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Playing Pepper 2013: Detroit Tigers

Posted on March 1, 2013 at 3:00 PM
Filed Under: Detroit Tigers | Playing Pepper
For the fifth straight year, Playing Pepper returns to C70 At The Bat.  If you aren't aware, this series helps get a feel for the other 29 teams in baseball by asking those that follow them the closest--their bloggers.  We've got spring training action going, so it's time to play a little pepper.  

Detroit Tigers 
88-74, first in the AL Central, lost in the World Series 

The end result wasn't unexpected, but the journey was.

After adding Prince Fielder to an already impressive lineup and with a division that was not quite as dominant as some others, it was well assumed that Detroit would run away and hide from the rest of the league.  There might be a bit of a fight in the first half, but after that there'd be no problems, right?

Instead, Detroit was tied for first with just eight games to go and that was after a battle to cut into the White Sox lead.  They were able to pull away down the stretch, but it was a close thing. Then Oakland took them to a deciding Game 5 before they swept the Yankees, only to run into what looked to be a team of destiny in Chicago.

Now the Tigers return, possibly even stronger than last season.  To see if that's the case, I've got a couple of great bloggers to chat about their team.  Shane Kay writes for the blog entitled (appropriately, for this series) Pepper Baseball.  He also Tweets @PepperBaseball.  Along with Shane, I've brought back Jennifer Cosey of Old English D.  Jennifer can be found on Twitter @VivaTigres.

After the jump, we'll talk about following up a Triple Crown and if any rookies can crack this squad.

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C70: How would you grade the offseason? 

PB: The Tigers get a B+ from me for the offseason. Many will point out the best move of the offseason wasn't actually a move, but just getting Victor Martinez back in the line-up and I have to agree, but the second best move was not signing Rafael Soriano for $15m a year, especially when you're going to need the money to resign Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander

The Torii Hunter signing helps shore up one of the league's worst defenses and eliminates a weakness (-8 runs saved with Brennan Boesch) and turns it to a strength (+15 runs saved). Tigers fans shouldn't expect a similar offensive season from Hunter however as his .313 average was the first time he hit over .300 in his 16-year career and a major concern should be back-to-back 100+ strike out guys (Jackson/Hunter) in the one and two slots in the order.

The reason the Tigers don't receive a higher grade from me isn't that they didn't sign a closer, but probably gave up a little too much for Hunter (2-years, $26m), then again you're paying more for him to just be here for two years.

To me the closer spot is less of an issue and the Tigers shouldn't be graded down there as Bruce Rondon (more below) will get his shot at the spot, closer by committee is an option, and there will be a few closers on the market early on and the Tigers have a trade chip in Rick Porcello.

OED: I was pleased with the Tigers' offseason signings. Although it should no longer surprise when owner Mike Ilitch opens his wallet, I did not expect to re-sign Anibal Sanchez. I had determined that with Justin Verlander's possible contract extension looming, the price tag for Sanchez would be too high, and the Tigers would ultimately pass on signing him. So when the news came in of Sanchez' deal, I reacted with mild shock. That was quickly replaced by the sanguine knowledge that Mike Ilitch is not afraid to spend. He's a guy that wants the ring, and in all honesty acts like he's not sure how many more chances he'll have at seeing the Tigers try to win it. 

Torii Hunter, although coming off a season in which his BABIP was unusually high, figures to be a competent bat, and a welcome defensive addition to the Tigers outfield. The two-year, $26 million contract was reasonable, in my opinion. Although some expressed concern over his age (he'll be a long-in-the-tooth 38 in July!), Hunter has played 140 games or more the past three seasons. 

There was no closer signing in the off-season, and the Tigers may try out rookie Bruce Rondon, or go with closer by committee. Phil Coke, while struggling at times during the season, acquitted himself well during the post-season at closer when Jose Valverde could no longer hold down the role. High-priced closer not needed, in my opinion.

C70: So what does Miguel Cabrera do for an encore? 

PB: Nothing unfortunately, but the league's best hitter is going to give you at least a .320 average, 30+ homers, and 110+ RBI and a top-5 MVP vote getter. 

OED: I suppose it's a no-win situation for Miguel, because how DO you follow up a Triple Crown, MVP season? But seriously, I intend to enjoy watching every game he plays in the Old English D, because I appreciate how rare it is to have a hitter of his caliber play in front of your eyes every day. I've seen him get fooled on one pitch during an at bat, and crush the next offering into the gap or over the wall. Not that he gets fooled very often. Granted, Sergio Romo (and his catcher Buster Posey) had the last laugh in the World Series, but I'd like to think that his dream encore would be to have the winning hit in the last game of the World Series, instead of making the final out.

C70: What are the expectations for Victor Martinez this season?

PB: Expecting Victor Martinez to match his 2011 numbers after missing all of 2012 with a torn left ACL is a bit unfair, however hitting in the five-spot he's going to have plenty of RBI opportunities in front of him with guys like Austin Jackson, Hunter, Cabrera, and Fielder getting on base. Martinez had his second highest average of his career at .330 (.336 in 2009) in 2011 and hopes are he's in the .310 range with a little more power (15-18 homers) and 100 RBI's, although you'd be talking about three 100 RBI guys in this lineup then (Cabrera/Fielder).

OED: I think the average well-informed fan has realistic, tempered expectations for Martinez. It would take an extraordinary year to match his 2011 performance, even if he had been healthy all 2012. A 34-year old player coming off ACL, meniscus and micro-fracture injuries that hasn't played a single game the past season? There is obviously an element of unknown here. However, I think it is reasonable to think that he'll provide more-than-adequate protection for Prince Fielder, who was intentionally walked a league-high 18 times last season. The good news is his rehab was very cautiously executed. Instead of coming back in September last season, the decision was made to hold him out for the entirety of 2012. In addition, Victor has picked up a bat and hit with it this Spring, although it's very early.

C70: What rookie will make the biggest impact in 2013?

PB: Without a doubt the biggest impact rookie this season for the Tigers will be Bruce Rondon in the bullpen. Rondon is being given opportunity to walk out of camp with the closers job at the age of 22. Rondon has only pitched eight innings above Double-A and is known to have a triple digit fastball but issues with control averaging 5.1 walks per 9 over his five seasons in the minors.

Of course it will be important to watch the Tigers overall top prospect Nick Castellanos this spring as the leftfield job is still up for grabs, however he's a long shot to break camp with the big club as he sits fourth on the depth charts right now (behind Dirks, Boesch, Garcia).

OED: As previously mentioned, Bruce Rondon will have an opportunity to be the Tigers' closer as a rookie. Control is the obvious issue for Rondon, and I'm sure the Spring will be spent working intensely on reducing the number of free passes he issues.

C70: What will be the final record of the team and where will they finish in the division?

PB: Mine and just about everyone's expectations are for the Tigers to finish in first in the Central this year with a 92-70 record.

OED: I really hate making predictions. That's the beauty of the game. So much can happen of a 162-game season. The Tigers have a good chance to take the AL Central for the third straight year. It'll be fun to see how far they can go, but I'll be in the stands whether they're in contention or not.

C70: What one thing from your team are you most looking forward to watching?

PB: I looking forward to a full season of a healthy starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Drew Smyly. The Tigers could be really, really good if their rotation clicks, but be aware...Scherzer tends to run in to mechanical flaws from time to time. If all can stay healthy and Scherzer has the type of season that he had in the second half last year, watch out!

OED: Individual accomplishments always take a back seat to making the playoffs, and I look forward to watching the championship trophy presentation most of all, but I would be lying if I said I wasn't looking forward to seeing whether the MVP stays in the D for three years running. Verlander, Cabrera.....????

My thanks to Shane and Jennifer for their comments.  There seems to be little doubt that the road to the World Series still runs through Detroit for American League teams!

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