Don’t Stop Improvin’: Tigers Seek to Plug Holes

Justin Verlander, after a remarkable 2011 season, will be called upon to do more of the same in 2012.

The Detroit Tigers had a year to remember.

The season can be looked at from different angles of both good and bad, but after reaching the American League Championship Series for the second time in five years the team knows it can get there again.

The Tigers were one of the hottest teams in baseball in August and September, but injuries, lack of depth and general wear and tear left them with an empty gas tank by the end of the series with the Texas Rangers. Now Detroit faces questions on how to improve a team that went 95-67 and was two games away from a World Series appearance.

The Tigers find themselves in a favorable AL Central where they could potentially be the favorite for the next few years. With the strongest starting pitching and most stable roster, their 50-22 record against Central foes this season may be repeatable.

When looking at Detroit’s roster, the team can be broken down into several categories. Most of the players from last season are likely to return, but if Detroit has the opportunity to make a beneficial trade with a second-tiered piece or two, they will jump at it.

Guaranteed to return:
Starting pitchers: Justin Verlander and Doug Fister.
Relief pitchers: Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit.
Line-up: Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, Delmon Young and Jhonny Peralta.

Guaranteed to leave: Brad Penny, Carlos Guillen, Magglio Ordonez and Wilson Betemit

Leaving players like Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch off the guaranteed to return list may surprise some. All of those players have very solid qualities and young enough to hold value for the future whether kept or not.. However, each also has a flaw or two in his game. Jackson strikes out too much; Boesch hasn’t proven consistent over a whole season; and Porcello and Scherzer lack consistency.

So what are the Tigers most pressing needs and where could some of those and other players fit in?

First, middle relief. The likes of Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, and Ryan Perry won’t cut it. In the playoffs, the lack of confidence Jim Leyland displayed in the bullpen was almost criminal near the end. It sealed the fate that this is Detroit’s most pressing need. He forced Joaquin Benoit and Jose Valverde to expend their arms to near death before reluctantly turning to anyone else. Add in Dave Dombrowski, president, chief executive officer and general manager, calling out Ryan Perry in the off-season and Detroit can be seen as unhappy with relief- pitcher development.

Unfortunately for Tigers fans, Detroit won’t break the bank through free agency for a middle reliever, but will target a steady veteran or two. Most free-agent relievers are in their mid 30s and bring a specific mediocre trait at this point in their career. With so many young relievers on the roster, Detroit might try to hold out until mid-season to decide if anyone can be trusted. A trade should be expected at some point, but if they go the free-agency route…

Possible targets of desperation: Luis Ayala, Chad Qualls, Todd Coffey and Mike Gonzalez.

Next up is the infield. Detroit needs a steady second baseman, third baseman and back-up catcher. Brandon Inge and Don Kelly are nestled in at third, and Ryan Raburn at second. Ramon Santiago is a free agent and a fan favorite, but if the team re-signs him it probably means Detroit is holding steady at second base. Detroit cannot afford to platoon both second and third base for the second year in a row.

Detroit should focus on one position and go all in. If they took it to the extreme targeting Jose Reyes or Jimmy Rollins at shortstop (and moving over Jhonny Peralta) would thrill many fans. It’d solve the need for a lead-off hitter and add speed to a team that stole less than 50 bases last season.

Rumors that Detroit won’t splurge, however, makes players like Kelly Johnson and Aaron Hill the more logical and obvious targets. Second base is more important for the future as the Tigers believe Nick Castellanos will take over third as soon as 2013. If Aramis Ramirez is willing to come to Detroit at around $10 million for a year, he might be worth a shot.

As for a back-up catcher, the options are limited. But Detroit will sign somebody, such as Henry Blanco, to a cheap deal. The team hopes Victor Martinez can handle a bit more time at catcher than last season, but the team cannot afford to lack insurance this time around. Alex Avila’s body completely broke down by the end of September and left him a shell of who he was for when the playoffs arrived.

As for the outfield, it appears set with Delmon Young, Austin Jackson, and Brennan Boesch, but if Detroit can negotiate a trade to solidify right or center field, management will not hesitate to do so.

That leads to starting pitching, the strength of the team. Justin Verlander and Doug Fister formed the best one-two punch down the stretch and hope to replicate what was a special season. Verlander seemed to wear down in the playoffs, but don’t expect much drop-off from a dominating season where he fully matured.

As for the other rotation spots, Scherzer and Porcello will be numbers 3 and 4 unless a “can’t miss” deal comes along where one of the two is offered up.

That leaves the fifth spot. Jacob Turner, the 20-year-old prospect, will see time in the majors, but expect a signing of some type to let his development continue in the minors for part of the season. A lefty, like Bruce Chen, could fit in nicely with the Tigers’ rotation.

Expect the Tigers to be very quiet early, but make a mediocre splash sometime before the winter ends. In Dave Dombrowski’s off-season press conference, he left open the possibility of surprise, while acknowledging a weak free-agent class for the team’s needs.

The Tigers have a roster good enough to win the American League Central again, but need a couple more pieces to make them championship contenders.

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One Comment

  1. Robert

    November 7, 2011 at 9:59 am

    I don’t understand why no one has put a large part of the blame for the Tigers flame out against Texas in the crushal game six.
    Lelands mismanagment of that game was the worst I have ever seen!!! To bring in two rookie pitchers in relief, who have shown little consistancy in getting the ball over the plate, was in my opinion, unforgivable!!
    Not to mention the intentional walks.
    He screwed up in 06 and again in 2011!
    The hiting coach who couldn’t help the hitters to shorten up with men on base, and look what happened to Granderson when he got help from a real hiting coach.

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