leyland and dombrowski tigers

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

Brandon Belt signs $6.2 million deal, avoiding arbitration with Giants

Brandon Belt
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In a last-second compromise before a scheduled heading today, first baseman Brandon Belt and the Giants have avoided arbitration by agreeing to a one-year, $6.2 million deal.

Belt requested $7.5 million and the Giants countered at $5.3 million, so they’ve settled slightly on the team-friendly side of the midpoint. Belt will be arbitration eligible again next season for the final time before hitting the open market as a free agent.

He’s coming off a very good season in which he hit .280 with 18 homers and an .834 OPS in 137 games and Belt has a lifetime .803 OPS through age 27, making him one of MLB’s most underrated all-around first baseman.

Orioles sign ex-Padres reliever Dale Thayer

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Right-hander Dale Thayer and the Orioles have agreed to a minor-league contract that includes an invitation to spring training.

Thayer had a rough 2015 season for the Padres, posting a 4.06 ERA and spending time in the minors, but he was a solid part of San Diego’s bullpen from 2012-2014 with a combined 3.02 ERA and 173/50 K/BB ratio in 188 innings.

At age 35 there’s no guarantee that Thayer will look good enough to claim a spot on the Opening Day roster, but he’s got a strong chance to wind up pitching middle relief for Baltimore.

Phillies acquire Taylor Featherston from Angels

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Taylor Featherston, who was designated for assignment by the Angels last week, has been traded to the Phillies for a player to be named later or cash.

Featherston stayed in the majors with the Angels for all of last season due to being a Rule 5 pick from the Rockies organization, but the 25-year-old infielder hit just .162 in 169 plate appearances.

He’s been much better in the minors, but nothing about his track record there screams quality regular and the Phillies are likely viewing him as a defense-first bench option for now.

Keith Law: The Braves have the best farm system in baseball

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Flags fly forever! Hooray for The Process championship!

Ah, sorry. This is about as much rooting as I’ll get to do this year, so cut me some slack.

This is the week when ESPN’s Keith Law releases his prospect and farm system rankings. He kicks off his content this week with a top-to-bottom ranking of all 30 farm systems. As a rule he limits his analysis to players who are currently in the minors and who have not yet exhausted their rookie of the year eligibility. The top system: the Atlanta Braves. The bottom: the Los Angeles Angels, about whom Law says “I’ve been doing these rankings for eight years now, and this is by far the worst system I’ve ever seen.” Enjoy Mike Trout, though, you guys.

If you want to know the reasons and the rankings of everyone in between you’ll have to get an ESPN Insider subscription. Sorry, I know everyone hates to pay for content on the Internet, but Keith and others who do this kind of work put a lot of damn work into it and this is what pays their bills. I typically don’t like to pay for content myself, but I do pay for an ESPN Insider subscription. It’s worth it for Law’s work alone. And though he drives me crazy sometimes, Buster Olney’s daily column/notes thing is also worth the money over the course of the year.