Coming into the 2011 season, the Detroit Tigers had never won the American League Central. In fact, they hadn’t won any division since claiming the AL East crown on the season’s final day in 1987. In the 23 seasons in-between, the Tigers had as many last-place finishes (seven) as they did seasons finished above .500.
Of course, the Tigers claimed the Wild Card in 2006 and wound up winning the AL Pennant that season as well, but for a stretch of 12 consecutive seasons (1994-2005), the Tigers lost more than they won in every single season. It wasn’t a Pittsburgh Pirates-type run, but it wasn’t a whole lot of fun, either.
I mention all of this “ancient” history because it’s important to understand what the past five or six years have meant to Tigers fans. This is a franchise that from 2001-2003 lost 318 games, including a historic 43-119 record in 2003; the worst season in American League history. But from the ashes of those comically bad clubs, rose the most recent incarnation of the Tigers franchise, one that has restored the luster to a once-proud organization and it’s fan-base.
Still, while the World Series run in ’06 was nice, and the competitiveness has been there virtually every season since, the Tigers had come up short in their quest to win the division every single year, finishing second in ’06, ’07, and ’09 – the latter coming after they held a three-game cushion with 3 to play and wound up dropping a one-game playoff in the Metrodome to the Twins.
But all those recent near-misses and all those prior years where the season was effectively over by mid-May sure made 2011 that much sweeter.
The Tigers struggled to establish any kind of consistency early on last season while the Indians and Royals jumped out to surprisingly hot starts. The pundits had pegged Detroit, a .500 club in 2010, as the third of a three-horse race for the Central crown, competing with the Twins and White Sox; it wasn’t meant to be.
Minnesota dealt with injuries all year and never get their ship righted. Chicago ran hot and cold, but hovered around .500 for most of the campaign. Kansas City eventually succumbed to their usual fate and sank in the standings. Meanwhile, the Tigers slowly began walking down the Indians, who had built an impressive lead by Memorial Day.
The Tigers were lead in every way by ace right hander Justin Verlander. Every fifth game, Verlander took the ball and fans everywhere knew that history could be made that day. On May 7, in at game at Rogers Centre in Toronto, Verlander spun his second-career no-hitter. That start began a run of nine consecutive wins without a loss for Verlander, including a 6-0 stretch over six starts in June. During that month, Verlander averaged over eight innings per start and allowed a total of five earned runs. By the time the season came to a close, Verlander had racked up 24 wins while also leading the league in innings pitched, ERA, strikeouts, WHIP, and fewest hits allowed per nine innings. He took home both the Cy Young Award and the AL MVP, becoming the first starting pitcher since Roger Clemens in 1986 to do so.
While Verlander was the talk of baseball, and for good reason, the club wouldn’t have done anything without perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera leading the offense. Cabrera turned in yet another monster season at the plate, leading the league in hitting at .344 while also eclipsing the 30-home run and 100-RBI plateaus yet again. DH Victor Martinez, signed to help make opposing pitchers pay for working around Cabrera, did just that, turning in a .330 season and .850 OPS while nearly matching Cabrera’s RBI total with 103.
The trading deadline can be a fickle mistress. Even those trades that look great on paper, the ones that figure to push your club over the top, don’t always work out. It happened to the Tigers in 2009, when GM Dave Dombrowski traded a trio of prospects to bring in veterans Aubrey Huff and Jarrod Washburn in an effort to stave off their competition. Neither Huff nor Washburn produced in Detroit. Other times, however, the trades, even the less heralded ones, make GMs look brilliant.
In late July of last year, the Tigers were one of a few clubs rumored to be in trade talks with the Rockies for right hander Ubaldo Jimenez. The cost, said to be two young major leaguers (Rick Porcello and Brennan Boesch) plus at least one of the club’s top two prospects, was too high and the Tigers balked. Instead, Cleveland landed Jimenez and the Tigers made a deal with Seattle to bring in another right handed starter in Doug Fister.
Much like another famous deadline acquisition did for the Tigers in their last Divisional run 24 years earlier, Fister was dominant down the stretch while Jimenez struggled with the Indians. The newly-minted Tiger proved a worthy number two behind Justin Verlander and his near-historical season. Fister arrived in Detroit with a 3-12 record and an ERA of just 3.33. He worked 70.1 innings after the trade and posted an amazing 1.79 ERA and an 8-1 record for Detroit. The success called into memory the final stretch of 1987, when Doyle Alexander, a deadline piece picked up from Atlanta (traded for unheralded minor leaguer John Smoltz) went 9-0 with a 1.53 ERA in 11 starts.
Outfielder Delmon Young and third baseman Wilson Betemit were also brought in in mid-season deals, ones that cost the club next to nothing to complete. Both of those players, particularly Young, provided a boost to the lineup down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Though Detroit wound up winning 95 games and salting away the Central crown, theirs was just the third-best record in the league, so they began the playoff on the road in New York. Detroit’s pitching depth helped the Tigers top the Yankees in five games, but injuries to Magglio Ordonez, Young, and Martinez in the ALCS left them too little ammunition to compete with the powerful Texas Rangers and the Tigers were sent home in six games.
Addressing the Holes
Detroit won all those games last year despite having a pair f black holes in the lineup. Veteran third baseman Brandon Inge was so bad that in July, the Tigers designated him for assignment and sent him down to Triple-A when he went unclaimed. His replacement, utilityman Don Kelly, wasn’t much better and neither Ryan Raburn nor Ramon Santiago were offensive threats at second base. Instead of focusing their off-season on upgrading those positions, the Tigers sat on the sidelines, opting to keep the vast majority of their roster intact. Fans weren’t panicked, but they were bored. While their divisional rivals were busy making moves this winter, the Tigers had done virtually nothing outside of waving goodbye to pieces they no longer wanted.
In January, however, all that changed.
It started with the news that Victor Martinez, one of the biggest reasons for Detroit’s 2011 success, had injured his knee during off-season workouts. A full six weeks before Spring Training was to begin, Martinez’s season was over. Now in dire need of another bat, the Tigers turned their attention to a man they’d spent three months saying they weren’t interested in: Prince Fielder. Two days later, Detroit had signed the hulking slugger to a remarkable nine-year, $214 million deal. He would certainly fill VMart’s slot in the batting order, but the signing also meant that Miguel Cabrera would move across the diamond to third.
- Austin Jackson – CF
- Brennan Boesch – RF
- Miguel Cabrera – 3B
- Prince Fielder – 1B
- Delmon Young – LF
- Alex Avila – C
- Jhonny Peralta – SS
- Ryan Raburn – DH
- Brandon Inge – 2B
- RHP Justin Verlander
- RHP Doug Fister
- RHP Max Scherzer
- RHP Rick Porcello
- LHP Andy Oliver
Prospects to Watch
Detroit’s system isn’t regarded as one with a boatload of top-tier prospects, but they have churned out some useful major leaguers over the past few years. Following the 2011 season, the Tigers allowed veteran hurler Brad Penny to leave and are auditioning a handful of young arms during camp to take his place. Left handers Drew Smyly, Duane Below, and Andy Oliver have been taking aim at the final rotation spot for the Tigers in 2012. Right hander Jacob Turner, one of the highest-rated right handed prospects in the game, figures to see some action in Motown this summer as well.
Oliver, a former second-round pick of the Tigers, has made starts for Detroit in each of the past two years, but has seen increasing bouts with control problems. So far this Spring, Oliver has impressed with the majority of his outings, but walks have also been a problem at times. If he can harness his wildness, Oliver has the repertoire to miss bats at a high rate. If he cannot, his next shot at the big leagues may have to come as a reliever.
Turner, a former first-round selection as a high schooler in 2009, won’t turn 21 years old until May, but already has three big league starts under his belt. He was viewed as the favorite to win the final rotation spot during camp before dealing with what the Tigers called a “dead arm” that caused them to shut him down for a week, effectively ending his shot to win the Opening Day assignment.
Still, the big right hander features not only excellent stuff, but outstanding command for a pitcher of his age. He may not have a number-one starter ceiling, but if he maximizes his potential, he could become an outstanding number two starter in the big leagues.
Perhaps the pitcher I’m most intrigued by, however, is the southpaw Smyly. With just one season of professional baseball under his belt, Smyly is looked at as almost an afterthought in this process, but what he did in that one season, and what he’s shown so far in Lakeland, has been something to behold. Smyly was taken in the second round in 2010, but comes with two years of college experience. His repertoire doesn’t necessarily impress the scouts, but it certainly impressed the opposing hitters last year as Smyly lead the Tigers organization with a sparkling 2.07 ERA. He also fanned more than a batter per inning last season. Smyly profiles as a guy with four league-average pitches and excellent command; he pitched for Team USA in last year’s PanAm games and struck out 17 versus just one walk in 18 scoreless innings of work.
While he may not have the upside of Oliver, Turner, or even fellow southpaw Casey Crosby, Smyly’s floor as a prospect is significantly higher than those guys. He’s extremely polished and his “stuff” doesn’t figure to get better or need refining in the minor leagues. Though his ceiling is probably that of a fourth starter, he’s basically already there and if given the opportunity, Smyly should be able to pitch effectively in the major leagues right now.
The Tigers were favorites to win the division again even before the Fielder signing, but having Prince in camp still seems to have heightened expectations. The rest of the division has made strides, but only Cleveland figures to have enough to compete with Detroit, at least from where I sit.
That said, there were a lot of things that went right for the Tigers in 2011 and you’d be foolish to think that all of them will go that way again. For starters, Justin Verlander, even if he performs at the exact same level he did a season ago, doesn’t figure to see the same results and he allowed an abnormally low BABIP last year and even a slight regression to the mean there will lead to more baserunners, more scoring chances, and more runs allowed.
Closer Jose Valverde didn’t blow a save all year and Tigers were unbeaten when leading after eight innings, the only club in baseball that could make that claim in 2011. Chances are good then that Detroit won’t quite match the success the late-inning relievers had last season either, even if Valverde and Joaquin Benoit pitch well again.
The offense shouldn’t be an issue for the Tigers, not with Cabrera and Fielder hitting back-to-back in the order. Those two hitters are bookended by Brennan Boesch in the two-hole and Delmon Young hitting fifth. Both Boesch and Young are free-swingers with the ability to drive the ball out of the park. Boesch excelled last season when hitting in front of Cabrera and Young showed during the ALCS what he could do when hitting in the heart of the order as well. I expect big seasons from both hitters, provided they can stay healthy.
As with any club, health will be a key for the Tigers. They have enough depth and enough versatility to sustain success for short periods of time, even if one of their $20 million men goes down. But the club, as Jim Leyland likes to say, will go only as far as the stars can take them.
Barring injuries, you can count on elite-level production from Cabrera, from Fielder, and from Verlander. If they can combine that will quality campaigns from the second-tier stars of this team, guys like Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Doug Fister, Valverde, and Max Scherzer, the Tigers will not only repeat as Central champions, but are a serious threat to take home their fifth World series crown, and first since 1984.
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