Five Questions:  Detroit Tigers

Outside of the Mets nabbing Johan Santana, no team made a bigger splash this offseason than the Detroit Tigers. The winter meetings deal for both Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera put the Tigers on the map and now the pressure is on. Anything short of a playoff run will be a disappointment, but that doesn’t mean the Tigers, like any other team, don’t have their share of questions heading into the season.

How big of a concern is the Tigers’ rotation heading into 2008?

Whenever I hear someone talking about the Tigers, the conversation always shifts to the bullpen. With Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya hurt, the pen is looking a bit thin, so it’s been pegged as the Tigers’ biggest weakness. My biggest concern is the rotation. I touched on this in a post over at Tigerblog, but in summary, here’s how the Tigers’ rotation shakes out heading into the 2008 season.

1) Two pitchers who had ERAs north of 5.00 (Jeremy Bonderman and Dontrelle Willis).
2) One pitcher who logged just 63 innings with two extended trips to the disabled list (Kenny Rogers).
3) One pitcher who’s had just one winning record in four seasons as a starter and who’s never had a WHIP lower than 1.30 (Nate Robertson).
4) Justin Verlander, who’s been the Tigers’ best pitcher over the past two seasons but who’s also thrown more than 200 innings in his first two big-league seasons (I’m counting the 2006 playoff starts as innings pitched).

What a lot of people are doing is looking back to the glory days of 2006 when everyone stayed healthy, Rogers looked 10 years younger than he was and everything came together. Bonderman had no late-season shutdown and a good bullpen stayed intact for most of the season. Last year was a different story, with Robertson and Rogers spending time on the disabled list while Bonderman was shut down in September because of a sore elbow.

How Willis adjusts to American League pitching will be a major key as well. On the one side, he’s facing deeper lineups, but on the other side, he has a much better defense than he did in Florida. Also encouraging is the fact that in 15 interleague starts, Willis is 7-5 with a 2.85 ERA. The sample size is small but you have to like those numbers.

The Tigers also lack an effective sixth starter. After unloading their farm system in trades for Edgar Renteria, Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, the Tigers will have to go to a guy like Virgil Vasquez or Yorman Bazardo in the event of an injury. Either one of those guys is able to fill in, but the drop in production on the mound is pretty steep if someone goes down.

And what about that bullpen?

While a good bullpen can make a rotation look better, I also think it’s safe to say that a good rotation can make a team’s bullpen look better. The deeper a starter goes into the game, the better chance that you’ll only have to use your top two or three relievers during the course of the game. If you have a starter who is getting pulled early, it forces the manager to go to an inferior, back-of-the-bullpen option.

This was apparent in 2007. In 2006, Tigers starters on average lasted just a touch over six innings a game. This allowed the Tigers to use their three best relievers, Rodney, Zumaya and Jones, on a regular basis and in their ideal roles without looking to their 11th and 12th pitchers to provide them quality innings. That innings-pitched-per-start number dropped to 5.75 in 2007, and while that doesn’t look like much of a change, you’re talking about nearly 45 innings throughout the season. If you’re already using your best relievers as much as you can, that’s 45 innings going to some middle reliever who’s probably better relegated to mop up time.

Like the rotation, injuries were also a concern. Zumaya and Rodney both had long stays on the disabled list and while lefties Tim Byrdak and Bobby Seay stepped up admirably, it wasn’t enough. Now as we head into 2008, Zumaya is out for at least a few months and it looks like Rodney is going to start the season on the disabled list as well.

The Tigers do have a dark horse in the bullpen who could make a difference. Denny Bautista has had an exceptional spring so far (10.3 shutout innings with 10 strikeouts and just three walks), and while he definitely has the stuff, he’s never been able to put it together. If he finally does in 2008, his upside is close to that of a Joel Zumaya.

Francisco Cruceta is another guy who could have an impact in the Tigers’ bullpen, but he’s currently held up in the Domincan Republic because of visa problems. Nobody’s quite sure why there’s been such a long delay but there’s speculation that his performance-enhancing drug suspension last year may have something to do with it.

How much will having Miguel Cabrera in the Tigers’ lineup help the offense?

Last year, inserting Gary Sheffield into the Tigers’ lineup had a profound effect. The Tigers scored 65 more runs than they did in 2006; this was with basically three months of Sheffield when you consider his horrible April and the fact that he was hurt for most of August and September. With the addition of Cabrera, you’re basically replacing your worst hitters in 2007 (Brandon Inge) with one of the best in baseball.

Cabrera’s projected OPS in The Hardball Times Season Preview 2008 was an impressive .957, and if he hits that, and everyone else does his job, there’s no reason the Tigers shouldn’t lead the majors in runs scored in 2008. Even the Tigers’ franchise record of 958 runs from 1934 is in potential jeopardy.

Do the Tigers have the best left fielder in the American League?

No, this isn’t a joke. The Tigers very well may have the best left field in the American League; it just so happens that it is two people. With the offseason acquisition of Jacque Jones, the Tigers finally picked up an additional left-handed bat. In addition, the Tigers’ pickup of Edgar Renteria created a domino effect that pushed Carlos Guillen to first base on a full-time basis. This then supplanted part time slugger Marcus Thames back into the outfield. The combination of Jacque Jones against right-handed pitching and Marcus Thames against lefties could yield the Tigers some huge dividends in 2008.

Jones has a career .825 OPS against right-handed pitching throughout his career. His weakness is Marcus Thames’ strength; Thames has a career .845 OPS against lefties. The big problem was Jones’ power nose dive last year. In 2007 he belted just five homers; this was after three straight seasons of 23 or more. Still, catering to these two hitters strengths could yield close to 25-30 homers from hitters who will probably be hitting seventh in the Tigers’ lineup.

What will happen to Brandon Inge?

The Tigers are still trying to shop Brandon Inge, but my guess is, he sticks with the Tigers until midseason. Then one of two things will happen. He’ll either get dealt at the trade deadline or he’ll wake up to the fact that winning, even in a reserve role, isn’t all that bad and he’ll ask to stick it out. The last time Brandon Inge played super sub was back in 2004 and that was his best season at the plate. Both the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants appear interested in Inge at the moment, but any deal worth considering would have the Tigers eating most of Inge’s salary, and I don’t see that happening at this point in time.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

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