Saturday, March 10, 2012

Around the AL Central: Detroit Tigers

Miguel Cabrera is reported to have
lost at least 20 pounds over the winter
in preparation for his return to
third base, suggesting this was in
the works well before the signing
of Prince Fielder.
The 2011 Detroit Tigers won 94 games, which is a nice figure but probably a bit of an over achievement, as they had the stats of an 89-win team.

The 2010 Twins won 94 games also, with the stats of a 92-win team, and we know what happened to them the following season.

Nobody expected that debacle, and I'm hardly here to predict a similar fate for the Tigers. The Twins collapse was, as far as I tell, historically unique, to have a drop-off that drastic without trying to tank the season (a la the 1915 Athletics or the 1998 Marlins). But while the Tigers have reason to be optimistic about 2012 -- more reason, really, than anybody else in the division this March -- it's worth remembering that they have flaws.

Yes, they added Prince Fielder. They also subtracted Victor Martinez, who had a marvelous season. The exchange doesn't add all that much to the offense -- and takes away a bit on the defensive side, because the Tigers are moving Miguel Cabrera to third base to make room for Fielder at first.

Fielder, who has trouble scooping low throws (probably because his belly gets in the way) figures to be a slight downgrade from Cabrera at first. And Cabrera at third ... well, the Tigers moved him off third base in 2008 because he was such a defensive disaster there. He has clearly slimmed down considerably this offseason, but I would expect that the absolute best the Tigers can hope for is that he's merely a below-average defensive third baseman.

This is not unfamiliar territory for Jim Leyland; he won his World Series with Bobby Bonilla engaged in a daily war with the position (Marlins, 1997).

The Tigers have prodigious strong points. Justin Verlander is Justin Verlander. Cabrera and Fielder represent the best middle-of-the-lineup duo in the game. Any team with those three guys at the top of their games should be a serious contender, no matter the rest of the roster.

But this is also a team with some serious weaknesses. The infield could be a defensive disaster; the only regular with speed is Austin Jackson; the on-base percentages, aside from Cabrera and Fielder, range from OK to dismal. There is, on a purely logical level, an insanity to a lineup with Cabrera, Fielder and Delmon Young in which a fourth player is the DH. (The reason for the insanity is quite sane; Leyland wants to keep his stars happy, and none of them are willing to embrace the DH role.)

Do you remember the White Sox of the early 2000s? They had a flock of potent but immobile hitters: Frank Thomas, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez, Paul Konerko, Jose Valentin ... they had four hitters better than anybody in the Twins lineup. Once a week or so they'd run up a football score on somebody, just embarrass a pitching staff. And they'd follow a 13-run game with three games in a row of one or two runs, and they couldn't win pitchers duels because of their defense and dependency on the long ball. And it was the Twins who won divisional titles.

I can see something along those lines happening for this Tigers team. There's a lot here, but there's some significant stuff missing as well. The rest of the division has to hope this mirrors 2008, when the Tigers expected to score 1,000 runs and instead fell apart on lousy defense, injuries and a little bad luck.

Favorites? Sure, the Tigers are the favorites. But there is reason to play the season.

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