Prediction: The Tigers will be in the hunt for a playoff spot up until the final week, at which point, the hot team will win out. This team has tremendous potential, it's just a matter of putting it all together.Remember, this is on the heels of the vast majority of professional analysts predicting that the Tigers would finish 4th or 5th in the division.
That said, the 2009 team was not particularly good and ultimately, their weaknesses were exposed and the hottest team in the history of everything was able to overtake them by going 17-4 over their last 21 games, with 3 of those losses coming at the hands of the Tigers. This, for a Twins team that was playing under .500 baseball prior to that home stretch. Hot indeed.
Anyway, that improbable run culminated with this:
Oh, the pain.
That game apparently sent a shockwave through the collective sports consciousness of every team that I care for, leading to this:
It's been a rough year.
A New Hope?
So, it is crucial that I believe that we have reached a turning point. That this perpetual 2009-2010 nightmare has reached its end right back where it started. With the Tigers. Now, I'm not saying that they're going to win the World Series. Or even make the playoffs. Or that I even need them to make the playoffs. No, they just need to make it stop. But can they?
I tend to look at a baseball team in two ways: What personnel changes will make them better or worse than the year before and, how will individual players perform based on historical norms, seasonal anomalies and the like. Then we do a mental calibration of the rest of the teams in the division and there you have it. So, let's get to it.
Out with the old, in with the new.
There was a lot of movement within the Tigers organization this year. These guys?
They're all gone. That is, for brevity's sake: your two best offensive players not named Cabrera, your best pitcher not named Verlander, your closer, your set-up man, and the player who needed the fewest at-bats per home run in Detroit Tigers history. In their place we get: rookie, rookie, promising young pitcher and Jose Valverde. And throw in Johnny Damon for good measure.
So here's the question: Did the Tigers get better with their personnel moves this offseason? I have a hard time believing that the answer is "yes." Still, it isn't as much of a long shot as it seems. Valverde should be a better closer than Rodney. Damon is a more-than capable replacement for Granderson, albeit one who I think is not as good by a number of measures. The rookies, by all accounts, should be on their way to nice careers, but are still rookies. And when I see rookies up the middle (at 2nd and CF) I get worried. Personally, I think that both Austin Jackson and Scott Sizemore need to have Rookie of the Year-caliber years to make up for the offense that the Tigers lost in the offseason, and frankly, I just don't see that happening.
Regressing to the mean
I'm going to take a shortcut here, because it is late and I need to take the dog for a walk and go to work in the morning. Everything that I'm going to say has no statistical backing because I don't have the time to look it up. However, if you were to look it up yourself, I'm pretty sure that I would be in the ballpark. So...
Looking back to last year, I see four players who had seasons that were unusual. Justin Verlander pitched like Cy Young and carried the team on his back towards the end of the season. Compared to 2008 he was a revelation. Rick Porcello was the 20 year old who, even with all the hype he brought with him, outperformed expectations. Meanwhile, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez fell off a cliff, which Maggs somehow climbed back up to have a stellar back-half of the season. Still, their declines we so marked that I would be surprised if any former all-stars not named Andruw Jones have had such abruptly abysmal seasons.
For this year, I think that we will see a regression to the mean, and that that will benefit the Tigers. What I mean is this: Verlander was great in 2009 and bad in 2008. But he was really, really good in 2006 and 2007. I see him having a similarly consistent and excellent year, even if it isn't quite as good. Rick Porcello, in his second season, should be able to build off of an excellent 2nd half (culminating in a breakout Game 163), as long as his arm isn't too tired from substantial increase in workload last year. I see him grabbing about 14 wins and holding down the fort. Ordonez will benefit the most from a regression to the mean. His average will stay high, he'll hit the gaps and, although his power numbers will continue to shrink, I think that he'll come through when he is needed, time and time again. Guillen is less certain, as injuries have taken a toll on him. However, a move to DH should help and he should at least be able to hit for average if healthy.
Also, don't count out Gerald Laird. I think he is going to have a big year (.275/15/70). Mark it.
Questions abound. Where are the runs going to come from? Can the Tigers survive the offensive output of Santiago, Inge, Laird, and Two Rookies? How are Willis and Bonderman going to pitch? What is the backup plan for if/when one of them fails? How will Inge and Sizemore recover from their injuries? How will Scherzer and Valverde adjust to the AL? Damon to Comerica? Guillen to DH?
In a way, I regret not giving myself the time to do a more comprehensive preview for this team, because there is just so much that we don't know. At the same time, I feel like I could have done all the research in the world and felt the same way. I take solace in this: The White Sox seem to have a number of similar question marks as well. The Twins lost Joe Nathan and are OUT OF THE METRODOME! I think that they lose 5 wins on that fact alone. I just don't think that the Indians or Royals are there yet, despite their young, talented cores.
And so we're left with this.
The Tigers will not make the playoffs this year. I just don't feel it. And I'm an optimist--I always feel it. I think that they will be in contention and make things interesting down the stretch but that they won't be able to do it. On the plus side, I think that they'll spare us the heartbreak that we were all treated to last year, so at least there's that.
I'm going to chalk it up to the fact that the team is a bad combination of being too-young and too old, and that they are going to come up just short as they try to reconcile themselves with the fact that they are simultaneously on the decline and not quite ready for the big time. The exceptions are huge, as Verlander and Cabrera will have seasons that will place them in the Top 3 for Cy Young and MVP voting, respectively, but I don't think that the supporting cast is there. When I see Cabrera protected by Guillen and then some sort of Inge/Laird/Sizemore/Everett 6-9, I see trouble.
5 Things from the Crystal Ball:
1. The Tigers will finish in 2nd with 84 wins. The White Sox (88) win the division.
2. Austin Jackson will play like Curtis Granderson circa 2006
3. Both Verlander and Cabrera will lead the league in two of three "triple crown" categories for Pitchers and Hitters, respectively
4. Magglio Ordonez's option will vest for 2011
5. Curtis Granderson will hit 40 home runs and win a Gold Glove. No, I'm not joking.
Prove me wrong kids, prove me wrong. Now bring on Opening Day!
*It is worth noting that while I was writing this Curtis Granderson hit a home run in his first at-bat as a Yankee