It's been an interesting offseason for Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers. After a heartbreaking 163rd game the franchise looked destined for an overhaul. And, that was exactly what appeared to be happening when Dombrowski traded away Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson, then allowed Placido Polanco, Brandon Lyon, and Fernando Rodney to walk. The Tigers had lost the face of their franchise, their two most reliable relievers, an All-Star starter, and a Gold Glove infielder.
A funny thing happened in the last two months. The "rebuilding" Tigers suddenly look like a team with a realistic shot of competing for the AL Central. It's not so much what they've done - although the additions of Max Scherzer and Jose Valverde are nothing to sneeze at - as what their primary competitors have failed to do.
The Twins improved themselves offensively and defensively with the additions of J.J. Hardy and Orlando Hudson, but the rotation, which was their primary Achilles heel last season, remains a mystery. If Francisco Liriano and Kevin Slowey become the frontline pitcher many expect, the division will be the Twins to lose, but that's by no means a safe bet. Meanwhile, the White Sox have a solid rotation, but their lineup is old (Paul Konerko, A. J. Pierzynski, etc.) and inconsistent (Alex Rios, Carlos Quentin, etc.).
The Tigers are, likewise, a flawed team. But their flaws are not significantly greater than their main competitors and their strengths are noteworthy. They still boast what are quite possibly the division's best hitter and pitcher, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander (I haven't forgotten about the reigning MVP and Cy Young, but, honestly, these Tigers were right there with them and are, perhaps, more proven commodities). They've still got a solid defense, although they will be hard-pressed to replace Polanco and Granderson, and they have a nice infusion of youth on both sides of the ball in the form of Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson, and Alex Avila. I think the oddsmakers are right to rate Detroit third in their division, but it isn't hard to see how they might overcome.
Aubrey Huff (33) 1B/DH [Signed w/ Giants]
Brandon Lyon (30) RHRP [Signed w/ Astros]
Placido Polanco (34) 2B [Signed w/ Phillies]
Fernando Rodney (33) RHRP [Signed w/ Angels]
Marcus Thames (33) OF/DH
Matt Treanor (34) C [Signed w/ Milwaukee]
Jarrod Washburn (35) LHSP
Austin Jackson (23) CF
Wilkin Ramirez (24) OF
Daniel Schlereth (24) LHRP
Scott Sizemore (25) 2B
Casper Wells (25) OF
Like most teams, the Tigers foremost priority must be the rotation. At the top, they are in great shape, with Justin Verlander. But behind him they have bet on potential, not proven production. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello each pitched 170 inning last season, for the first time in their young careers. That's not an overwhelming number, but it can be taxing two years in a row. The Tigers need them to continue their development, not take a step backward.
In the final two spots the Tigers have some options, all of them talented: Jeremy Bonderman, Armando Galarraga, Nate Robertson, and Dontrelle Willis. Each of these pitchers has proven at some point during his career that he's capable of succeeding at the major-league level. But, at this point in their careers, several years removed from such success, they need to prove it all over again.
Tigers fans are anticipating that Austin Jackson will have the inside track to be Curtis Granderson's replacement. Jim Leyland has said as much, emphasizing the rookie's ability on defense. However, Jackson is not the Tigers only option, nor probably the best, offensively. Wilkin Ramirez, another rookie, displayed nearly as much speed and significantly more power at AAA. And Clete Thomas, who is among Leyland's favorites, also possesses decent speed, great plate discipline, and, at 26, with 142 major league games, is the most finished product. Neither Ramirez nor Thomas is as good a centerfielder as Jackson, but both would probably offer better production to begin the season.
There may be room for two rookies (Thomas is, obviously, not technically a rookie, but it would be his first full season as a starter) in the Detroit outfield. Carlos Guillen's transition to the outfield did not go swimmingly in 2009, so his career-long journey around the diamond (he's now played at least ten games at SS, 3B, 1B, LF, and 2B) may be destined to end at DH. The absence of a proven presence in left field has led to rumors of a possible Johnny Damon signing. Rumors which Dombrowski has discouraged. Whoever ends up playing alongside Magglio Ordonez with likely be asked to hit at or near the top of the order. Granderson and Polanco had been holding down the top spots in the Detroit order for the last several years. Since the Tigers already employ Adam Everett and Gerald Laird, primarily for their defensive contributions, they cannot afford to add any more "easy outs."
There will also be a youthful competition at second base. Ryan Raburn has spent the last three seasons as the Tigers primary utilityman. But, after hitting 16 HR and posting an 891 OPS in only 261 AB in '09, Leyland may be wondering if the 28-year-old is ready for a larger role. His main competition will be Scott Sizemore, a 25-year-old rookie who hit .308 with 17 HR and an 889 OPS at AA/AAA in '09. Again, the Tigers will be looking for production, so whoever wins the job won't have an especially long leash.
One thing really stands out about the Detroit lineup. They are going to be very, very right-handed. Guillen, as a switch-hitter, is the only current regular who hits from the left side. This could help the case of Thomas, who is a lefty, as well as Alex Avila. Avila, a 23-year-old catching prospect, absolutely raked in his September call-up (965 OPS), asserting himself as the Tigers second catcher in 2010. He might move up the depth chart if he proves himself ready to handle the pitching staff. Gerald Laird is one of the league's best at throwing out runners, but he can't hit a lick and could be falling out of favor with management after he and his brother were arrested for assault at an NBA game this winter. The Tigers could choose to go with a platoon (which, obviously, favors Avila) right out of Spring Training.
Not a lot has gone right for the Tigers since they went to the World Series in 2006. They've suffered a abnormal number of mysterious declines in production from premier players (Dontrelle Willis, Magglio Ordonez, etc.) as well as more than their fair share of injuires (Bonderman, Guillen, etc.). Perhaps their luck will change in the new decade. If it does, they could again be in the middle of a pennant race in September. What will be different this year is that if they reach that point, they'll be relying heavily on a bunch of guys in their mid-twenties, all of whom will be under the Tigers control, for a reasonable price, for at least three or four years to come.
Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:
CF Austin Jackson (R)
LF Clete Thomas (L)
1B Miguel Cabrera (R)
RF Magglio Ordonez (R)
DH Carlos Guillen (S)
3B Brandon Inge (R)
2B Ryan Raburn (R)
C Alex Avila (L)
SS Adam Everett (R)
SP Justin Verlander (R)
SP Max Scherzer (R)
SP Rick Porcello (R)
SP Jeremy Bonderman (R)
SP Armando Galarraga (R)
CL Jose Valverde (R)
SU Joel Zumaya (R)
SU Bobby Seay (L)
LOOGY Phil Coke (L)
MR Fu-Te Ni (L)
MR Ryan Perry (R)
SWING Zach Miner (R)
C Gerald Laird (R)
IF Scott Sizemore (R)
IF Ramon Santiago (S)
OF Wilkin Ramirez (R)