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

What’s on tap: previewing tonight’s action

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JULY 13:  Julio Urias of the World Team during the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game at Target Field on July 13, 2014 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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The big game is in New York, where Julio Urias makes his major league debut against Jacob deGrom and the New York Mets. Urias, 19, has 27 consecutive scoreless innings under his belt. All at Triple-A, of course. The debuts of young pitchers tend not to go too well, but at the very least you’ll see a guy with electric stuff and you’ll be able to say you saw him back when he was just a lad.

Another nice matchup pits Jaime Garcia against Max Scherzer. Garcia has struggled of late but is always capable of a big game. Scherzer has had some of the biggest games of the past couple of years. Masahiro Tanaka vs. Chris Archer is another matchup with star power, even if Archer hasn’t lived up to his billing of late. Tanaka has only pitched on game in Tropicana Field but it was a great game, tossing seven shutout innings while striking out eight. He may be the only person alive who likes it there.

Here’s tonight’s slate. And, well, this afternoon’s game in Chicago too:

Philadelphia Phillies (Adam Morgan) @ Chicago Cubs (Jon Lester), 2:20 PM EDT, Wrigley Field

St. Louis Cardinals (Jaime Garcia) @ Washington Nationals (Max Scherzer), 7:05 PM EDT, Nationals Park

Boston Red Sox (Joe Kelly) @ Toronto Blue Jays (Aaron Sanchez), 7:07 PM EDT, Rogers Centre

Baltimore Orioles (Mike Wright) @ Cleveland Indians (Trevor Bauer), 7:10 PM EDT, Progressive Field

Los Angeles Dodgers (Julio Urias) @ New York Mets (Jacob deGrom), 7:10 PM EDT, Citi Field

New York Yankees (Masahiro Tanaka) @ Tampa Bay Rays (Chris Archer), 7:10 PM EDT, Tropicana Field

Miami Marlins (Adam Conley) @ Atlanta Braves (Williams Perez), 7:35 PM EDT, Turner Field

Pittsburgh Pirates (Jonathon Niese) @ Texas Rangers (Cole Hamels), 8:05 PM EDT, Globe Life Park in Arlington

Cincinnati Reds (John Lamb) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Zach Davies), 8:10 PM EDT, Miller Park

Chicago White Sox (Miguel Gonzalez) @ Kansas City Royals (Danny Duffy), 8:15 PM EDT, Kauffman Stadium

San Francisco Giants (Matt Cain) @ Colorado Rockies (Tyler Chatwood), 8:40 PM EDT, Coors Field

San Diego Padres (Christian Friedrich) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (Robbie Ray), 9:40 PM EDT, Chase Field

Detroit Tigers (Michael Fulmer) @ Oakland Athletics (Sean Manaea), 10:05 PM EDT, Oakland Coliseum

Houston Astros (Mike Fiers) @ Los Angeles Angels (Matt Shoemaker), 10:05 PM EDT, Angel Stadium of Anaheim

The best active players by year of birth

Ichiro Suzuki
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There remains one player in major league baseball who is older than me. One. Bartolo Colon. And he’s only older than me by a couple of months. There is another guy born the same year as me still playing: Ichiro. I’m older than him by a couple of months, but 1973 is still representing. Just barely. It won’t be long now until every single ballplayer is my junior.

Everyone thinks about that from time to time. Our baseball mortality or whatever dramatic thing we want to call it. We all know by now that we’re never gonna make it to the bigs. Most of us knew it when we were still kids. But there is some sort of . . . feeling we all get when we look at a ballplayer who is our age. There’s no element of “I could do that” to it. But maybe a touch of “if things were different, I could’ve been you.” This is much easier for those of us who don’t know how genetics work, of course.

Today Will Leitch of Sports on Earth has a handy post for those of us who think about this stuff. It’s a list of the best baseball players born in each and every year from 1973, when the dinosaurs roamed, until 1996, which will officially be operative this evening as Julio Urias takes the mound for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

I hope the list doesn’t depress any of you. If it does, I’ll try to come up with a similar one for cardiologists or research professors or something. A lot of us are still younger than those folks. Even if we have just as much a chance of being them as we have of being the left fielder for the Chicago White Sox or whatever.

Yasiel Puig visits the Statue of Liberty, meets a Yasiel Puig fan

Los Angeles Dodgers' Yasiel Puig reacts in dugout after hitting a RBI sacrifice fly against the San Francisco Giants during fifth inning of a spring baseball game in Scottsdale, Ariz., Sunday, March 6, 2016. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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Yasiel Puig is in New York to face the Mets this weekend. Yesterday was a day off so he got to explore New York. You can tell he’s not a New Yorker because he actually went to visit the Statue of Liberty.

I likewise assume that Puig made it to where the boat leaves for Liberty Island with plenty of time to spare, because God knows he’s had a week in which him hustling to make it just in time wasn’t gonna happen.

In other news, Puig made a friend on the boat:

Wade Boggs did not wear his Yankees ring to his number retiring ceremony last night

BOSTON, MA - MAY 26:  Wade Boggs acknowledges the crowd during the retirement of his jersey #26 prior to the game between the Boston Red Sox and the Colorado Rockies at Fenway Park on May 26, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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The other day we had the non-controversy of Wade Boggs wearing his 1996 World Series ring, which he won with the Yankees, to a ceremony honoring the 1986 Red Sox. Last night, however, Boggs was feted as an individual, with his number 26 being retired at Fenway Park.

It was an emotional night for him. He was visibly choked up and said all sorts of things which clearly showed how much more, at heart, he is a Boston Red Sox legend than he is a legend of either of the other teams for which he played. And he made a comment about the Yankees ring thing too:

He wore his Hall of Fame ring on Thursday.

“I’m proud of it,” Boggs said of the ’96 Yankees’ ring. “But I didn’t feel like it was appropriate today being that it’s my day, it’s my number and everything like that. So I left it off.”

The dude hit .328 for his career and had 3,010 hits despite not even playing a full season until he was 25. He could wear a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring out there and no one would have the right to say boo to him.