Even though Major League Baseball has tried to increase the excitement and hope of franchises by adding another playoff team to each league, the surest way for teams to make the post season is to win their divisions. Winning their division should be the foremost goal for each and every team each season. Kansas City Royals‘ fans should always have at least a bit of knowledge about each of the Royals’ division rivals in the American League Central. This is the fourth and final installment of a series that will take a small look into how each of the other AL Central teams shape up for the 2013 season. The first installment, covering the Minnesota Twins is here, and the second on the Chicago White Sox is here, and the third on the Cleveland Indians can be found here.
The Detroit Tigers may not be the most perfect or well rounded team ever assembled but when they field the top three players in the division, including the 2011 MVP and Cy Young winner and the 2012 MVP, the Tigers have to be considered the favorite in the AL Central. Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, and Justin Verlander are all at the top of any list of players for their positions in the majors. Include the deepest rotation in the AL Central, and a number of other potent bats, and the Tigers will be a hard team to beat for the division title.
Catcher: The Tigers have a young talented catcher of their own in Alex Avila. As a 24-year old rookie in 2011, Avila had a monster season, with a slash line of .295/.389/.506/.895. Those numbers dropped drastically in 2012 to .243/.352/.384/.736. Much of that had to do with a 53-point drop in Batting Average on Balls in Play. Avila may never be an offensive superstar because of his contact rate of 72% in 2011 and 2012, but he should remain productive as long as he maintains the terrific Walk Rate of 14%, which he displayed his first two full seasons. He may never top the power numbers of his rookie campaign but Avila is still young and it is possible he could match them. He is a solid player for the Tigers. He is backed up by former Royal favorite Brayan Pena.
First Base: This is one of several positions the tigers have locked down. Big Prince Fielder is a consistent, middle of the order, run producer who has yet to reach 29 years old. He walks, hits for power and average, drive in runs, and plays every day (only missed 1 game in the last 4 seasons). What more can you ask for from a star player?
Second Base: Omar Infante is a solid middle infielder who has improved his average and power slightly as he has gotten older. He is a free swinging hacker who makes contact with nearly everything. His elite contact rate is 88% and it helps offset his abysmal 4% walk rate. Infante isn’t the best second base man in the league but he certainly isn’t the worst either. Light hitting Ramon Santiago will spell Infante when he needs a day.
Shortstop: Much like Infante, teams could do a lot worse than Jhonny Peralta as shortstop. Peralta is a strange player in that when is bad, he seems worse than he is, and when he is good, he isn’t quite as good one would think. Last season he suffered from a very low BABIP of .275, which drove his batting average down. His BB% wasn’t terrible at 8% and his contact rate was a very acceptable 80%. His fly ball rate dropped 7 points, and combined that with a low HR/FB Rate, his home runs dropped. The biggest problem with all of this is that it is the story of his career. His career batting skills are all over the place. You just don’t know what you are going to get with him at the plate. Nothing in his skill set is consistent but his wild inconsistency. When he is hot at the plate, he makes the Tigers even more dangerous than they already are. When he swings the others way, he can really hurt the line-up at times. He is still only 30-years old; maybe he can level things off as he reaches his later years.
Third Base: I love stats. I understand all the skill indicators and all the other stats for which those who supported Mike Trout last year for MVP were fond of quoting. I get it that what he did was amazing, historic even. As a life long fan of baseball though, as someone who grew up thinking players are measured by average, home runs, and RBI alone, one just can’t ignore the magnitude of what Miguel Cabrera accomplished – .330/.393/.606/.999! He hit 44 home runs, 40 doubles, 139 RBI, and 109 runs scored. He only struck out 98 times while walking 66 times. He had 205 hits and he even stole 4 bases! There is a reason no one had won the Triple Crown since 1967- BECAUSE IT’S HARD! He does just abut everything well. His Contact Rate was good (84%) as was his BB% (10%). His BABIP was .330, which would normally scream regression but that figure is .15 under his career average. That’s right – Miggy’s career BABIP is .345. I understand the significance of Trout’s rookie season, but if I had a vote, I would have voted for the Triple Crown Winner! (Note – I completely ignored all arguments concerning defense.)
Left Field: Andy Dirks is from the small Kansas town of Haven, not far from my home town. It is hard not to pull for a local boy from the same area in which you grew up, even if he does wear the uniform of a rival. Unfortunately, there is little to indicate he will repeat his high average of .322. He enjoyed a .365 BABIP in 2012 and he has a below average walk rate of 7%. His contact rate is good so it is not a total loss. He missed two months with a heel issue so it would not be out of the question if produced more home runs and stolen bases with more at bats, just don’t look for a .322 average again.
Center Field: Austin Jackson just keeps getting better and better. Just 26, his best years may be directly in front of us. He made great leaps in all skills except speed. His walk rate increased to 11%, his contact rate to 75% (69% in 2011), and his power numbers all increased. One could expect his astronomical BABIP of .371 would normally call for regression but that is right in line with his career mark of .370 over his three season. As crazy as it seems, Jackson’s career BABIP is 25 points higher than Miggy’s mark. Cabrera has done it over a much longer time span, so be careful. Don’t bank on Jackson’s number staying that high. Still, he has become as major force in the Tiger batting order, maybe on the brink of stardom.
Right Field: Torii Hunter enjoyed a resurgence in 2012, most of it in the second half, but he turns 38 in July. It would not be prudent for the Tigers to expect that kind of return ton 2013. Hunter’s BB% and Contact % both dropped significantly and his ground ball percentage skyrocketed to 52%. His power is almost gone. He never was much of a fly ball hitter but in 2012, only 25 percent of his hits were in the air. That drove his BABIP to a freakishly high .389 (notice a pattern here with some of these Tiger hitters?). Even with more balls on the ground, that luck can’t hold. Hunter’s career BABIP is .307. At his age, look for Hunter’s skills to deteriorate quickly.
DH: Victor Martinez is back but will probably play very little in the field. He was already starting to lose power in 2011 so don’t expect him to suddenly regain it at 34-years old after sitting out a year. He will probably still hit for some average and get on base, just don’t count on much pop.
Bench: Pena and Santiago more than likely will hold down two of the bench spots. Brian Boesch is a veteran but has some plate discipline issues and could lose his spot. Don Kelly and Danny Worth could displace him. If Hunter’s skills erode quickly, or if injuries strike the outfield, look for young Avisail Garcia to get at bats. He may not make the Opening Day roster but could be the first outfielder called up when the need arises.
Starting Pitching: The staff is anchored by one of the top 2 or 3 starting pitchers in the big leagues in Justin Verlander. He is dominating, durable, and tough. The Tigers know every time he pitches, chances are they will come away with a victory. The rest of the staff is pretty good, too. Power pitcher Max Scherzer put together a solid 2012 campaign. Doug Fister overcame nagging injuries all season to post better than average numbers, and the Tigers went for it by resigning Anibal Sanchez. Drew Smyly has thrown 9 scoreless inning thus far this spring as he tries to out duel incumbent Rick Porcello for the 5th spot. Scherzer is a major factor in this rotation. He is very close to becoming a second ace, striking out over 11 hitter per 9 innings pitched a year ago, while maintain nearly a 4:1 K:BB ratio. He was even plagued a little by bad luck, as batters had a .337 BABIP against him. He isn’t an extreme fly ball pitcher and his home runs/fly ball ration is not out of line. The Tigers will be very hard to beat if Scherzer takes another step forward and becomes a #1B behind Verlander. As good as the Tigers’ hitting is, the starting pitching may even be better.
Bullpen: Every team has weaknesses and one of Detroit’s is their bullpen. Joaquin Benoit is the most experienced arm out of the pen but he will be 36 in July. Al Alburquerque is an exciting young arm but has already had arm issues. Octavio Dotel and Phil Coke bring experience to the team but neither is extremely consistent. If they can’t sign one of the remaining relievers that are still floating around free agency, the Tigers may turn the closer duties over to rookie Bruce Rondon. The kid has an unbelievable arm but like many young flame throwers, he does struggle with his control. It won’t matter at all how good the starters are if this squad can’t hold leads late. It could all work out for the Tigers, but the overall make-up of the bull pen could be a source of concern as the season progresses.
Summary: The Tigers are without a doubt the most talented and accomplished team in the AL Central. They have few weaknesses but the bullpen and defense are two. Dirks, Jackson, and Hunter are solid, maybe even very good in the outfield, but Hunter’s age may start to show, especially when the hot, summer days arrive. The infield defense is porous. Even though Cabrera played better at third than most would have expected, he still has limited range. Peralta, Infante, and Fielder are not known for the impeccable defense. This infield will certainly cost the pitching staff a few runs throughout the course of the season. Still, even with these few warts, the Tigers are just too good. Not only are their top 3 players elite, but they have two others in Jackson and Scherzer who could reach elite status with only slight improvements in their performances of a year ago. Things would have to go really wrong in Detroit, coupled with everything going right in Kansas City , Cleveland, or Chicago for any of those teams to overtake the Tigers.