The Tigers got off to an unbelievable start last year behind unexpectedly strong starting pitching, excellent defense, and hot hitting from some guys who were healthy for the first time in years. At one time, they were favorably compared to the 1984 team, which set a record for wins in the first two months of the season. While they put a lot of distance between themselves and most of the rest of the division, the Chicago stayed right with them behind its powerful middle of the order.
As the summer wore on, the Tigers started to struggle. Their young pitchers seemed to wither in the July heat. And in August, their main weakness was exposed: They did not have a very balanced line-up. When the middle of the order guys--Carlos Guillen, Maglio Ordonez, Craig Monroe--didn't produce, they didn't score enough because the table setters were not getting on base. Curtis Granderson is a lead-off hitter in the style of Jacque Jones. Lots of strikeouts, good power. The key to the Tigers having a balanced line-up rested with Placido Polanco. When he got hurt, the team took a nosedive, which it only recovered from when he got healthy in time for the playoffs.
His defense also keyed a resurgent defensive team, along with Guillen and Brandon Inge gobbling up grounders served up by Kenny Rodgers, Jeremy Bonderman, and Zack Miner. So his loss also triggered a drop in defensive efficiency. It is no exaggeration to say he was the key to the team's success in 2006.
The key for the Tigers in 2007 is to keep all these aging veterans healthy. Guillen, Ordonez, and especially Polanco must remain healthy for the team to contend. It's an old team full of lumbering sluggers, which is why I was puzzled by the addition of Gary Sheffield for 2007. Sheffield will be another big power threat to the middle of the order. But he's also like most of the other hitters in Detroit's order, strike-out and injury prone. The Tigers did nothing to try address the lead-off question, beyond announcing that they will platoon Pudge Rodriguez with Granderson. As strange as it sounds, Rodriguez is probably the best lead-off candidate outside of Polanco on the team. That tells you something about the make-up of this line-up:
The Tigers also must keep their key defensive assets healthy. Guillen was their MVP last year, in part because he had a healthy year. But the biggest reason was his defense. He was terrific in both range and hands. And Inge and Polanco were worthy infield mates. Ireally don't expect them to be as good this year. But they will be solid.
In contrast, the outfield is not strong defensively. Monroe has his moments, but he's lost several steps since he decided he was a slugger. And Magglio, well, he's just mediocre at best and disinterested at worst. Granderson has electric speed, but a surprising number of balls find the gaps when he's out there. The Tigers pitchers must play to ground balls because the outfielders are not built for the cavernous Comerica Park.
It's clear that this team is built To Jim Leyland's specs, which resemble Earl Weaver's specs. Pitch well. Catch the ball. And wait for the three-run homer. Looking at the park, you would think they'd have more speed in the outfield. But speedsters rarely have the kind of power a Weaver/Leyland team needs. So the emphasis here is more on the three-run homer than catching the ball.
Fortunately for the Tigers, they have a lot of good starters who either induce ground balls or get strikeouts, or both. (The only thing they can't do is throw to first on routine grounders, but I'm sure Leyland has beaten that bad habit this spring.) Rogers, Bonderaman, Verlander, Nate Robertson, Mike Maroth, Zach Miner, and Andrew Miller make up the best seven-man rotation in the division. Some of them won't pitch as well this year as last. But as a group they will be close to duplicating last-year's impressive performance.
Where was this Kenny Rodgers when he pitched for the Twins? He has been arguably the second best lefthander in the league the last two years. You have to wonder how long he can cheat the baseball gods at his age, but he does get a lot of ground balls and Comerica does have soft dirt, long grass and fast infielders. So he should be good again as long as he stays healthy. I project 220 IP, 3.89 ERA, 4 K/9, 3 BB/9, 1 HR/9.
Bonderman is a rare combination of heavy sinker and strikeouts. He can dominate line-ups when he's on. Where he faultered last year was in maturity. He would just blow up in an inning and Leyland didn't like to take him out. The bad news for Twins fans is this is one skill that he should learn sooner or later. At age 24, he could learn it sooner. In which case, he's a Cy Young waiting to happen. I project 210 IP, 3.25 ERA, 7 K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9.
Verlander is due for a down year after pitching 35% more innings in 2006 than 2005. He will have flashes of brilliance and periods of suckitude. How much of each is open for debate. I project 4.75 ERA, 5 K/9, 3 BB/9, 2.5 HR/9.
Robertson, Maroth, and Miner will be capable back-of the rotation guys who will pitch slightly below league average. Robertson will likely stay in the rotation all year. Miner and Maroth will split time depending on effectiveness. And Miller will get a September call-up which could be the X factor down the stretch. Robertson projection: 200 IP, 3.95 ERA, 5K/9, 2.5 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9.
The Tigers bullpen is very good, though not nearly as deep as the Twins. I keep expecting Todd Jones to do what he did when he was with the Twins. Unfortunately, he's been solid, if a bit Guardadoesque for the Tigers. Perhaps this is the year for an implosion. If so, Joel Zumaya appears ready to become Twins fans' worst nightmare. It's bad enough he's such a great set-up man. But I don't want to see his 100 MPH sinker in the closer role. The longer Leyland sticks with the grizzled veteran, the better. The unsung hero is Fernando Rodney, who does nearly as good a job as Zumaya without the flash. The Tigers should use Wilfredo Ladezma and perhaps Maroth in the lefty role.
The only thing this bullpen lacks is depth. So the key to beating this team is to knock out their starters early. If you can do this, the Tigers are very vulnerable in the 6th and 7th innings.
The Tigers are a very good team. They will be hard to beat this year. The Twins' hopes mainly rest on the Tigers' fleeting health and athleticism. Old lumbering teams are prone to streaks. And if either Guillen or Polanco are hurt for an extended period, it will be tough for this team to overcome that. For that matter, if Rogers or Bonderman go down, all bets are off. But you could say that about all teams.
Still, the pitching will carry it to a 95-67 year, which is exactly the record it posted last year. Will that be good enough for first place in the Central? Stay tuned. But it's at least good enough for a second straight playoff berth.