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.

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2010 AL Second Basemen

Robinson Cano – NYY (118.3 Runs Created, 33.3 Runs Saved = 151.6 Total Runs Productivity)

Orlando Hudson is a very good second baseman.  Robinson Cano was nearly TWICE as productive as Hudson.  Power, range, doesn’t swing at bad pitches…  My pick for AL MVP, and he might get better.  Just entering his prime…

Orlando Hudson – MIN (65.9 Runs Created, 16.3 Runs Saved = 82.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Did exactly what you would expect – hits well and can bat first or second in the lineup (you’d rather have him hit second), fields the position as well as you could hope.  Not an all-star, but right below that line – and the kind of guy who can help you win championships.

Howie Kendrick – LAA (87.7 Runs Created, -10.4 Runs Saved = 77.3 Total Runs Productivity)

A very useful player who played every day, produced enough with the bat (5.1 runs per 27 outs), but needs a little work with the glove.  He’s NOT a top of the order hitter so long as his OBA is .316, but you could bat him from the seventh to the ninth spot and not do too badly with him.

Mike Aviles – KC (61.4 Runs Created, 15.8 Runs Saved = 77.2 Total Runs Productivity)

Came back from a disappointing 2009 to look like his superstar self from 2008.  Batted for average and mid-range power, fields his position extremely well, and remains one of the best players on the Royals.  Needs to stay healthy – if he does, the Royals have a top flight #2 hitter.

Ian Kinsler – TEX (62.4 Runs Created, 8.0 Runs Saved = 70.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The new Mark Ellis.  Hits, has power, gets on base, can run, fields the position really well, can’t stay in the lineup.

Mark Ellis – OAK (62.8 Runs Created, 3.5 Runs Saved = 66.3 Total Runs Productivity)

Turns 34 in June, Mark Ellis’s body may not help him make it to 2014.  Still a decent enough hitter, but his power is leaving him, and his range – once solid – is now a smidge above average.  The A’s are getting better and you’d like to see Ellis get one more shot at the post season.

Sean Rodriguez – TB (49.2 Runs Created, 15.2 Runs Saved = 64.4 Total Runs Productivity)

The kid came up, played all over the field as Ben Zobrist had before him, and proved himself to be a very valuable player.  Sean Rodriguez settled in at second base and was rock solid there, and with his decent power earned a chance to be the starter for all of 2011.  I like him.

Dustin Pedroia – BOS (55.4 Runs Created, -0.8 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Productivity)

Missed half the season after fouling a ball off his left foot and breaking it, requiring surgery.  On pace for 25 homers and 50 doubles, despite a brutal May, Pedroia is one of the best offensive forces in the league.  Bill Hall played a lot of second base after Pedroia went down, and not badly.  However, even with Hall’s power, he’s not the run producer that Pedroia is.  Jed Lowrie is a better fielder, but he can’t hit like DP either.  In the years Dustin plays 130+ games, the Sox make the playoffs – so you know what Boston is rooting for…

Reid Brignac – TB (40.3 Runs Created, 14.3 Runs Saved = 54.6 Total Runs Productivity)

A very good season defensively and a pretty good season offensively, he earned a chance to be the regular shortstop and allowed the Rays to trade a declining Jason Bartlett.  With Evan Longoria and Rodriguez throwing to a dependable first baseman, this could be the best defensive infield in baseball for 2011.

Gordon Beckham – CHI (51.0 Runs Created, 8.4 Runs Saved = 59.4 Total Runs Productivity)

Offensively, Beckham was off, barely creating four runs per 27 outs.  Defensively, having switched over from third base, he was fantastic.  For Beckham to really help the White Sox, he needs to create 75 or more runs, the way he seemed to be capable of in 2009.  Otherwise, he’s rather ordinary.  He is, however, better than Chris Getz.

Chone Figgins – SEA (78.4 Runs Created, -33.3 Runs Saved = 45.1 Total Runs Productivity)

Never really looked comfortable with the switch to second after spending much of the last few years at third base, and his batting stats predictably fell off after his remarkable 2009 season.  I think he’ll be better in 2011, but still isn’t one of the five best second base options in the AL.

Aaron Hill – TOR (55.2 Runs Created, -14.5 Runs Saved = 40.7 Total Runs Productivity)

Chone Figgins without the position change.  Fell to earth, crashed really, after an amazing 2009, and brought his struggles to the field with him.  I think he’ll bounce back, but looking at his baseball card, you’ll always do a double take comparing the two seasons.

Carlos Guillen – DET (35.3 Runs Created, 4.3 Runs Saved = 39.6 Total Runs Productivity)

A stop gap option after Scott Sizemore skidded to Toledo, at least until his body broke down, Guillen used to be a good shortstop, a good left fielder, and could be a good second baseman.  On the other hand, he’s 35 and is really best suited to be a DH – and Detroit has DH options.  So, Guillen – assuming he has a good chiropractor and trainer – could be a utility guy, getting 450 productive at bats all over the field.  In the last year of his contract, so let’s see if he can keep it together and help the Tigers…

Jayson Nix – CLE (35.0 Runs Created, 1.8 Runs Saved = 36.8 Total Runs Productivity)

He could be a new Dan Uggla if the Indians wanted to go that way – he hits for power, doesn’t do badly at the position, and I’d let him play there if they found a good option at third base.

Will Rhymes – DET (28.0 Runs Created, 6.2 Runs Saved = 34.2 Total Runs Productivity)

The best of the Tigers three second baseman, Rhymes hit .304, had an acceptable slugging and fielding percentage, and played the position well – all the things Detroit thought that Scott Sizemore could do.  Should have first dibs at the position in 2011 – though he’s a bit old for a rookie, turning 28 on April Fool’s Day.

Luis Valbuena – CLE (20.2 Runs Created, 6.5 Runs Saved = 26.7 Total Runs Productivity)

A disappointing season with the bat, batting under the Mendoza line.  I think he’ll be a bit better, but he’ll never be much of a run producer, limiting him to a career as a utility infielder.

Julio Lugo – BAL (20.0 Runs Created, 5.6 Runs Saved = 25.6 Total Runs Productivity)

He’s still around, can help by playing four positions, but can’t hit enough to be more than a good utility guy.  Might have one more year left, but I wouldn’t bet on 2012.

Jason Donald – CLE (36.7 Runs Created, -11.9 Runs Saved = 24.8 Total Runs Productivity)

If he had a more discerning eye, he could be the new Brian Roberts.  Offensively, Donald doesn’t hurt you, but he didn’t show the type of range needed at either second or short.  Both could improve, however, and the Indians would be finding a way to move the team in the right direction.  I’d be surprised if he doesn’t get a better chance in 2011.  Working against him, he’s rather old for a rookie and will turn 27 when the season is over.

Brian Roberts – BAL (32.6 Runs Created, -17.1 Runs Saved = 15.5 Total Runs Productivity)

Injured at the beginning of the season, then perpetually on the trading block.  I know he’s not a very good defensive player, but how many really good leadoff hitters are out there?  I’d make him the new Paul Molitor.  If he can stay healthy, and at 33 his back is going to bother him from time to time, he’s got a shot at 100 runs scored – and that’s a valuable commodity.

Mark Grudzielanek – CLE (10.5 Runs Created, 3.3 Runs Saved = 13.8 Total Runs Productivity)

Had 30 hits and all were singles.  At 40, not sure if he’ll be back, but he can still play second base a little bit.  He MIGHT be your favorite team’s next manager one day.

Chris Getz – KC (21.1 Runs Created, -8.4 Runs Saved = 12.7 Total Runs Productivity)

An alleged glove man who hasn’t shown that at the major league level, and he can’t hit.  Will be a short term utility guy, but you’d rather have someone who does SOMETHING.  Maybe someone who plays four positions well defensively (Alfredo Amezaga), or someone who can play the positions poorly, but hits enough to let it slide from time to time and can pinch hit (Jeff Treadway).  Getz can’t do either.

Scott Sizemore – DET (14.4 Runs Created, -10.9 Runs Saved = 3.5 Total Runs Productivity)

This wasn’t what Detroit had in mind – the man chosen to replace Placido Polanco didn’t hit and didn’t field as well as had been hoped and wound up back in Toledo for 2010.  Compared to Rhymes, he has always been a bit better hitter with a better eye, comparable speed, and a bit more power. He’s also 26.  However, Rhymes did the job.  Sizemore will likely get another chance, but at this point, he can’t afford to blow it.