By Chris Ruddick, MLB Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – The Detroit Tigers cruised to their first division title in 24 years last season, winning the American League Central by a whopping 15 games.
With reigning Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, the league’s leading hitter in Miguel Cabrera and the Delivery Man of the Year in Jose Valverde, the Tigers’ plan this offseason was to stand pat, content that they were still the best team by far in a very underwhelming division and one of the best teams in the AL after missing out on a pennant by two games.
Then disaster struck and designated hitter Victor Martinez went down with a knee injury that would cost him the entire season. But the Tigers weren’t left scrambling for long, as they lured Prince Fielder to Motown with a monster nine-year, $214 million deal, reassuring everyone that they are not only the favorites to repeat as division champions, but are on the short list of teams who should be able to contend for a World Series this season.
As much potential as the Fielder-Cabrera pairing may have, this team will only go as far as Verlander will take them. Verlander put forth one of the best seasons ever by a starter last season and is a threat to throw a no-hitter each and every time he takes the mound.
If you are looking for a negative you can point to team defense. With the addition of Fielder, Cabrera will shift over to third base, where he is below average with the glove to say the least. Also Delmon Young is always an adventure out in left field, but luckily should spend most of his time at designated hitter with Martinez gone.
Either way, this is a team that should be playing in October.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Detroit Tigers, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (95-67) – First Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: Prince Fielder (1B), Octavio Dotel (RHP), Gerald Laird (C)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Wilson Betemit (3B), Carlos Guillen (2B), Joel Zumaya (RHP), Magglio Ordonez (OF), Brad Penny (RHP)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Austin Jackson (CF); Brennan Boesch (RF); Miguel Cabrera (3B); Prince Fielder (1B); Delmon Young (DH); Alex Avila (C); Jhonny Peralta (SS); Andy Dirks (LF); Ryan Raburn (2B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Justin Verlander (RHP); Doug Fister (RHP); Max Scherzer (RHP); Rick Porcello (RHP); Andrew Oliver (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Jose Valverde (RHP)
MANAGER: Jim Leyland
ARE MIGUEL CABRERA AND PRINCE FIELDER THE BEST 1-2 PUNCH IN BASEBALL?
When Victor Martinez went down with a torn ACL shortly before the start of spring training, hopes were thought to be dashed in the Motor City. But, the Tigers wasted little time in replacing him, as they inked free agent Prince Fielder to a monster nine-year, $214 million deal.
Now we have to ask is there a better middle of the lineup in baseball than Fielder and Miguel Cabrera?
Last season Fielder finished third in the voting for the National League Most Valuable Player after batting .299 with 38 homers and 120 RBI. He was also second in the league in walks (107) and on-base percentage (.415), while being the only player in the majors to play in all 162 games. Cabrera, meanwhile, led the American League with a .344 average and also scored 111 runs, had 197 hits, 48 doubles, 30 homers, 105 RBI and a 1.033 OPS.
Now the Fielder signing does bring some concerns. Cabrera shifts back over to third base, where in 2008 with the Tigers he committed five errors in a 14- game stint. He’s made 48 errors in 387 games for his career at third base. That’s a .951 fielding percentage and would have ranked him 14th among 20 players who played at least 100 games at third last year.
But they can rake.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR JUSTIN VERLANDER?
Justin Verlander became the first pitcher since Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to win an AL MVP last year thanks to one of the better seasons by a starting pitcher in recent memory.
The 28-year-old flamethrower, who was also a unanimous Cy Young Award winner, became the 12th pitcher in the last 50 years to win pitching’s Triple Crown last season, as he led the league in wins (24), ERA (2.40) and strikeouts (250). He is the first AL pitcher to accomplish the feat since Johan Santana in ’06 with the Twins, and the first Tigers hurler to do it since Hal Newhouser in 1945.
Verlander’s 24 wins were the most in the league since Bob Welch won 27 for the 1990 Athletics. He also led AL pitchers with 251 innings, a .192 opposing batting average and a 0.92 WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) ratio.
Verlander, who won his final 12 starts and was 14-1 within the American League Central for the division champion Tigers, also tossed a no-hitter and came close on several other occasions.
All that after an April that saw him go 2-3 with a 3.50 ERA in five starts.
So what can he do for an encore?
Well if you are looking for a negative, the track record of pitchers who put up as many innings as he did a season ago — 271 1/3 innings between the regular season and playoffs — is not very good.
DO YOU TRUST JOSE VALVERDE?
If there is one thing you might want to worry about if you are the Detroit Tigers it is their closer Jose Valverde. That’s also kind of odd considering he was a perfect 49-for-49 in the regular season a year ago.
The right-hander, who lost around 40 pounds this offseason, tends to keep Tigers’ fans on the edge of their seats, but always seems to work his way out of trouble and dance at the end.
In addition to all the saves, Valverde posted a 2.40 ERA, made the All-Star team and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. He easily surpassed Guillermo Hernandez’s franchise record of 32 consecutive saves and went on to topple Todd Jones’ club mark of 42 saves in 2000.
Valverde also became only the third pitcher in baseball history to achieve perfection over an entire season with more than 28 saves. The others to accomplish that feat were Eric Gagne (55 for the Dodgers in 2003) and Brad Lidge (41 for the Phillies in 2008).
Still. Do you trust him?
X-FACTOR: DOUG FISTER: Of all the players who moved at the trade deadline, none had the impact of Doug Fister. Acquired from Seattle in an under-the- radar move, Fister went 8-1 with a 1.79 ERA in 11 games (10 starts) for the Tigers. He closed the year strong, posting a 7-0 mark, while allowing one run or less in his last eight outings. Fister and Verlander combined to go 14-0 with a 1.61 ERA in 16 outings from Aug. 16 to the end of the season. The Tigers hoped that Max Scherzer would be that dependable No. 2 starter, but it seems that Fister may have filled the role instead. Now if all three are firing on all cylinders this may be a whole lot easier than most think it already will be for the Tigers.
The Tigers may be the safest bet to win a division of any team in baseball. There are not many holes on this club. The lineup was good last year and will be even better with the addition of Fielder. Verlander is the best pitcher in the American League and as shaky as he is Valverde has proven to be as reliable as any closer in baseball. The sky is the limit for this team. When it’s all said and done don’t be surprised if Leyland has another World Series title in his hands.