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.

Rays owner tries to sell two-city concept, fails

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Last week it was reported the Tampa Bay Rays planned to explore becoming two-city team, playing early-season home games in the Tampa Bay area and finishing the season in Montreal. The plan would require not one but two new open-air stadiums. As I wrote then, the plan seemed to be a fantastical one, aimed at creating leverage in either Tampa or in Montreal to build a permanent, full-time stadium than in actually resulting in a workable plan.

Today Rays owner Stuart Sternberg held a press event in which he argued for the two-city plan. You can get most of what he had to say via the tweets of Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times and Eric Fisher of Sports Business Group, each of whom attended and live-tweeted the presser.

The biggest problem: he didn’t really make an argument for such a plan. Indeed, he just made what seem to be baseless assertions about how cool and good the idea is while doing very little to dispel the notion that all of this is aimed at either (a) getting people in the Tampa Bay area to build him a full-time ballpark; or (b) providing a basis for saying “hey, we tried” if, later, he gets Montreal to build him one and he moves the team.

Sternberg, after touting what the Rays have done given their limited resources, noted that his team is near or at the bottom of most economic measures in the game. He said that, as a result, he was “hard-pressed” to see a long-term future in which the Rays played in the Tampa Bay area full time, saying, “I don’t see it happening in St. Petersburg and would be hard-pressed to see it working in Tampa from what I know.” At the same time he said the Rays were “champions of Tampa Bay” and that “this is about Tampa Bay keeping its hometown team and Montreal having one too.”

So how does that work? How does he plan to get two cities to build him new open-air stadiums for several hundred million dollars a piece when he couldn’t get one city to build him one stadium? No word on that. Which makes this assertion seem about as empty as Tropicana Field on a Monday afternoon makeup of a September interleague rainout:

When the Braves and Rangers and any number of other teams got new stadiums, they just went out and got new stadiums. Or they got the deals in place most of the way. That’s how a stadium solution occurs when a team is not trying to leverage anyone (at least publicly). When you have no plan — and Sternberg has no plan right now — and you come out with a press push like this, you are most certainly trying to create some sort of new reality and to leverage public sentiment somehow.

The question, then, is what is Sternberg trying to leverage?

The most typical and straightforward manner in which baseball owners have talked up two cities as possible destinations for their teams is to pit one against the other. This has happened over and over again in baseball history and it’s a very successful game plan when the conditions are just right.

What Sternberg says he’s truly proposing — a two-city thing — is not typical and does not logically flow with more or less everything we know about how baseball, the business of baseball and baseball fandom works. That does not mean it is an impossible thing to pull off or that Sternberg will not, in fact, try to pull it off. But it does mean that the burden is on him to prove that this isn’t all just bluster in service of the more typical play of baseball owners when two cities are involved.

Sternberg did nothing today to show that his plan has any bones to it or that it’s at all plausible. He has given no reason to believe that he can convince public and/or private interests in two cities to build him ballparks. He has not said how he plans to get around the Rays’ iron-clad lease for Tropicana Field with St. Petersburg. He only glibly addressed the very basic and logical questions people have about how a two-city team would even function, simply alluding to how cool and good it would be when it happens.

Until there is any kind of meat on those bones, I’m not willing to go with the idea that his two-city plan is what he and the Rays actually hope will happen on the other side of all of this. Rather, I’m going to choose to believe that this is all a gambit to get one city or the other to build him a full-time ballpark.