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.

Braves trade David Hernandez to the Angels

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The Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Angels have completed a minor trade: Atlanta is sending righty reliever David Hernandez to the Angels in exchange for a player to be named later or cash considerations.

Hernandez hasn’t pitched in the big leagues this year. He’s pitched in seven games at Triple-A, allowing one earned run in eight innings of work. In seven years of big league work he’s got an ERA of 4.10 in 379 games. Last year he put up a 3.84 ERA in 70 games for the Phillies.

I’m assuming the PTBNL is not Mike Trout.

The Nats are sniffing around for relief pitching help

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The Nationals began the year with Blake Treinen as their closer. That didn’t last long, and now Koda Glover seems to be Dusty Baker’s man in the ninth inning. He earned a save for the second consecutive game yesterday. Glover has been pretty darn good in the early going, posting a 2.35 ERA and striking out six batters and walking only one in seven and two-thirds. That obviously a small sample size, and anything can happen. If it does, Baker has Shawn Kelley as an option.

Not many household names there, which is probably why the Nationals are reported to be interested in the White Sox’ David Robertson and Alex Colome of the Rays. That report comes from Jim Bowden of ESPN, who also notes that the A’s have a number of guys with closing experience on staff and are likely to be sellers too. The David Robertson thing may have more legs, though, given that Mike Rizzo and Rick Hahn pulled off a pretty major trade in the offseason. If you know a guy well, you call that guy first, right?

As far as problems go this isn’t a huge one. The Nats sit at 13-5 and, as expected by most prognosticators, are in first place in the National League East. The Cubs had some questions in the pen this time last year too. They had the luxury of trying to figure it out before making a massive trade for a closer. The Nats do too, and likely will. But expect them to be a part of any trade rumor conversation for the next couple of months.