LATE ONE nightthis spring Jim Leyland sat at the desk in his windowless office at Tigertown,ashtray by his side, and did the math on whether third baseman Miguel Cabrera,acquired in a trade with the Marlins in December, should bat third or fifth inthe lineup. The way Leyland figured it, if Cabrera were installed in the fivehole, he would have four players (Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, GarySheffield and Magglio Ordo√±ez) who batted a combined .320 in 2007 hitting infront of him. It all added up: Cabrera, who averaged 115 runs batted in overthe last four years with the thin-hitting Marlins, would have the opportunityto surpass his career high of 119 RBIs. "I was a horses--- mathstudent," says the 63-year-old skipper, "but I didn't go to school justto eat my lunch."
This is an article from the March 31, 2008 issue
You don't need acalculator to determine that Detroit will score plenty of runs again thisseason. The Tigers' offense will feature seven of the top 40 active leaders incareer batting average--and that doesn't include Granderson, the leadoff hitterwho last year became only the third player to have 20 stolen bases, 20 homers,20 triples and 20 doubles in a season. (Eventual NL MVP Jimmy Rollins becamethe fourth shortly thereafter.) The lineup is so deep that newly acquiredshortstop Edgar Renteria, who hit .332 with an .860 on-base plus sluggingpercentage last year in Atlanta (better numbers than any AL shortstop's), willbat seventh. "They're going to be one of the most dominant offenses, otherthan maybe the Yankees', that any team has fielded in the last 10 years,"says a rival AL general manager.
That Detroit'spitching staff will keep pace with its offense is more a matter of faith thanmathematical certainty. Tigers starters had a 4.68 ERA last season andsputtered badly after the All-Star break, when Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertsonand Kenny Rogers combined to go 6-19 with a 5.76¬†ERA. The Tigers had themajors' best record (58-37) on July¬†21, but they lost 37 of their final 67games to miss the playoffs, and for that the Detroit staff must shoulder muchof the blame. Also worrisome is that the Tigers' big off-season pitchingacquisition, two-time All-Star Dontrelle Willis, is coming off his worstprofessional season. The 26-year-old lefthander (whom the Tigers picked up,along with Cabrera, from the Marlins for a six-player package that included topprospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin) had a 5.17¬†ERA last year,which ranked 59th of the 62 pitchers who threw at least 180¬†innings. Inone miserable stretch from June¬†3 to Aug.¬†8, he went winless in 13starts. "I just played bad," Willis says. "That's pretty muchit."
Despite lastyear's struggles, the outlook for the Tigers' rotation is far from bleak. Therighthanded Bonderman, 25, was off to a 10-1 start in '07 before his secondhalf was ruined by pinched cartilage in his pitching elbow; he's healthy now,as is the lefthanded Rogers, 43, who never completely recovered last seasonfrom the circulation problem and elbow inflammation that limited him to 11starts. And while pitchers don't normally improve when they move from the NL tothe AL--a New York Times analysis last winter found that the move precipitatesan average ERA spike of 0.70--Willis is poised to buck the trend. "Pitchershave down years," says Tigers G.M. Dave Dombrowski, "but he threw theball extremely well in September, when we scouted him, and we find no reasonwhy he won't bounce back."
And Detroit stillhas Justin Verlander, who at 25 is developing into the Josh Beckett-type of acewho can carry a team. His strikeout rate, which jumped from 6.0 batters pernine innings to 8.2 last year, should continue to climb.
Therefore, theequation that defines Detroit's upcoming season will most likely prove to be asimple one: One of the most productive offenses in the history of the game + arejuvenated rotation = the Tigers' first world championship since 1984.
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...
The Tigers aredesperately seeking a trading partner who will take Brandon Inge--but theymight be better off making him their everyday third baseman and takingadvantage of his spectacular defense. Over the last three years, according toBaseball Prospectus's defensive metrics, Inge has prevented 57¬†more runsthan the average third baseman. It won't take Detroit long to become nostalgicfor Inge's glove once it experiences Miguel Cabrera's indifferent fielding.Stationing Cabrera (left) in leftfield and restoring Inge at third will helpthe Tigers' pitchers, and it would come at little offensive cost. Inge wouldtake the lineup spot of current leftfielder Jacque Jones, who hits for betteraverage but with less power than Inge.
Career-highbatting average of second baseman Placido Polanco, who was among baseball'stoughest hitters to put away deep in the count last season. The 32-year-oldstruck out only 30 times in 641 plate appearances, and in the 103 in which hefell behind 0 and 2, Polanco led the majors with a .402 average. The next-besthitter after falling behind that far in the count: the Angels' Chone Figgins,at .316.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2007 STATISTICS
MANAGER JIMLEYLAND THIRD SEASON WITH DETROIT
|MIGUEL CABRERA (New Acquisition)||3B|
|EDGAR RENTERIA (New Acquisition)||SS|
|JACQUE JONES (New Acquisition)||¬†||LF|
|LH||Dontrelle Willis (New Acquisition)||65||10||15||6.4||1.60||5.17|
New acquisition B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)
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EXCERPTED FROM SI
MAY 11, 1964
BY THE TIME Al Kaline was signed to a $30,000bonus-salary arrangement with the Tigers at 18, he had played as much baseballas the average major leaguer plays in five or six seasons, a fact that goes along way toward explaining why he was able to win the batting championship at20 and has not won it since: He was at his peak at 20, and the pitchers,looking at the raw kid of 150 pounds, simply could not bring themselves toadmit that he was as good as he was. --Jack Olsen
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