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Two years after one of the worst seasons in baseball history, the Detroit Tigers will finish above .500 and contend for a division title.

While I let that sink in, and while I've got your attention, I'll present you with the 2004 AL Central Pythagorean standings. A team's "Pythagorean Record" is determined by its runs scored and allowed, and is generally a better indication of team quality (and a better predictor of the following season's record) than simple wins and losses.

Minnesota   87-75
Chicago 84-78
Cleveland 81-81
Detroit 79-83
Kansas City 64-98

With that as a starting point, let's turn our attention back to the Tigers. As I said, the Tigers will finish above .500 and contend for a division title. Now nobody else outside Detroit appears to actually believe this, so I should warn you here and now that quoting from this preview may provoke reactions of disbelief or contempt. Nevertheless, I'm sticking with it.

Detroit's offseason moves have been near-universally panned. My esteemed stable-mate at The Hardball Times, Ben Jacobs, ranked the Tigers 30th out of 30 teams for their offseason moves. What's odd, of course, is that in the same breath he says (perceptively) that "the Tigers might be a little bit better this season than they were last year". A slight improvement on last year's performance (see above) would put the Tigers over .500. And Ben's conclusion that "they're not likely to contend for anything" notwithstanding, you only have to be a little over .500 to contend in the AL Central.

So what did the Tigers, or specifically GM Dave Dombrowski, do? The first thing to note is that practically none of last year's players left the organization. The most significant departure is that of workhorse reliever Esteban Yan, who left along with fellow bullpen righty Al Levine. The other major loss is third baseman Eric Munson who went to the Twins, but that is likely to result in addition by subtraction as the error-prone Munson will take his .287 career OBA (.289 last year) out of the middle of the Detroit lineup.

The departed relievers were replaced by two fine acquisitions. Kyle Farnsworth, with his 100mph fastball and his penchant for strikeouts (and blowups) came over from the Chicago Cubs and will replace Levine in a setup role. The other acquisition was much more controversial, and potentially will have much more impact, as Angels closer Troy Percival was signed to a big free-agent contract, with the result that Ugueth Urbina will move to a setup role. Percival's effectiveness was down somewhat in 2004 from the past and he has never thrown a lot of innings, but he has always pitched very well and he more than replaces the loss of Esteban Yan. In fact, it would be no surprise if the top three Tigers in the pen (Percival, Urbina, and Farnsworth) were the top bullpen trio in the American League. And lurking behind them is top bullpen prospect Fernando Rodney, finally healthy again after Tommy John surgery.

What went unnoticed last year amidst the improvement was the Tigers' inability to field a steady lineup. Other than Ivan Rodriguez and Omar Infante, few Tigers regulars were healthy on a regular basis, and various injuries hurt what was actually a very productive offense. The Tigers scored 827 runs in a pitchers' park, a very good total, and despite blooding a number of youngsters who struggled in minor roles. The lineup should be more steady this season, and what's more the Tigers made their biggest addition to a spot that hurt them in 2004 - right field.

The addition of Magglio Ordonez, assuming that he is able to shake off the effects of his knee injury, will add a much needed top-of-the-line hitter to the middle of the Tiger order. Can Ordonez come back and play? Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus gives him a yellow light in the Tigers Team Health Report (requires a subscription), arguing that the swelling inside the bone that caused the most havoc has cleared up and therefore Ordonez should be considered to just have a garden-variety knee injury. Incidentally, what's misunderstood about the contract is the relatively low risk to the Tigers, who can void Ordonez's contract after the first season if he makes a significant trip to the DL because of the knee. Before last year, Ordonez was always healthy and remarkably consistent. From 2000-2003, he recorded OPSes of 917, 914, 978, and 926. A return to that level of production would make Ordonez the most productive Tigers outfielder since Bobby Higginson in 1996. Ordonez has been held out of drills to date by the Tigers, but is running the bases without pain and is expected to begin the season as a regular.

The Tigers' other main injury concern is breakout shortstop and 2004 MVP candidate Carlos Guillen, who tore his ACL and is currently rehabbing along with Ordonez, apparently at something close to the same rate, which would mean Guillen might be ready to break camp on the active list. The Tigers prudently inked veteran backup Ramon Martinez to fill in for Guillen should he need to miss time early in the season. Martinez had a down year in 2004 but has always played well otherwise and will hold down the fort adequately.

A number of Tigers had career-best years in 2004, with many players bouncing back from horrible years in 2003 and bringing the team bouncing back with them. In particular, Brandon Inge (pencilled in at third base) and second baseman Omar Infante are likely to slip back somewhat from career years, and Guillen also may belong in that category. To counteract this, the Tigers can point to a number of players who missed time, including DH Dmitri Young (who suffered a horrible broken leg running the bases at SkyDome with yours truly in attendance). And while it may be true that Infante, for example, saw a huge spike in his power production, such a radical improvement is not unusual for a player in his early 20s (the difference being that Infante had his improvement at the major league level, not the minor league level.) There is no question that given a relatively clean bill of health, the offense should be even better. Another improvement should come in-season, as the light-hitting Alex Sanchez should eventually give way to top young prospect Curtis Granderson.

While the 2004 Tigers did suffer a number of injuries to position players, one area where their luck held up was with the starting pitchers. Not one of Detroit's top four starters suffered an injury in 2004, as Jason Johnson, Mike Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson all made it through the season unscathed. It's a young group (Johnson is the greybeard at 31, Robertson and Maroth are 27, and Bonderman a veteran already at 22) and Bonderman in particular holds much promise. Robertson took a significant step forward in 2004, and if he can consolidate his improvement he could well win 15+ games. The fifth starter is likely to be Wil Ledezma, another young pitcher at 24 and a third lefty for the rotation. Ledezma, who spent the nightmare 2003 season as a swingman after being plucked from Boston in the Rule 5 Draft, pitched well in eight starts in Detroit after dominating the AA Eastern League.

The Tigers' season is going to come down to this young starting rotation and whether it can manage to give the offense and bullpen a chance. If the starters can stay healthy and one or two take a step forward and improve, the Tigers can easily score enough runs (and protect enough leads) to contend in a weak though improving division. I have my eyes on Robertson and Bonderman; I think those two can cut half a run or more off their ERAs, and Jason Johnson can turn it around some from a disappointing 2004. That should be enough to make the Tigers competitive, but without a true #1 or #2 starter it won't be enough to win.

I had a long discussion last night with Aaron Gleeman (of The Hardball Times and Aaron's Baseball Blog) about this rather bold and unusual prediction. Aaron's point (and I hope I'm not misrepresenting him here) was that for all the positivity about Detroit's 2004 improvement, they were nevertheless a 72-win team. For all my positive thoughts about Pythagorean ratios, Aaron doesn't think that Detroit improved themselves enough in the offseason to get from 72 wins to the 83 or 84 wins I'm calling for. I respect his thinking, particularly because he is more skeptical than I of some of the improved performances of the Tigers, such as Infante, Inge, and Guillen.

Ultimately, though, when I look up and down the Detroit roster I see a lot of average players - and those average players are likely, in my eyes, to make an average team. Forecasting team performance is a difficult, even foolish, exercise because it depends on the forecasts of dozens of individuals who can wreck your predictions with performances that you never expected of them (Carlos Guillen in 2004 being the perfect example). In last year's Tigers preview, a Batter's Box roundtable concluded that the Tigers would improve on their horrific 2003, but everyone (Joe Drew and Mick Doherty excepted, though I suspect their predictions were not 100% serious) undershot the 72-90 record that the Tigers came up with. There was one exception; Dave Till predicted that the Tigers would "find it easy to bounce back to 90 losses or so".

How did Dave see what the rest of us missed? I think the key is in how he came to his conclusions. The rest of the panel saw the 119 losses of the previous year as a "baseline" or starting point. It exerted a psychological weight that kept our predictions low, because we were looking at the improvements the Tigers had made over 2003 and then plugged our figures into the 43-119 record of the year before.

What Dave saw was that the Tigers had a plan to get out of their situation, and that it was (and is) pretty easy to build a 90-loss team and get back to respectability if that's all you're interested in doing. If you have a bit of money to spend and a decent amount of luck (and one might argue that the Tigers didn't even have that) then 90 losses is not hard to build for, even from (almost) scratch. Dave's namesake, Dave Dombrowski, realized the same thing.

What does this mean for 2005? I think if you look at the moves the Tigers have made, the reason that a lot of sabermetric analysts are dismissive of those moves is that they are a relatively expensive way of ensuring a slightly below-average team solidifies into a fairly average team. Percival, Farnsworth and Ordonez are not likely to push this team to contend with New York, Boston, or Anaheim. What the Tigers have done in this offseason certainly hurts their push to be an elite team down the road. But it is a move towards being an average team. And an average team in the AL Central, will win about 83-84 games and contend; that's the kind of division it is. The Tigers have some more money to burn (they couldn't blow all the money they wanted to spend since Pavano, Kent, Glaus, Beltre, and Finley all turned them down -- perhaps seeing the writing on the wall) and if they are near contention, the team is likely to try to spend some of it.

The last time the Tigers finished over .500 was 1993. Tiger fans deserve to see that end this year; best of luck to them.

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Dave Till - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:54 AM EST (#104866) #

How did Dave see what the rest of us missed? I think the key is in how he came to his conclusions.

You're probably giving me more credit for rational thought than I deserve. :-) I'm actually a lousy judge of talent; if I picked the Tigers' finish correctly, it shows that anybody can make a lucky guess now and again. I'm not planning on going to Vegas any time soon.

For what it's worth, I'm picking the Tigers to finish below .500 again. It's easy enough to sign a couple of free agents, stock your team with replacement-level players, and reach 90 losses. After that, each step up the ladder gets tougher.

My belief: any franchise with a sound player development program that doesn't do anything stupid can reach the .500 plateau or maybe even a little bit higher, provided their best players don't get hurt (as happened to the Jays last year). The Tigers will get there, though perhaps not this year. To get higher, you need to acquire or develop star players, guys who are among the best in the league at one or more things, or at least the best at their position.

When you look at the Tigers, who among them is the best at their position, or even close to it? Pudge, perhaps, if he doesn't break down. Magglio, maybe, if his knees don't fly off. Guillen is up there, if his last season isn't a fluke, but I think it is.

The only reason the Tigers have a faint chance of success is because they play in the AL Central, a division not exactly overwhelmed by talented ball clubs.

(Putting on my Jays fan hat: the Jays' recent history would be much different if they were in the AL Central - a division which, geographically, they are as close to as they are to the AL East. If the Jays had been in the Central, they would have won at least once in the Ash era, and would have won in 2003.)

Andrew S - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:54 AM EST (#104867) #
I'm sure you mean the last time the Tigers finished <i>over<i> .500 was 1993.
Chuck - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 09:16 AM EST (#104869) #
That's two controversial division winners in two days: Craig's Tigers and Mick's Reds (when you can find them!).

I'm with Dave here. I don't see a .500 finish for the Tigers either.

I think Guillen was due for a major regression even without the ACL injury to come back from. Infante is too young to just dismiss his gains in 2004 (1 XB hit per 30 AB in 2003, 1 per 10 AB in 2004) but a regression is likely in the cards there as well. And Brandon Inge... wow? I'd like to see a near 800 OPS one more time before I believe he's for real.

Ordonez, of course, is a wild card. Certainly 140 games of 900 OPS would be a huge help, but who realistically thinks that's about to happen?
BguyRed - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 11:59 AM EST (#104889) #
I don't see the Tigers contending. The Twins are still good and the Indians are improving well the rest of the division really is about the same. That means that the division will be somewhat tougher than last year, even if it is the worst division in the AL. I do however think that a lot is being made of injuries to Pudge, who really hasn't been injured much at all for a catcher, and Ordonez who as it was stated has only had 1 injury plauged year, these players are some of the best in the league and will show it this year again
Useless Tyler - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 12:00 PM EST (#104890) #
Ordonez, of course, is a wild card. Certainly 140 games of 900 OPS would be a huge help, but who realistically thinks that's about to happen?

Evidently the Tigers do.

Gerry - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 12:13 PM EST (#104892) #
The prediction of a winning season has a number of optimistic assumptions attached. Magglio Ordonez knee will be fine, even though he has not participated in drills yet. Carlos Guillen's return from surgery will be seamless. Infante's new level of performance will be maintained, etc.

One other assumption, that you left undiscussed, is that Pudge will have the same level of performance despite his age; his ability to avoid injury the last couple of seasons (luck); and his weight loss this off-season. That is another big assumption.

I am not as optimistic and I assume one or more of the starting pitchers will have injuries this year, so I am going on the record with a prediction of 75 wins.
Mick Doherty - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 12:49 PM EST (#104899) #
I love the karmic fact that this article is exactly 1984 words long. And we all know what the Tigers did THAT year.
Jordan - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 12:54 PM EST (#104901) #
Note to collective selves: ensure the Blue Jays preview is not 1,987 words long.
Gitz - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 01:04 PM EST (#104903) #
Knowing Burley, it was probably intentional.
Mike Green - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 01:08 PM EST (#104906) #
I agree with Gerry, 75 wins due to offensive declines from I-Rod and Guillen.
Craig B - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 03:26 PM EST (#105002) #
I'd feel better about taking credit for the 1,984 words if it weren't for the fact that I got one of them wrong - "over" for "under". I'll replace it now. :)
James W - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 05:23 PM EST (#105040) #
The 1984 is only the additional words not shown on the front page. For evidence, see NFH's first game thread that said "More: [2 words]".

It's still a hilarious coincidence.

As for the Tigers, if Bonderman continues to progress rather than regress, they'll be a good team. I'd say Bonderman, Rodriguez and Ordonez are key to the squad.
Craig B - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 05:44 PM EST (#105042) #
Oh, one more thing. I'm not actually predicting that the Tigers will win the Central; I think they will contend, but they look to be the second or probably third best team in the division, behind Cleveland and probably Minnesota, but slightly ahead of the White Sox. I think the Central is the most interesting division in baseball, actually; there are four pretty average teams in it and Kansas City who look pretty bad, but it's not the disaster area of years past. However, I wouldn't be surprised if the Central had its weakest winner yet, because none of the four contenders is anything more than dead average.
Magpie - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 06:32 PM EST (#105046) #
Without even thinking about the team, my instinct says the Tigers should win about 74 games - based entirely on the notion that when you make a huge leap to a new level, you need to consolidate those gans a little before you move forward again.

I don't know why that's my assumption. But it is.

The wild cards - if Ordonez gives them 140 GP at his usual level of production (bearing in mind that moving from US Cellular to Comerica is going to take a big bite out of his raw numbers) - in that case they begin to develop an offensive centre worth worrying about.

And Jeremy Bonderman. It might not happen this year, but it might. This guy could absolutely explode on the American League. And it could be this year.

Billy Beane may really end up regretting this deal. Not now, but soon, and for the rest of his life.

Gitz - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 06:49 PM EST (#105048) #
But the A's got ........... criminey, who did they get? SOme time ago the unflappable Moffatt broke down all those prospects the A's traded -- Bonderman, Pena, German, et al -- and I seem to recall the net being something like Durazo and Kielty. Anyone?
6-4-3 - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 07:25 PM EST (#105051) #
You got it right.

The A's got Ted Lilly, John-Ford Griffin, Jason Arnold, and cash for Bonderman, Pena, and Franklin German.

Lilly ------> Kielty
JFG + Arnold ------> Durazo

So, the A's got a year of Lilly, Kielty, and the great white whale for Bonderman, Pena, and German.
Magpie - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 07:51 PM EST (#105054) #
Gosh, let's see:

July 5, 2002 - Oakland trades Carlos Pena, Franklyn German, and a PTBNL for Jeff Weaver and Cash. Bonderman is the PTBNL (Aug 22, 2002)

July 5, 2002 - Oakland trades Jeff Weaver to New York for Ted Lilly, Jason Arnold, and John Ford Griffin.

Nov 18, 2003 - Oakland trades Ted Lilly to Toronto for Bobby Kielty

December 15, 2003 - Oakland trades Jason Arnold to Toronto as part of a four team deal - Oakland receives Erubiel Durazo.

January 7 2003 - Oakland trades John-Ford Griffin to Toronto for a PTBNL (Jason Perry)

So for Bonderman, German, and Pena he got Kielty, Perry, and Durzo.

And he's going to regret making me look all that up.

Gitz - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 07:59 PM EST (#105055) #
Thanks, 6-4-3.

Here's a question: in the long run, who will have the better career, Harden or Bonderman? Bonderman is actually a year younger.

Pepper Moffatt - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:01 PM EST (#105057) #
You gotta go back even further than that, because the A's had just picked up Pena a few months before. Specifically Pena and Venafro for Hart, Ludwick, Laird, and Ramos.

Gitz - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:01 PM EST (#105058) #
Magpie, did you not read above? 6-4-3 already scooped you!
Magpie - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:08 PM EST (#105059) #
That's cause I was on-line looking up the grisly details and writing them into the comment field.

Grumble, grumble. Make the old man look slow...

Craig B - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:12 PM EST (#105060) #
It's so early at this point to be nothing more than a guess, but at this point Rich Harden looks to have the inside track on Bonderman, if only because Harden has already made the leap to being a top starter. Bonderman's made the toughest jump, which is from being a young player to being a major league regular; Harden's made that jump too. The fact is they made that jump at around the same time (age 21); Bonderman's age-20 season was in the majors, but he wasn't in the majors on true merit, it was an act of desperation by the Tigers. Bonderman came close to holding his own, but didn't really show what he could do.

I like asking PECOTA these kinds of questions; their 5-year projected VORP totals are almost exactly the same, with Harden coming in slightly ahead. (Bonderman's comparables fared better going forward than Harden's; Harden's starting from ahead). Basically, these two guys are practically interchangeable at this point from a career perspective, but it's worth noting that Harden's projections for this year are ahead; and if he does manage to stay ahead of Bonderman performance-wise, the following year's projections would of course also stay ahead.
Gitz - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:23 PM EST (#105061) #
I tend to agree. Harden's numbers will certainly look better -- i.e. he's probably going to win more games -- and in this case there won't be anything mis-leading.

If I were to use a dumb and imperfect comparison, I would say that Bonderman will be Roy Oswalt -- good, very good in fact, but not quite dominant -- and that Harden will be Mark Prior -- where's he simply unhittable for a third of his starts. But, as you say, anything can be happen, and it's going to be fun to watch.

Shrike - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:32 PM EST (#105062) #
Quit making me regret trades by talking up Bonderman, Gitz.

Mike Green - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:42 PM EST (#105064) #
I'll take Harden. Bonderman has not yet been even good. He doesn't have Harden's stuff, and he allows too many homers. I don't think it's particularly close.

I think Bonderman will have a good season or two in Detroit, probably when he's getting paid $6 million per year, and he's ready for free agency. Beane will perhaps regret trading him. The Tigers will definitely regret calling him up directly from single A.
Mick Doherty - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 08:45 PM EST (#105065) #
That's two controversial division winners in two days: Craig's Tigers and Mick's Reds

Of course, my Reds preview won't reappear until Saturday after being inadvertantly posted yesterday for a few minutes, but this is actually wrong on both counts!

As Craig noted earlier, he is saying the Tigers will challenge for the AL Central, not win it; and as you'll see Saturday, I have the Reds penciled in to go to the World Series, true, but as the Wild Card winner, not the NL Central winner.

Magpie - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 09:46 PM EST (#105067) #
Bonderman looked pretty good over the last two months - he was only 5-6, 3.28 but in 74 IP he gave up 59 H and 24 BB, and struck out 79. He's getting somewhere.

Why the Tigers elected to start his service clock so early...

Chuck - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 09:50 PM EST (#105068) #
but this is actually wrong on both counts!

Mea culpa. I got caught up in the hysteria.

Thomas - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 10:50 PM EST (#105069) #
In fact, it would be no surprise if the top three Tigers in the pen (Percival, Urbina, and Farnsworth) were the top bullpen trio in the American League.

Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields may have something to say about this....

I'd take them over the Tigers trio, for sure. Your point that this is a very good last three is still valid.

Craig B - Monday, March 07 2005 @ 11:07 PM EST (#105070) #
Francisco Rodriguez, Brendan Donnelly and Scot Shields may have something to say about this....

You're saying there's no chance that Percival, Urbina, and Farnsworth could be better than Anaheim's three? While I certainly prefer Anaheim's trio, they're not so far ahead as to make what I said wrong.

I think there's a reasonable chance that those Detroit three outperform those Anaheim three. Say, 20%.

CaramonLS - Tuesday, March 08 2005 @ 12:09 AM EST (#105071) #
Highly Unlikely those 3 put it together. Percivil is getting over the hill, probably around a 3+ ERA by the end of the year. Farnsworth... is over rated and has done little to prove he can put it together mentally.

Hes got all the physical tools to be a top reliever, he hasn't shown it to me yet.
Craig B - Thursday, October 27 2005 @ 10:45 AM EDT (#130621) #
This was not very accurate as things turned out. I am particularly impressed with my dismissal of the White Sox as "dead average" at best.

It takes talent to be that dumb, folks.
Gitz - Thursday, October 27 2005 @ 03:02 PM EDT (#130639) #
Ooooh, since we're reviewing our predictions for the just-completed year, I'd like to comment how I nailed, exactly, to the win, in my preview for The Hardball Times, that the A's would win 88 games. How's that for talent?!?!?

(We'll ignore some of my other predictions, such as ... well, as I say, we'll ignore them, ok?)
Rob - Thursday, October 27 2005 @ 03:10 PM EDT (#130640) #
Did somebody say predictions?

I predict [the Cubs] will win 88 games and make the playoffs as the Wild Card team, finishing very close behind the St. Louis Cardinals.


Houston will drop off and finish under .500

Well, they were under .500 in their last four games of the playoffs!

But nothing compares to this:

[In the division series] a Tim Hudson-Carlos Zambrano showdown in Game 5 goes Atlanta’s way

Let's stop and think for a second here. Not only do I have the Cubs -- the 79-83 Cubs -- making the playoffs, I said Atlanta would advance to the NLCS.


Winning a playoff round.

I'll stop writing about baseball now.

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