|The Detroit core is as imposing as they come. (Getty Images/EOB)|
Our ongoing "Core Values" series continues with the reigning American League champs, the Detroit Tigers. Jim Leyland's squad has netted back-to-back playoff berths and hasn't endured a losing season since 2008. They'll also enter the 2013 season as the heavy favorites in the AL Central.
As for what actually defines a "core" in our unscientific series, here's a refresher. Feel free to skip over the blockquotes if you've been with us since the start.
What's a core? For our purposes, a team's core comprises a "cornerstone player," a "face of the franchise" and then the "future face of the franchise."
So what's a "cornerstone player"? For starters, it's one of the best players on the roster and perhaps the very best player on the roster. Beyond that, though, it's the player whom the organization has identified as the talent around which to build by signing him to a long-term deal. In other words, they've backed their faith in the player's abilities with the most powerful statement of all: lots of redeemable U.S. currency. Not only do they see this player as central to their current aims but also to their designs on future contention.
What's a "face of the franchise"? He -- and we're getting subjective here -- is the player who most prominently embodies the franchise in question. He's that player whom you think about when you think about this team. Is he the same guy as the "cornerstone"? Sometimes. But the cornerstone is primarily a financial designation. The "face" is, for lack of a better term, a cultural identifier. They're not mutually exclusive, but they're not not mutually exclusive, either. What about the word "values" that you see in the headline above? After we identify and evaluate the three elements of the core, we're going to slap a letter grade on the whole thing.
And now to the core of the Detroit Tigers ...
Cornerstone player(s): Prince Fielder
The Tigers aren't short on long-term, high-dollar commitments, but Fielder's pact is the whopping-est of them all. In January of last year, GM Dave Dombrowski inked Fielder to a nine-year, $214 million deal. It's also not backloaded. Fielder made $23 million in 2012, will make $23 million in 2013 and then will make $24 million each season through 2020.
There's no doubting Fielder's prowess with the bat, as he put up an OBP-heavy 152 OPS+ last season. At age 28, he's going to remain a force in the middle of the order for years to come. Given Fielder's body type and "old player" skills, he doesn't figure to age well, but that's something the Tigers can sort out down the road. They're squarely in win-now mode, and Fielder's huge deal is evidence of that.
Face(s) of the franchise: Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander
The last two AL MVPs have worn Tiger threads, so it's no surprise that they're also the faces of the franchise.
While I'm of the opinion that Mike Trout should've won the MVP over Cabrera last season, there's no disputing Cabrera's sublime performance in 2012 or his standing as one of the best hitters in the world. He's a career .318/.395/.561 hitter, and he has 321 home runs, 386 doubles and 1,802 hits before the age of 30. Simply put, Cabrera is on a Hall of Fame track, and he figures to continue performing at a high level for at least the next handful of seasons.
As for Verlander, most would argue -- quite defensibly -- that he's the best pitcher in baseball. The hard-throwing right-hander won the Cy Young in 2011 and was runner-up for the award last season. He has whiffed no fewer than 219 batters in each of the last four seasons, and he has made at least 30 starts in seven straight seasons. From the ability to miss bats to the command to the durability, Verlander is everything that you'd want in an ace.
If there's a concern moving forward (beyond the fact that Verlander is eligible for free agency following the 2014 season), it's workload. Sure, maybe Verlander is a Randy Johnson type who can withstand all those modern-era, high-stress innings and batters faced and pitches and not succumb to injury or ineffectiveness, but the numbers are somewhat alarming.
Over the last four seasons, Verlander leads the majors in total innings pitched with 977. Second place? Tim Lincecum with 902. Over that same span, Verlander ranks second in batters faced. As well, he's first in total pitches thrown by a margin of almost 1,000 pitches (he has thrown 15,391 over the last four seasons to Felix Hernandez's 14,393), and he's also first in the bigs in pitches per start (114.0) over that time frame. Sure, it's possible that Verlander is hardwired to shoulder such loads, but that's an awful heavy load.
Face of the future: Austin Jackson
The Tigers should be highly encouraged by Jackson's 2012 campaign. Coming off a disappointing 2011, the 25-year-old Jackson last season put up an OPS+ of 130, led the AL in triples and set career highs in home runs and contact rate, in addition to playing Gold Glove-caliber defense in center. More specifically, Jackson enjoyed a surge at the plate after tweaking his hitting mechanics. That underlying explanation suggests his gains are sustainable. If they are, then Jackson, as he approaches his prime seasons, could emerge as one of the best all-around players in baseball.
Elsewhere, Cabrera is locked up through 2015, and Verlander, as mentioned, is signed through 2014. It's hard to imagine Detroit allowing them to walk when the time comes, so consider them a likely part of the future, as well. Anibal Sanchez will be a fixture, and locking up Max Scherzer long-term is presumably on the to-do list. And let's not forget Victor Martinez, who'll be returning from injury and who's signed through 2014.
Grading the Tigers' core: A-
When, in the course of discussing a team's core, you're throwing around names like "Prince Fielder" and "Miguel Cabrera" and "Justin Verlander" and "Austin Jackson," then you've got a top-tier core. So it is with the Tigers. The farm system is fairly weak at this moment in time, and that's going to exact a price at some point in the future. But the top end of the roster -- the core -- is potent enough to ensure contention now and in the immediate seasons to follow.
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