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Miggie leads the way for the Motor City Mashers in 2011.
A year ago, following a devastating final-weekend collapse that kept them out of the 2009 playoffs, the Tigers built their offseason around one major trade — sending beloved center fielder Curtis Granderson to the Bronx in a three-way deal that netted four young players. All four (Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth) became key contributors in Detroit, and while the Tigers sputtered in the second half to finish at 81–81, they were a younger and deeper team. Thus, paradoxically, despite taking a step back in the standings, they appeared closer to contention. Now, after spending big this winter to nab free agent catcher Victor Martinez and reliever Joaquin Benoit — as well as re-upping with Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge and Magglio Ordonez — the Tigers have the pieces in place to make another run at an AL Central title.
Put it this way: The Tigers are so well-stocked in their rotation that Armando “Mr. Almost-Perfect Game” Galarraga became expendable and was traded to Arizona. As things stand, veteran Brad Penny and newcomer Andy Oliver will battle in the spring for the No. 5 spot. Otherwise, the rest of the rotation is fairly well defined, belonging to (in order) righthanders Justin Verlander, Scherzer and Rick Porcello — all holdovers from the 2010 rotation — and Coke, a lefty. Count Coke as the biggest question mark, as the Tigers are seeking to convert him from a reliever to a starter. Verlander, who has already arrived as a true No. 1 starter, and Scherzer, who has that potential, are two of the hardest-throwing starting pitchers in the majors, while Porcello is looking to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore season.
The Tigers pounced early in the free agent season to lock up Benoit to a three-year, $16.5 million deal — perhaps a bit of an overpay, given the fact that Benoit will merely be setting up for closer Jose Valverde. On the other hand, the rest of the market for relievers skyrocketed, perhaps evidence that the Tigers were smart to strike early. Regardless, the back end of the Tigers’ bullpen now appears water-tight, with lefty Brad Thomas and righthander Ryan Perry holding down middle-relief roles. There is also no shortage of candidates to fill out the rest of the bullpen, from promising lefty Schlereth to oft-injured righthander Joel Zumaya.
The Tigers were impressed enough by Peralta during his two-month stint at shortstop in Detroit last year that they re-upped him for two more years. He is as dependable as they come, good for around 150 games, 15 homers, 80 RBIs and solid if unspectacular defense on a daily basis. He also fits in nicely in the bottom half of the Tigers’ lineup following the trade that brought him over from Cleveland. Second base? That’s another story. An accurate depth chart would probably show four candidates — in order, Will Rhymes, Scott Sizemore, Carlos Guillen and Danny Worth — vying for playing time. In other words, two young players trying to prove they are viable full-timers, an aging veteran whose bat is still an asset if he can stay healthy, and a light-hitting glove man who is more of a utility man. Sorting out those pieces will be one of management’s most critical tasks this spring.
The Tigers could have easily allowed Inge, their veteran third baseman, to walk away after 10 valiant seasons in Detroit; instead, they gave him a new, two-year deal. And why not? Inge has become a more patient hitter in his old age, and is just two years removed from an All-Star season in 2009. Meantime, across the diamond stands the franchise, Miguel Cabrera, coming off a monster season (.328/.420/.622) that might have earned him the MVP had the Tigers hung in contention a little deeper into the season. Interestingly, last year 148 of Cabrera’s 150 starts were at first base, but it stands to reason that with Martinez, who can catch and play first, now in the fold, the team could give Cabrera, who turns 28 in April, a few more games at DH in order to reduce the wear and tear and keep him fresh down the stretch.
The biggest question here is what to make of Brennan Boesch. His 2010 rookie season produced some of the most extreme first half/second half splits you’ll ever see. Pre-All-Star-break, he was a leading Rookie of the Year candidate, hitting. 342 with 12 homers, 49 RBIs and a staggering .990 OPS. After the break, however, the corresponding numbers were .163/2/18 and .458. It was a precipitous enough fall to call into question whether Boesch is really a full-time player. He will have to use this spring to prove that he is — with Ryan Raburn and Casper Wells there to fight for the job if Boesch fails. Otherwise, the Tigers’ outfield is fairly well set, with Ordonez back in right field after re-signing late in the offseason, and Jackson returning to center field following a stellar 2010 campaign that saw him finish runner-up to Texas closer Neftali Feliz in the AL Rookie of the Year vote.
Once the Tigers signed Martinez, one of the best-hitting catchers in the game, the question was whether he would be seen as a catcher or a DH. The answer: both. The Tigers expect Alex Avila to be the primary catcher, with Martinez catching two or three times per week, and spending the rest of the time at DH. Avila, a left-handed hitter, will start primarily against right-handed pitchers, with Martinez, a switch-hitter, facing lefties. The Tigers signed Omir Santos to a minor league deal in case they want to carry a third catcher — something teams often do when one of their primary catchers spends a lot of time at DH. More likely, Santos will provide depth at Triple-A.
With Martinez catching two or three times a week, the Tigers have the luxury of passing around the DH to some of their other veteran hitters, such as Guillen and Cabrera. Assuming he doesn’t wind up as the starting second baseman, Guillen could also be the Tigers’ primary late-inning pinch-hitter, with additional starts in left, third or first. Don Kelly will be back as their super-utility man, capable of playing all three outfield positions and both infield corners. Raburn returns as an extra outfielder, while Worth could become the utility middle infielder.
GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland have been together for five years now (seven, if you count their two years in Florida), which seems like an eternity these days. But the marriage could be entering its final chapter, as both men’s contracts are up at the end of the season. Of the two, Dombrowski is more likely to return. Though no longer the boy wonder he was when he first broke in, he remains at the top of his game — particularly when backed by an owner willing to spend. Leyland, on the other hand, is 66 now, and one has to wonder how much longer he wants to do the job. Either way, you can count on the Leyland/Dombrowski contract situation to be a major plotline for the Tigers’ 2011 season.
Even as they were stumbling to a .500 finish in 2010, the Tigers understood the opportunity that awaited them, as more than $75 million in contracts came off the books (with Dontrelle Willis, Johnny Damon and Jeremy Bonderman accounting for most of it). By choosing wisely when determining whom to re-sign (Inge, Ordonez, Peralta), and by spending equally wisely on the free agent market (Martinez, Benoit), the Tigers have put together a team without a glaring weakness (other than perhaps infield defense). By every measure, this should be a team ready to go toe-to-toe with the Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox in the AL Central.