AL Central preview: Detroit Tigers

AL Central preview: Detroit Tigers

March 28, 2013, 7:45 pm
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JJ Stankevitz

The reigning American League champions enter 2013 with a loaded lineup and deep starting rotation. Are there any weaknesses that could lead a team to challenge them for the division crown?

2012 retrospective

It’s easy to forget Detroit was behind the White Sox and Cleveland at the All-Star break, sitting at a middling 44-42. The team everyone expected to run away with the AL Central was lagging behind, with a good-not-great offense and an average pitching staff.

[Related: AL Central preview: Cleveland Indians]

Detroit’s pitching improved its ERA by half a run in the second half (4.00 to 3.50), while Miguel Cabrera came up with plenty of big hits in a late-season charge -- Detroit went 34-24 after July 31 en route to the AL Central crown. The Tigers reached the World Series for the second time in the last decade, but were swept by San Francisco.

Who’s leaving

LHP Daniel Schlereth, OF Delmon Young, C Gerald Laird, RHP Jose Valverde

While Detroit will enter 2013 without a designated closer, not retaining Valverde isn't likely to sink their ship. The animated right-hander only struck out 6.34 batters per nine innings last year, a significant dropoff from his 9.91 K/9 career average. His ERA jumped from 2.24 to 3.78, too -- a leap not too surprising given his 3.53 career FIP -- and he blew five regular-season saves. In his final three appearances with the club, Valverde allowed nine runs in 1 2/3 ALCS and World Series innings.

Young had a .296 OBP and played below-average defense, making him easily replaceable along with Schlereth and Laird.

Who’s arriving

C Brayan Pena, OF Torii Hunter

These two signings don’t paint a complete picture. Detroit re-signed right-hander Anibal Sanchez for 5 years and $80 million, and also brought back shortstop Jhonny Peralta and reliever Octavio Dotel, all key members of the team’s World Series run last year.

Hunter is a major upgrade in Detroit’s outfield, even if he regresses from the .310/.365/.451 line he posted with the Angels in 2012. Keeping Sanchez around helps solidify what looks like the division’s best rotation, as the right-hander will re-join Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello as part of a deep staff. Dotel will be counted on for high-leverage situations in the seventh or eighth with Al Alburquerque, Joaquin Benoit and Phil Coke splitting ninth-inning duties, at least for the beginning of the season.

[Related: AL Central Preview: Minnesota Twins]

And there’s another addition Detroit will get that’s not listed above, that being Victor Martinez. The catcher/first baseman/DH missed all of 2012 after an offseason ACL injury, and the career .303/.370/.469 hitter will add even more depth to a fearsome lineup.

Season outlook

Detroit has been pegged by almost every prognosticator as the clear favorite to win the AL Central, and on paper that’s a safe call. A lineup featuring Austin Jackson, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Martinez and Hunter will be incredibly tough on opposing pitchers, and a deep starting rotation led by a perennial Cy Young candidate gives the Tigers a fantastic team on paper.

But there are questions in Detroit’s bullpen -- 22-year-old Bruce Rondon failed to win Jim Leyland’s closer job and was optioned to Triple-A Thursday. They’ll go with a closer-by-committee approach early on, which could wind up being successful if Leyland plays it right. Or -- and this may seem obvious -- it could be a complete disaster if Alburquerque, Benoit and Coke struggle in the absence of defined roles.

Detroit doesn’t play great defense, either, although that wasn’t detrimental to their success last year.

Ultimately, it’s reasonable to expect the Tigers to be better than they were last year, given the relative lack of departures and the players brought back into the fold. Chances are, 88 victories won’t win the division again in 2013.