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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.

Jenrry Mejia: “It is not like they say. I am sure that I did not use anything.”

New York Mets' Jenrry Mejia reacts after getting the last out against the Milwaukee Brewers during the ninth inning of a baseball game Friday, July 25, 2014, in Milwaukee. The Mets won 3-2. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps
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Mets reliever Jenrry Mejia was permanently suspended on Friday after testing positive for a third time for a performance-enhancing drug. The right-hander is maintaining his innocence, as ESPN’s Adam Rubin notes in quoting Dominican sports journalist Hector Gomez. Mejia said, “It is not like they say. I am sure that I did not use anything.”

Mejia has the opportunity to petition commissioner Rob Manfred in one year for reinstatement to Major League Baseball. However, he must sit out at least two years before becoming eligible to pitch in the majors again, which would mean Mejia would be 28 years old.

Over parts of five seasons, Mejia has a career 3.68 ERA with 162 strikeouts and 76 walks over 183 1/3 innings. He was once a top prospect in the Mets’ minor league system and a top-100 overall prospect heading into the 2010 and ’11 seasons.

Bryce Harper on potential $400 million contract: “Don’t sell me short.”

Bryce Harper
AP Photo/Nick Wass
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Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper is at least three years away from free agency, but people are already contemplating just how large a contract the phenom will be able to negotiate, especially after taking home the National League Most Valuable Player Award for his performance this past season.

When the likes of David Price and Zack Greinke are signing for over $200 million at the age of 30 or older, it stands to reason that Harper could draw more as a 26-year-old if he can maintain MVP-esque levels of production over the next several seasons. $400 million might not be enough for Harper, though, as MLB.com’s Jamal Collier reports. He said, “Don’t sell me short,” which is a fantastic response.

During the 2015 season, Harper led the majors with a .460 on-base percentage and a .649 slugging percentage while leading the National League with 42 home runs and 118 runs scored. He also knocked in 99 runs for good measure. Harper and Ted Williams are the only hitters in baseball history to put up an adjusted OPS of 195 or better (100 is average) at the age of 22 or younger.

Frankie Montas out 2-4 months after rib resection surgery

Chicago White Sox pitcher Frankie Montas throws against the Detroit Tigers in the first inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
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Per Eric Stephen of SB Nation’s True Blue LA, the Dodgers announced that pitching prospect Frankie Montas will be out two to four months after undergoing rib resection surgery to remove his right first rib.

The Dodgers acquired Montas from the White Sox in a three-team trade in December 2015 that also involved the Reds. The 22-year-old made his big league debut with the Pale Hose last season, allowing eight runs on 14 hits and nine walks with 20 strikeouts in 15 innings across two starts. Montas had spent the majority of his season at Double-A Birmingham, where he posted a 2.97 ERA with 108 strikeouts and 48 walks in 112 innings.

MLB.com rated Montas as the 95th-best prospect in baseball, slipping a few spots from last year’s pre-season ranking of 91.

Athletics acquire Khris Davis in trade with Brewers

Milwaukee Brewers' Khris Davis swings on a home run during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres on Tuesday, July 23, 2013, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
AP Photo/Morry Gash
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The Brewers’ rebuild continues, as the club announced on Twitter the trade of outfielder Khris Davis to the Athletics in exchange for catcher Jacob Nottingham and pitcher Bubba Derby. MLB.com’s Jane Lee reports that the A’s have designated pitcher Sean Nolin for assignment to create room on the 40-man roster for Davis.

Davis, 28, was the Brewers’ most valuable remaining trade chip. He blasted 27 home runs while hitting .247/.323/.505 in 440 plate appearances this past season in Milwaukee. Adding to his value, Davis won’t become eligible for arbitration until after the 2016 season and can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season. In Oakland, Davis will give the Athletics more reliability as Coco Crisp was injured for most of last season and is now 36 years old. Though he doesn’t have much of a career platoon split, Davis split time in left field with the left-handed-hitting Gerardo Parra last season. It’s unclear if the A’s will utilize him in a platoon as well.

With Davis out of the picture, Domingo Santana is a leading candidate to start in left field for the Brewers, GM David Stearns said, per Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Nottingham, 20, started the 2015 season in the Astros’ system but went to the Athletics in the Scott Kazmir deal. He hit an aggregate .316/.372/.505 at Single-A, showing plenty of promise early in his professional career. With catcher Jonathan Lucroy on his way out of Milwaukee, the Brewers are hoping Nottingham can be their next permanent backstop.

Derby, 21, made his professional debut last season after the Athletics drafted him in the sixth round. Across 37 1/3 innings, he yielded seven runs (five earned) on 24 hits and 10 walks with 47 strikeouts. He’s obviously a few years away from the majors, but the Brewers are looking for high upside.