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2010 Detroit Tigers: Pitching and Defense and a Weak Division

BaseballEvolution.com 2009 Spring Preview
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
April 1, 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Jose Valverde RP
Max Scherzer SP
Johnny Damon LF
Austin Jackson CF
a
Departed Pos.
Edwin Jackson SP
Curtis Granderson OF
Placido Polanco 2B
Marcus Thames OF
Aubrey Huff 1B
Nate Robertson SP
The Detroit Tigers of the 20-Aughts experienced the most up-and-down decade since the New York Mets of the 1960s. From 2002 to 2003, the Tigers won 98 total games, which included finishing 43-119 in a season in which they had to absolutely rally to avoid losing 120 games. Then, in 2006, the Tigers rebounded mightily and went all the way to the World Series.

The Detroit Tigers of 2010 fit neither mold; they are not particularly terrible, but they are also still reeling slightly after the complete collapse of what looked to be a very talented – and expensive – 2008 team. Most of the big name stars of the Tigers’ recent past are gone – chiefly, Curtis Granderson, Ivan Rodriguez, Edgar Renteria, Gary Sheffield, and Placido Polanco – but that does not necessarily mean that the Tigers are the worse for it.

2009 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Minnesota Twins 87 76 .534 0 49-33 38-43 817 765 .530 59-44 28-32
Detroit Tigers 86 77 .528 1 51-30 35-47 743 745 .499 57-57 29-20
Chicago White Sox 79 83 .488 8 43-38 36-45 724 732 .495 54-59 25-24
Cleveland Indians 65 97 .401 22 35-46 30-51 773 865 .449 48-74 17-23
Kansas City Royals 65 97 .401 22 33-48 32-49 686 842 .407 45-61 20-36


Pitching and Defense

The narrative of the Great Tiger Debacle of 2008 debacle held that the Tigers fell apart because of bloated, gaudy, high-priced hitters being undermined by a lack of pitching and defense. To counter that narrative, the Tigers will promote their 2010 team as one built on pitching and defense. The symbols of this move towards defense are former shortstop Carlos Guillen, who is now a designated hitter, former third baseman Miguel Cabrera, who is now a first baseman, and former bench players Adam Everett and Brandon Inge are starting on the left side of the infield.

Scott Sizemore


Defense? While this team has done a good job to rid itself of some major defensive liabilities, defense will still be an issue for this squad. The Tigers essentially swapped Curtis Granderson for Johnny Damon, which severely undermines their outfield ranginess. Inge and Everett, while better options at third base and shortstop than their predecessors, will both be 33 this year, and Everett hasn’t played a full season since 2006. Meanwhile, Scott Sizemore, the second baseman of the future, will be dealing with an ankle he broke in the Arizona Fall League which may hamper his range a bit. And Miguel Cabrera (first base) and Magglio Ordonez (right field) are defensive liabilities on a good day. The Tigers pitchers are, unfortunately, going to have make a lot of their own outs this season.

Which isn’t to say that the Tigers’ pitchers aren’t up to the task.

Pitching!

The Tigers will have two of the hardest throwers in baseball in Max Scherzer, acquired in the off-season from the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Justin Verlander. Verlander finally became an ace in 2009 after struggling with consistency in 2006 and 2007, and then just struggling period in 2008. Verlander led the league in wins, innings pitched, batters faced, strikeouts, and strikeouts-per-nine-innings in 2009, and must be considered one of the three or four best pitchers in the AL. Scherzer looks like he could be a Justin Verlander clone in the way he pitches, although he is probably not as far along at the age of 25 as Verlander was. Nevertheless, this looks to be a dynamic duo for a several years.


Rick Porcello
Behind Verlander and Scherzer, the Tigers have questions – and behind those questions, they have problems. Rick Porcello made his major league debut in 2009 and pitched a bit more than I think the Tigers had planned. Nevertheless, the guy was awesome: 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA. The problem with Porcello is that there are plenty of reasons to think he won’t be able to duplicate this performance. He was twenty years old; he allowed more than a hit per inning; he allowed 23 homeruns in only 170.2 innings; his strikeout-to-walk ratio was 89:52, which is not good; and the league has seen what he’s got now. Don’t get me wrong – this guy looks good, and if he can keep it up he’ll be a great number three pitcher. It just doesn’t seem all that likely.

Another Tiger pitcher who saw full-time major league action at the age of 20 is Jeremy Bonderman. Only, with Bonderman, he was 20 in 2003, and the years subsequent to that season have been a mixed bag. He looked really good as recently as 2006, and he has simply crashed and burned since then. He may or may not be healthy enough to stay in the rotation in 2010, though he has looked good this spring.

Finally, we come to Dontrelle Willis. When Keith and Scott and I were in Spring Training in 2005, we saw Dontrelle Willis pitch seven dominant innings that had a sellout pre-season crowd oohing and aahing the whole game. Sure enough, Willis rocked his first two starts that season, pitching back-to-back nine inning shutouts in which he threw a total of 211 pitches! The D-Train really only had one bad stretch that season, in which he gave up 23 earned runs over three bad outings in July (out of 69 total earned runs given up all year), and he finished leading the league in wins, complete games, shutouts, and homeruns per nine innings, to go with a 2.63 ERA and a 151 ERA+.

I am recounting all of this now because I am certain that there are people who think Dontrelle Willis was never for real. In 2005, that dude was for real. He was pitching on a team that also had A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett, and he was easily the ace. And he was 23 years old.


Dontrelle Willis
Sadly, for all of us, the Dontrelle Willis of 2005 will probably never be back, but at the age of 28 this season (how is he only 28?), there should still be a place in baseball for Willis, a six-foot-four left-hander. Willis needs to take a page out of Frank Tanana’s book; Tanana had a very similar career to Willis through this age. Tanana burst onto the scene as a 20-year old in 1974, led the AL in strikeouts in 1975, had 19 wins and led the league in WHIP in 1976, and led the league in ERA, ERA+, and shutouts in 1977, at the age of 23. Then, he lost it in 1978. After averaging roughly eight strikeouts per nine innings in his first four seasons, Tanana only struck out 137 batters in 239 innings in 1978. He missed half the season in 1979, and in 1980 his ERA went over 4.00 for the first time. In 1981, he went 4-10, and he led the league in losses in 1982. Then, in 1983, something funny happened: he learned how to pitch as a control guy. He would never be a dominant pitcher ever again, but he got himself under control and went on to pitch ten more major league seasons, averaging 200 innings every year and winning 120 more games.

Tigers Team Capsule

4/1/10: Give Magglio His Due - I don't know about you, but I have always viewed Magglio Ordonez' time in Detroit as a huge disappointment other than his absurdly good 2007 season. Yet in some respects, he is one of the game's most consistent performers. In the 11 seasons since his rookie year, Magglio has only hit below .300 twice (once in just 52 games in 2004) and never below .292. His .312 career batting average ranks 8th among active players. Ordonez may not swing with as much power as he once did and he certainly will not justify the $18 million he is making this year, but he did hit .375 in 60 post-All-Star games last season and should be a big part of the Tigers' 2010 offense.   --KG


Talking to reporters this spring, Willis has said the following regarding his pitching: “I've changed my pitching a lot this year,” he said. “I used to think I could strike everyone out. Now I just let them hit the ball. If I could, I'd take 27 lineouts and just get out of there.”

Now, while I am not too excited any time a pitcher says “now I just let them hit the ball,” at the same time it sounds to me like Dontrelle Willis is ready for the rest of his career.

Other Points About the Detroit Tigers

Jose Valverde is a Big Old Jerk. I don’t know Jose personally, but isn’t this the only logical conclusion? Consider: in the last three years, all this six-foot-four right-handed closer has done is lead the NL in saves twice and in games pitched once, collect 116 saves, put up a 2.84 ERA (156 ERA+), and strike out over a batter per inning. And the Detroit Tigers will be his third team in four years.

Austin Jackson

Valverde is a huge improvement for this team, which has not had a great closer since Todd Jones, version 1.0, in 2000.

Action Jackson? I will root for Austin Jackson to succeed in the major leagues, but I don’t see it happening soon. Last season, in 132 games at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Jackson had nine triples, four homeruns, 24 steals, 40 walks and 123 strikeouts. He hit .300, but had a .759 OPS. I think Scott Sizemore is lot more ready to succeed soon than Jackson is. His overall numbers in Double-A and Triple-A combined last season show more power and more on-base ability.

But can they score? Tigers fans have every reason to be antsy about the arrival of the club out of spring training. For example, consider this: in 2009, the Tigers finished fourth from the bottom in the AL in runs scored per game. Curtis Granderson, one of their best hitters, hit leadoff in 130 games and Placido Polanco, another of their best hitters, hit second in 144 games. This year, the top two spots in the order will be taken by Jackson and Sizemore, two guys with no major league experience. If the Tigers couldn’t score any runs with Granderson and Polanco at the top of the order, how do they do with two rookies at the top of the order?

Scoring position, schmoring position. Here’s a fun fact for you: in 2009, the Detroit Tigers finished last in the AL in doubles (245) and stolen bases (72). In so doing, the Tigers became only the fifth team since 1975 to pull this off. The last three teams to do it – the 1996 Angels, the 1987 Orioles, and the 1976 Brewers – all finished with the second worst record in the AL, while the 1975 Tigers did it and finished dead last in the league.

What this stat tells us is that the teams that finish last in these two categories didn’t spend a whole lot of time in scoring position, and thus didn’t likely score lots of runs. Thus, not a lot of runs scored, and not a lot of wins. So how on earth did the Detroit Tigers finish with 86 wins last season? Go figure.

Before you can trade him, you gotta have him. Losing Placido Polanco is good news for the 2013 Detroit Tigers. In 2002, the St. Louis Cardinals traded Polanco to the Phillies; four years later they won the World Series. Then, in 2005, the Phillies traded Polanco to the Tigers, and three years later the Phillies won the World Series. It seems as though moving Polanco is generally one of the first steps in a World Series run.

Outlook on the Season

We’ve fallen into a pretty good rhythm in the last five years in the AL Central. We know that the Minnesota Twins are going to make a run at the division no matter how challenged they look. We know that the Kansas City Royals are going to finish either fifth (most likely) or fourth (if lucky) in the division. That leaves the Indians, White Sox, and Tigers to figure out.

To tell you the truth, the only thing not to like about the Tigers this season, playing in this division, is their outfield defense.

Last season, only a historic collapse prevented the Tigers from going to the playoffs. This year, the Tigers look, at the very least, almost as good as they did last season, while the other AL Central teams look to have some major issues. We all know that the most talented player in the AL Central, and perhaps the most talented player in baseball not named Pujols, is playing catcher for the Minnesota Twins. After that, though, the three or four next most talented players in this division are playing for the Tigers. If you had to pick a favorite to win the AL Central – especially with Joe Nathan out for the year – it would have to be the Detroit Tigers, but we may have to wait until October, again, to know for sure.


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