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.

Astros stave off AL West elimination, beat the Diamondbacks

Colby Rasmus, Gary Pettis
AP Photo

Facing an elimination number of one, the Astros staved off elimination in the AL West by beating the Diamondbacks on Friday night by a 6-1 margin. The Rangers suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Angels on Saturday afternoon, which temporarily put the Astros’ fate in their own hands.

Colby Rasmus hit a pair of solo homers and Jose Altuve added a solo shot of his own. Starter Collin McHugh tossed seven innings of one-run ball, limiting the Diamondbacks to six hits and a walk with six strikeouts. Reliever Will Harris allowed a solo home run to Paul Goldschmidt in the eighth, but Luke Gregerson closed out the game with a scoreless ninth.

The Astros trail the Rangers by one game in the AL West and lead the Angels by one game for the second AL Wild Card slot. The Rangers can clinch the AL West on Sunday afternoon with a win or an Astros loss. The Astros can clinch the second AL Wild Card on Sunday afternoon with a win or an Angels loss.

The Yankees lost both ends of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Orioles and lead the Astros by only one game for the first AL Wild Card slot.

If the Astros win and the Rangers lose on Sunday, they will play an AL West tiebreaker in Texas. The winner will win the second AL Wild Card if the Yankees win on Sunday, or the first AL Wild Card if the Yankees lose on Sunday.

If the Astros lose and the Angels win on Sunday, the two teams will be tied for the second AL Wild Card. They would play a tiebreaker in Houston, and the winner would play the Yankees in New York in the Wild Card game.

Video: Kelby Tomlinson slides in for an inside-the-park home run

Kelby Tomlinson
AP Photo
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Giants second baseman Kelby Tomlinson looked more like Ladainian Tomlinson the way he was running during Saturday afternoon’s game against the Rockies. In the first inning with one out against starter Chris Rusin, Tomlinson hit a fly ball into the right-center field gap at AT&T Park, a great place to go if you’re in the mood for an inside-the-park home run.

Neither Carlos Gonzalez nor Chris Dickerson could corral the ball before it rolled all the way to the 421-foot marker at the fence. Tomlinson motored around the bases, but Gonzalez made a strong throw into cut-off man D.J. LeMahieu, and LeMahieu made a great throw in to catcher Tom Murphy, but Tomlinson slid in safely just ahead of the tag.

It was an exciting play and the hit proved important as the Giants eked out a 3-2 win against the Rockies.