One way of measuring the Tigers against the other AL Central teams is to judge which of those opposing players could crack Detroit’s lineup. These guys aren’t necessarily “better than,” but I would argue that they are all “as good as” or darned close. (This kind of comparison doesn’t really work for pitching staffs; if you disagree, by all means have a go at it yourself.)
C Joe Mauer* (TWINS), Carlos Santana (INDIANS), Salvador Perez (ROYALS)
2B Jason Kipnis (INDIANS)
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (INDIANS), Alcides Escobar (ROYALS), Alexei Ramirez (WHITE SOX)
LF Josh Willingham (TWINS), Alex Gordon (ROYALS), Michael Brantley (INDIANS)
CF Michael Bourn (INDIANS)
DH Billy Butler (ROYALS)
Clearly, the Tigers have the best overall lineup. Defense is being considered here as well as hitting, in case you’re wondering. (The White Sox, however, deserve some honorable mentions in 1B Paul Konerko and their OF of Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro De Aza, and Alex Rios.) But Detroit thoroughly outclasses the rest of the division at only (or “only”) 3 positions. Close to it at 3 more, however. Yeah. Strong lineup. (The 900-run lineup, possibly.)
* Joe Mauer hasn’t been anything close to a full-time catcher since 2010, but a healthy Mauer gets the nod over Alex Avila. Admit it.
What does pitching (measured by team ERA) mean in the AL Central? Well, from 2008-2012, the division winner had the best team ERA 4 out of 5 times, and the ERA ranking matched the team’s position in the final standings 21 out of 25 times (I called the 2009 last place tie a wash), and the only somewhat significant flip-flop was 1st for 3rd in 2009.
Bullpens are volatile. I won’t attempt any detailed breakdown. (You try it.) On paper, Cleveland and Kansas City appear to come into the season with the best frontline bullpens, and the Tigers are in the muddle with the other 2 teams. On the other hand, the Tigers’ only rival for bullpen depth appears to be the White Sox. The bullpen shouldn’t be a weakness for Detroit, certainly. But bullpens are volatile.
No detailed breakdown is necessary to assert with confidence that the Detroit Tigers have the best starting rotation in the division. But I’ll line up ranked 1-5 starters (best on down, regardless of designated order position) to see who wins the statistical head-to-head just the same, TIGERS-ROYALS-WHITE SOX-TWINS-INDIANS:
* Currently on DL.
Certainly Jake Peavy, Chris Sale, and James Shields give their Tigers counterparts a bit of a run for their money. (JV? A bit, I said.) But it’s not home bias that makes me call the Tigers starters the unequivocal class of the division. Kansas City and Chicago run a rather distant second. On paper, only a divisional All-Star rotation (Shields-Peavy-Sale-Santana-umm…-Diamond or Danks or Davis, let’s say) could compete. There again, paper doesn’t get sore or injured. Let us hope for unusual good fortune as far as the flesh and blood arms (and other parts) of all Tigers pitchers are concerned.
There isn’t much correlation between team defensive statistics and making the playoffs. The Tigers had a remarkably bad defensive year in 2012 by a number of measures (check out team DP, rTot, and DefEff on baseball-reference – ugh). From 2008 to 2010, Detroit was actually quite strong defensively. 2011 was poor (went to ALCS) and 2012 was abysmal (went to WS) – go figure. While the Chicago White Sox appear to be the class of the division in defense, and any of the other teams are possibly superior to the Tigers, let’s not worry about it. Poor defense taxes pitching, true, but the Tigers won 88 in 2012 regardless, and with Infante and Hunter added, the defense will unquestionably be better.
Now, since the only gateway to the playoffs from the AL Central would seem to be winning the division – and consider the “Astros Effect” this season, which could well send as many as 3 teams from the AL West to playoff spots – it would help and possibly behoove the Tigers to beat up on their divisional rivals, to the tune of 50-26, say. (They were 50-22 in 2011.) But is there really a correlation between how the Tigers fare in the division and how they finish in the standings? In a word, yes. From 2008 to 2012, Detroit has played very close to .500 ball outside the division each and every season (and something like .501 cumulatively). The divisional record has made the difference, best records corresponding exactly to best finishes. So, I’m counting on the Tigers to make the following happen:
DET 99-63 (let’s not get greedy)
KCR 85-77 (held back from glory only by those mean, mean Tigers)
CLE 83-79 (ah, my kingdom for a starting rotation)
MIN 79-83 (the Miracle Twins)
CHW 70-92 (sometimes standing pat bodes ill)
This (the part that counts, anyway) will require a 49-37 record against the rest of MLB. Doable? Imagine the Tigers blowing through Houston (7 games) and Miami (3 games), and yes, I think it is.
Your AL Central outlook and predictions?