Regular Articles

Regular Season Record: 95-67
2st in the AL Central, 1 game behind Minnesota Twins

Home Ballpark: Comerica Park (park factor for 2006: 99/99 – barely favors pitchers)

New Faces
OF Gary Sheffield
RP Jose Mesa

Looking for Greener Pastures Elsewhere
DH Dmitri Young
OF Matt Stairs
RP Jamie Walker

The Skinny: The Tigers hadn’t had a winning season for a dozen years entering 2006, and hadn’t seen the playoffs since 1987. So, 2006 could only be described as a banner year despite stumbling in the World Series. The club returns almost completely intact for 2007, losing only reliever Jamie Walker from the World Series runners up. But they didn’t stand completely pat, trading for aging superstar OF Gary Sheffield to hopefully boost an offense that was already solid. With a young rotation (aside from the ancient Kenny Rogers), many are projecting a repeat of their banner season. I’m not one of them. The truth is that Detroit rode a perfect wave of things coming together in a season rife with overachievement. Expecting a repeat is a great deal to ask, especially lacking any real history to support such an occurrence.
The pitching got most of the credit for the incredible season, with Rogers and Verlander both winning 17 games. The problem is that every starter except Bonderman had an ERA 20% lower than their personal stats, (HR/BB/K) would suggest. The White Sox had a similar (but less pronounced) staff-wide streak in 2005, and suffered a team-wide pitching collapse in 2006. A slide back into reality will prevent the Tigers from repeating and will turn the Central into a wide-open race of flawed teams scrambling to catch a similar wave.

Strengths: The stock wisdom says the rotation is the strength. The stock wisdom is wrong. The offense never got the credit it deserved in 2006, and they added Gary Sheffield to a team that finished 5th in the AL in runs scored. The key here is the lack of superstars makes the offense almost immune from a single injury taking them down. The team is deep with most of the bats in their prime with only Sheff and Pudge having any age-related concerns. On the flip-side, Granderson and Shelton are still developing and could improve with experience. The other main strength is an outstanding bullpen, which spent 2006 making the rotation look much better than it actually was. Todd Jones is slated to close again, though 22-year-old Joel Zumaya has the best stuff, (and least control). The loss of Jamie Walker should not be completely dismissed, being that he had a K/BB ratio of better than 4 to 1 in 2006. But there is enough depth that the team should be in good shape bullpen-wise for 2007.

Weaknesses: Many pundits will laud the rotation as a strength, but the truth is overconfidence in the rotation is a weakness for the club. Kenny Rogers has managed a couple of stellar seasons, but at 42, and with a shrinking K-rate, time will eventually catch up to him. His experience is good enough that he’ll still be decent, assuming good health, but another sub-4.00 ERA is a long shot. Verlander, Robertson and Miner are still works in progress, but it’s not unusual for young pitchers as hitters become more familiar with them. The added offense from Sheffield also comes with a likely decline in outfield defense, which will show up in the pitcher stats. In the end, Detroit has a very average rotation, (though Bonderman has the potential to be a legitimate ace), which happened to have very above average results in 2006. This season will be a learning experience, as things will not come as easy for the rotation. Typically, with young arms like this, when the good results don’t come, they will press. Brandon Webb is a recent example of taking a step backward before pulling it altogether.

Potential Lineup:
CF Curtis Granderson
CA Pudge Rodriguez
DH Magglio Ordonez
RF Gary Sheffield
SS Carlos Guillen
LF Craig Monroe
1B Sean Casey
3B Brandon Inge
2B Placido Polanco

Keys to Success: The most obvious factor is the rotation. Rogers is the only one with a track record, though his career 4.10 ERA is worse than what he’s posted since turning 40. The Tigers are in a position where IF the pitching results from 2006 are for real, they have a cadre of pitchers that could become to the Tigers what Smoltz, Maddux and Glavine were to the Braves in the early 90s. Except for Bonderman, the K-rates aren’t high enough to expect sustained success at the 2006 level. They all have adequate, but not exceptional control, so if the group can improve in either Ks or lower their walk rates, it’s possible they could repeat their 2006 success.
The second factor is improvement in the offense. While finishing 5th in the AL in runs scored was a well kept secret, if the pitching slips, (which I expect), then it will be up to the offense to pick up the slack. If Sheffield is healthy and productive, the offense can improve, and make up for some slippage on the pitching/defense side. With an entire lineup of 20-HR guys, if Sheffield can hit 35 or so, and/or a couple of other guys have career years, the club could ride an offensive wave into the playoffs again.

Prediction: The Tigers aren’t likely to repeat their dream season of 2006. But they get a side benefit of a Twins club whose rotation has been gutted by injury and retirement. This makes the Central a 3-team race, (Tigers, Indians, ChiSox). While Detroit will hover around .500 most of the year, and be a factor in the race at least through August, they won’t win the division, and will likely finish just a game or two out of the wild card spot.