2011 Season Forecast: Detroit Tigers

Last Five Seasons:

2010:  81 – 81
2009:  86 – 77
2008:  74 – 88
2007:  88 – 74
2006:  95 – 67

Has it been that long since Kenny Rogers was doctoring baseballs in the World Series?

More to the current team – last year the Tigers were 52 – 29 at home, and 29 – 52 on the road, with comparable splits in terms of runs scored/allowed.  The Tigers were +82 in runs at home, and – 74 in runs on the road.

Runs Scored: 751  (8th in the AL)
Runs Allowed: 743  (10th in the AL)

You’d think that a team that was below average in offense and defense would have a record slightly below .500, but the Tigers held on for dear life to stay at .500.

Season Recap:

The Tigers were picked by many to compete for the AL Central crown, but most people had them second or third.  After a reasonably good April, the Tigers gave back games in May, won a few more than they lost in June, and then just kind of stayed just off the fringe of the race until August.  By then, they had lost Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Guillen.  The Scott Sizemore experiment was a disaster, which didn’t help, and despite the best efforts of Miguel Cabrera, the offense couldn’t deliver down the stretch.

The Tigers were a team that got on rolls – good and bad.  They would win a bunch of games and make a run to the top.  Five of six off the start, six in a row in early May, eight of nine against Pittsburgh, Washington and Arizona (I mean – WOW – Detroit had an easy interleague schedule) to move to 37 – 29.  The fourth streak, in early July, put the Tigers at 48 – 37 one day before the All-Star break.  Unfortunately, the Tigers lost all momentum – losing seven in a row and 20 of 25 to fall out of the race by early August.  Toward the end of the season, Detroit rattled off eight wins in nine games to get to 80 – 75, but lost six in a row and had to win the last game of the season to get to .500.

Starters:

Justin Verlander is a legitimate ace, saving his team 20 runs over league average pitching and winning 67% of his decisions.  Max Scherzer, acquired from Arizona, is a solid #2 starter and was a start away from 200 innings, which he should make in 2011.  Rick Porcello wasn’t as good as hoped, but there are things to build on.  Armando Galarraga, he of the perfect game that wasn’t, was a moderately below average pitcher in part because he, like Porcello, pitches too much to contact and doesn’t miss bats with pitches.  Jeremy Bonderman made a comeback season, but in a painful way – an ERA of 5.53 pitching in a decent pitcher’s park and with a reasonably good defense behind him – he was 32 runs worse than an average starter of his 171 innings.  An extra run a start.  Ouch.  Two others made a few starts, Dontrelle Willis – who is gone – and Andrew Oliver, who should be back in AAA.

Looking ahead, Verlander, Scherzer, and Porcello return, to be joined by reliever Phil Coke – a decent middle reliever – and former quality starter, Brad Penny.  I’ve always been a fan of Penny’s (works very fast, throws strikes), but I don’t know if his body can handle the load.  He’s turning into Rick Reuschel, which can’t be good either.  However, he’s a better bet to be successful than Jeremy Bonderman.  The problem may be finding a sixth starter option.

Relievers:

The bullpen is led by closer Jose Valverde, a very good finisher, and imported setup man, Joaquin Benoit – a shut down 8th inning option.  After that, Joel Zumaya is still around (albeit a chance to get injured), and a few others are there to mop up, including Daniel Schlereth (a decent enough lefty with gobs of upside), Ryan Perry, and Brad Thomas or Eddie Bonine.

Catching:

Alex Avila earned the job full time, and his backup will be DH Victor Martinez.  Avila has tolerable defensive skills, but needs to step up some with the batting average – which would start with striking out less.

Infield:

Miguel Cabrera is arguably the best hitter in baseball, and last year seemed to have beaten whatever demons befell him at the end of 2009.  Of course, he blew that heading to spring training, but he should still be able to hit the ball in 2011.  The Tigers missed Placido Polanco, a solid defensive player who chipped in by hitting around .300.  Last year, Scott Sizemore earned a shot, but gave it away by showing less than acceptable range and hitting .224 and striking out about 28% of the time.  Carlos Guillen played a little at second before his body gave way and Will Rhymes took over.  In the minors, Rhymes was never Sizemore’s equal in terms of being a prospect, but at the majors, Rhymes was a better fielder and hitter. Looking ahead, the same three guys are back – and someone will have to back up Guillen when he breaks down in June or July.  (Look, I like Guillen, but this is what happens when you get old.  If he plays 140 games, the Tigers will benefit greatly, but I don’t know that he can do it.)  Jhonny Peralta returns to play short for the full year – not a solid defender anymore but can still put some runs on the board.  Brandon Inge returns to play third base – fielding well, hitting a few homers, but otherwise being an ordinary player.

Looking at this, the problem is that the front four are (a) on the down side of their career, or (b) trying to age faster than he has to by adding weight and drinking heavily.  This can’t be a good sign if you are a Tigers fan.

Outfield:

Austin Jackson was fantastic last year – a lot of hits, decent defense, and flashes of brilliant speed (10 triples, 27 stolen bases).  He is among the best centerfielders in the AL.  Right fielder Magglio Ordonez is getting long in the tooth, still can hit, but his defense is problematic.  And he can’t DH as much as you’d want because Victor Martinez was brought in to be the DH.  In left, either Ryan Raburn or Brennan Boesch, who are essentially the same player, will get to play.  Raburn is marginally better – higher average, slightly better glove – but you wouldn’t complain (as a pitcher) if your outfield were Raburn, Jackson, and Boesch.

DH:

Did I mention that Victor Martinez was brought in to be the DH?  He replaces Johnny Damon, who heads to Tampa because everyone from the east heads to Florida to retire.  Martinez should contribute more than Damon, but not a TON more.  Martinez played in Boston and generated about 83.4 runs of offense, while Damon played in Detroit and generated 79.7 runs.

Down on the Farm:

Alfredo Figaro looked like the best pitching prospect at AAA Toledo, but even with a decent W/L record and K/W data, his ERA was the same as the team average and when he got a cup of coffee with the big club, he was treated rudely by batters.  The best hitters are on the Tigers – Scott Sizemore and Will Rhymes.  Not a lot of immediate help here…

Heading to AA Erie, the most interesting person there might be outfielder Brandon Douglas.  He has NO power.  None.  What he has is amazing contact skills and has hit .331 in his several stops in the minors.  I can’t tell how good a fielder he is – he’s bounced around between second and short, which means he’s a second baseman in the bigs.  If he’s ANY good at all, in a year or two he could be the next Placido Polanco.

Another guy who could be interesting is pitcher Adam Wilk.  Wilk made 14 starts in low A ball after coming out of Long Beach State and struck out 67 and walked just seven batters.  He had comparable numbers at A+ Lakeland (100Ks, 19 walks in 24 starts), and then slid into AA for three starts – and all were successful.  He’s not making the Tigers in 2011, but he COULD make the team in 2012 and be a good fourth or third starter.

Last year’s #1 pick Jacob Turner did what you wanted to see in his first year of professional ball, and will likely start 2011 in A+ Lakeland before moving to Erie mid-season.  Second round pick Andrew Oliver is moving quickly through the system and was given a cup of coffee in 2010 with the parent club.

Season Forecast:

I’m not convinced that Detroit will compete.  Inge, Guillen, Peralta, and even Cabrera are candidates to regress from 2010.  That could be 20 runs defensively and 40 runs offensively.  The outfield will stay the same – the gains in center field and possibly left are offset by the potential losses in right field.  Then you get to the pitching staff, and I don’t see how Coke is better than Galarraga and even though Penny is better than Bonderman – how many starts will that be?  10?  20?  30?  The sixth starter option doesn’t appeal to me – so if it’s 10, the pitching won’t be much better in 2011 than it was last year.

Given this, I think the Tigers will score about 720 runs and allow about 760, which is about 77 wins.  It’s not too unreasonable to think it could be worse, especially if Cabrera misses a significant amount of time or plays below the level we are used to seeing.  This team could injure it’s way out and suffer through six months that were as bad as the Tigers were in July and August.  That’s a 70 – 90 team.

Where can you find optimism?  Brad Penny making 30 starts, Rick Porcello getting a bit better, Guillen and Ordonez not only maintaining batting skills but playing 130 games each, and Ryan Raburn bouncing up in his numbers.  If ALL those things happened, the Tigers could win 85 games.  I just think that’s a lot to ask for.

2010 – Top AL Catchers

Joe Mauer (MIN) – 99.3 runs created

Mauer wasn’t 100%, but he’s still amazing.  Defensively, he has few peers and offensively he’s a solid #3 hitter.  His power was off – just nine homers – and his batting average fell with the league, but he remained a threat to win the batting title.  Backup Drew Butera was solid, too – cutting down 43% of would be base stealers.  Of course, Butera hits like Sal Butera – which isn’t very good.

Victor Martinez (BOS) – 83.4 runs created

Martinez and Jason Varitek remained solid as a team behind the plate, being way below average against the run (80% success rate and 169 stolen bases allowed) and not necessarily being that mobile – though who really bunts against the Sox, anyway.  Martinez hit well here, batting .302 with 20 homers, and Varitek had surprisingly good power in limited plate appearances.  Martinez is gone now, leaving Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Jason Varitek as top options, which will hurt the Sox offensively in 2011.  Saltalamacchia has never hit that well – and Varitek isn’t going to hit .275 anytime soon.  Let’s hope that Salty has beaten his phobia of throwing back to the pitcher…

Mike Napoli (LAA) 73.1 runs created

Jeff Mathis is supposedly the stronger defensive catcher – but Napoli was actually better against the run and made slightly fewer mistakes.  Mathis is definitely a cleaner catcher – far more mobile, but not a world beater with the bat.  Bobby Wilson got 29 starts and wasn’t awful, didn’t impress me with either his mobility or arm, but he might be able to hit a little.  As a group, they were well below average and partly to blame for not winning the division in 2010.  Offensively, Mike Napoli has power and produces runs, and held down first base when Kendry Morales went down to that freak broken leg.  Mathis hit like Lou Marson (see below) in fewer at bats.  Will Hank Conger win the job in spring training?

John Buck (TOR) – 61.7 runs created

Now a Marlin, John Buck was dependable, decent against the run, didn’t make too many errors, and generally mobile.  The pitching was surprisingly good and Toronto had a winning record.  Defensively, for this position, it was a lot of positives.  Backup Jose Molina was awesome against the run (44% caught stealing), and Buck was pretty good.  Rookie J.P. Arencibia gets the nod for 2011, and he didn’t look so bad either.  By the way, Buck had his best offensive season, too – hitting .281 and slugging 20 homers.  His weakness?  He doesn’t walk at all.

Jorge Posada/Francisco Cervelli (NYY) – 57.9 runs created

Innings split nearly down the middle, Posada is aging (he doesn’t LOOK old, but he’s playing old), but Cervelli isn’t the answer either.  Neither can stop the run, though Cervelli is younger and, therefore, more mobile.  The pitching isn’t happy with the catching either.  As a hitter, Cervelli is learning, and marginally below average, but not awful; he also isn’t seen as the next Yogi Berra either.  Posada did what we would have expected to do – which is lose a little in his batting average, though he still gets on base and hits for some power.  Jesus Montero will have this job as soon as he is ready.

Kurt Suzuki (OAK) – 57.1 runs created

Suzuki remains a decent catcher, though he’s not very good against the run anymore.  Backup Landon Powell is better against the run, but needs to remove some of his mistakes – which will come with time.  As a duo, they weren’t very good – not very mobile, and slightly above average in terms of making mistakes.  Suzuki still hits a little, but it’s a little less and he’s now below average.  He’s still better than Landon Powell.

John Jaso (TB) – 54.2 runs created

Jaso is young and gets on base – much like his Florida Marlins counterpart, John Baker.  In fact, he got on base enough that Joe Maddon let him bat leadoff from time to time.  Dioner Navarro is the best catcher of this group, but his weight is problematic and he isn’t hitting.  Kelly Shoppach doesn’t look like he’ll be in the league very long and should start brushing up on his coaching skills instead.

A.J. Pierzynski (CHISOX) – 52.4 runs created

Pierzynski is starting to get old, but he’s a good kind of old – just good enough against the run, few mistakes, and keeping the pitching staff on point – though he has a good set of pitchers to work with.  His offense fell off to where his power slipped and his OBP is woeful (.301).  Backup Ramon Castro isn’t half bad, and the man can hit (.278/.504/.331).  He could easily be a DH if the Sox wanted, and I’d be tempted to let him play more.

Matt Wieters (BAL) – 51.4 runs created

The Orioles future is now with Matt Wieters assuming the starting role full time.  As a team, Oriole catching rates as slightly above average, with the young Wieters being mobile, and making few errors or passed balls.  The TEAM was below average in terms of the stolen base percentage, but Wieters wasn’t the problem, nabbing 24 of 77 runners.  Craig Tatum was horrible here, allowing 25 of 27 runners to reach the next base.  Offensively, Wieters didn’t amaze as we had been led to believe, but there were a few positives, including 11 homers in 446 at bats.  I think he’s going to be better.  Tatum had a nice batting average (.281), but he didn’t do much with those singles.

Jason Kendall (KC) – 43.6 runs created

You want to know why the Royals are never going to win?  Who was responsible for letting John Buck go to Toronto (where Toronto suddenly had the best overall catching in the league), and replacing him with the ancient, impotent, and immobile Jason Kendall?  Kendall can still throw a little, but the rest of his game is lacking.  Brayan Pena should have been given this job from the outset.  Pena is a better hitter, a better athlete, and has upside.

Alex Avila/Gerald Laird (DET) – 32.3 runs created

Laird is a really good catcher with solid skills, good with pitchers, good against the run, relatively mistake free.  Avila is nearly his equal and played 86 more innings.  Neither hit – but Avila was closer to league average than Laird, who seems to have lost his bat altogether – explaining why Avila got more time behind the plate.  If Avila can step up a bit – maybe .260 and slugging .400 – this would be a positive.  He’ll be a backup, though, as Victor Martinez will take on a load of catching in 2011.

Lou Marson (CLE) – 22.4 runs created

As a team, Indian catchers were average – but the young guys were good in terms of avoiding mistakes and making the throws.  The veteran backup, Mike Redmond, struggled against baserunners (see Craig Tatum, BAL, above).  I’ve always been a Marson fan, but if his bat doesn’t improve soon (.195 with no power), he’ll become the new Paul Bako.  You think the Indians miss Victor Martinez?

Matt Treanor/Bengie Molina (TEX) – 20.5 runs created

A few years ago, it looked like Texas had all the good young catchers.  Saltalamacchia is gone, Taylor Teagarden has been disappointing, Max Ramirez isn’t the answer yet, leaving veteran Matt Treanor as the best of the lot.  It was so bad, the Rangers imported Bengie Molina from the Giants down the stretch, and he wasn’t much better than Treanor – though he was more mobile.  Nobody hit here, so the addition of Mike Napoli and Yorvit Torrealba will help immensely.

Adam Moore/Rob Johnson (SEA) – 14.9 runs created

Josh Bard got 300 innings, too – nobody had more than 515 innings at the position in 2010.  Moore wasn’t very good against the run and he isn’t very mobile.  If he has room to grow, that’s news to me.  Rob Johnson was good against the run and more mobile, but his health record looks like Medicare’s worst nightmare.  Bard can catch, but that’s about it.  As a team, among the worst catching in the league.  Only Bard hit above .200, and he hit .214.  Not good at all…

Add Brian Matusz to Your Fantasy Roster; And Do They Teach Geography to USC Football Players?

Did I hear that correctly?  Chris Mortensen is interviewing Clay Matthews, Jr., the USC “grad” who was drafted by Green Bay.  When asked about the difference between SoCAL and Green Bay, Matthews said he had to go to the internet and look up Green Bay – he didn’t know that Green Bay was in Wisconsin.  Really?

The Angels are on a great run – without Torii Hunter and Vlad Guerrero – and now those guys are coming back…  Guerrero was activated from the DL (calf, hamstring injuries to the left leg) and is getting at bats in the DH slot.  [SI]

Twins starter Kevin Slowey had successful surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow and expects to be ready for spring training.   What should make everyone nervous is that Francisco Liriano missed a start with forearm stiffness and is going to make a go of it on Tuesday.  Not that Liriano has been that good in 2009, but if he goes down, so do the chances of the Twins sneaking into the playoffs.  [SI]

Newly acquired Red Scott Rolen had a CT scan on his head and checked out as normal – though he still hasn’t played since getting hit by a Jason Marquis pitch in the head on Sunday.  [SI]

Speaking of third basemen who used to be really, really good…  Troy Glaus hoped to return to the Cardinals in August, but a bulging disc in his back shut down his rehab.  He now hopes to play in September.  [SI]

The Mets can’t keep anyone healthy – and now comes word that Luis Castillo had to leave last night’s game against the Cardinals when he fell down the dugout steps and injured his ankle.  Castillo is day-to-day…  [ESPN]

Lance Berkman’s calf isn’t ready, so don’t look for him to return to the Astros when his DL stint ends this week.  [MLB]

San Diego released Mark Prior, whose rehab hasn’t been as successful as anyone had hoped.  Very sad…

Welcome Back!  Seattle returns Adrian Beltre from the DL, while Wilkin Ramirez got a quick shot to be on the Tigers roster – and was promptly sent back down to Toledo…

Hurry Back!  The Cubs placed Andres Blanco on the DL with a calf strain.  Bobby Wilson and Chris Woodward were dispatched to AAA with the return of other players…

Welcome to the Bigs!  Alex Avila gets a cup of coffee with Detroit.  Avila is a catching prospect with some power and patience at the plate.  He was recalled from AA Erie, and he’s not totally ready for the bigs, but he looks like he can play some…  The Alabama grad was a fifth round draft pick in 2008, and could make Baseball America’s Top Ten in the Tigers Chain list soon.  Brian Matusz was undefeated at AA Bowie, so Baltimore decided to give the kid a shot last night – and now Matusz is undefeated with the Orioles…   That makes Matusz the fifth rookie bird to win his first game in 2009.  Matusz was a first round pick out of the University of San Diego and has awesome stuff – strikes people out, has a breaking ball that moves, and hardly walks anyone (last night’s effort not withstanding).  If Earl Weaver had his way, Matusz would hang in long relief for a year or two before moving into the rotation in 2011 and turning into Scott McGregor if not Jim Palmer.   If you can, get this kid on your fantasy roster soon.

Afterthoughts…  Jayhawk alum Tom Gorzelanny started and got the win for Chicago last night, allowing just one earned in 7-plus innings…  I admit it – I bleed Crimson and Blue…