Well folks, the time has come. Less than two weeks from now, the Tigers will be at Target Field taking on the Twins and getting the 2013 season under way. It has seemed like a quiet offseason for the defending AL champs, but they actually made some big moves by signing Torii Hunter to a two year deal and re-upping with Anibal Sanchez for five seasons.
The Tigers have two consecutive division titles under their belts and a pennant flying this season for their work thwarting the rest of the AL in 2012. With essentially the entire team coming back in addition to the aforementioned additions and a healthy Victor Martinez, all signs point to another big season for the Tigers. Things can go wrong, but the expectation surely is that the Tigers will repeat as AL Central champs.
You can read my AL Central preview here, my preseason power rankings here, and my standings prediction here, all of which point to my agreement with the conventional wisdom about the Tigers chances. I think they’re going to be very good and a force with which to be reckoned. Here’s why.
The Starting Pitching
The Tigers have six starters who belong in a major league rotation. The staff is led by Justin Verlander, who is the best pitcher in the game according to most, and backed up by three pitchers who can make a strong claim to #2 starter status: Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Those potential number twos are the strength of the rotation because it makes them extremely deep. It would surprise no one if any of those pitchers accomplished something close to a 4 WAR season (they’ve all done it before), and it would be incredible if they all managed to do it.
Think about this, Verlander is the oldest member of the rotation. The Tigers have three pitchers in their primes with a history of strong performance behind the game’s best starter. That’s pretty good.
And then there are Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. Both of which deserve to start this season. I wrote here that I’d go with Porcello and he is making his case this Spring with an excellent strikeout to walk ratio and a much better breaking ball. To his credit, Smyly isn’t struggling either. It’s a good problem to have.
I would argue the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball and I can’t make a case for them being any worse than third entering the season. In the next two weeks, the Tigers are going to trade, send to the pen, or demote a pitcher capable of a 2-3 win season. That should be all you need to know.
At this point, it just sounds like I’m naming parts of a baseball team, but the lineup is very good. Austin Jackson was a top five AL outfielder last season and is joined by fellow top ten AL outfielder Torii Hunter at the top of the lineup. If that wasn’t enough, MVP and elite hitter Miguel Cabrera follows them, sitting ahead of Prince Fielder and Victor Martinez.
If there is a better first five hitters in the sport, I haven’t found them. Behind that force lurks the underrated Andy Dirks, the on-base machine Alex Avila, and the poised for a bounce back Jhonny Peralta. Omar Infante will hit ninth and hopefully prevent anyone whining about second base this season.
The Tigers are blessed with exceptional depth on the bench, but the overall quality of the lineup is impressive. They can’t replace many of their players, but they should be able to weather one serious injury at a time without much problem. Every player in the Tigers lineup has either been an All-Star or had an All-Star type season very recently with the exception of Dirks. The infield defense is sub par, but with a much improved outfield defense and strikeout inclined starters, they can probably outslug any problems.
On occasion, pundits overrate the value of experience over talent, but in the Tigers case, it should help. The Tigers have been to the playoffs in consecutive seasons with a very similar roster and the experience of having worked through long seasons with trials and tribulations should play to their advantage. The Tigers players should be well conditioned for October baseball after seeing what it takes to keep themselves in top condition over the last two seasons deep into the Fall.
Again, this is a quality that is somewhat controversial, but the Tigers have a lot of personalities in their clubhouse that will nurture a winning environment. Losing streaks will be handled appropriately and there shouldn’t be any infighting or problems. Victor Martinez’s presence will be welcomed back this season along with the addition of Hunter and the ever-present Jim Leyland, whom everyone seems to adore. Experience and leadership are hard to measure, but if they matter at all, they should work in the Tigers favor.
The Bullpen, Even the Bullpen
I wrote at length recently about why Rondon will succeed as the closer and why it doesn’t matter if he doesn’t. Benoit, Dotel, Coke, Downs, Below, Putkonen, and others are all available out of the pen. The Tigers don’t have anyone like Craig Kimbrel or Aroldis Chapman, but they have many, many pitchers who could be solid, reliable relievers. The position is volatile and unpredictable, but the Tigers are well stocked with potential arms in the pen. They won’t lead the league in bullpen-ness, but they won’t be bad.
I don’t think it is too bold to say that the Tigers are among the best teams, on paper, entering the 2013 season. I would argue they are the second best team, behind Washington. Things can always go wrong, but they go wrong for every team. I always hedge and say that so long as the Tigers are no less unfortunate than their competitors, they should win the division quite easily.
The Royals and Indians are better and the White Sox aren’t pushovers, but the Tigers are the class of the Central. With upheaval in the East and a strong West, the road to another pennant will be trying, but it is certainly within the Tigers’ grasp.
With elite level star power in Verlander, Cabrera, Fielder, and others, it’s hard not to dream on the Tigers 2013 potential. They have it all, including a chip on their shoulders after a poor showing in the Fall Classic.
For the Tigers, this could be the year that the roar is officially restored.