In the interest of full disclosure, Justin Verlander and Gary Sheffield destroyed my fantasy team last year. Verlander was the second pitcher I drafted (after Aaron Harang—ouch) and all I needed from Sheff was one decent run at the end of the season to take my opening round playoff series. Swing-and-a-miss on both accounts.
Consequently, the residual bitterness may creep into this preview of their Detroit Tigers. Don't say I didn't warn you.
Of course, this is the franchise my mother grew up rooting for—she still has an autographed Al Kaline baseball card—so the two will probably cancel each other out.
With that out of the way, let's turn to an amazingly talented team that's about as deep as a kiddie pool.
Good lord, if the baseball gods send a rash of injuries Detroit's way, it's lights out and the Kansas City Royals needn't worry about finishing in last place.
With the offseason acquisition of Edwin Jackson and Brandon Lyon, the pitching staff is actually the deepest part of the Tiggers for a change. The problem there is the depth is in name only i.e. none of the options are reliable by Major League Baseball standards.
On the other hand, if Detroit's regulars can stay relatively healthy, this could very well be the team to emerge from the cluttered American League Central.
Take a look-see at how the Opening Day roster should go:
Projected starting lineup
First base—Miguel Cabrera
Second base—Placido Polanco
Third base—Brandon Inge
Left field—Carlos Guillen
Center field—Curtis Granderson
Right field—Magglio Ordonez
Designated hitter—Gary Sheffield/Marcus Thames
There is some serious punch in those bats although the duo up on the left side of the infield is a tad underwhelming. Everett is the definition of fundamentally sound with some plus speed to make him at least above average. Inge brings more power, less defense, and relatively no plate discipline.
But Detroit's lack of depth is painfully evident on offense. With the exception of the sitting platooner from Sheff/Thames, there's almost nothing on the bench.
The 26-year-old Jeff Larish is in camp for Spring Training and hitting decently so the Tiggers may have a better option at third soon and another capable bat on the bench. Other than that, though, the situation is grim.
Ramon Santiago is hitting well in exhibition, so there's that.
Ace—Justin Verlander (R)
Second spot—Jeremy Bonderman (R)
Third spot—Armando Galarraga (R)
Fourth spot—Edwin Jackson (R)
Fifth spot—Zach Miner (R)/Nate Robertson (L)/Dontrelle Willis (L)
As I said in the intro, the depth is a little better here if only because there are options that have shown potential—no matter how fleeting or inconsistent. Unfortunately, the starters are younger and less likely to succumb to injury than their offensive counterparts so the pseudo-depth might not come into play.
The fifth starter seems to be Miner's right now based on spring starts, but the Tigers' No. 1 prospect—20-year-old righty Rick Porcello—has gotten the ball once in camp as has Robertson.
Ryan Perry, Detroit's No. 2 prospect, is a 22-year-old lefty and he's also with the Big Club for Spring Training. He's seeing work out of the 'pen.
Willis may be irredeemable at this point, but you never know when a guy is going to hop back on the tracks with as little warning as his derailment.
Closer—Brandon Lyon (R)
Set-up—Joel Zumaya (R)
Set-up—Fernando Rodney (R)
Set-up—Freddy Dolsi (R)
Set-up—Clay Rapada (L)
Pitching was Detroit's downfall in 2008 so it makes sense that they spent the winter addressing it. What doesn't make sense are the answers—Brandon Lyon and Edwin Jackson aren't exactly magical elixirs.
But let's deal with the offense first.
You could call this team the Four Horsemen and some hangers-on because this offense will run as hot as Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Curtis Granderson, and Carlos Guillen. The rest of the maple and ash is along for the ride.
Cabrera's debut in Detroit got mixed reviews, but that's probably more a function of improbable expectations because his final '08 line was nice—a .292 average, 36 doubles, 37 home runs, 85 runs scored, 127 runs batted in, a .349 on-base percentage, and an .887 OPS. Most importantly, his much-ballyhooed weight didn't cause much of a health problem as he saw 160 games and 600+ at-bats.
If that's what an adjustment year—it was his first year in the AL—from a guy who'll be 26 in April, 2009 could be scary.
Ordonez is almost as statistically impressive as Miguel, but he's 35 so there's reason to believe his numbers may decline whereas Cabrera's are probably heading the other direction. Still, Magglio put up a stellar '08 campaign—a .317 average with 32 doubles, 21 HRs, 72 runs, 103 RBI, a .376 OBP, and an .869 OPS.
Even a reasonable decline would continue to produce great numbers.
Granderson took a mini-step backwards or, at best, laterally in '08. Many expected a scintillating addition to his 2007 year and it never came—a .280 average with 26 doubles, 13 triples, 22 bombs, 112 runs, 66 RBI, 12 stolen bases, a .365 OBP, and an .858 OPS. Those are gaudy numbers almost identical to his 2007 work and consider they came after a hand injury.
Due to turn 28 in several days, Curtis may deliver on that break-out season if the hand is finally back to 100 percent.
There's more reason for concern with Guillen. He hit .286 with 29 doubles, 10 big flies, 68 runs, 54 RBI, a .376 OBP, and an .811 OPS in 2008 while struggling with health all year. The injury bug is one reason for concern because Carlos is 33. But another reason is his move to first base, then the outfield.
That shows Detroit's equally and seriously concerned about the problem and his numbers—once pure gravy from a shortstop—begin to look pedestrian against the stouter production from corner infielders and outfielders.
The other guys won't kill you with average, but they're not gonna contribute any power and only a little speed.
Adam Everett and Brandon Inge got the once-over above so let's skip to Gerald Laird, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield, and Marcus Thames.
Laird, Sheff, and Thames all give you essentially the same thing—power and that's about it. Laird gives the least, but he's a catcher so that's understandable plus his is the best average. Thames mashed 25 dingers in just over 300 ABs, but he simply can't hit righties. Sheffield is old. And angry.
Polanco is like the fifth Beatle to the four primary bats in this lineup. He'll give you an average right around .300 and almost never fan, but his power is negligible.
That's it. There is no bench to speak of—a bunch of young kids who haven't done much or anything in the Show and aren't really tearing up Spring Training so they don't rate.
As for the pitching, the acquisitions should help as should a return to form from Justin Verlander.
If the Tigers can get Verlander back in shape and Jeremy Bonderman's own health issues are a thing of the past, the rotation could be pretty formidable.
Verlander was on his way to becoming a safe bet for 200+ Ks, 18 wins, and a sub-4.00 ERA while pitching in the AL before 2008 disrupted everything. At only 26, there's no reason to believe last year was anything more than a bump in the road to stardom.
Bonderman comes with a little more reason to pause. His upside was never as high as Verlander's and blood clots are a tricky thing.
However, Armando Galarraga showed the capacity to carry the front end of a rotation while his mates were getting things sorted out last year. The 27-year-old raised eyebrows with a 1.19 WHIP and 3.73 ERA in his first full year as a starter.
The remainder doesn't glitter, but Jackson was once a sought-after prospect and is only 25. He could blossom at any time or peter out. The fifth starter will just have to keep it under five and hope the offense has a good day until the prospects get the nod.
Out in the bullpen, it's seems like the same story for years—just you wait for Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney to mature into their talent. Well, Zumaya's still only 24, but he's shown much more growth in the trainer's room than on the field. His K per inning ration is nice...and useless if he can't stay on the hill.
Rodney showed a bit more consistency and actually managed to hold the closer's role for a while in '08, but he's 32 on the 18th so his days of maturing should be over.
Brandon Lyon is everyone's favorite stop-gap closer. I said it last year and I'll say it again this year—it's only a matter of time before he loses the job. He simply doesn't have enough stuff to last 162 games as a closer. The minuscule margin for error will get to him just as it has every other time.
Aside from those three guys, the 'pen is underwhelming and that's a problem because neither Lyon, Zumaya, nor Rodney is left-handed. That means Bobby Seay and Clay Rapada are Detroit's top options for a tough lefty at the plate.
And that means a problem when your division includes Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Jim Thome, Grady Sizemore, and the possibility of Alex Gordon.
Like the other teams in the American League Central, the Detroit Tigers have a solid nucleus of talent in all three facets. The offense and starting pitching has proven commodities upon which it can rely and the bullpen has serious upside.
Unfortunately, there isn't a whole lot surrounding those nuclei and the most susceptible to injury/decline (the offense) is paper thin.
No depth on offense and an unproven bullpen doesn't sound like recipe for success, but stranger things have happened. If it works out for the Detroit Tigers, they could win the division and that makes them just as dangerous as the rest of clubs.
But Detroit's odds look longer than the rest from where I sit.
It's virtually impossible to resist the injury bug for an entire baseball season and that's very bad news for a club whose success is predicated upon health.