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.

If Brett Anderson hits better this year, thank Josh Donaldson

Los Angeles Dodgers' Brett Anderson ducks away from a pitch from Cincinnati Reds starting pitcher David Holmberg on a bunt attempt during the fourth inning of a baseball game, Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
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Or, at the very least, thank his bat.

Brett Anderson, who hit a meaty .085/.173/.106 last season, just got his first 2016 bat delivery, it seems. He posted a pic of the shiny lumber on Twitter a few minutes ago, with a message to his former teammate, the reigning AL MVP Josh Donaldson, whose “JD” initials signifying whose model number it is are plainly visible on the barrel:

 

If Anderson breaks out offensively this year — say, he pushes that OBP over .200 — I may reconsider my “DH in the National League now” argument and merely suggest that pitchers get better bats.

In other news, whose bat was Zack Greinke using last year? And did he leave any behind at Camelback Ranch? Might be worth looking.

Diamondbacks working on a deal with Tyler Clippard

at Citi Field on July 28, 2015 in Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.
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Last week Diamondbacks general manager Dave Stewart revealed that he was interested in signing free agent reliever Tyler Clippard and now Nick Piecoro of the Arizona Republic reports that the two sides have “made progress toward a deal.”

Piecoro notes that by trading Aaron Hill and his remaining contract to the Brewers the Diamondbacks created a bit of payroll flexibility that they could use to sign Clippard.

Clippard has a long history of excellent work as both a setup man and closer, but his raw stuff and secondary numbers have declined even though his ERA remained very good at 2.92 last season for the A’s and Mets. His strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 8.1 per nine innings, which is drop of about 25 percent from 2009-2014.

Two elite Cuban players defect

cuba hat
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Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com just reported that Yulieski Gurriel & Lourdes Gurriel Jr., who are brothers, reportedly defected and will be seeking MLB deals. There aren’t any details yet, but Sanchez will be updating with a full story that we’ll link here when he has it. UPDATE: Here it is.

Yulieski is a 31-year old third baseman and, according to Baseball America’s Ben Badler he was the No. 1 player remaining in Cuba. He was one of the Cuban players who was permitted to play in Japan recently, and he just put up a .305/.349/.536 season with 11 homers in 62 games for the Yokohama Bay Stars and has continued to rake in Cuba. He is likely major league ready right this instant. He’d be an unrestricted free agent given his age and team’s signing him would not be subject to international bonus pool limits.

Lourdes is only 22 years old. He’s hit .269/.355/.414 in 1036 Serie Nacional plate appearances and Badler thinks he has 20-homer potential in the majors one day. He’s currently a shortstop, but is probably destined for a corner. He is young enough to where he would be subject to bonus pool limits. Several teams have already exceeded those limits for the current signing period, limiting the number of teams who could sign him. If, however, it takes MLB a long time to clear him as a free agent — and with immigration issues and the like, that’s very possible — he may not be eligible to be signed until next year, which could bring some other teams into the fold.

 

Indians close to signing ex-Nationals reliever Craig Stammen

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Right-hander Craig Stammen, who spent the first seven seasons of his career with the Nationals, is expected to sign with the Indians.

Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports.com reports that the Indians “hope to finalize a deal” with Stammen today, adding veteran depth to the bullpen. It’ll likely be a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Stammen missed nearly all of last season following elbow surgery and the Nationals non-tendered him, but he’s scheduled to be ready for spring training. After struggling as a starter early in his career he’s posted a 3.02 ERA in 280 innings out of the bullpen, so if healthy it’d be a nice addition for Cleveland.