Springtime Storylines: Can anyone in the AL Central beat the Detroit Tigers?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Can anyone in the AL Central beat the Detroit Tigers?

After winning their division by an MLB-high 15 games last year the Tigers lost designated hitter Victor Martinez to a season-ending knee injury in January … and responded by signing Prince Fielder to a $214 million contract that shocked the baseball world.

Fielder essentially replaces Martinez in the lineup, albeit with some defensive tinkering that raises plenty of questions, and teaming him with Miguel Cabrera gives the Tigers a devastating middle of the order featuring two of the five best hitters in the entire league. Toss in reigning MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander and Detroit’s roster has as much superstar power as any in baseball.

And their non-superstars aren’t bad either, as Alex Avila, Jhonny Peralta, Delmon Young, and Brennan Boesch are capable of providing significant thump alongside the Fielder-Cabrera duo, Max Scherzer has seemingly been on the verge of a breakout for a couple years, second-half pickup Doug Fister will be around for the entire season, and well-traveled, always effective Octavio Dotel joins a potentially dominant late-inning bullpen trio with Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit.

Last season the Tigers were the smartest kid in the dumb class and no one else in the division spent the offseason studying, so while this may not be a truly great team it also doesn’t have to be because the AL Central is so weak overall and so lacking in potential 90-win teams that plenty could go wrong and they’d still be capable of winning by double-digit games.

What else is going on?

  • When your lineup includes Fielder, Cabrera, Young, and Ryan Raburn, plus Jhonny Peralta at shortstop, there’s really no way to avoid some ugliness defensively. However, by avoiding the seemingly obvious option of sticking Fielder or Cabrera at designated hitter the Tigers have compounded their defensive issues by moving Cabrera to third base, where he wasn’t much good five years and 30 pounds ago, while leaving Young to botch plays in left field and moving Raburn to second base. Austin Jackson can still run down just about anything in center field, but aside from that the Tigers are somewhere between below average and terrible all over the diamond, and at some point that’s going to catch up to the pitching staff.
  • One way around being hurt by a poor defense is to rack up strikeouts, which Verlander, Scherzer, and the Valverde-Benoit-Dotel bullpen trio are very capable of doing. Fister and Rick Porcello have two of the worst career strikeout rates among AL starters, which makes them much more reliant on the defense turning their many balls in play into outs and sets them up for disappointing seasons. Of course, while their ERAs may suffer they also won’t mind the additional run support and it’s also possible the Tigers will do some defensive rearranging once Jim Leyland gets a look at his initial group in range-impaired action.
  • Young is a key player for the Tigers. He’ll get tons of RBI chances hitting behind Cabrera and Fielder, and provided some reason for optimism with a postseason power surge. On the other hand, the hype surrounding him as a prospect is no longer very relevant now that he’s 26 years old, with six seasons of big-league experience, and has slugged just .428 with an average of 14 homers per 150 games. Young will drive in tons of runs simply by virtue of his lineup spot, but the Tigers actually need him to avoid making outs 70 percent of the time and show consistent power.
  • Verlander is obviously in no danger of losing his status as the Tigers’ ace, but Scherzer is a strong breakout candidate. He’s been plenty solid since joining the Tigers in 2010, starting 64 games with a 3.96 ERA, but his strikeout rate of 8.2 per nine innings along with improved control and a mid-90s fastball suggest he’s ready for even more. Detroit is very likely to be playing in October and if Scherzer takes a step forward they’ll be extremely dangerous when they get there.

How are they gonna do?

Even if they don’t quite live up to the hype that comes from the Fielder signing the Tigers play enough games against the AL Central’s quartet of mediocrity that 90-plus wins seems almost certain. They won 95 last season and Las Vegas has their over/under for this year around 92 wins, which sounds about right. Expect lots of power and lots of runs, lots of shaky defense, lots of dominant starts from Verlander and Scherzer, and not a whole lot of division-related drama down the stretch.

Must-Click Link: Remembering Eddie Grant the first major leaguer to die in combat

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As you get ready for Memorial Day weekend and whatever it entails for you and yours, take some time to read an excellent article from Mike Bates over at The Hardball Times.

The article is about Eddie Grant. You probably never heard of him. He was a journeyman infielder — often a backup — from 1905 through 1915. If you have heard of him, it was likely not for his baseball exploits, however: it was because he was the first active baseball player to die in combat, killed in the Battle of the Argonne Forest in October 1915.

Michael tells us about more than Grant’s death, however. He provides a great overview of his life and career. And notes that Grant didn’t even have to go to war if he didn’t want to. He was 34, had the chance to coach or manage and had a law degree and the potential to make a lot of money following his baseball career. He volunteered, however, for both patriotic and personal reasons. And it cost him his life.

Must-read stuff indeed. Especially this weekend.

The Indians are unveiling a Frank Robinson statue on Sunday

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The Cleveland Indians will unveil a Frank Robinson statue at Progressive Field on Saturday.

Robinson’s tenure in Cleveland was not long, but it was historic. On April 8, 1975, he became the first African-American manager in Major League history. He was a player-manager. One of the last ones, in fact. He spent two years in that role and then a third year — a partial year anyway — as a manager only. Robinson would go on to manage the Giants, Orioles and the Expos/Nationals, compiling a career record of 1065-1176 in 16 seasons. He is now a top MLB executive.

Robinson was, of course, a Hall of Fame player as well, lodging 21 seasons for the Reds, Orioles, Dodgers, Angels and Indians. He won two MVP awards and hit for the Triple Crown in 1966. Overall he hit 586 home runs – 10th all time – and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982. For an inner-circle Hall of Famer with that kind of resume he is still, strangely enough, underrated. I guess that happens when your contemporaries are Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mickey Mantle.

Anyway, congrats to Frank Robinson for yet another well-deserved honor in a career full of them.