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: Qualifying offer to be in the $18 million range

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According to ESPN’s Buster Olney, teams have been told that the qualifying offer to free agents this offseason will be in the $18 million range, likely $18.1 million. The value is derived by taking the average of the top 125 player salaries.

At $18.1 million, that would be $900,000 more than the previous QO, which was $17.2 million. This will impact soon-to-be free agents like Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, and Yu Darvish, among others. That also assumes that the aforementioned players aren’t traded, which would make them ineligible to receive qualifying offers. We’ve seen, increasingly, that teams aren’t willing to make a QO to an impending free agent and that trend is likely to continue this offseason.

The QO system was modified by the newest collective bargaining agreement. The compensatory pick for a team losing a player who declined a QO used to be a first-round pick. That was a penalty to both teams and players, which is why it was changed. Via MLB’s website pertaining to the QO:

A team that exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season will lose its second- and fifth-highest selections after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well $1 million from its international bonus pool. If such a team signs multiple qualifying offer free agents, it will forfeit its third- and sixth-highest remaining picks as well.

A team that receives revenue sharing will lose its third-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its fourth-highest remaining pick.

A team that neither exceeded the luxury tax in the preceding season nor receives revenue sharing will lose its second-highest selection after the first round in the following year’s Draft as well as $500,000 from its international bonus pool. If it signs two such players, it will also forfeit its third-highest remaining pick.

Additionally, if a player who rejected a QO signs a guaranteed contract worth at least $50 million and came from a team that receives revenue sharing, that previous team will receive a compensatory pick immediately following the first round in the ensuing draft. If the contract is less than $50 million, that team will get a compensatory pick after Competitive Balance Round B. If the player’s team is over the luxury tax threshold, that team will receive a compensation pick following the fourth round. If that team neither exceeded the luxury tax nor receives revenue sharing, the compensation pick will come after Competitive Balance Round B.

Yeah, it’s a bit convoluted, but you do the best you can with a flawed system.

The Astros’ pursuit of Sonny Gray is “heating up”

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Jon Morosi of MLB Networks reports that talks are “heating up” between the Astros and Athletics on a Sonny Gray trade. Gray, obviously, would represent a big upgrade for the Astros’ rotation. He has a 3.66 ERA and has struck out 85 batters while walking 28 in 91 innings.

Morosi adds that Gray is not the only option for the Astros, as they are also talking to the Tigers about a potential acquisition of Justin Verlander and Justin Wilson. That would obviously be a much tougher deal to negotiate given Verlander’s 10/5 rights giving him veto power over any trade, not to mention the massive amount of money he’s still owed on his contract.

Also: I’m pretty sure that it’s in the MLB rules that any trade between the Tigers and the Astros has to involve Brad Ausmus, C.J. Nitkowski and Jose Lima, and that’s not possible given their current occupations and/or their deaths in 2010.