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.
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.