In 2012, the Detroit Tigers claimed the AL Central title and won the pennant. However, their greater goals went unmet, as the Giants swept them in the World Series. While the Indians and Royals figure to be improved in 2013 and the White Sox are never to be dismissed, the Tigers will enter the season as the prohibitive favorites in the Central. Given the strength of the rotation and the presence of Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder in the lineup, they'll also be serious threats to return to the Fall Classic.
|More on spring training|
|More on Detroit Tigers|
|More MLB coverage|
Now, let's break down those 2013 Detroit Tigers ...
Under-the-radar offseason transaction
The decision not to re-sign closer Jose Valverde. Valverde, of course, was perfect in save opportunities during the 2011 season, but his underlying peripherals suggested trouble ahead. That trouble came to pass in 2012, as Valverde pitched to a 3.78 ERA (not good for a late-inning reliever) and struck out just 16.3 percent of opposing hitters. Throw in Valverde's decaying splitter, and it's obvious he's not a suitable relief ace these days. The Tigers still have uncertainties in the bullpen, but they were wise to let "Papa Grande" walk.
Fantasy bounceback: Alex Avila
"Avila followed up his 2011 breakout season (.295, 19 home runs) with a major fall in nearly every offensive category, hitting just .243 with nine home runs in 367 at-bats. Granted, Avila dealt with a litany of injuries in 2012, including a hamstring strain, patellar tendinitis, a concussion and a wrist injury. But Avila started off cold, with a .220 average at the end of April, so we can't blame it all on injuries. It's tough to consider Avila's 2011 a fluke, especially given the success he had in the minor leagues with power and average. And with Martinez and Hunter in the mix, Avila will see better pitches and have more opportunities to drive in runs and score. He's worth a late shot in deeper mixed leagues." -- Nando Di Fino [Full Tigers fantasy preview]
The rotation. Justin Verlander is arguably the best pitcher in all of baseball, Max Scherzer is coming off a season in which he paced the majors in strikeouts as a percentage of plate appearances, Doug Fister owns a career ERA+ of 116 and an ERA+ of 142 in one-and-a-half seasons in Detroit, and Anibal Sanchez has notched at least 190 innings and sub-4.00 ERA in each of the last three seasons. And while likely fifth starter Rick Porcello has yet to realize his potential, he touches the mid-90s with his fastball and is adequate by back-end standards as is. In other words, the Tigers have depth and ace quality at the front. Only the Nationals can compare when it comes to such excellence up and down the starting five.
With a "nod" to the suspect bullpen, the team defense is the real shortcoming in Detroit. Pick your preferred measure, and the 2012 Tigers, in terms of fielding, fared not well. They ranked 13th in the AL in defensive efficiency, last in total zone, 13th in ultimate zone rate, 11th in fielding percentage and last in double plays turned. In other words, the full complement of advanced and traditional measures say the Tigers last season were woefully lacking when it came to turning batted balls into outs.
Of particular concern is the infield defense. The Tigers have a pair of liabilities -- Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera -- manning the corners. (These two, of course, more than make up for any and all pratfalls with their work at the plate). In a related matter, the Tigers allowed a BABIP of .085 on balls hit to the infield last season (vs. an AL average of .078).
So will things get better in 2013? A full season of Omar Infante should help a bit on the infield front, and swapping out Brennan Boesch for Torii Hunter will improve matters in right field.
Fortunately, Tiger pitchers, as noted above, are quite adept at missing bats, which helps keep the porous defense out of the equation as much as possible. As well, the Detroit staff ranked 10th in ground-ball percentage last season, which means they keep the ball away from Cabrera and Fielder most of the time. That, of course, is advisable.
The rotation dominates and keeps the ball out of play enough to work around the defense. Cabrera and Fielder anchor the offense, and Leyland mixes and matches enough to protect ninth-inning leads. The Tigers win the Central by a comfortable margin and return to the World Series.
The heavy usage catches up with Verlander, Hunter shows his age, the bullpen remains a soft underbelly, the defense is as bad as anticipated and Austin Jackson squanders the offensive progress that he made in 2012. All of that allows Cleveland or Chicago to edge the Tigers out for the division crown.
Most likely scenario
The Tigers win the AL Central. The rotation dominates, and no fewer than two Tiger starters finish in the top 10 in the AL Cy Young balloting. Cabrera and Fielder combine for 75-80 homers, and Rondon emerges as a reliable closer.
For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnBaseball on Twitter, subscribe to the RSS feed and "like" us on Facebook. Also, individually interact with us on Twitter: @MattSnyder27, @daynperry and @mikeaxisa.