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.

The Phillies are trying out prospect J.P. Crawford at third base

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On Sunday, for the first time in his professional career, Phillies shortstop prospect J.P. Crawford started at third base. He picked up three hits in five at-bats, continuing his torrid pace. Since the start of July, he’s hitting .306/.397/.595 with 11 home runs, 28 RBI, 33 runs scored, and a 37/25 K/BB ratio in 199 plate appearances.

With September looming, the Phillies may be considering a promotion for Crawford. Shortstop, however, is currently taken by Freddy Galvis who has appeared in every game this season and has taken on a leadership role with the team. Meanwhile, third baseman Maikel Franco has been mired in a season-long slump as he’s carrying a devilish .666 OPS.

The Phillies haven’t been averse to trying their prospects out at new positions. Prior to his recent promotion, Rhys Hoskins had played only first base throughout his professional career, but the Phillies moved him to left field for a few games, then called him up to the majors. Hoskins has made nine starts in the outfield and two at first base in the majors thus far.

As MLB.com’s Todd Zolecki notes, the Phillies are also considering trying out second base prospect Scott Kingery at shortstop or third base before the end of the minor league season.

These aren’t long-term plans; it’s just a way for the Phillies to find meaningful playing time for their prospects and giving manager Pete Mackanin potential flexibility. Assistant GM Ned Rice said, “It benefits the player and benefits the team when more guys are able to play multiple positions. It just gives Pete [Mackanin] a lot more options at the big league level. The more guys we can bring up who have been exposed to different positions, the better.”

Players having great seasons under the radar

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Yesterday, I watched a myriad of defensive highlights from Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons (who also homered). Curious, I looked up his stats and found him among the leaders in Wins Above Replacement. And then I found a handful of other players having great seasons and realized I’ve hardly heard anything about them. Let this be my contribution towards raising them into the spotlight.

Andrelton Simmons (Angels): The 27-year-old is having the best offensive season of his career. He posted a .751 OPS in his rookie season, but that spanned only 49 games. From 2013-16, he had an aggregate .664 OPS. His defense never wavered, of course, which is why he kept getting regular playing time and why the Angels were eager to trade for him in November 2015. This season, however, he’s been a terrific hitter, batting .292/.345/.451 with 13 home runs, 57 RBI, 62 runs scored, and 17 stolen bases in 502 plate appearances. He’s four home runs away from matching a career-high. Simmons is 11th in baseball in FanGraphs’ version of WAR, heavily predicated on the valuation of his defense, but it’s not too outlandish for me to believe Simmons has added nearly two wins above replacement on defense alone. While Jose Altuve, Aaron Judge, and Mike Trout will fight for the lion’s share of AL MVP votes, Simmons could get some down ballot consideration.

Gio Gonzalez (Nationals): Gonzalez nearly threw a no-hitter earlier this season against the Marlins, which brought some eyeballs to his stat line. Still, he hasn’t been talked about much somehow. He’s 12-5 with a 2.39 ERA and a  150/62 K/BB ratio in 162 innings. It’s nothing new for Gonzalez, as he won 21 games with a 2.89 ERA en route to finishing third in Cy Young balloting in 2012. There’s also some reason to believe Gonzalez’s performance is in some part due to great fortune as his batting average on balls in play is about 50 points below league average and his rate of stranding runners on base is more than 11 percent higher than his career average. Clayton Kershaw and Max Scherzer have had better seasons and will be the first and second place finishers in this year’s balloting, but Gonzalez is looking at likely finishing third again, which is no small feat.

Aaron Nola (Phillies): After a dismal June 16 start against the Diamondbacks, Nola stood with a disappointing 4.76 ERA. After the first two innings of last Thursday’s start against the Giants, he briefly brought it under 3.00. Currently, it’s at 3.26 along with a 128/38 K/BB ratio in 124 1/3 innings. Since that June 16 start, he’s made 11 starts with a composite 2.21 ERA across 73 1/3 innings. The right-hander out of LSU showed promise in his rookie year in 2015, then struggled last year before succumbing to injury. Finally, it’s appearing that Nola is showing the promise the Phillies believed in when they took him in the first round (seventh overall) in the 2014 draft. Perhaps more importantly, he looks like a pitcher the Phillies can build around. If there’s one thing the Phillies have lacked since trading Cole Hamels, it’s a starter capable of throwing seven or eight innings and holding the opposition to one or two runs.

Chris Taylor (Dodgers): On a team that features Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Justin Turner, Alex Wood, and recently added Yu Darvish, it’s understandable that Taylor would slip under the radar. He’s played five different positions this season — left field, second base, center field, third base, and shortstop — while batting .311/.383/.549 with 17 home runs, 58 RBI, 69 runs scored, and 14 stolen bases in 413 plate appearances. He’s played average to above-average defense at most of those positions, which is why his 4.6 fWAR ranks 13th in baseball and 10th in the National League. Before the Dodgers acquired him from the Mariners last June in a very little talked about trade, Taylor had been a weak-hitting utilityman. Now, he’s the starting center fielder for baseball’s best team.

Felipe Rivero (Pirates): The Pirates acquired Rivero from the Nationals last year in the Mark Melancon trade. It worked out well for the Buccos. Though the club sits at a disappointing 60-64 in fourth place in the NL Central, Rivero has been a bright spot, owning a major league best 1.31 ERA with 14 saves and a 73/16 K/BB ratio in 61 2/3 innings. The lefty took over the closer’s role when Tony Watson began to struggle in the first half. While Rivero has been terrific against right-handed hitters, limiting them to a .547 OPS, he’s been death to lefties (.227 OPS). After the season, Rivero will be eligible for arbitration for the first of four years, so it wouldn’t be shocking if he got traded at some point, but for now, they’ll enjoy his outstanding 2017 campaign.