltry .281 with only 11 HR and 63 RBI. This really is far less than his average 22 HR and 89 RBI (based on a 162 game avg), but he only played in 129 games. Looking at just the past six years, Rodriguez has played an average of only 130 games a year and has averaged just over 15 HR and just under 69 RBI per year with a .300 batting average. Still, not to be considered weak by any standard.

    The last time shortstop Edgar Rentaria was in the American League it was not pretty. He played one season for the 2005 Boston Red Sox. Sure, he got 172 hits, but the rest of his offensive output was among the lowest of his career. He batted a low .276 that season with only 8 HR, both his lowest in several seasons.

    His defensive numbers, however, were even worse. His .954 fielding percentage was way below the league average for shortstops for “05 at .972 and was, in fact, the 2nd from the bottom of the AL (Blue Jays Russ Adams had him beat at .952). The very next season Rentaria went back to the NL with the Braves and his numbers shot right back up to .978 while his offensive numbers also went up (.293 BA, 14 HR).

    The Tigers are hoping that the “05 season was just a fluke and it’s not a problem that Rentaria has with the AL. The Red Sox weren’t willing to be patient enough to find out. Unfortunately, the Sox haven’t found a decent shortstop since and may have been better off just holding on to him for another season to see what would happen.

    Shortstop turned first baseman Carlos Guillen fell just shy of batting .300 last season. His .296 average was considerably lower than the previous three seasons where he hit either .320 or .318. In the past two seasons Guillen has averaged 93 runs, 171 hits, 20 HR, and 93 RBI. And he’s the number six hitter. Defensively, in 36 games at 1B last season, Guillen had one error. He’ll probably do OK there.

    Find any weaknesses yet? Me neither. And we haven’t even looked at the meat of the order, or the pitchers. I’d be pretty scared if I were the other teams in the AL Central.

    What can you say about #5 hitter Gary Sheffield that hasn’t already been said? The man is a hitting machine. He missed over 2 months of the season last year with an injury to his shoulder, and still hits 25 HR and gets 75 RBI. Sheffield has been in the Majors for over 20 years and is showing no signs of slowing down yet.

    Detroit’s GM Dave Dombowski pulled off the biggest trade of the off-season in December when he sent six players from his farm system, including top prospects Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller, to the Florida Marlins for superstar 3B Miguel Cabrera and dominant left-handed pitcher Dontrelle Willis.

    And just how good is Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers projected clean-up hitter? Well, I’ll tell you, he’s going into his 5th full season in the majors and people are already saying that if he stays healthy he could be fighting with Albert Pujols for the title of the best player of this generation.

    Last season he reached career highs in both HR (34) and RBI (119), finishing in the top 5 in the NL in both categories. He also finished in the top 10 in the NL in on-base percentage (.401), slugging, .565), and batting average (.320). Cabrera led the Marlins in each of these categories except for average (Hanley Ramirez batted .332).

    Cabrera has more career HR (138) than any other active player under the age of 25. David Wright is next with 97. Last season he joined only Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujolz, David Ortiz, Bobby Abreu, Mark Teixeira, Vlad Guerrero, and Travis Hafner as the only players in the Majors to hit 100 RBI in 4 consecutive years or more. He also became the 3rd youngest player in Major League history to reach 500 career RBI (523) with only Ted Williams and Mel Ott ahead of him. Yeah, he’s pretty special.

    Yet another prolific hitter in the lineup is Tigers” leftfielder, Magglio Ordonez. The 3-hole hitter finished last season with a major league leading .363 batting average, raising his career average to .312. His career high of 139 RBI (2nd in the AL) left him just shy of 1000 for his career (992). He also led the AL in doubles (54), and finished 2nd in hits (216) and total bases (354).

    Another great move by Dombrowski occurred early in the “05 season when he sent reliever Ugueth Urbina to the Phillies in May of 2005 for 2B Placido Polanco. The “07 season turned out to be a great one for Polanco. He reached career highs in batting average (.341, 3rd in AL), hits (200), runs (105), and RBI (67). And played an errorless season at 2B.

    Polanco was also elected to his first All-Star game, won his first Golden Glove Award, and his first Silver Slugger Award. Where’s Ugi now? He’s sitting in a prison in Venezuela for 14 years for the attempted murder of five men with a machete and then setting them on fire. Like I said, another great move by Dombowski.

    One of the great leadoff hitters in baseball, Curtis Granderson led the majors in triples last season (23). He also became only the third player in baseball history to join the 20-20-20-20 club, joining Willie Mays and Frank Schulte. That’s 20 steals, 20 HR, 20 triples, and 20 doubles. He finished the season with 23 HR, 38 doubles, 23 triples, and 26 stolen bases. Phillies” shortstop Jimmy Rollins became the 4th player to join this exclusive club later in the season.

    As I pointed out earlier, this could very well be the most fearful lineup in all of baseball. There isn’t any weakness anywhere, and everywhere you look there is speed, power, and a butt-ton of talent.

    Even if any of these players were to get injured, there is plenty of depth on the bench with Brandon Inge, Marcus Thames, and several players being used at several positions as necessary.

    On the pitching side, this team is nearly as formidable. They have one of the best young arms in the AL in Justin Verlander, who led the Tigers in nearly every major category last season. He had 18 wins (T-3rd in AL) , 183 Ks (10th in AL) and a 3.66 ERA (11th in AL). He also had the 5th lowest batters avg against in the AL (.233).

    Following him in the rotation is Jeremy Bonderman. Here’s the big question: Which Bonderman will show up this season? The one who went 9-1 with a 3.48 ERA before the All-Star game or the one who went 2-8 with a 7.38 ERA after the All-Star game and didn’t pitch after Sept due to a shoulder injury? If it’s the former, the rotation is looking good, if it’s the latter, they still look OK because they have Zach Minor (3-4, 3.02 ERA) who they can pull out of the bullpen if they need to.

    Number three pitcher is the next half of that great trade, Dontrelle Willis. After a breakout season in “05 for the Marlins (22-10, 2.83 ERA), he’s declined a little in the past two seasons. He only went 10-15 last year with a 5.17 ERA but the Tigers are confident that a new setting will give him a resurgence.

    The AL’s version of “The Ageless One” (NL’s version is either Randy Johnson or Jamie Moyer, depending on which coast you’re on) is 43-year old lefty Kenny Rogers. The Tigers are really taking a chance on Rogers making a comeback this season after he went 3-4 last season after only 11 starts. He didn’t start last season until nearly the end of June, then missed all of August with injuries. Minor may be filling his spot in the rotation before Bonderman’s.

    Normally you wouldn’t point out a set-up guy, but in this case, it’s the lack of one that I have to point out. Primarily because it’s the ONLY weakness I can find on this team. Sure, they have Fernando Rodney and he’s OK. And they have Zach Minor, as long as he can stay in the bullpen. But, the set-up guy they really need is injured until mid-season.

    During the off-season this past November, while helping his family move boxes during an evacuation from the California wildfires, a box fell on Joel Zumaya’s shoulder and tore a muscle. The muscle was torn so badly that he required near immediate surgery and a subsequent 7-8 month recovery. The Tigers were counting on Zumaya as their No. 1 set-up man and maybe even their closer. Last season he pitched just under 34 innings and went 2-3 with a 4.28 ERA with 27 Ks and 17 walks.

    With everything that the Tigers have going for them in this upcoming season, speed, power, defense, pitching, the rest of the AL Central and the whole AL better stay on their toes or we may be looking at the next AL and possible World Series Champions.

    Yeah, they just might be that good.

    — Neil S. Velleman

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