This is the last in our five part look back at each AL Central member for the 2011 season. This one, obviously, has a chapter yet to be written; one that will (hopefully) play out over the next four weeks.
Coming into the year, most “experts” had projected the Tigers to take a step forward from their disappointing .500 record in 2010. Opinions varied on exactly how large a step forward that would be, but most had the Tigers pegged to at least contend for the top spot in the division. The general consensus was that the Tigers would be locked in a three-team race with Chicago and Minnesota all year long. My personal prediction was for the Tigers to win 88 games and finish two games behind Chicago in second place.
What went right?
Well, for starters, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta did. Throughout the winter and even through the first week or so of the regular season, most fans fully expected Victor Martinez to take over primary catching duties from Avila at some point this year. It wasn’t a stretch to think that way, either. After all, Martinez had never been a regular DH, and his career numbers showed he didn’t hit nearly as well in that role as he did behind the dish. Avila, for his part, came with the stain of a poor 2010 campaign and the feeling that he just wasn’t yet ready for full-time duty was prevalent.
Peralta came in with question marks of his own. Converted to third base by the Indians in 2009, Peralta was anointed the starting shortstop by the Tigers for 2011. He vowed to lose some weight to reclaim his lost range (which was never great to begin with) and came into camp noticeably trimmer. Then he went out and hit .196 with zero home runs and zero RBI during Spring Training.
It didn’t take long at all for both of these men to prove their worth once the season began, however, and by mid-season, each had been named to their first all-star team. Avila’s emergence and Peralta’s re-discovery of a once-promising career were welcome surprises to a lineup that wound up facing unexpected holes.
In addition to the pair of first-time all-stars, the Tigers got a bit lucky when it came to the disabled list. Brennan Boesch missed the final month of the season and a sprained knee took Martinez away from catching, but otherwise this club was pretty darn healthy.
In all honesty, the list of “what went right” could go on and on, as you might expect from a team that won the division by a full 15 games. Justin Verlander carried a largely lackluster starting rotation right up until the all-star break and beyond and he got some help from Doug Fister in the season’s final two months. The mid-season trades made to acquire Wilson Betemit, Fister, and Delmon Young all paid dividends and the back end of the bullpen was never an issue all year long.
As Jim Leyland likes to say, contributions from the roles players are nice, but a good team will go only as far as the big boys will take it. This team got huge seasons from Verlander, Jose Valverde, Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, and that’s ultimately what they were so successful.
What went wrong?
Not a whole, lot. At least, not a whole lot that couldn’t be overcome. The $10 million gamble the Tigers made on Magglio Ordonez proved to be misguided at best, as did the two year deal given to Brandon Inge. By mid August, Magglio was relegated to reserve duty and Inge had already been removed from the roster and shipped out to the minor leagues. Of course, once Boesch went down, Maggs saw yet another chance to get semi-regular at bats and Inge returned as a hitter more closely resembling the one we had expected to see (which isn’t saying a whole lot).
The early-season trade of second baseman Scott Sizemore didn’t work out at all for the Tigers as David Purcey was so bad that the Tigers DFA-ed him and he passed quietly through waivers. Phil Coke‘s foray into the starting rotation didn’t work at all, though he did pitch better than his record indicated, and the Tigers had to used a string of young hurlers in the fifth spot, all without success.
In a different season, missing on these moves could have been disastrous, but Dave Dombrowski pulled the right strings in filling the holes and did so without mortgaging the future.
The Tigers have perhaps the best middle-of-the-order bats in the league in Cabrera, Martinez, and Avila. They have the most dominating starting pitcher this league has seen since Pedro Martinez, a tremendous number two starter, and they have a lock-down back-end of the bullpen. Beyond those pieces, their depth is pretty good, too. Both Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer have been inconsistent, both both have the ability to perform at a very high level. Rookie Al Alburquerque has battled injuries, but is a weapon in the middle innings in relief, and the lineup, which ranked fourth in the league in runs scored, features a guy (Peralta) that hit .299 with 21 home runs and 86 RBI and an .824 OPS batting seventh or eighth.
The biggest and most glaring weakness is the defense, which basically begins and ends with Austin Jackson. AJax has to cover a ton of ground in center when he’s flanked by Young and Ordonez, but he’s done amazingly well so far. On days when Betemit and Ryan Raburn are in the lineup at third and second, the Tigers might field the worst defensive group in the league. Fortunately, their pitchers get a ton of strikeouts.
Beyond that, this team lacks speed (again, apart from Jackson) and lacks the ability to get on base in the top third of the order. Part of that is Leyland’s fault for not crafting his lineup in a different fashion, but i assume he’s not going to suddenly change his ways there.
Pending Free Agents
With the playoffs yet to start it’s a bit premature to look this far ahead. We’ll have plenty of time to discuss the ramifications of these names soon. That said, the Tigers will have decisions to make on Valverde (club option) and Young (arbitration eligible). Joel Zumaya, Carlos Guillen, Ordonez, Brad Penny, Betemit, and Ramon Santiago will be free agents at the end of the playoffs.
This team has work left to do this year, until that work is done we cannot look objectively beyond the post-season. The Tigers will have a few decisions to make, but by and large this team should look much the same as it did in 2011. The biggest questions will be on Valverde, Betemit, and Santiago. In all honesty, however, i expect all three will be brought back.
As I said in the open, the final chapter of the 2011 campaign has yet to be written. It begins tonight in the Bronx. Whatever happens, 2011 has been a helluva ride.