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Tigers overwhelming favorites in AL Central
The 2012 Detroit Tigers were a runaway pick to win the AL Central and a fashionable pick to win it all. But nothing ever seemed easy for them. They floundered below .500 for most of the first half of the season, trailed the Chicago White Sox for the bulk of the year and didn’t clinch the AL Central title until the calendar had flipped to October. Then, after surviving the A’s in the ALDS and destroying the Yankees in a four-game sweep in the ALCS, their bats curiously disappeared in the World Series, as they lost to the Giants in four games. The Tigers knew they needed more pop, and they also knew more pop was on its way, with DH Victor Martinez set to return in 2013 after a year spent rehabbing a blown-out knee. But that wasn’t enough — they also struck early in free agency, signing 37-year-old outfielder Torii Hunter coming off a career-high .313 average. Finally, they upgraded their rotation by re-signing righthander Anibal Sanchez, who came to Detroit in a trade-deadline deal last summer and pitched impressively down the stretch. Perhaps even more than a year ago — against a backdrop of an American League in which several perennial powers appear in decline — the Tigers will be viewed as a threat to win it all.
On the surface, any rotation that has Justin Verlander at the top and three other 10-game winners following him — a rotation that, in fact, posted a combined 3.76 ERA in 2012 — is plenty solid. Not only that, but No. 2 starter Max Scherzer also took a huge step in 2012 towards fulfilling his vast promise, with a 16-win, 231-strikeout season. But as the wise men say, you can never have too much pitching, and the Tigers knew they needed to retain Sanchez if they wanted to enter April with a championship-caliber club. The cost was staggering: $80 million for what is essentially a No. 4 starter. But the payoff is also enormous: The Tigers’ rotation is arguably the strongest and deepest in the American League — whether the fifth starter’s job belongs to righthander Rick Porcello or emerging lefty Drew Smyly.
After letting Jose Valverde, their high-wire artist of a closer, walk away via free agency, the Tigers kicked around various options for a closer in 2013, including free agents, trade targets and in-house candidates. Of that last category, the most intriguing option is much-hyped prospect Bruce Rondon, a 22-year-old Venezuelan who torched batters at Single-A and Double-A in 2012. The Tigers have given him a chance to win the closer’s job, and it appears that he has done so this spring. Also on board for 2013 is a strong core of bullpen veterans in lefty Phil Coke and righthanders Joaquin Benoit and Octavio Dotel, plus an intriguing Rule 5 pickup in swingman Kyle Lobstein. Al Alburquerque appears healthy and ready to return to his swing-and-miss form.
Although Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta, the Tigers’ veteran double-play combo, don’t inspire much excitement, on this team and in this lineup there is something to be said for steady veteran play up the middle. Infante, a second baseman acquired last July in the Anibal Sanchez trade, broke his hand in Game 4 of the World Series but is completely healthy. Peralta, meantime, saw his offensive numbers drop in 2012, but he was an All-Star as recently as 2011 and is a capable shortstop, if nothing else.
The Tigers paid their corner infielders a combined $44 million in 2012 to hit a lot of home runs and not kill themselves (or the team) on defense. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder succeeded on both counts. The former had a historic year at the plate, winning both the Triple Crown and the MVP, and while the latter posted his lowest home run total in six years, he put up otherwise gaudy numbers in line with his career norms. On the other side of the ball, while neither was a threat to win a Gold Glove, the “experiment” of shifting Cabrera from first to third in order to accommodate Fielder was also not the abject disaster many predicted, and Cabrera’s selflessness in switching positions resonated both with teammates and MVP voters.
With all the firepower in the middle of the Tigers’ lineup, it was easy to overlook the brilliant season put up by center fielder Austin Jackson, who raised his OPS by 166 points over the year before and established himself as one of the top leadoff men in the game. One of the great travesties of the 2012 AL MVP race was that Jackson garnered nary a vote. The addition of Hunter gives Jackson a Gold Glove-caliber wingman in right, as well as another big-time bat behind him. Left field might wind up being a revolving door, but for now it appears that Andy Dirks, who had a fine 2012 season in a limited role, will get the first crack at the starting job. At some point in 2013, top prospects Nick Castellanos and/or Avisail Garcia could get the inevitable call-up.
Alex Avila had a breakout 2011 season, highlighted by an All-Star selection, but an injury-plagued 2012 sent his numbers plummeting and raised questions about his future durability. He made only 107 starts at catcher in 2012, down from 130 the year before, and almost all his numbers dropped — including his OPS by a whopping 159 points. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Tigers felt it important to upgrade at backup catcher, dropping veteran Gerald Laird and signing free agent Brayan Pena.
With Martinez out for the year following knee surgery, the Tigers’ DH job in 2012 was left primarily to Delmon Young, who, while capable of an occasional burst of power, is certainly no V-Mart. Getting the veteran Martinez back in 2013 will be like adding another big bat via free agency — only without the extra expenditure. As for the Tigers’ bench, Don Kelly, Jim Leyland’s favorite super-utility security blanket, is gone now, and it could take multiple players to replace him. The Tigers acquired a second baseman, Jeff Kobernus, in the Rule 5 Draft, but if he is to stick he will need to learn additional positions — and perhaps become a Kelly-like utility man. The Tigers still have Danny Worth and Ramon Santiago as backup infielders — though they can probably only afford to carry one of them — plus Quintin Berry as an extra outfielder. It isn’t the most intimidating bench around, but it should be functional.
Leyland, who has led the Tigers to two AL pennants in seven years with the organization, seems content at this point to exist on a series of one-year contracts, ending his last one with a World Series appearance, then signing yet another once the series was over. But at age 68, there are plenty of people wondering how many one-year contracts he has left in him. Which means, like plenty of others in the organization, his sense of urgency to win in 2013 will be acute. General manager Dave Dombrowski, on the other hand, signed a four-year extension in 2011 that carries through 2015 — not that he feels any less urgency to win. Together, they form one of the longest-standing and most respected GM/manager duos in baseball.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch has always shown a willingness to spend money, pushing the Tigers’ payroll into the upper quartile of baseball and dishing out mega-deals to Cabrera and Fielder. But in 2013, with the Tigers coming off a season that fell one step short of the ultimate goal, Ilitch is going another step. The signings of Hunter and Sanchez, plus the arbitration and contractual raises due a number of key players, will push the Tigers’ 2013 payroll into even more rarified air — in the $150 million range. Clearly, from the top of the organization down, the Tigers believe they are in position to win it all in 2013. They have arguably the best nucleus of talent in all of baseball, and all they need is for the rest to fall into place.
CF Austin Jackson (R)
Dazzling .300/.377/.479 season established him as one of top leadoff men in game
RF Torii Hunter (R)
Still a great glove man, a professional hitter and top-notch clubhouse influence.
3B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Inherited the mantle from Albert Pujols as best right-handed hitter in the game.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
His 30 HRs were fewest since 2006, but Tigers are confident he’s poised for a monster 2013 season.
DH Victor Martinez (S)
His return from injury deepens the lineup and makes pitching around Cabrera, Fielder a risk.
LF Andy Dirks (L)
Tigers anxious to see if he can extend big-time 2012 production over a full season.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Steady veteran has played at least 145 games in seven straight seasons.
C Alex Avila (L)
Even in what constituted a “down” year, posted a healthy .352 OBP.
2B Omar Infante (R)
Say what you will, but if he’s your No. 9 hitter, you’re in good shape.
C Brayan Pena (S)
Upgrades backup catcher spot, replacing popular veteran Gerald Laird.
2B Jeff Kobernus (R)
Light-hitting Rule 5 Draft pick will probably need to play multiple positions to stick.
OF Quintin Berry (L)
Plays all three outfield spots, and stole 21 bases without being caught in 94 games in 2012.
IF Ramon Santiago (S)
Has made at least 60 starts as a middle infielder in each of the last four seasons for Detroit.
RH Justin Verlander
Cy Young runner-up in 2012 is arguably the best pitcher in the game.
RH Max Scherzer
Flamethrower took huge step forward in 2012, winning career-high 16 games.
RH Doug Fister
Strained oblique plagued him in 2012, but still won 10 games with a respectable 3.45 ERA.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Justified July trade with three quality starts in postseason and was signed to big deal in offseason.
RH Rick Porcello
Still only 24, but allowed a career-high 11.5 hits per nine IP in 2012.
RH Bruce Rondon (Closer)
Throws gas, but does he have the command and the calm to close in majors?
RH Joaquin Benoit
Jim Leyland’s top right-handed setup man struck out 84 in 71 innings.
LH Phil Coke
Strong showing in 2012 postseason underscored his value and versatility.
RH Octavio Dotel
Not the workhorse he used to be, but still effective when used right.
LH Kyle Lobstein
Rule 5 Draft pick is seen as a starter long-term, but to stick he’ll need to relieve.
RH Brayan Villarreal
Emerged as Leyland’s top option in the sixth and seventh innings.
RH Al Alburquerque
After returning from injury last September, he struck out 18 and gave up only six hits in 13.1 innings, but walked eight.