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

Mike Matheny tried to have his own son picked off at first base

PHOENIX, AZ - AUGUST 26: Manager Mike Matheny #26 of the St Louis Cardinals looks on from the dugout during the first inning of a MLB game against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field on August 26, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Cardinals defeated the Diamondbacks 3-1. (Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty Images)
Ralph Freso/Getty Images
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Cardinals manager Mike Matheny has a son, Tate, who was selected by the Red Sox in the fourth round of the 2015 draft out of Missouri State University. Tate, an outfielder, spent the 2015 season with Low-A Lowell and last year played at Single-A Greenville.

Now in spring camp with the Red Sox, Tate is trying to continue his ascent through the minor league system. On Monday afternoon in a game against his father’s Cardinals, Tate pinch-ran after Xander Bogaerts singled to center field to lead off the bottom of the fifth inning. Mike wasn’t about to let his son catch any breaks. Via Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

That’s right: Mike tried to have his own son picked off at first base. That’s just cold, man.

Tate was erased shortly thereafter when Mookie Betts grounded into a 6-4-3 double play. Tate got his first at-bat in the seventh and struck out.

Do we really need metal detectors at spring training facilities?

sloan-metal-detector-1
Craig Calcaterra
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MESA, AZ — Over the past couple of seasons we’ve, more or less, gotten used to the sight of metal detectors at major league ballparks. And the sight of long lines outside of them, requiring us to get to the park a bit earlier or else risk missing some of the early inning action.

Like so much else over the past fifteen and a half years, we’re given assurances by people in charge that it’s for “security,” and we alter our lives and habits accordingly. This despite the fact that security experts have argued that it’s a mostly useless and empty exercise in security theater. More broadly, they’ve correctly noted that it’s a cynical and defeatist solution in search of a problem. But hey, welcome to 21st Century America.

And welcome metal detectors to spring training:

scottsdale-metal-detector

Beginning this year, Major League Baseball is mandating that all spring training facilities use some form of metal detection, be it walkthrough detectors like the ones shown here at the Giants’ park in Scottsdale or wands like the one being used on the nice old lady above at the Cubs facility in Mesa.

I asked Major League Baseball why they are requiring them in Florida and Arizona. They said that the program was not implemented in response to any specific incident or threat at a baseball game, but are “precautionary measures.” They say that metal detection “has not posed significant inconvenience or taken away from the ballpark experience” since being required at big league parks in 2015 and believe it will work the same way at the spring training parks.They caution fans, however, that, as the program gets underway, they should allow for more time for entry.

And that certainly makes sense:

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I took this photo a few minutes after the home plate gate opened at Sloan Park yesterday afternoon. As I noted this morning, the Cubs sell out every game in their 15,000-seat park. That’s a lot of wanding and, as a result, it could lead to a lot of waiting.

But the crowds here all seemed to get through the line pretty quickly. Perhaps because the wanding is not exactly a time-consuming affair:

Not every security guard was as, well, efficient as this guy. But hardly anyone walking through the gate was given a particularly thorough go-over. I saw several hundred people go through the procedure soon after the gates opened and most of them weren’t scanned bellow the level of their hip pockets. I went back a little closer to game time when most people were already in the park and the lines were shorter. The procedure was a bit more deliberate then, though not dramatically so. This is all new for the security people too — spring training just started — and it’s fair to say that they are trying hard to balance the needs of their new precautionary measures against the need to keep the lines moving and the fans happy.

On this day at least it seemed that fan happiness was winning. I spoke with several fans after they got through the gates and none of them offered much in the way of complaint about being wanded. The clear consensus: it’s just what we do now. We have metal detectors and cameras at schools and places of work and security procedures have been ratcheted up dramatically across the board. That we now have them at ballparks is not surprising to anyone, really. It’s just not a thing anyone thinks to question.

And so they don’t.