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Monday, March 14, 2011

MLB Preview: Detroit Tigers

This isn't New York City. Or the Windy City. Or Sin City. And it's certainly no one's emerald city.  My final foray into the American League takes us to the Motor City. Chrysler is back and so are the Detroit Tigers.

Detroit has had a tough go of it lately. Beyond the city's economy being reduced to dust after the collapse of the American auto industry, Detroit's sports landscape has been similarly bleak. It's a shame. Detroit is one of America's great sports cities. It features teams with storied histories from every major pro sport as well as some of the proudest fans this country has to offer. Michigan as a whole is just great. Need proof? Enjoy the greatest video ever made -- 1986 Oscar winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject):

Ok, back to Detroit's sports legacy. The Detroit Red Wings, one of the NHL's original six, are nothing short of hockey's Yankees. The Detroit Lions have been around 1929, winning 4 NFL championships in the pre-Super Bowl era. The Detroit Pistons joined the NBA in 1941 and featured one of the most iconic teams in league history in the Bad Boys. Plus they beat the Lakers for the 2004 NBA title, which is always good.

But these three franchises have fallen on relatively dark times. The Red Wings haven't won a Stanley cup in 2 years, which is like 50 years for anyone else. The Detroit Lions are, well, the Detroit Lions. They've won 8 games in the last 3 seasons. No no, 8 total. The Pistons have had a winning percentage right around .370 the past three seasons and recently featured one of the greater instances of mutiny against a coach since Latrell Sprewell strangled P.J. Carlesimo.

And that brings us to the Detroit Tigers. One of the American Leagues eight charter franchises, the Tigers started playing in Detroit in 1894. This 4-time World Champion franchise has been on something of a roller coaster in the last decade. Prior to 2006, the Tigers were among the league's worst bottom dwellers. Much like the Pirates have become, the Tigers were synonymous with losing. But upon the arrival of Jimmy Leyland, the Detroit Tigers shocked the world and won the AL Pennant, a year after finishing 71-91. Since 2006, the Tigers have been both irrelevant (2008, 2010) and competitive (2007, 2009).

Tigers Legend Ty Cobb is one of only two players to get 4,000 career hits.
The Tigers enter 2011 as many folks' sleeper pick to win the AL Central. To win the crown, the Tigers will have to fight off two strong squads in the Twins and White Sox.

The Tigers' success rests largely on the bat (and AA advisor) of one man -- Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera easily could have been awarded the AL MVP in 2010 and figures to put up similar numbers this season. But even more important than another .328/38/126 year will be Cabrera's personal maturation regarding alcohol abuse. In the past year and a half, Cabrera has landed in three separate alcohol related scandals, including questioning regarding domestic abuse, rehab and a suspected DUI arrest. There's no denying Cabrera's place as one of the best hitters in the game, but his alcohol abuse is threatening to ruin the prime of his career. He needs to recognize how much he has to lose and get his act together.

Victor Martinez quietly made one of the most significant free agent signings of the winter when he chose the Detroit Tigers over the Red Sox and Orioles. Once a full-time catcher, Martinez will likely spend the majority of his time as the Tigers' dominoes expert -- I mean, designated hitter. Martinez immediately becomes far and away the Tigers' second best hitter and his versatility allows him to do time at First Base if need be.

Beyond Cabrera and Martinez, the Tigers lineup is something of a mixed bag. Once a force, 37 year old right fielder Magglio Ordonez  put together a decent 2010, but looks to be on his last legs as a power hitter. Joining Ordonez in the outfield will be the speedy Rookie of the Year runner-up Austin Jackson (.293 average) in Center and serviceable Ryan Raburn in Left. Rounding out the infield will be the aging Carlos Guillen at 2B, solid Jhonny [sic] Peralta at SS (81 RBI) and Brandon Inge at 3B. Third baseman Brandon Inge saw a major drop from his eye-popping 2009 HR total, but figures to still put up his usual 15 HR, 70 RBI and .240 average. In the squat will be youngster Alex Avila.

Similar to their lineup, the Tigers' pitching staff features a mix of stars, journeymen and rookies. Staff Ace Justin Verlander is as dependable an arm as their is in baseball. The former Erie Sea Wolf has won at least 17 games with an ERA of 3.70 in four of his first five seasons. Behind Verlander is up and comer Max Scherzer. In his first season with the Tigers, Scherzer went 12-11 with a 3.50 ERA. 22 year old Rick Porcello had an inconsistent 2010, but has reached 10+ in his two seasons in the big leagues. Journeyman Brad Penny joins his fifth team in the last four years. Rounding out the rotation will be converted reliever Phil Coke.

In the bullpen, 2010 All-Star Jose Valverde will close games with newly acquired Joaquin Benoit as his set-up man. Valverde had an ERA of 0.94 through the first half of 2010, while Benoit had a 2010 ERA of 1.34.

On paper, the Tigers don't appear nearly as strong as the Twins or White Sox, but don't put it past them to make a surprise run at an AL Central. It will require breakout performances from at least one hitter and one starting pitcher, but the roster is loaded with potential candidates. I'm looking at Austin Jackson and Max Scherzer to be the X-Factors in the Tigers' bid to bring some soul back to Motown.

The 2011 Detroit Tigers:
C: Alex Avila
1B: Miguel Cabrera
2B: Carlos Guillen
SS: Jhonny Peralta
3B: Brandon Inge
LF: Ryan Raburn
CF: Austin Jackson
RF: Magglio Ordonez
P: Justin Verlander
P: Max Scherzer
P: Rick Porcello
P: Brad Penny
P: Phil Coke
CL: Jose Valverde

Best Case Scenario:
The Tigers' Home Opener begins with an emotional Miguel Cabrera speaking to a packed Comerica Park. After promising fans his days of alcohol abuse are over, Cabrera whips the crowd into a frenzy as he reasserts his focus on bringing a World Championship to Detroit in 2011. He promptly hits for the cycle on Opening Day.

After Brad Penny is put on the 60-day DL, the Tigers trade for the Dodgers' Ted Lilly and enjoy his 10-2 record in the second half. On his way to the AL MVP, Miguel Cabrera leads the Detroit offense in a torrid second half in which they close a 6 game gap on the Minnesota Twins. Brandon Inge returns to 2009 form while Magglio Ordonez returns to 1999 form.

The Tigers overtake the Twins for the AL Central lead in mid-September and end up winning the division by a comfortable 5 games. The Tigers ambush the pitching-starved New York Yankees in an impressive three game sweep. Against the heavily favored Boston Red Sox, the Tigers fall to a 3-1 deficit before storming back and taking the series behind Verlander's Game 7 gem.

Returning to the Fall Classic for the second time in six seasons, the Tigers meet the defending champion San Francisco Giants. The Tigers win a thrilling Game 7 in which the Giants' potential tying run is called out in a close play at the plate by embattled umpire Jim Joyce. Video replay confirms Joyce's call was correct.

The city of Detroit erupts in celebration. Real Estate prices soar. At a parade in their honor, the Tigers cruise through the streets of Detroit in a GMC motorcade. At the parade, 67 year old manager Jim Leyland respectfully announces his retirement. In a stirring 35 minute speech, Leyland imparts his life advice, telling the crowd, among other things, to live their lives based on a single principle: "Do or do not. There is no try."

I know at least of few of you were watching Empire Strikes Back on Spike TV last night.

Worst Case Scenario:
In the hours before Opening Day, Miguel Cabrera is arrested yet again on suspicion of driving under the influence. Although he is released from jail in time for the Tigers' season opener, he is benched indefinitely by Detroit's ownership. Owner Mike Ilitch assures Tigers' fans that Cabrera won't be traded, however, management orders him to undergo live-in rehabilitation before he can rejoin the team.

On the mound, Verlander continues his robotic dominance by winning a new career high 20 games. He loses the Cy Young race, however, to 11 game winner Trevor Cahill due to the Tiger's abysmal record.

While Cabrera rejoins the team at the All-Star Break, fans are hesitant to trust his new clean image. The Tigers are out of the division race by mid-August and spend the rest of the season planning for the future. After a 35 minutes post-game speech after a 20-1 loss to the Royals, Jim Leyland announces his retirement and imparts his life advice, telling the crowd, among other things, "So this is how liberty dies -- with thunderous applause." The crowd, throughly confused, applauds.

The Tigers play the final month of the season under interim manager Marshall Mathers and on the last day of the season are ironically on the losing end of a Perfect Game pitched by newly acquired Indians starter Armando Galarraga.

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