2010 was a traumatic year for the Detroit Tigers. Their final record was 81-81, which led to a 3rd place finish that left Tiger fans wondering what could have been. Injuries shackled Jim Leyland’s group for the majority of the season and the team could never fully overcome them.
One thing that went largely overlooked was the vast experience gained by some of the organization’s young talents thanks to the injuries. Brennan Boesch, Casper Wells, Will Rhymes, and others were afforded opportunities that otherwise may not have been available to them. Austin Jackson was runner-up in the rookie of the year voting. It wasn’t just the rookies who turned heads either. Miguel Cabrera was runner-up in the MVP voting. Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer combined to form a fierce 1-2 punch in the rotation. The Tigers finished 4 games above .500 in their own division, not losing a season-long series to any team in the Central. All in all, 2010 was disappointing but gave Tiger Town a glimpse at what is in store for 2011.
Of all of the positives, the negatives were more prevalent. Detroit was expected to contend for the division crown, yet ended up finishing 13 games back of the rival Twins. Carlos Guillen, Joel Zumaya, Magglio Ordonez, and Brandon Inge all suffered major injuries that prevented Detroit from reaching its potential. The back end of the rotation was a mess too thanks in large part to Dontrelle Willis, Jeremy Bonderman, and a host of other ineffective pitchers. The Tigers gave up the 10th most runs in the A.L. in 2010.
As much of a letdown as 2010 was, 2011 offers what appears to be a significant and much needed dose of clarity. Here are the key strengths and weaknesses that we can expect to see this year.
Best case scenario for 2011
The Tigers have the talent to compete for a divisional championship, something they haven’t won since 1987. Moving Phil Coke into the rotation and adding veteran Brad Penny as the #5 starter gives Detroit an impressive rotation with Verlander, Scherzer, and Rick Porcello anchoring the staff. Above all, the Tigers need good health in 2011. If some of their critical players, with well documented injury histories (Ordonez, Guillen, Victor Martinez, Zumaya, and Inge) can avoid the DL, the Tigers will be right there in the end with the Twins and Pale Hose.
Most Valuable Tigers
Miguel Cabrera isn’t just the most valuable Tiger; he is arguably the best and most valuable player in the entire American League, which makes his recent dealings with the bottle and the law all too troublesome. With a hopefully clear head and VMart protecting his back this year, look for a .330 season with 42 homers, and 145 RBI’s. However, a very immature decision to drink and get behind the wheel in mid February has Tiger fans everywhere concerned about his status. Cabrera needs to get himself right for this team to contend in 2011. If he doesn’t, what he could do will quickly turn into what he didn’t do and why the team failed as a result. As important as #24 is to the starting lineup, Joel Zumaya may be the key ingredient in the 12-man pitching staff. When Zumaya was healthy last year, the Tigers bullpen was flat out dominant. When he got hurt, pieces were shuffled around and the overall pitching numbers began to drop off. The 26-year old righty needs to find the fountain of health. He has had a normal offseason of preparation and is firing bullets in the preseason, both of which are huge positives.
Potential Breakout Players
Ryan Raburn signed a 2-year deal this offseason and will finally be handed a regular job in left field from Jim Leyland. The past 2 years, Raburn has been one of the elite 2nd half players in all of baseball. He finished 2010 with a .280 average, 15 homers, and 62 RBI’s in a mere 371 at-bats. If he can find his groove in April, something he has yet to do in the big leagues, he is going to have a big year. Fantasy players take note, Raburn is a monster sleeper. On the pitching side, look for 22-year old Rick Porcello to rebound from a shaky 2010 and to get to being the elite pitcher the organization expects him to be. He may never become a big strikeout pitcher but with some improved off-speed stuff, his mid 90’s sinker should be enough to get him to 13-15 wins and a sub 4.00 ERA.
Worst case scenario for 2011
We’ll assume for now that Miguel Cabrera gets his act together because if he doesn’t, that is the Tigers’ worst case scenario. Detroit is teetering on a thin wire. It has more young players expected to produce at a high level than just about any team in baseball. It also has a cast of veteran players who are no stranger to the surgical knife. If things go badly, it could be because Austin Jackson can’t get on base and the other youngsters can’t get settled in. However, it will more likely mean that Detroit has had another bout of ugly injuries and there aren’t enough major league ready players in the minors to fill the void. If things go poorly, another distant 3rd place finish will be in the works.
Biggest areas of concern
Health, health, and health. Some Tiger games last year ended up looking like an interesting episode of House. I have full confidence in the young guys being able to produce, provided the veterans are doing their thing. If Magglio and Victor can’t stay in the lineup for 150+ games to give Cabrera the support he needs to wreck American League pitching on a daily basis, the Tigers won’t generate enough runs to contend. You can pretty much pencil Carlos Guillen in for 2 DL stints throughout the course of the season but Rhymes and Scott Sizemore are ready to fill in for him if needed. The rest of the lineup doesn’t have enough depth to overcome the loss of players expected to produce big numbers.
Who needs to rebound from a rough 2010
Alex Avila is going to get the bulk of the starts at catcher. After a promising 2009 rookie stretch, albeit under limited duty, he struggled to make consistent contact in 2010. He hit just .228 with 7 homers. He will likely hit 8th or 9th in the new lineup and as Tiger fans last year certainly remember, the bottom 3 can ill afford to be a black hole, consisting of almost 3 guaranteed outs. Avila is the x-factor. If he hits, the bottom 3 should do well. If he tanks, visions of Gerald Laird and Adam Everett might start dancing in Tiger fans’ heads. Rick Porcello’s need to rebound has already been documented but Detroit will also need a bounce back from closer Jose Valverde. Jose made the All-Star team after an insane 1st half where he was nearly unhittable thanks to a nasty splitter that was on full display. He lost his way, battled a tender arm, and was generally pounded in the 2nd half. Prior to the All-Star Game, he posted 19 saves and a 0.92 ERA. After the break, he managed just 7 saves and a 6.38 ERA. He’s on the last year of his deal, which might provide him a little extra juice to pitch a full season of productive baseball.
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