Detroit Tigers fans are justifiably too excited for words about the Tigers' prospects for the 2012 season.
The Tigers added Prince Fielder to an already-strong core comprised of superstars Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera. RF Brennan Boesch is back, and will play right field every day. Up and down the lineup are dangerous, powerful hitters like the aforementioned Boesch, as well as SS Jhonny Peralta, C Alex Avila, LF Delmon Young and even 2B Ryan Raburn- hitters who should do well to complement the explosiveness of Cabrera and Fielder.
Then, there is the Tigers bullpen, featuring returnees such as closer Jose Valverde and setup man Joaquin Benoit. Joining them will be journeyman Octavio Dotel and youngster Colin Balestar, whose spring training performance suggests that he left his control problems behind when he was traded from the Washington Nationals to the Tigers.
But, I know that many fans are already feeling something tugging at the fringes of their subconscious minds. They've seen this sort of high-powered team before. Once upon a time, and recently, the Tigers fielded a team that should have won upwards of 100 games.
Yes, it was in 2008. That year, the Tigers had a lineup that featured a superstar at virtually every position except for left field, and in left field, they had Marcus Thames, who averaged a home run every 12 at-bats or so. They had four young, talented pitchers surrounding the legendary Kenny Rogers.
Their record that year? 74 wins, 88 losses.
DH Gary Sheffield batted .225. SS Edgar Renteria had an on-base percentage of .317. Rogers had 9 wins against 13 losses. Justin Verlander, you may remember, had 17 losses. In fact, only RHP Armando Galarraga had a winning record. He was also the only Tigers starter with an ERA under 4.00.
However, this isn't 2008, and not just because the calender says it isn't.
The Tigers pitching staff, unlike in 2008, is the real deal. Ace Justin Verlander has grown temendously over the past three seasons. He is no longer a volatile, unknown quantity, but instead, someone the Tigers can trust to eat up innings, dominate opposing hitters, and just as importantly, put a stop to losing streaks before they send the Tigers plummeting in the standings.
Beyond Verlander, we have consistent performers in right handers Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. All bring something different to the table, whether it's Scherzer's devastating slider, Fister's impeccable control or Procello's sinker and heavy two-seam fastball. Each of these pitchers should earn over ten wins this year.
Compare that to 2008, when only Armando Galarraga had a winning record and an ERA under 4.00.
The Position Players
The Detroit Tigers have, in their lineup and on the defensive side, everything they didn't have in 2008. They have higher batting averages. They have more power. They have increased defensive range (or, in the case of Peralta, at least an improved ultimate zone rating, which measures how many balls he gets to, but doesn't measure how he got to them). Most importantly, they have youth. None of these players, not even Peralta, is at the twighlight of his career.
The bottom line for Tigers hitters is that, even when their starting pitcher is struggling, the game will not automatically be out of reach, because none of our power hitters is going to hit .225 or any number like it, provided that none of them has an Adam Dunn-like, alternate universe experience.
Some Closing Thoughts
In 2011, the Tigers had shown, for the first time in several years, that they're in it for nine innings. They played the best game they could play each day for the entire game, and that was why the Tigers were able to capitalize on other teams' mistakes. When opposing pitchers left a pitch up, the Tigers tied the game with a home run. When an opposing fielder mishandled a grounder or threw a ball over the first baseman's head, the Tigers turned the mistake into a four-run inning.
That is what all good teams do.
The next time you shake your head at how lucky the Yankees are, or how lucky the Texas Rangers are, remember: they're not getting lucky, they're making the other team pay. Finally, we're in an era in which we may put the Detroit Tigers into this catagory of dangerous teams.
And that, my fiends, is why the Tigers will win the American League Central Division. But, expect some close games. Expect some wars. The Kansas City Royals are young, they're better, and they're hungry. The Cleveland Indians are, in fact, built to win in the same sense that the Tampa Bay Rays are built to win. They have legitimate talent at every position, and the competitive spirit to drive you nuts. The Minnesota Twins will give us headaches on the fuel of their pride alone. Twins manager Ron Gardenhire won't accept anything less. So, too, with the Chicago White Sox. They're not going to lay down and die, and they 've got the pitching to stick around in tight games.
But, the Tigers will come out on top. Unlike in 2008, the pitching staff is truly legitimate, and unlike in 2008, their talented hitters will post batting averages and on-base percentages that allow the lineup to turn over and runs to score.
It's going to be a great year, Tigers fans. Enjoy, and GO TIGERS!