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2012 Detroit Tigers: The Prince and The Paupers Spring Preview
by Keith Glab,
January 27, 2011

With the Detroit Tigers spending $214 million to bring Prince Fielder into their lineup, the divide between the haves and the have-nots in the American League Central becomes even more clear.  But the signing, ostensibly a response to losing Victor Martinez for the season to a knee injury, will have disastrous repercussions for the future of the Detroit franchise.

2011 Standings - AL Central
Central W L PCT GB Home Road RS RA Exp W% RHP LHP
Detroit Tigers 95 67 .586 0 50-31 45-36 787 711 .546 64-47 31-20
Cleveland Indians 80 82 .494 15 44-37 36-45 704 760 .465 57-56 23-26
Chicago White Sox 79 83 .488 16 36-45 43-38 654 706 .465 55-61 24-22
Kansas City Royals 71 91 .438 24 40-41 31-50 730 762 .480 55-65 16-26
Minnesota Twins 63 99 .389 32 33-48 30-51 619 804 .383 42-73 21-26

In 2011, the Detroit Tigers, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins each had payrolls over $100 million while the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals were south of $50 million on their ledgers.  After disappointing 2011 campaigns, the Sox and Twins have slashed payroll, leaving the Tigers alone as the big spenders in the division.

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Prince Fielder 1B
Octavio Dotel RP
Gerald Laird C
Collin Balester RP
Departed Pos.
Carlos Guillen 2B
Magglio Ordonez OF
Brad Penny SP
Ryan Perry RP
Joel Zumaya RP
Wilson Betemit 3B

Their 2012 payroll actually figures to remain fairly reasonable.  Although Prince Fielder will make $23 million, that is the same amount that the club spent on the now-departed and recently-ineffective Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez last year.  Raises due to Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Jose Valverde, and others are going to carry the 2012 payroll above the $106 million mark from last year, but it's not going to approach Yankees, Red Sox, or Angels territory.

It should, however, be the highest in the AL Central.  It should also be the most talented roster in that division despite the loss of Victor Martinez for the season.  While the V-Mart injury does hurt the Tigers, his importance had been grossly overstated.  Here's a 33-year old designated hitter who hit just a dozen home runs last year.  There was no way that a healthy Victor Martinez would have approached his fortuitous .343 batting average on balls in play from last season.  The Tigers aren't going to get much return at all from the $38 million left on his contract now that he's torn the ACL in his left knee.

It's difficult to say whether or not the Tigers' front office recognizes this.  On one hand, committing to Fielder for the next decade suggests that they don't see Martinez as a big part of the lineup in 2013-14, else they would have just signed a Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee type as a one year stopgap.  Then again, if they realize the empty return they'll get from Victor, why did they ensure they'll have similar sunk costs towards the end of Prince's contract? 

There's Moheft in Motown
Granted, Fielder's situation is somewhat unique in that he will be only 37 when his nine-year contract expires.  People poke fun at his near-300-pound weight, but he's been remarkably durable during his career and moves very well for a man his size.  What he hasn't been is consistent.  As great as Prince was in 2007, 2009, and 2011, his numbers were extremely ordinary in 2006, 2008, and 2010.  If he's inconsistent in his prime, he doesn't figure to be a superstar late in his career.  At least by signing with an AL team, Fielder can be anti-eponymical and gradually shift to designated hitter duties, although he has a .761 OPS in 18 games as a DH and one can't help remember what happened when Adam Dunn switched to hitter-only chores.

In the short term, Fielder should be a difference-maker.  His protection allowed Ryan Braun to win the NL MVP last year, and he figures to do the same for Miguel Cabrera in 2012.  Unless, of course, a shift back to third base gets Cabrera out of sorts at the plate.  With that possibility, even-year production from Fielder, and the terrible defense that follows from such a configuration, the Tigers would still remain huge favorites in the Central.  But that is more due to their rivals all looking like 80-win teams than it is the Tigers appearing elite.

Comeback Candidate
Ryan Raburn
Hit .341 in the 2nd half after a miserable start
Triple Crown Threat
Miguel Cabrera
He's paced all 3 categories, just not in the same year

Appearing elite is exactly what Justin Verlander did last season.  Don't get me wrong; Verlander is a very good pitcher and deserved to win his MVP Award based on his performance, but his fielding-independent ERA ranked 11th in baseball among qualifiers last year.  Going forward, we will see the Verlander of 2009-2010, not the guaranteed win he was for most of last year.  Again, that's a terrific asset to have, but expectations for Verlander are going to be unrealistically high next year.


Perhaps not as unrealistically high as those of Doug Fister, however.  There's no reason to believe that he's anything more than a decent finesse pitcher who had a career year at the prime age of 27.  What he does make is a solid #3 starter behind perennial underachiever Max Scherzer and ahead of Rick Porcello, who's only 23 and could still develop into a decent pitcher.  Top prospect Jacob Turner may get a crack at the fifth slot in the rotation, but there's little reason to believe that the 20-year-old is ready for such duties.

The rotation is backed by the same excellent bullpen it enjoyed last year, but the defense behind both groups figures to be even lousier.  Not only would Cabrera be a disaster back at the hot corner, but diminished playing time for Don Kelly weakens the defense as well. While a full season of Delmon Young might boost the offense, it won't do the pitching staff any favors.  Strikeout pitchers such as Verlander, Scherzer, and Al Albuquerque should be relatively unaffected, but the rest of the pitching staff is going to find that pitching to contact has its perils.  This is particularly true for extreme groundball pitchers such as Fister and Porcello.

Tigers Fun Fact
Manager Jim Leyland has only guided the Tigers to one losing season in six years.  That season was 2008, the year in which many picked the Tigers to win it all following the acquisition of Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis.

They will find themselves with plenty of run support, however.  Most of the principals in Detroit's 2012 lineup will be under the age of 30.  While they cannot expect Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta to perform as well as they did in their outstanding 2011 campaigns, the likes of Austin Jackson, Ryan Raburn, and Delmon Young should improve.  Even if Fielder has one of those dreaded "even" years, he will be at least as productive as Martinez was.  The AL offense that finished a distant fourth in runs scored last year will likely do so again, unless Kansas City's crop of youngsters matures more quickly than expected.

Final Word

The Tigers grossly overpaid to acquire Prince Fielder when they probably did not need him to win the Central and when his addition probably doesn't get them into the World Series (he's a .192 hitter in 15 postseason games).  They won the division by 15 games last year, which gives them enough of a cushion to absorb the regression to the mean from many of their star players, particularly with none of their division rivals being a serious threat to win 90 games.  But the damage from the Fielder contract and having three players with bloated salaries tied to the two least-important defensive positions is going to be felt in Detroit for a long, long time. 

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