After winning the AL Central by a whopping 15 games in 2011 for their first division title in 24 years, the Tigers appeared undermanned and overmatched against the Rangers in the ALCS. With a few days of the news that DH Victor Martinez would miss the 2012 season after surgery to repair a torn ACL, the Tigers signed Prince Fielder and immediately created DH/1B/3B questions. But manager Jim Leyland is confidant he will find a spot in the lineup for his prized free agent, perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera and the defensively challenged Delmon Young. With Fielder and Cabrera in the middle of the lineup, the Tigers are quite certainly the best team yet again in the Central — where there is not even an obvious challenger to their supremacy.
One big consideration for the Tigers’ offseason budget was the fact that Verlander’s salary jumps from $13 million to $20 million — not that anyone could argue that he isn’t worth it, following a historic season that culminated in his winning both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards. Over the course of the past three seasons, Verlander leads the majors in wins (61) and strikeouts (738), while ranking third in innings pitched (715.1) and opponents’ batting average (.221). There is, however, some question as to whether Verlander’s heavy usage in 2011 (272.1 innings, regular and postseason combined) will take a toll in 2012. With righthanders Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello (most likely in that order) entrenched at Nos. 2, 3 and 4, the fifth starter spot is the only one that remains up for grabs, with prospects Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly and lefty Andy Oliver among the top contenders. Fister, who went 8–1 with a 1.79 ERA after his trade-deadline acquisition, was the unsung hero of the Tigers’ surge, and the team can’t wait to see what he can do with a full season in Comerica Park. Scherzer, a former first-round pick of the Diamondbacks, is 27–20 in two seasons with Detroit since coming from Arizona in a three-team blockbuster. Porcello, who has started 89 games since breaking into the rotation in 2009, went 14–9 for the second time in his three seasons in the big leagues.
The Tigers’ bullpen, anchored by the flawless performance of closer Valverde (49-for-49 in save opportunities), was a strength of the team all season, until it collapsed in the postseason (8.01 ERA). It turned out that Al Alburquerque’s transformation from shut-down setup man to October arsonist was injury related; he had surgery over the winter and will miss the first part of the season. Picking up Valverde’s $9 million option for 2012 was a no-brainer, and the offseason acquisition of Octavio Dotel will help with depth until Alburquerque returns. Righthander Joaquin Benoit (63 strikeouts in 61 innings in 2011) returns as the top eighth-inning man, while Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth fill out the pen from the left side. An odd reliever-for-reliever trade sent Ryan Perry packing for Washington and brought swingman Collin Balester to Detroit.
The Tigers appeared poised to make an upgrade up the middle this winter, but despite plenty of speculation linking them to Jose Reyes, they never made a serious run at the free agent shortstop. That leaves Jhonny Peralta — prior to the Fielder acquisition, a candidate to move to third — back at shortstop, coming off a career-high .299 batting average in 2011. Meanwhile, the Tigers re-signed Ramon Santiago to a two-year deal, meaning that he will likely platoon with Ryan Raburn at second base, with Santiago also filling in occasionally for Peralta at shortstop. As platoons go, Santiago/Raburn is a good one, with Raburn providing some pop at the plate, and Santiago offering a top-notch glove (along with the added bonus of being a switch-hitter).
Every year, Cabrera seems to reveal some new aspect of his game — a sign of his sheer brilliance as a hitter. In 2011, he cut down on his strikeouts, drew 19 more walks, posted career-highs in batting average (.344) and on-base percentage (.448). His dominant performance in the postseason (four homers, 1.261 OPS) only underscored the fact he is as fearsome a hitter as there is in the game. Now Cabrera must rediscover his ability to play the left side of the infield. As the Marlins’ full-time third baseman in 2007, Cabrera made 23 errors. In 2008, his first with Detroit, he made 14 starts at the hot corner and made five errors, prompting the Tigers to keep him at first base. But with Fielder on board, Cabrera will move across the diamond. Fielder brings a large presence both physically and figuratively to the cleanup spot. Detroit has the best offensive tandem at the corners in all of baseball. Defensively, now that’s another story. But something that Leyland is prepared to handle.
Stats-savvy fans understood that Austin Jackson’s remarkable production as a rookie in 2010 (.293/.345/.400) was largely due to an unsustainable .396 BAbip (batting average on balls in play), but few could have foreseen the extent of his precipitous drop in 2011 (.249/.317/.374). He still provides Gold Glove-caliber defense, but the Tigers could use some more offense — even if Jackson is no longer the clear-cut leadoff man. With Magglio Ordoñez gone, Brennan Boesch gets the full-time right field job; he hit a solid .283/.341/.458 until suffering a thumb injury that ended his season in late August. In left field, the Tigers’ first option will be Andy Dirks. The 26-year-old batted .303 from mid-June to mid-August to earn a shot at the job this spring. The team is excited to get a full season of Delmon Young, who was huge down the stretch (and in October) following the August trade that imported him from Minnesota. Young will see some time in left, but is the primary DH.
Avila emerged as a force in 2011, winning the Silver Slugger award and leading all catchers with an .887 OPS. He also endeared himself to management (one member of which, assistant GM Al Avila, is his father) and the fan base by playing through multiple nagging injuries in the playoffs. Still, it is fair to wonder whether the long campaign and a heavy usage pattern (he started 130 games at catcher) will have an adverse effect on him in 2012. The Tigers are counting on his bat to provide length to their lineup beyond the star-filled heart of the order. They brought back veteran Gerald Laird to serve as his backup, but this is the year Avila must prove that his 2011 breakthrough was no fluke.
Martinez hit a sparkling .330 with 103 RBIs last year even though he only hit 12 home runs. Young will inherit the job until V-Mart returns in 2013. Laird was with the Tigers in 2009 and 2010, as Avila was beginning to emerge as the starter, so he knows most of the team’s pitchers. Perhaps manager Jim Leyland, in the interest of giving Avila more regular rest, will trust Laird more than he did Omir Santos. Don Kelly’s versatility (he saw action at seven positions in 2011, including pitcher and catcher) makes him a tremendous asset off the bench. Raburn, when he isn’t playing second base, can fill in at the corner outfield spots.
Both general manager Dave Dombrowksi and Leyland entered 2011 as lame ducks, but emerged with contract extensions by mid-August — Dombrowski through 2015, and Leyland (by his own choice) through 2012. Dombrowski wound up sharing the Executive of the Year award with Milwaukee’s Doug Melvin, and indeed the GM had a tremendous year — beginning with his choosing Martinez over Adam Dunn as the Tigers’ DH, and continuing with his summer acquisitions of Fister and Young. Leyland, meanwhile, was runner-up to Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon for AL Manager of the Year, and the Tigers’ 2011 playoff run reaffirmed his status as one of the best in the game.
With the White Sox rebuilding, the Twins reloading and the Indians trying to sustain the progress they made in 2011, the up-and-coming Royals may be Detroit’s chief challenger in 2012. But the Tigers don’t appear overly worried.
CF Austin Jackson (R)
Fell 44 points in BA and 55 points in OPS from stellar 2010 rookie season.
RF Brennan Boesch (L)
Thumb injury derailed promising breakthrough in 2011 (.283/.341/.458).
3B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Arguably the most feared hitter in AL, he posted career highs in 2011 in BA and OBP.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
The hefty hitter has averaged 160 games, 40 home runs and 113 RBIs over the last five seasons.
DH Delmon Young (R)
Came up huge for Tigers after August trade, hitting six homers in September and five in October.
C Alex Avila (L)
Breakthrough 2011 season included All-Star Game appearance, .295 average and an .895 OPS.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Batted career-best .299 in 2011 and became first-time All-Star at age 29.
LF Andy Dirks (L)
Solid contribution in 2011 — seven HRs and 28 RBIs in 219 at-bats — was rewarded with spot on playoff roster.
2B Ramon Santiago (S)
Platoon man became everyday starter late in the 2011 season, with solid results. Will share time with Ryan Raburn.
UT Don Kelly (L)
Versatile enough to play anywhere on the infield.
INF Brandon Inge (R)
Jim Leyland has extraordinary faith in 12th-year veteran despite anemic 2011 numbers. Learning to play second and is a valuable defensive sub for Cabrera.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Veteran returns after winning World Series ring in 2011 as a backup for the Cardinals.
2B Ryan Raburn (R)
Plays the part of the offensive platoon partner with Santiago.
OF Clete Thomas (L)
Will have to battle for a roster spot in the spring; hit .351 with 12 HRs in Toledo last season.
RH Justin Verlander
Historic season included pitching “Triple Crown,” MVP award and Cy Young.
RH Doug Fister
After July trade from Seattle, served as Verlander’s co-ace down the stretch.
RH Max Scherzer
Flamethrower won 15 games in 2011, but needs more consistency to fulfill his vast potential.
RH Rick Porcello
Crucial season for the former first-round pick and 2009 rookie sensation.
RH Jacob Turner
Team may prefer veteran lefty in this spot, but former top prospect Turner is next in line.
RH Jose Valverde (Closer)
Despite nightly high-wire act, finished a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities in 2011.
RH Joaquin Benoit
Though not as dominant as in 2010, he remained one of best setup men in the game in 2011.
RH Octavio Dotel
Free agent signee will provide late-inning depth while Al Alburquerque (elbow) recovers.
LH Daniel Schlereth
Succeeds in shutting down left-handed batters (.174/.273/.256 in 2011).
LH Phil Coke
After failed rotation experiment in April and May, had solid season out of pen.
RH Collin Balester
Former Nationals top pitching prospect arrived in November trade.
Other teams' 2012 Previews:
Los Angeles Angels
Los Angeles Dodgers
New York Mets
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals