The 2007 Tigers Season Preview

For a stat heavy guy, here is a decidely stat-less look at the season ahead…

The Outlook

I can’t count how many times I’ve read that the Tigers were the beneficiaries of career years that can’t possibly be repeated. While there could be a case made for this on the pitching side (Nate Robertson, possibly Kenny Rogers, and the 5th starter pool) I don’t know exactly who they would be talking about on the offensive side. In fact, I see more room for improvement than decline.

Placido Polanco had a very down year in terms of total production. He still had a decent batting average, but didn’t walk at all and didn’t hit for any power. I expect him to improve. Curtis Granderson is a young player approaching his peak who was productive last year, but I expect him to add more power and a higher batting average as he puts more balls in play. Sean Casey was awful in Detroit last year, and while I don’t expect big production I do expect him to be substantially better than last year.

I expect Craig Monroe, Brandon Inge, Magglio Ordonez, and Ivan Rodriguez to produce similar numbers as last year, so while not improvement I don’t for see a significant drop off either.

The real question is Carlos Guillen. He had an MVP caliber season last year, and has improved his batting average in each of the last 7 seasons. Whether or not he can continue to provide that sort of offense is mostly tied to his injury prone ways. He and Pudge Rodriguez are the linchpins for the team in that they provide considerable value at tough to fill positions. Also, the drop-off from starter to reserve is more pronounced for those 2 than any place else on the team.

And of course the big addition is Gary Sheffield who is fabulous hitter and adds pop to a lineup that doesn’t have too many weak spots.

Now what got the Tigers to the World Series last year was run prevention. The Tigers pitchers and their defense allowed the fewest runs in baseball last year. Their defense alignment remains intact from the beginning of last year, with the exception that Sean Casey will be manning first base instead of Chris Shelton. Don’t underestimate the impact this might have, especially for the right handed starting pitchers.

They were also hoping to return the same rotation, at least until Kenny Rogers went on the disabled list yesterday. This is where the drop-off is likely to occur. Justin Verlander said he isn’t ready yet, and there will be concerns all season about his workload from last year. Nate Robertson was one of the luckier pitchers in baseball last year (in terms of runs allowed, not in terms of wins). It is conceivable that both pitchers could have better walk, strikeout, and homer numbers than last year and still allow more runs. I’m not projecting bad season for them, but I’d say it is more likely that their ERAs are in the low 4’s than the high 3’s.

The Tigers got considerable production from the #5 rotation spot filled by Mike Maroth, Zach Miner, and Wil Ledezma. Replicating that will be tough, although a healthy Mike Maroth is a good bet to contribute 200 innings of league average pitching. Of course in a scenario where Kenny Rogers is on the shelf for an extended period of time, Maroth is no longer the 5th guy. So Rogers absence will have a cascade effect if it is prolonged. Wil Ledezma is the pitcher I’d most like to see step into that role, but that results in a gaping left handed hole in the bullpen.

The one pitcher that I expect to improve will be Jeremy Bonderman. If you look at the peripherals (strike outs/walks/home runs) he was the Tigers best pitcher last year. He once again is trying to refine a change-up that will get him over the hump on those days his fastball and/or slider aren’t working for him.

As for the bullpen, Jamie Walker is the only departure. I’d love to still have him, but Joel Zumaya’s and Fernando Rodney’s success against lefties made it easier to let him go. There is already clamoring for Todd Jones to step out as closer and use one of the set-up men. As a Tigers fan, you should hope that Jones is still closing at the end of the season. If he isn’t that means he’s either been injured or entirely ineffective. I’m not debating who is the better pitcher, just that Jones ability to close out games in the 9th with no one on and no one out frees up Zumaya and Rodney to come into higher pressure situations when a strikeout is required.

As with many teams, the Tigers fortunes will be tied to their ability to stay healthy. The talent is there on both offense and defense to keep the team competitive. But simultaneous injuries to multiple starters, or Guillen, or Rodriguez, or Granderson will probably be too much for the team to overcome.

The Competition

The AL Central is being heavily touted as the toughest division in baseball. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but it probably is the most competitive. I’m not big on writing about other teams, because I just don’t follow them as closely as the Tigers. The result is that when I read other bloggers comment on my team, they come off really uninformed. To try and avoid having the same thing happen, I’m going to keep these pretty short.

Kansas City Royals

The Royals are a big part of the reason that the White Sox, Twins, and Tigers all finished with 90 wins. The Royals were awful last year, but years of suckitude will start to pay off this year with Alex Gordon as the non-Japanese favorite to win the Rookie of the Year. They also look to have a full season of their ace Zach Grienke. Mark Teahen and David DeJesus return as well.

They added Gil Meche in one of the most laughed at contracts of the off season, but he shut down the Tigers last year and has a 3.96 ERA in 63 2/3 career innings against the Tigers.

Chicago White Sox

The White Sox came off their World Series victory, added a big bat to the middle of the lineup (Jim Thome), and hoped to ride their pitching to another post season birth. They got what they wanted from the big bat, plus a career year from Jermaine Dye, but the pitching didn’t do it’s part. Mark Buerhle was poor, Jon Garland got off to a rough start, and Freddy Garcia struggled. That said, they still won 90 games.

They return all their offense plus they’ve added Darrin Erstad to man centerfield instead of Brian Anderson. But the rotation has been retooled. Gone are Freddy Garcia and projected starter Brandon McCarthy. In are youngsters John Danks and Gavin Floyd.

How the new pitchers perform in homer-ville, and whether or not Joe Crede (shudder) and Jermaine Dye can repeat their year will determine how far the White Sox go.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins, the team that everyone writes off each year, and yet they are always in the mix. This year the case for the Twins expected downturn are the absences of Brad Radke and Francisco Liriano. Keep in mind that Radke only threw 162 league average innings last year, which isn’t bad but isn’t great either. And Liriano only was a starter for half a season. The lack of those 2 won’t spell doom for the Twins, but it could be enough to slip them behind a couple othere teams in the division. Especially considering that the replacements are Sidney Ponson and Ramon Ortiz. The Twins fate may be tied to the performance of those 2, and how quickly Matt Garza is inserted should they struggle.

Still, the team does boast the best pitcher in baseball and the most valuable player in the division (Joe Mauer, not Justin Morneau) and little Nick Punto will continue to be a pest. Plus, Rondell White won’t be nearly as awful next year.

Cleveland Indians

If the Royals were a big part of the reason there were 3 90 win teams last year, the Indians did their part as well. A popular pick to win the division last year, a bad bullpen and bad luck kept the Indians at 78 wins. While not as dramatic as the Royals, a team that was 2nd in runs scored and 7th in runs allowed should probably have finished above .500.

They have solid starting pitching, and they return a very potent lineup. Defense and the bullpen would be the only things that could hold the Indians back in 2007.

The Bottom Line

Here’s the part of the preview where I throw out a number for the Tigers wins. Many of the computers and experts peg the Tigers for somewhere between 85 and 90 wins. That’s about the range that I’m working and will go with 89 wins. That should be good enough for first or second place in a division that will beat each other up, and not be able to feast quite as mightily on the Royals and National League Central to pad their win totals.

A couple weeks ago I had broken the AL Central into a couple tiers in an effort to seperate them. I had the Indians and Tigers as the top 2 teams, and the Twins and White Sox as the next 2 teams. It maybe all the computer projections influencing me, but I see the White Sox migrating towards 4th place, and the Twins settling into 3rd. I still don’t see a lot of seperation and expect 4 teams to finish between 80 to 90 wins. Given that, don’t get to worked up about this homer-centric order of finish:
1. Tigers
2. Indians
3. Twins
4. White Sox
5. Royals

The Performances and Accoloades

Some guesses on who will do what…

Team Leaders

Home Runs – Gary Sheffield
RBI – Carlos Guillen
Stolen Bases – Curtis Granderson
Batting Average – Placido Polanco
On base percentage – Gary Sheffield
Slugging Percentage – Marcus Thames

ERA – Jeremy Bonderman
Wins – Nate Robertson
Strike outs – Jeremy Bonderman
Saves – Todd Jones

Who will surprise

Pudge Rodriguez will do surprisingly well in the leadoff role. He’s essentially in a contract year, and I think the chance at leading off will keep him happy.

Who will disappoint

Not sure. Maybe I should have just deleted this heading. I don’t have high expectations for Casey, so I don’t know that he’d disappoint me.

First trip to the DL

Kenny Rogers. Nailed it! But beyond that I’m going to go with Sean Casey or Craig Monroe. Casey because he’s an injury risk, and Monroe because I think that knee problem could require some rest at some point.

First demotion

Bobby Seay. I’m not saying he won’t do okay, just that he was the last one in, and it seems like he could be the first one out.

Major League Debuts

Ryan Raburn (he made his debut in 2004, thanks Jerry), Virgil Vasquez, Kyle Sleeth, and Cameron Maybin. Raburn hit very well this spring and Leyland seemed to like him. He’s not on the 40 man roster so it would require some manipulation to get him there. As for the other 3 I expect that they are brought up in September.

The All Stars

Jeremy Bonderman, Carlos Guillen, and Ivan Rodriguez. None will be elected by the fans as Joe Mauer will get the catcher’s spot. But with Leyland managing he’ll make sure to get his own guys in.

The Award Winners

Brandon Inge cuts down his errors to under 20 and wins a Gold Glove. Pudge picks up another one as well. Jerermy Bonderman finishes in the top 5 in AL Cy Young race with 3 of the top 5 coming from the AL Central.