Over the course of the next month or two, we will be previewing the Yankees’ competition in the American League. To do this, I will interview one blog for each team in the league.
We’re going to take a short break from the AL East and preview the reigning AL Central champs, the Detroit Tigers. I had the pleasure of interviewing Lee Panas of Tiger Tales.
Now as you may have heard, Victor Martinez was recently reported to have torn his ACL and will be out for the 2012 season. This interview took place before that came out, so I was unable to ask Lee about the impact of the injury. However, he does have a good piece out about how much the Tigers will be losing without Martinez in the everyday lineup.
Keeping the injury in mind, let’s get started…
1. The Tigers certainly excelled in 2011, reaching the ALCS (after ousting the Yanks, I might add). Could you reflect on why you think they were able to achieve success? In extension, what do you think the team could have done better at, in order to get beyond the ALCS?
The 2011 Tigers were able to win because they had a core of star players which allowed them to overcome a few weak spots. They had one of the highest-scoring teams in the league primarily because of four players – first baseman Miguel Cabrera, catcher Alex Avila, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and designated hitter Victor Martinez. This allowed them to score consistently, despite offensive voids at second base, third base, center field and right field. On the pitching side, they had the best pitcher in the league in Justin Verlander. He allowed them to survive gaping holes in the fourth and fifth spots of the rotation. The acquisition of Doug Fister, who actually pitched better than Verlander down the stretch, was also huge. They relied upon Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit to do the bulk of the relief work while trying to fill the back of the pen with youngsters.
Luck also played a factor in their success. They had the good fortune of playing in a division in transition where no other team won more than 80 games. They also won more games than their run differential suggested they should have won. This was the result of a great record in close games. Valverde was partly responsible for that, but good fortune also probably played a role.
I consider the playoffs to be mostly a crap shoot. The Tigers happened to have some key offensive players – Avila, Martinez and Delmon Young – get hurt at the same time, which put them at a disadvantage versus the high-powered Rangers offense in the ALCS. The Tigers also could have benefited from a deeper bullpen.
2. The story of 2011, or at least the end-of-the-year awards, was Justin Verlander. Fans of other teams have an outside look at how terrific a pitcher he is, but from a Tiger fan’s perspective, what does he mean to the organization?
As indicated above, the Tigers 2011 success was largely due to a group of star players. Verlander was obviously one of those players and he can be counted upon to excel again for the next few years. Because the Tigers have an ace in Verlander, they can afford to carry a young developing pitcher in the number five slot as they may do this year. Verlander’s ability to pitch deep into games all season long also helps to save the bullpen for other pitchers. Finally, one of the best things about Verlander is that fans know that the team is likely to get a great performance and probably a win every fifth game.
Miguel Cabrera plays a similar role among position players. They are pretty much guaranteed an outstanding season from him, so it’s not too much of a concern if they have one or two sub-par hitters elsewhere in the line-up.
3. Although they have shown some interest in several starting pitchers, the Tigers have had a relatively quiet offseason. Why do you think that is? Is it that the team doesn’t really have any gaping holes or weaknesses?
The quiet off-season has been a bit surprising, but I don’t think they are done yet. They have been relatively inactive partly because their biggest offensive needs – second baseman, third baseman and lead-off hitter – are not easy things to find this winter. I expect them to be heavily involved in the Yoenis Cespedes sweepstakes. They have scouted him for a long time and I believe owner Mike Illitch is willing to open up his wallet to sign a potentially exciting young player. That doesn’t mean they will get Cespedes, but I believe they will be one of the finalists. If they fail to get him, I think they may get more aggressive in pursuing a trade for a lead-off hitter or third baseman. They have now pretty much settled on a Ramon Santiago / Ryan Raburn platoon at second.
The Tigers have made a couple of smaller moves which should help. The addition of Gerald Laird gives the Tigers a real backup catcher which allows them to rest Avila more often. Hopefully, with fewer games played, Avila will be stronger at the end of 2012 than he was last year. The move also means that Martinez can be a full-time designated hitter which should help keep him healthier. They have also addressed their bullpen depth with the signing of veteran reliever Octavio Dotel.
4. What is the general confidence level in the Tigers going into the 2012 season?
I still want to see the Tigers make more improvements, but I think they are the favorites to win the AL Central even if they stand pat. The Indians should be better and the Royals have an emerging young offense, but I believe the Tigers still have the most talent in the division. An upgrade at third base, a lead-off man or a proven fifth starter would certainly add to a fan’s confidence in the Tigers. One of the biggest factors in every season, of course, is health. An injury to one of their star players especially Verlander would change everything, but that is something you can’t worry about too much until it happens.
RHP top prospect, Jacob Turner.
5. How do you feel about the current state of the Tigers’ prospects, and minor-league system? Are there any prospects that you think could have an impact on the 2012 team?
In general, the Tigers do not have a lot of prospects who project to be stars in the majors. However, their top prospect Jacob Turner has the potential to eventually be a top of the rotation starter and could make an impact as early as this season. He’ll probably get an opportunity to make the club as the fifth starter coming out of spring training. If he doesn’t make the opening day roster, then we can expect him to get starts later in the season. Other prospects with a shot at the fifth spot include Duane Below, Andy Oliver, Drew Smyly and Adam Wilk.
None of their hitting prospects figure to play much of a role in the Tigers 2012 season. Their most promising position player in the minors is third baseman Nick Castellanos, but he is probably a couple of years away. Other youngsters include outfielders Danry Vasquez and Avisail Garcia, and catchers Rob Brantly and James McCann, all of which need more development time.
6. Lastly, how do you project the team will do in 2012?
It’s too early for my final projection but, at the moment, I project 92 wins and a division title. As I said earlier, I think the playoffs are a crap-shoot generally won by the team which gets hot at the right time. The Cardinals were a perfect example of that last year. Hopefully, it will be the Tigers turn this year.