2013 Preview: 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 2013 season. Today: the Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers the American League’s best team?

Last season the Tigers won 88 games, beat the A’s in the ALDS, swept the Yankees in the ALCS, and then lost to the Giants in the World Series. And on paper at least they got significantly better this offseason. Delmon Young and Jose Valverde are the only major departures from last year’s team and that qualifies mostly as addition by subtraction based on their 2012 performances.

Jim Leyland has yet to decide who’ll replace Valverde as closer, but the Tigers’ overall bullpen depth isn’t bad and playing things by ear in the late innings worked well in the playoffs. Torii Hunter essentially replaces Young, which is a big upgrade offensively and a massive upgrade defensively. Victor Martinez returns to the middle of the lineup after sitting out all of last season following knee surgery, which is basically like adding an elite free agent signing. And both Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante will be around for the entire season after arriving as midseason pickups last year.

If you take an 88-win, AL-champion team and subtract Young and Valverde while adding Hunter, Martinez, and full seasons from Sanchez and Infante it’s hard not to think the Tigers are improved. And even if there’s a little doubt about that there’s no doubt that Detroit has the easiest path to the playoffs among AL contenders, as the rest of the AL Central once again looks weak. Can the White Sox, Indians, or Royals (or Twins, in some alternate universe or something) provide a legitimate late-season challenge by winning 85-plus games?

If that were to happen–which seems unlikely to me, at least–there’s a strong chance that the Tigers will make it a moot point by beating up on the unbalanced schedule so much that they clear 90 wins with ease.  Of course, it’s worth noting that I thought the Tigers would run away with the AL Central last season as well and instead they ended up having to overtake the slumping White Sox in September. However, now the Tigers appear stronger, the White Sox appear weaker, and I’m not buying into the Indians or Royals being ready to take a big leap yet.

There’s plenty of room for debate about whether Detroit is the best team in the American League, but more so than any other team in the league– or in baseball, period–I’ll be shocked if the Tigers don’t win their division. They’re too good, the rest of the division is too mediocre, and the unbalanced schedule is too favorable for it not to happen.

What else is going on?

• I’m fairly convinced that the Tigers have the best rotation in baseball. Justin Verlander is obviously amazing, Max Scherzer led MLB in strikeout rate last season and went 15-4 with a 3.14 ERA after a rough April, Anibal Sanchez has averaged 196 innings with a 3.70 ERA in the past three seasons, and Doug Fister has largely flown under the radar despite a 3.48 career ERA. And while Rick Porcello has underwhelmed so far he’s still a helluva fifth starter. For all the focus on Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder putting up huge numbers in the middle of the lineup, starting pitching can carry the Tigers.

• This time last year the Tigers’ defense was a big worry and that proved accurate, as Detroit turned the league’s second-fewest balls in play into outs and ranked 27th in Ultimate Zone Rating. Defense cost the Tigers a bunch of runs, but the pitching staff racking up the league’s second-most strikeouts minimized that somewhat and the rest of the team was strong enough that it didn’t matter. This season the pitching staff again looks capable of missing a ton of bats and the defense should be improved with Hunter in the outfield and Infante full time at second base.

• Nick Castellanos will begin the season at Triple-A because he’s 21 years old and has spent all of two months above Single-A, but if Dirks struggles as the primary left fielder the Tigers could turn to their top prospect pretty quickly. Castellanos was a first-round pick in 2010 and shifted from third base to the outfield last year. MLB.com and Baseball America each rated him as a top-25 prospect and he’s hit .316 in 276 pro games (although he did struggle some at Double-A). And if the Tigers decide Castellanos needs a bit more time in the minors Avisail Garcia is another outfield option.

• Cabrera begins his 30s this season, so it’s a good time to look back at how amazing his 20s were. Because he debuted at age 20, was almost immediately an elite hitter, and has avoided injuries Cabrera has piled up some incredible totals. Among all hitters in MLB history through age 29 he ranks third in doubles, fourth in intentional walks, sixth in RBIs, seventh in extra-base hits, eighth in total bases, eighth in times on base, and is also in the top 20 for hits, homers, runs, and games. His defense leaves a lot to be desired, but purely in terms of hitting Cabrera is on track to truly become one of the all-time greats.

Prediction: First place, American League Central

And That Happened: Wednesday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Yankees 11, Twins 3: The Twins took a 3-0 lead, but after that it was all Yankees. Aaron Judge hit his AL-leading 45th home run and crossed the 100 RBI mark. Gary Sanchez went back-to-back with him in the third. Didi Gregorius hit a three-run shot. The Yankees are rolling at just the right time. Or at least that’s what I’m reading everywhere, despite the fact that momentum is a false construct. And despite the fact that, hey, the world is probably going to end on Saturday.

Athletics 3, Tigers 2: Daniel Mengden tossed seven scoreless innings and continued to test my theory that, if they wanted to, sports writers could totally make up names for Oakland A’s players and most of us would nod and say “hmm, OK . . . Mengden.” Marcus Semien homered and drove in three as the A’s swept the Tigers. Who, after a decade or so of being a team full of famous players, is about to enter a period when we could play the same game with their relatively anonymous players as we’ve played with teams like the A’s for so long.

Marlins 9, Mets 2: Giancarlo Stanton hit his 56th homer and drove in three. In keeping with the silly trend of people pretending that passing Roger Maris at 61 would somehow be a significant record as opposed to merely a neat accomplishment, I am going to officially proclaim that Stanton NOW has the home run record. Hey, if subjectivity matters for things like this, so too does my personal subjectivity. The rundown:

  • Ken Griffey Jr. hit 56 twice, but he once used a Bed Bath and Beyond coupon that was expired, sullying it;
  • Luis Gonzalez and A-Rod at 57? They were Freemasons;
  • Four players hit 58 in a season once — Foxx, Greenberg, Howard and McGwire — but that sounds like a law firm, undermining the purity of the accomplishment;
  • Babe Ruth hit 59 and 60, but he purchased alcohol during prohibition, setting a terrible example for lack of temperance;
  • Roger Maris’ 61 was hit in front of a half-empty Yankee Stadium crowd. The Yankees were amazing in 1961 and everyone was talking about him passing Ruth, so something fishy was going on. I’m going to guess radiation contamination on site scared people away and, in turn, powered Maris artificially, like someone in a comic book;
  • That just leaves Sosa, McGwire and Bonds and they murdered all of those people so it’d be wrong to honor them.

Congratulations, Giancarlo Stanton: The Single Season Home Run Champ!

Giants 4, Rockies 0: The Rockies lose their third in a row. Thanks to the Brewers losing too they keep their one-game lead for the second Wild Card, but they really need to cut this out. Brandon Crawford hit a solo homer and Matt Moore and four relievers combined to shut Colorado out.

Red Sox 9, Orioles 0: Chris Sale tossed eight shutout innings and struck out 13. In so doing he became just the second pitcher to strikeout 300-plus batters in a season in the last 15 years, joining Clayton Kershaw. Before that Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson accomplished the feat in 2002 (Johnson also did it in 2001 and 2000 as well). Sale is just the second Red Sox pitcher to do it, following Pedro Martinez, who did it in 1999. Mookie Betts and Deven Marrero went deep for Boston. The Red Sox have clinched a playoff spot.

Phillies 7, Dodgers 5Aaron Altherr hit a tying, two-run homer in the seventh. The Dodgers added a run, so Altherr hit a tiebreaking, two-run single in the eighth. That’s three in a row over the Dodgers for Philly. They go for the sweep this afternoon. The Dodgers have lost four straight and 20 of 25. Their magic number for the NL West remains at two.

Pirates 6, Brewers 4Adam Frazier hit a two-out, two-run, walkoff homer off of Corey Knebel, averting extra innings and giving the game to the Buccos. Knebel’s streak of 21 consecutive save chances converted ended just before that when his own throwing error allowed the Pirates to tie it. We all have a bad day sometimes.

Royals 15, Blue Jays 5: Mike Moustakas broke the single-season home run record for the Royals. But, like I said above, this is all apparently subjective now, so I’m gonna stick with Steve Balboni’s 36 as the true mark, because this:

Salvador Perez and Whit Merrifield also went deep as the Royals victimized Brett Anderson for eight runs on seven hits in an inning and a third and rattled off 18 hits on the night.

Cardinals 9, Reds 2Dexter Fowler homered for the third straight game. Matt Carpenter and Paul DeJong also went deep, Tommy Pham had three hits and two RBI and Yadier Molina added a two-run double. Luke Weaver allowed two runs in five innings to win his seventh straight start, making him the current active leader in consecutive wins.

Rays 8, Cubs 1: The Cubs seven-game winning streak comes to an end thanks to Blake Snell‘s two-hit, seven shutout inning performance. The Cubs now open a four-game series in Milwaukee. They have a three and a half game lead over the Brewers and can either put them away or give us an exciting last week of the season. So, nothing personal Cubs fans, but let’s go Brewers.

Nationals 7, Braves 3: The Braves had a 2-1 lead heading into the eighth and then the Nats went and put up a six-spot. Three of those runs came on bases loaded walks from Arodys Vizcaino. Maybe Brandon Snitker is a fan of the movie “Tin Cup” or something. I don’t know. I’m just glad I wasn’t feeling well last night and took a NyQuil at 9:30 and missed it.

Astros 4, White Sox 3: That’s six straight wins for Houston. Yuli Gurriel had three hits, including a two-run double, Brad Peacock allowed two runs on only one hit in six innings.

Diamondbacks 13, Padres 7: Hunter Renfroe hit three homers. Wasn’t enough, though, as the Dbacks overcame a 6-2 deficit and scored 11 runs in the final four innings. J.D Martinez, A.J. Pollock, David Peralta and Jake Lamb all went deep for the Snakes.

Indians 6, Angels 5: Four wins in a row for Cleveland who is now 26-1 over their past 27 games. They haven’t lost a road game since August 20. This is just crazy stuff. Francisco Lindor snapped a seventh-inning tie with a two-run homer and  Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Ramirez added RBI singles. The Angels remain one and a half back of the Twins for the second Wild Card.

Rangers 8, Mariners 6Rougned Odor hit a grand slam to cap a seven-run fourth inning and the Rangers held off Seattle. Alex Claudio earned a six-out save. The Puerto Rican native was distracted and worried about his family and homeland in the wake of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Maria. I have no idea how anyone could concentrate under such circumstances, but he did.

Mike Moustakas sets Royals single-season record with 37th home run

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Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas belted his 37th home run on Wednesday evening, setting a new club record for homers in a single season. Moustakas had been tied with Steve Balboni, who hit 36 home runs in 1985.

The home run came on a 2-0, 82 MPH slider from Blue Jays reliever Carlos Ramirez, boosting the Royals’ lead to 13-0 in the top of the sixth inning.

Moustakas, 29, entered the night batting .271/.313/.523 with 82 RBI and 71 runs scored in 560 plate appearances.