Springtime Storylines: Can the Tigers win their first division title since 1987?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2011 season. Next up: Everyone’s favorite chain-smoking skipper.

The Big Question: Can the Tigers win their first division title since 1987?

They’ve had some close calls–including a final-week fade in 2006 (that ended in a trip to the World Series) and a Game 163 loss in 2009–but the Tigers haven’t won a division title since 1987, when they took the AL East with a league-high 98 wins. In the 23 years since the Tigers have just seven winning seasons and one playoff appearance.

However, the Tigers have been .500 or better in four of five years under manager Jim Leyland, twice finishing just a game out of first place, and this year Detroit is very much a contender in the stronger-than-usual AL Central thanks to adding free agents Victor Martinez and Joaquin Benoit to a team that went 81-81 in 2010. Johnny Damon was their only significant offseason departure and the Tigers have an impressive collection of frontline talent, but depth and defense loom as potential issues

Magglio Ordonez, Miguel Cabrera, and Martinez are an elite 3-4-5 trio, but the Opening Day lineup also figures to include sub par bats Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Brandon Inge, and Will Rhymes, who’s filling in at second base for the injured Carlos Guillen. And while Guillen’s return would boost the lineup, a double-play duo of Peralta and Guillen should give nightmares to every pitcher on the staff. Ordonez in right field every day won’t do the pitchers any favors either and as always teams will run at will whenever Martinez is behind the plate.

Similarly, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer are an elite top of the rotation, but the Tigers are counting on Brad Penny to stay healthy, Rick Porcello to bounce back from a disappointing sophomore year, and Phil Coke to successfully transition from the bullpen. If everything breaks right the rotation could be one of the league’s best, but there are questions that need to be answered first. Martinez and Benoit were bold signings for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but also contribute to a top-heavy roster relying on old and/or injury prone guys like Ordonez, Benoit, Guillen, Penny, and Inge to stay off the disabled list.

So what else is going on?

  • Detroit loves pitchers with big-time fastballs, as the staff led baseball with an average fastball velocity of 92.4 miles per hour last season and then added Benoit (94.0 mph) and Penny (94.1 mph) while moving Coke (93.6 mph) into a bigger role. Joel Zumaya is the king of the big-time fastballs and his health status is once again uncertain, but with Verlander, Scherzer, Valverde, Benoit, Penny, Coke, and Ryan Perry the Tigers have a staff filled with flame-throwers.
  • Verlander led AL starters in average fastball velocity at 95.4 mph and Scherzer ranked 10th at 93.2 mph, and together they racked up more strikeouts (403) than any duo in the league while combining for a 3.43 ERA in 420 innings. If a third starter steps up they could be scary in the playoffs.
  • Brennan Boesch got everyone’s hopes up by hitting .345 in the first half, but the rookie turned back into a pumpkin by hitting .163 after the All-Star break. He’s obviously not as bad those post-break struggles, but Boesch’s minor-league track record isn’t particularly impressive and despite a reverse platoon split as a rookie he’s probably best suited for no more than a platoon role with Ryan Raburn.
  • Miguel Cabrera got arrested for a DUI while driving to spring training and his off-field behavior has been making headlines for several years, but throughout the personal problems he’s never ceased being one of the best hitters in baseball. He shook off the pre-camp incident to hit .300 with power once the exhibition games started, homered in Game 163 two years ago shortly after being arrested, and is coming off the best season of his career. Whatever you think of him as a human being the guy is on a Hall of Fame path and so far at least the off-field problems haven’t hurt him on the field.
  • Austin Jackson finished runner-up in the Rookie of the Year balloting and would have gotten my vote over Neftali Feliz, but it’ll be interesting to see how he fares as a sophomore. Projecting improvement is natural for a 24-year-old, but Jackson’s rookie production was based largely on an unsustainably amazing .396 batting average on balls in play that led the league. That almost can’t help but come back down to earth at least somewhat, so unless Jackson cuts down on his league-leading 170 strikeouts or develops more power an even better second year isn’t guaranteed.

So how are they gonna do?

Much like the Twins and White Sox, the Tigers have a good but flawed roster that seems headed for 88-92 wins. I’d peg them for third place, but realistically all three teams are basically co-favorites and the Tigers may have the division’s highest ceiling.

Republicans accuse Hillary Clinton of being a bandwagon Cubs fan

CHICAGO - APRIL 4:  Hillary Rodham Clinton throws out the first pitch before the Chicago Cubs Opening Day game against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field on April 4, 1994 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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This was inevitable: The Republican National Committee published a ridiculously detailed and self-serious opposition-research report accusing Hillary Clinton of being a “bandwagon” Cubs fan.

If you’re of a certain age you’ll recall that Clinton, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, spoke about being a Cubs fan as a kid. You’ll also recall that when she was running for her senate seat in New York, she gave shoutouts to a heretofore unheard of Yankees fandom. A lot of people have had fun with this at various times — we’ve mentioned it here on multiple occasiosn — but I wasn’t aware that anyone considered it an actually substantive political issue as opposed to an amusing “politicians, man” kind of thing.

The Republicans think it’s serious, though. Indeed, there’s more detail to this oppo-hit than there is any of the party’s candidate’s position papers. And while someone could, theoretically, have a lot of fun with this kind of material, the opposition report is not even remotely tongue-in-cheek. It reads like a poisition paper on nuclear proliferation. If the GOP had been this serious about vetting its own candidate, I suspect they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in today.

As for the substance: eh, who cares? Sports is entertainment and cultural glue. As a kid in Chicago, being a Cubs fan is both fun and makes some sense. As a senator from New York in the early 2000s, you’re gonna get to go to some Yankees games and sit in some good seats and that’s fun too. And, of course, politicians are going to say opportunistic things in order to attempt to connect with their constituents. Think of that what you will, but if you think of that as something which reveals something deep and dark within their soul about what kind of person they are, you probably need to step away from the cable news for a while and get some fresh air. Or you probably need to admit that you already believed the worse about her and that this is just an exercise in confirmation bias.

Heck, at this point I almost hope she finds a third or fourth team to rot for. Indeed, I hope she makes a comic heel turn, puts on a Chief Wahoo hat for tonight’s game and claims that, deep, deep down, she had always rooted for the Indians. Then even I could get on her case about it. And we could all talk about how, in her own way, Hillary was really bringing the nation together.

Video: Jonathan Lucroy who? Roberto Perez homers twice in World Series opener for the Indians

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 25:  Roberto Perez #55 of the Cleveland Indians hits a three-run home run during the eighth inning against the Chicago Cubs in Game One of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on October 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
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Back in July, then-Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy vetoed a trade that would have sent him to the Indians, helping the club make a significant upgrade behind the plate after losing Yan Gomes to an injury. At the time, Roberto Perez had only played in 11 games, batting .043. Gomes had hit .165 before his injury, and Chris Gimenez batted .202 over 42 games. It was not much of a logical leap to think the Indians would eventually falter due to a lack of production at the catching position.

But here the Indians are in the World Series facing the Cubs. In Game 1 on Tuesday night, Perez — who finished the season with a .183 average and three home runs in 184 plate appearances — drilled a pair of home runs, accounting for four of the six runs the Indians would score in a shutout win over the Cubs.

Perez’s first blast was a solo that that just cleared the left field fence at Progressive Field, coming on an 0-1 fastball from starter Jon Lester. That padded the Indians’ lead to 3-0.

The second homer put the game away, as he punished reliever Hector Rondon for hanging a 2-2 slider with two runners on base, slugging this one enough to clear the left field fence by plenty. That doubled the Indians’ lead to 6-0, the score by which they would eventually win.

Perez is the first catcher to homer twice in a World Series game since Gary Carter did it for the Mets against the Red Sox in the 1986 World Series. Perez is the first Indian to homer twice in the same playoff game since Jim Thome in the 1999 ALDS against the Red Sox.