Prince Fielder, Miguel Cabrera

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.

Report: Teams have inquired with the Angels about Hector Santiago

ANAHEIM, CA - JULY 20:  Hector Santiago #53 of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Texas Rangers  at Angel Stadium of Anaheim on July 20, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images
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ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reported on Monday that the Angels have received inquiries from multiple teams concerning starter Hector Santiago. He adds that the club is willing to listen to offers. Jon Morosi of FOX Sports and MLB Network reports that the Marlins are among the teams that have inquired.

Santiago, 28, has pitched to a 4.32 ERA with 96 strikeouts and 47 walks in 110 1/3 innings. Sabermetric statistics such as FIP, xFIP, and SIERA think the lefty has pitched even worse than his ERA indicates however, pitting 2016 as his worst performance to date.

Santiago is earning $5 million this season and will enter his third and final year of arbitration eligibility going into 2017.

We also learned earlier that, in an effort to bolster their starting rotation, the Marlins have also shown interest in Wade Miley of the Mariners and Jeremy Hellickson of the Phillies.

Prince Fielder will undergo season-ending neck surgery this week

SEATTLE, WA - JUNE 10: Prince Fielder #84 takes a swing during a game against the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field on June 10, 2016 in Seattle, Washington. The Mariners won the game 7-5. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images
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The Rangers placed DH Prince Fielder on the disabled list last week due to more neck discomfort. On Friday, Fielder met with Dr. Drew Dossett, who performed spinal fusion surgery on Fielder in 2014 for a herniated disk in his neck. Dossett has recommended another procedure, so Fielder will undergo season-ending surgery this week, Jeff Wilson of the Fort-Worth Star Telegram reports.

Fielder was having a rough season, batting .212/.292/.334 with eight home runs and 44 RBI in 370 plate appearances. He played in only 42 games in 2014, but returned in 2015 looking more like his old self. Unfortunately, neck and back issues are notoriously difficult to fix. Hopefully, this upcoming procedure does the trick for Fielder.

Fielder is owed $24 million per season through 2020, with the Tigers paying $6 million of it per season.