Five Questions: Detroit Tigers

It’s kind of nice writing the Detroit Tigers preview this year. Instead of asking questions like “How bad are the Tigers going to be?” I get to examine a team with only a few holes and a ton of hope. After one of the greatest turnarounds in baseball history, the Tigers went from 119 losses in 2003 to American League champs in 2006. The question is, can they keep it up?

Will Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya be able to duplicate their rookie seasons?

There’s no doubt that a lot of the Tigers’ success in 2006 was due to their two rookie pitchers. Justin Verlander pitched like a veteran, and while his strikeout total wasn’t as high as you’d expect from a guy who touches 100 mph, he kept his walk total down and he finished with the second-best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) on the team (4.45) next to Jeremy Bonderman’s spectacular 3.31 FIP. The end result was the most wins by a Tiger rookie since Mark “The Bird” Fidrych in 1976 and the American League Rookie of the Year award.

The problem with Verlander could turn out to be the number of innings he threw in 2006. He tossed 186 innings during the regular season and then another 21 2/3 innings in the postseason. He admitted this spring that he hit a wall late last year and a lot was made about how the White Sox starters finally paid late in 2006 for all of the innings they threw in 2005 when they won the World Series. There’s definitely a chance that Verlander could go through at best a mild dip in his numbers to at worst a full blown sophomore slump. He’s already struggled a bit this spring (nine hits, three walks and nine earned runs in five spring innings) so it will bear watching to see whether Verlander can bounce back by the time the real games start in April.

Joel Zumaya probably has a little bit of an easier time replicating his outstanding 2006 season (97 strikeouts in 83.3 innings with a 1.94 ERA), but you have to be concerned about a guy who goes out there on short notice and goes all out like he does. Zumaya missed some time both at the end of the regular season and during the playoffs in 2006. Whether it was due to excessive time playing Guitar Hero or whether it was just too many 100 mph fastballs in too short of time span, you have to wonder how long Zumaya will be able to keep this up. It looks like his future is in the bullpen now, but he could go a long way towards extending his pitching life by taking a little bit off some of those fastballs, especially when he doesn’t necessarily need the strikeout.

Will Jeremy Bonderman win the 2007 Cy Young award?

While Kenny Rogers and Verlander got most of the spotlight in 2006, it was Bonderman who quietly put together a top-notch season. He was the first Tiger pitcher since Jack Morris in 1987 to touch the 200 strikeout mark and he did it while walking only 64 batters. And while he won only 14 games, he was second in the American League in FIP (3.31) to Cy Young winner Johan Santana.

Now everyone thinks this is THE year for Bonderman and he’ll finally put it together, and while I think he’s going to have a great year, he still has to out pitch Santana, which nobody has been able to do the past three years. His best chance would be if he gets a ton of run support and wins 22-23 games like Bartolo Colon did in 2005, which is a pretty tall task. Regardless, it’s nice to hear people mentioning a Tiger pitcher and Cy Young in the same sentence.

Will Gary Sheffield help the Tigers offense in 2007?

This is the easiest question of the bunch and the answer is an emphatic “yes.” You’re talking about a guy who’s walked over 300 more times than he’s struck out in his career (1,293 walks versus 971 strikeouts) and someone who can completely mash the ball. I know he was hurt most of last year and he’s had nagging injuries throughout his career, but he’ll be getting most of his time as the designated hitter, so he should be in the lineup most days. And prior to his injury-filled 2006 season, he finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting in his league the previous three seasons, so this isn’t a guy who’s lost his stroke late in his career.

Sheffield should see most of his time in the third spot in the lineup. I expect him to both score and drive in 100 runs, although I can definitely see a slight dip in his home run total because he has to play in pitcher-friendly Comerica Park. Still, something to the tune of .290/28/110 is pretty solid, and he should be the most feared hitter in the Tigers lineup this year.

Which pitcher will get all of the left-handed batters out?

Jamie Walker left somewhat of a hole in the Tigers bullpen when he signed a pretty lucrative three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles. As the Tigers left-handed specialist, he held left-handed hitters to a .238 batting average with a 23/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and he has served as the primary lefty out of the pen for the Tigers since the days they were losing games hand over fist. It’s probably a good thing that the only real hole on the team is who will be the primary left hander out of the pen though.

Candidate number one is Wil Ledezma. While Ledezma’s future appears to be as a starter, he was actually pretty good coming out of the pen last year. As a reliever, he finished with a 2.55 ERA and he had 20 strikeouts in 24.2 innings. He was also pretty good against lefties, who hit only .241/.286/.304 against him. On top of that, he’s got nothing better to do because the rotation is already full.

Option number two is Rule Five pickup Edward Campusano, who the Brewers picked up from the Cubs, then sold to the Tigers. Campusano struck out 81 in 55.1 minor league innings between High A and Double-A in 2006 and he’s had a pretty good spring so far (seven inning, one run, four hits, three walks and seven strikeouts).

The Tigers have a ton of other options, but they range from okay (Joey Eischen, although he’s struggled this spring) to truly horrible (Jose Mesa, who isn’t even a lefty but is being considered because he’s a “veteran”). The answer will probably be a combination of both Ledezma and Campusano with Ledezma being more of a long relief/spot start option like last season while Campusano could come in to just throw to one or two lefties.

Can the Tigers make the playoffs in 2007?

Yes, they can. The better question is, will they make the playoffs? The American League Central is going to be very deep with any one of four teams having a shot and it could very well come down to the best team coming in third place if there’s an injury here or a bad series against a division rival there. My win predictions have been pretty far off the past couple of years, but I’m looking at right around 90 wins. I’ve got the Tigers just missing the playoffs with the Red Sox walking away with the Wild Card while the White Sox win the division. The good news is, at 90 wins, they’re in it and if things go right like they did last year, the Tigers very well could be your 2007 AL Central champs.

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