Posted by: Larry Smith Jr. | April 5, 2010

2010 Detroit Tigers Preview

After an entire six month off-season of recovery from the sting of a bitter defeat in a one-game playoff to the Minnesota Twins last season, an off-season filled with hand-wringing, blockbuster trades, multiple large free agent signings, and a changing of the guard as key members of the 2006 pennant winning team bid Detroit adieu by one method or another; Finally we have reached this date.   Opening day, the start of a new baseball season.

The 2010 season begins for Detroit similarly in my own mind to the way that the 2009 season began, with the major difference between the two seasons being the level of expectations generally felt by the fanbase due to things that happened in the prior year.   While there was general malaise among the fanbase entering 2009 due to the disappointment that was the 2008 season, in 2010 the malaise is mostly due to perceived weakening of the team in the off-season.   It appears in actuality that the team was not weakened in the off-season — At worst there was lateral movement — However it appears that 2010 opens similarly to 2009 in many ways:

  • – The Tigers are a team full of question marks and “What ifs”, mostly surrounding injuries and the ability of certain key players to recover from them.
  • – The rotation is in a state of mild flux.
  • – There are serious questions about the ability of the offense to carry the team through the season, in no small part due to worries about the aforementioned injuries.
  • – The rest of the division is so subpar that the above mentioned worries may not play as large of a role as it might in another division.

 

To be certain, the cast of characters for the 2010 campaign is much different.   Out are starting Center Fielder Curtis Granderson, starting Second Baseman Placido Polanco, Starting Pitcher Edwin Jackson, backup Outfielder Marcus Thames, set-up man Brandon Lyon, and closer Fernando Rodney.   In are Left Fielder Johnny Damon, top 100 prospect Center Fielder Austin Jackson, second base prospect Scott Sizemore, colorful closer Jose Valverde, heterochromatic Starting Pitcher Max Scherzer, and lefty relievers Phil Coke and Brad Thomas.

Will all of this turnover be beneficial to the Tigers?   Well, in the long term it seems almost definitely that the answer is yes.  However, what does it all mean for 2010?

As mentioned in the bullet points above, one of the huge question marks for the 2010 Tigers is the ability of the offense to carry the team.  Injuries (or lack thereof) will play a big role in solving this question, but there are reasons to be optimistic about the ’10 Tigers offense.   This is a team that features the following projected starters with their 2009 triple slash lines:

C         Gerald Laird  (225/306/320)

1B        Miguel Cabrera  (324/396/547)

2B        Scott Sizemore (308/389/500 at AA Erie and AAA Toledo)

SS        Adam Everett (238/288/325)

3B            Brandon Inge  (230/314/406)

LF        Johnny Damon (282/365/489)

CF       Austin Jackson (300/354/405 at AAA Scranton)

RF            Magglio Ordonez (310/376/428)

DH       Carlos Guillen (242/339/419)

There is really only one player in this lineup that should be considered a lock to provide great contribution, and that is Miguel Cabrera.  Entering his age 27 season, Cabrera has already spent most of the last five seasons proving himself to be one of the best young hitters to play the game, establishing a pace that will put him in the Hall of Fame if he continues it throughout his career.  However, he has yet to have the monster “he-can’t-be-stopped” season that players of his profile generally have once or twice in their careers.  You can never predict those seasons, but given his age and skill level it could happen as easily this year as any.  Even if it doesn’t, it would take a catastrophe for him to not give the Tigers top 10 or 15 (in the league) hitting in 2010.

Past Cabrera is a slew of question marks that looked at reasonably, will likely turn out half in favor of Detroit and half not.  If it is more than half in either direction, that direction is where the Tigers ’10 season will lean.  Johnny Damon will almost certainly take a step back in power, but he has been incredibly consistent over the past few years.  The only reason for concern with him is his age, but he is generally regarded to be a player of good conditioning.   Magglio Ordonez was one of the worst regular starters in the Major Leagues during the first half of 2009, and was one of the best hitters in the Majors in the second half.  He’s also on the wrong side of 35 and it is unclear which part of last year was a fluke between the first and second half.   There’s also the possibility that he may have remade himself as a player, becoming a high average/moderate to low power guy.   Carlos Guillen did not have the best of seasons last year, but much of what sunk his season-long numbers was his ill-advised decision to play hurt in April, during which time he was almost worthless to the Tigers.   After returning to the lineup from the disabled list in late July, Guillen hit 262/371/503 with 11 home runs in 53 games for the Tigers.  If he could provide similar production in 2010 it could be a huge boost for the team, and they’ve done their part to try to make sure that he does by limiting him to Designated Hitter for the most part.   Even keeping in mind the possibility of a DH penalty, a Guillen similar to the late ’09 version would be extremely useful for a Tigers team that was 13th in offense out of the DH spot last year.

It seems that every season Brandon Inge is an offensive enigma for the team.  He has shown the ability to be valuable on offense, as from 2004-06 he was within the general sphere of league average (in 2004 he was decently above average) and in the first half of 2009 he was one of the best overall Third Basemen in all the majors.   Yet in 2007 and in 2008 he was very poor (offensively), and in the second half of 2009 he was also.  While he contended with severe knee troubles at the end of last year that he probably would not have played through if the Tigers had anyone even remotely capable of being a regular Third Baseman in his place, the question remains if he can produce on even an average level next season at age 33 and in a contract year.   Gerald Laird was very bad at the plate last year — About as bad at it as he was great behind it — But there is again a reason to be optimistic for something of a bounce back season for him.   Laird has shown in the 2006 and 2008 seasons to be capable of being an acceptable or even close-to-league-average hitter in this league in limited at bats.   The problem for him in 2009 is that the Tigers leaned on him to play (a career high) 135 games due to a situation similar to that which befell them with Inge, where they didn’t have a capable backup and therefore had to face the fact that a terribly worn-down Laird remained a better option than Dusty Ryan, Matt Treanor, or Dane Sardinha, none of whom remain in the organization.   This season Detroit has young Catcher Alex Avila retained as the backup, and a capable hitter in Robinzon Diaz as their first catching option in the minor leagues.   Both players are significantly inferior to Laird defensively, but are superior to him offensively and capable defensively.   This will allow the Tigers to limit Laird’s games played and therefore create an opportunity that his individual performance at the plate will improve.   If things work out in this manner, it would significantly boost Detroit’s offensive output over 2009 from the Catcher position.    While Avila had a huge breakout after being promoted to Detroit late last season, going 279/375/590 with 5 home runs in 72 plate appearances, Tigers fans would be wise to temper their enthusiasm slightly as he is unlikely to duplicate those numbers in 2010 (though its possible he can reach them again before he retires).   Avila’s minor league track record is such that he has shown that he can be an average to slightly above average hitter in the majors this season, and that is probably a more reasonable expectation for him than the great numbers he put up in his call-up last season.

Adam Everett is a glove-only shortstop and has been his entire career.  While he is an outstanding defender that should help Detroit’s army of ground ball pitchers tremendously, he’s unlikely to provide much with the bat.  He never has.  

Finally there are the two newly promoted players, Sizemore and Jackson.   Sizemore was a fifth-round draft pick of the Tigers in 2006 and has shown above average plate patience and the ability to hit decently for average since joining the organization.  Last season he also added power to his game, hitting 17 home runs in 130 games across two levels of the minors.  He comes to Detroit with a .383 career OBP in almost 1,700 minor league plate appearances, which is cause for excitement about his arrival in and of itself.   He replaces Placido Polanco — A player who only topped .350 twice in five years in Detroit — Which gives cause for optimism that the Tigers will get more offense out of Second Base than last season when Polanco was the worst hitting regular second baseman in the American League.    The cost of this addition will definitely come on defense.  Sizemore is rated as an average defender by most scouts while UZR sees him as +5, which is above average.   By comparison, Polanco was regularly a +10 defender in Detroit, and was generally a top two defensive second baseman during his tenure (behind only the player who replaced him in Philadelphia, Chase Utley).   Austin Jackson was an eighth round pick of the Yankees in 2005 and was acquired by Detroit in the Curtis Granderson deal.  He’s been a highly touted prospect primarily based on his tools and athleticism and not so much on his performance to date.  He’s been able to hit for a high average at several stops in the minors, including batting .300 for Scranton last year (he’s a career .288 hitter in close to 2,500 plate appearances), but has also carried a high strikeout rate (21%) that he has failed to supplement with appropriate plate patience, particularly for someone that doesn’t hit for much power.   While most scouts believe that he will eventually hit for power and he does have two 30+ doubles seasons in the minors (usually doubles power will translate to home run power for younger players), it seems to be a lot to hope for to expect Jackson to develop that home run power in his rookie season.   While its fully possible that he could, Detroit fans may do will to temper their expectations for this rookie.   Unless his tools all come together in this season, it appears more likely that Detroit will get below average output from their Center Fielder, a downgrade even from the down season that prior Center Fielder Curtis Granderson had before him.

Looking at the offense as a whole, it seems reasonable that will improve from last year, but only to a point where it would be middle of the pack or so.  It’s hard to see this team being one of the feared offenses of the American League, but it is also possible that they won’t have to be in order to compete.  They have strong bench bats in Ryan Raburn and Alex Avila and it is likely that Outfielder Clete Thomas, who is a below average but okay-for-a-backup bat, will spend significant time with the team as well even though he did not make the opening day roster.   The outlook for offense may be better than is popularly perceived.

Defensively the team will be strong again this year as they were last year, when they were one of the best in the AL.  Sizemore is a question mark at second base and Ordonez is likely to be below average in Right Field.  Johnny Damon is a capable fielder in Left though he has a notoriously weak arm.   The Tigers will field elite defenders at three positions in Laird, Inge, and Everett, and will also field Austin Jackson, whose reputation in the field is decent although his record is inconsistent.   Miguel Cabrera has quietly been improving at first base on a yearly basis since moving there early in the 2008 season, and appears ready to make the step up into “well above average”.   Their bench is entirely composed of capable fielders who are neither particularly great or awful — So long as Ryan Raburn is used strictly in the Outfield.   He is a well below average defender as an infielder.   Clete Thomas is a well above average defender with a good arm should he spend time with the team during the season.

Detroit’s starting rotation is again top heavy with question marks at the back end.   Justin Verlander took a huge step up last season and while it may be too much to expect that he will repeat last year’s performance wherein he led the American League in strikeouts while only walking 2.4 per nine innings, Detroit fans should be able to count on another great season from the right-hander.  The only cause for concern is that Verlander was leaned upon heavily by Manager Jim Leyland last year.  He threw more pitches than any pitcher in either league in the last five years.   Can he hold up under the workload, or will we begin to see him fatigue early this year as a result of it?   That is a big question facing the 2010 Tigers rotation.

Past Verlander the Tigers return Rick Porcello, whose age, skill level, and demonstrated improvement as last season went on suggests that he should be in for an improvement this year.  One wonders if the Tigers will allow him to throw much more than the 171 innings that he threw last season.   They also will place Max Scherzer in the rotation.  Scherzer was a highly touted pitcher as a prospect and has not disappointed since coming to the Majors.   He had a better 2009 than Edwin Jackson, the man he is replacing, albeit that better season came in less innings pitched while pitching in the National League.   Scherzer has to show that he can compete against American League competition and that he can stay healthy and durable.   The sky is the limit for his talent.

The back end of the Tigers rotation will be filled out by Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis, two players with question marks the size of small planets.  Bonderman is finally healthy after (first) elbow problems and (then) circulatory problems have kept him sidelined for most of the last two seasons and ineffective since roughly late July of 2007.   If he is back to normal it would be a boon to the Tigers of incredible proportions.  He was every bit the budding superstar at the time he initially got injured, and a return to that level of play would give the Tigers an extremely formidable rotation.   However, if he fails to even play capably — Which is equally possible — Then that will open the revolving door of potential replacements in the rotation, a pool that is long and deep looking into the future, but not really there in terms of ability to help the team this year.   If Bonderman’s question mark is the size of Mercury, Willis’ is no smaller than Neptune.  He has not resembled a Major League pitcher since 2007, and has not resembled a good Major League pitcher since 2006.   There has been a lot of buzz about his “impressive” spring training, but there is no shortage of reasons to believe that this spring was a total fraud.  It seems much more reasonable to expect that the spot in the rotation that he currently fills may eventually be held by either or both of Armando Galaraaga and Alfredo Figaro for most of the time prior to the trading deadline.   The Tigers absolutely need one of Bonderman or Willis to pan out, or else they could face major trouble ahead in the form of essentially having two rotation spots that are completely unreliable.

The Tigers may have made the biggest improvement to their team in the off-season in the bullpen, where they look to be solid if unspectacular, even with what appears to be a career threatening injury to reliable left-hander Bobby Seay.   The further than 2006 appears in the rear view mirror, the more likely it appears that Joel Zumaya will never have another season like it, when he struck out 10.5 batters per nine innings, carried an ERA under 2, and had an absolutely insane WPA of 3.7, a number that most non-closer relief pitchers never approach.   However, if he is healthy there is no reason that he shouldn’t be an effective reliever for the team.   Ryan Perry improved dramatically after returning from Toledo in 2009, and seems poised to improve.   Phil Coke is a solid reliever, and Fu-Te Ni dominated left handed hitting at both the minor and major league levels last season.   Jose Valverde has been startlingly consistent throughout his career as a closer.   Brad Thomas and Eddie Bonine are the biggest question marks in the bullpen, but the Tigers have options either in the minors (Daniel Schlereth) or on the disabled list (Zach Miner) to replace both if they falter.

Overall, it seems that the Tigers have definitely improved the team from 2009 to 2010, though the improvement appears marginal and is certainly based on a lot of aged players either repeating their performances from last season or maintaining their previous level of performance.  However, the Minnesota Twins have improved themselves even more than the Tigers have, and even with the season-ending injury to one of the best closers in the game in Joe Nathan, the Twins are also returning Pat Neshek, who was lost to injury for the entirety of 2009.  Neshek had emerged into one of the better relief pitchers in the game prior to his injury and ought to be able to step into a relief ace role at worst and mitigate the damage done by the Nathan loss.   It is difficult to predict the Tigers being a better team in 2010 than the Twins, though it is easy to see a scenario in which it could happen.   It seems that they are about an equal team as the White Sox — A team with stellar pitching but an extremely questionable offense — And better than the Indians.  Much better than the Royals.    It seems reasonable for Tiger fans to expect a second place finish and a competitive season that will once again go deep into the year, though hopefully not to a losing effort in Game 163.   It is very possible that they can win the division this year if they get some good fortune on injuries and rebound years, but it is equally possible that they could finish third or even as low as fourth.   For now, all things considered, second place seems to be a good expectation.   An 84-88 win campaign would be where expectations probably should be set, with the higher end of that range producing a division title, and the lower end of it adding another year from the last time the Tigers won such a title.   Currently it has been 23 years.  The question for the 2010 team will be “Are you going to let it become 24?”

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Responses

  1. Indeed, if they were in the AL East I’d probably pick them to finish fourth and possibly even fifth, as I think Baltimore is similar in talent. Very fortunate that they got moved out of that division!

  2. Hi, I agree that 84-88 wins seems about right. They are the dark horse team in their division. As you say, lots of unanswered questions, but at least they don’t play in the A.L. East! Nice post, Bill


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