The 2012 season saw the Detroit Tigers make their second World Series appearance in six years but Detroit was disappointed again losing 4-0 to the San Francisco Giants. The season started out with very high expectations, Justin Verlander’s Cy Young and AL MVP awards and the signing of Prince Fielder gave the Tigers fans hope of another Fall Classic appearance. As the season went on it looked like not only would the Tigers fail to live up to expectations but they might not even make the playoffs. After a late season winning streak and another late season swoon by the White Sox the Tigers found themselves in the post season, where they beat the A’s and Yankees before losing to the Giants. If the Tigers want to end their World Series drought, which is now 28 years, then there are a few issues that need to be addressed regarding off season moves as well as next year’s roster.
The first issue is the closer spot. Jose Valverde was a perfect 52 for 52 in 2011 but struggled early and often in 2012. It was announced shortly after the season that Valverde would not be re-signed making him a free agent. So the question became who will fill that role? It appears that the Tigers are going to promote current Mud Hens closer Bruce Rondon to the big club. Rondon was 2-1 with a 1.53 ERA and 29 saves in 53 games. He allowed 32 hits, twelve runs, including only three homeruns, 26 walks and 66 strikeouts in 53 innings with Lakeland, Erie and Toledo last year. The Tigers named Rondon their Minor League Pitcher of the Year and Dave Dombrowski called him a rare talent with a fastball over 100 MPH, but it is yet to be seen if he can bring that kind of dominance to the majors. The outfield is another area of concern for Detroit even as several moves have been made.
The Tigers announced early on in the off season, that they would not resign Delmon Young and released utility player, Ryan Raburn. Young hit .267 with 18 homeruns and 74 RBI’s this season, but was a defensive liability and went through big slumps. He was the ALCS MVP and hit .367 in the World Series but the return of Victor Martinez made Young disposable. Raburn slumped all year hitting only .177 with one homerun and 12 RBI’s in 66 games, although he was very versatile defensively, playing four positions, his struggles at the plate put him on the chopping block. The Tigers made the first big splash of the Hot Stove League season, signing Angels right fielder Torii Hunter to a two year deal worth 26 million dollars. Hunter is a career .277 hitter with 297 homeruns, 1193 RBI’s and nine Gold Gloves but is a bit of a free swinger, fanning 1434 times in his career while only walking 577 times. In 2012 Hunter hit .316 with 19 homers and 94 RBI’s striking out 133 times and walking only 38. The 133 K’s are only one behind 2012 Tigers team leader Austin Jackson. The word is Hunter will hit second behind Austin Jackson and I question the idea of having 267 strikeouts hitting 1-2 in front of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. The Tigers brass has already stated right fielder Brennan Boesch will be brought back in 2013 but for what reason? With Hunter already announced as the starting right fielder, how much time will Boesch get? Yes, Boesch had an off year in 2012, hitting 43 points lower with eight less hits, four less homeruns and 21 more strikeouts in 17 more games than in 2011 and Hunter hit 73 points higher than Boesch but he struck out 31 more times in only eight more games. Is Boesch’s play in right so bad that the Tigers needed to bring in someone to shore up that corner? If you simply look at errors, than Boesch wins with two over Hunter’s four but in today’s baseball it is all about sabermetrics and Hunter leads in these new categories such as; range factor, speed score, defensive runs saved, out of zone plays made, value over replacement and wins over replacement. I’m not real sure how much credence I put in these stats but the powers that be in baseball look at these factors more and more so I guess that is why Hunter gets the nod over Boesch. By all accounts, Hunter is a real asset in the clubhouse and has a work ethic second to none, so we will see how this move turns out for the Tigers. With Young gone the Tigers have a need for a left fielder but have two young players waiting in the wings to take over and become every day players. Andy Dirks shared time with Young in left and in right with Boesch. Dirks had a decent season; hitting .322 with eight homers and 35 RBI’s with five triples and 23 walks in 88 games. Quintin Berry spent time in center as well as left and was the surprise of the season, earning Tigers Rookie of the Year honors. Originally brought up to replace Jackson after he was hurt, Berry stayed with the big club after Jackson returned, hitting .258 with two homeruns, 29 RBI’s and 21 steals, a area in which the Tigers have been lacking for some time. Berry can play either left or center but with Jackson in center it appears he will platoon in left with Dirks while spelling Jackson in center from time to time. The status of Avisail Garcia is another question. Will he be returned to the minors or stay with the big club? After being brought up late in the season he played well enough to earn a spot on the post season roster hitting .319 in 23 games. In the playoffs he hit .330 with four RBI’s. Garcia is a natural center fielder but down the stretch and in the playoffs played right and can play left as well giving the Tigers even more versatility in the outfield. There are a few other moves the Tigers have made or need to make, catcher and pitcher being the most important.
Gerald Laird was let go by the Tigers and signed by the Braves opening up the backup catcher spot. Bryan Holaday the other catcher listed on the 40 man roster was an unimpressive .240 with 2 homers and 25 RBI’s at AAA Toledo last season and .250 in six games with Detroit. The top prospect at catcher is James McCann who is solid behind the dish but a light hitting .237 with two homeruns and 39 RBI’s in the minors. It is possible Patrick Leyland could be brought up but he is only 21 and probably needs a little more seasoning in the minors but a real good spring training effort could change that. I have heard people say that Victor Martinez could be Avila’s backup, but that idea is just ludicrous, he is returning from a whole season on the disabled list with a torn ACL and the worst thing for him would to be behind the plate at all. Holiday will most likely start the season backing up Avila but I would not be surprised if both McCann and Leyland see time in Detroit next year. The other player on the Tigers free agent list is right hand starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez. The Tigers traded top pitching prospect Jacob Turner along with catcher Rob Brantley left handed pitcher Brian Flynn and a 2013 draft pick for Sanchez and second baseman Omar Infante and I’d hate to see the Tigers give up on him so quickly. Sanchez suffered from poor run support in 2012 going 4-6 with a 3.74 ERA while giving up 31runs on 81 hits, eight homeruns, 15 walks and 57 strikeouts in 74-2/3 innings of work. That works out to three runs per game, it is not the fault of a pitcher if he gives up three runs but still loses six games and doesn’t get a decision in another two. That stat is placed squarely on the shoulders of the offense and while Sanchez struggled in the regular season he pitched well in the post season and the Tigers should make every effort to resign him. If not, then the questions become who will be the fifth starter?
The Tigers have not made any noise concerning the signing of a big name free agent pitcher so will most likely promote one of the pitchers already in the organization to take the 5th spot. That would mean Drew Smyly, Duane Below, Luis Marte or Andrew Oliver. Smyly was 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA, giving up 44 runs on 93 hits, 33 walks and 94 K’s in 99-1/3 innings, Below was 2-1 with a 3.88 ERA giving up 20 runs on 49 hits, eight walks and 29 strikeouts in 46-1/3 innings and Marte was 1-0 with a 2.82 ERA giving up seven runs on nineteen hits, nine walks and nineteen strikeouts in 22-1/3 innings. Oliver is 0-5 with a 7.11 ERA and 23 strikeouts in his Major League career. Oliver had the most promise of any of these pitchers but either he needs more seasoning in the minors or he’s a bust. The Tigers gave him multiple starts last year and not only did he not get a win but he didn’t even last six innings in any start. At various times last season both Marte and Smyly were named the fifth starter but injuries and poor pitching ended both of those experiments. The current rotation is right hander heavy while all but one of the pitchers mentioned are lefties. I think everybody would agree Detroit needs a left handed arm in the rotation so it comes down to Smyly or Below. However, if I start thinking out of the box, an argument could be made to replace Porcello, the weakest of the current starters, with Below and maybe dangle Porcello as trade bait to get a decent backup catcher. Porcello was the only starter with a losing record, 100 runs and more than three runs per start. His ERA is more than half a run higher than either Below or Smyly and he has a higher WHIP as well as striking out less per nine than either pitcher. That would give the Tigers a rotation of Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, Smyly and Below, three right handers and two lefties a much more balanced rotation then the 2012 version. If Sanchez is resigned then my idea regarding Porcello would still work, just replace Below with Sanchez. 2012 presented no matchup problems for an opposing manager because they knew no matter who was pitching it would be a righty. With my scenario, at least managers would have to put a little more thought into their batting order when facing the Tigers. This version of the rotation might even help the entire pitching staff by keeping opposing batters a bit more off balance in a series. Whatever decisions are made by Dombrowski and the coaching staff it will be a very interesting off season and a promise filled 2013.The city of Detroit and the fans of their sports teams are hungry for a champion. The Red Wings haven’t won a Stanley Cup in four years, the Pistons haven’t won a Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in eight years, the Tigers haven’t won a Commissioners Trophy in 28 years and the Lions haven’t won a NFL championship or a Lombardi Trophy in 55 years. It doesn’t look like it will be the Pistons year, the Lions will struggle to be .500 and the Red Wings might not even play this year unless the NHL lockout is settled soon, so the hopes of fans are pinned on the Tigers. If the Tigers come out of the gate strong fans will flock to Comerica Park in droves and stay as long as they keep winning. We saw this past October that fans will endure horrible conditions to see their team win. If Mike Ilitch, Dombrowski, Jim Leyland and his staff make the right choices and the players play well and the winds blow the Tigers way then a city in desperate need of some hope might be rewarded with the Commissioners Trophy in November 2013.