Tiger, Tiger, burning bright...
I'm sorry, I'm tired. I can't do this anymore.
And so, I have summoned my son and heir to bail me out. Like many of you out there, Liam Carrigan McIlroy is much too young to have ever seen a good Detroit baseball team. He will provide your 2006 Detroit Tigers Preview (Or ‘D25’). Take it away, Liam!
It was around this time three years ago. The usual anticipation of an oncoming season of baseball was upon us. There were predictions and guess-timations flying everywhere, just to pass the time before anything actually happened. As we're doing right now.
Finding themselves on the unhappy side of this frenzy in the spring of 2003 were the Detroit Tigers. No one wondered if they could contend for a playoff spot or if some player could reach a career milestone. Rather, the question was if they could find a way to win more than 40 games, and avoid becoming the worst baseball team of the modern era.
They had just traded their staff ace, Jeff Weaver (!) to the Yankees at mid-season the year before; they boasted the one and only Shane Halter as their everyday shortstop; and had been led offensively by Randall Simon and their lone all-star, Robert Fick, both whom would leave Detroit at season’s end as free agents anyway. (And who would both probably require a full world search to locate nowadays.)
So, with these massive lineup holes, with question marks, pretty much everywhere, the 2003 Detroit Tigers took the field and, well, sucked. Not quite on a historical level of suckiness, but they still really sucked. I mean, 43-199 more or less speaks (speaks? it screams and moans) for itself.
So what do you do as a team when you hit absolute rock bottom? You try to convince everybody that the only way to go is up. In order to communicate this to your fans, you showcase all your young, promising players, so as to suggest that while the present may be a bitter fig bar, the future could be a sweet cream filled cupcake. And while you’re at it, getting rid of as many big salaries as possible isn’t such a bad idea either.
Since then however, the Tigers have taken a slightly different approach. Instead of building the team solely with players developed within their own system, they have sought out older, proven players from other organizations. Sure, they haven’t deliberately kept young players from the majors, quite the contrary - but as a rebuilding team this group hasn’t been at all shy about spending money. Since 2003 ended, they have added Ivan Rodriguez, Fernando Vina, Troy Percival, Rondell White, Ugueth Urbina, Magglio Ordonez, Jason Johnson, Kenny Rogers, and Todd Jones, all as free agents. Now many of these additions have not really worked out anywhere near people might have hoped (I’m looking at you, Percival!!), but the trade route has been much more successful for the Tigers. Through trades, the Tigers in the past few seasons have snapped up an all-star shortstop in Carlos Guillen, a very fine and useful player in Placido Polanco, and some potentially promising (because with young pitching, there is no promise) young pitching in Franklyn German and Roman Colon. They achieved this while giving up players who likely would not be playing in Detroit in this upcoming season had they remained. The best pickup by far was the before mentioned Weaver trade, in which the Tigers picked up Carlos Pena and German, along with an unproven nineteen year old pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman.
So now here we are, three years, countless transactions, and a couple of managers later, looking at a much different team than that retched 2003 version. How far has this team progressed since that farce? How does this current incarnation stack up position by position compared with their counterparts from yester yore? Sounds like a job for… DATA TABLES! (You talkin' to me, son? - Magpie) Nah, I’m kidding…
Considering the season Brandon Inge put up in 2003 (he batted .203 and slugged .339), the Tigers would have done well to put anything else at that position, never mind a one time AL MVP like Ivan Rodriguez. However, Pudge has regressed significantly since those days in Texas, and last season posted an awful OBP of .290. He’ll have to pick that up if Detroit wants to keep hitting him third in the order.
This was Carlos Pena’s position back in ’03, and he has since lost it, been sent to the minors, and been brought back up. So for now it belongs to 2005 surprise (ohhh, rhyme-tastic) Chris Shelton. Shelton whacked 18 Comerica specials last season and put up some impressive numbers. The question for him is whether his performance was a fluke, or if he’s capable of holding down an offensively demanding position. I’m honestly not sure either way, but should he hold up he projects to be more of a solid, all-around hitter rather than just a pure slugger.
Detroit has tried a bunch of different people here over the past little while. Warren Morris got the bulk of time three years ago, then Fernando Vina was brought in, quickly disappeared, and it remained a major problem until… Placido Polanco came along. Polanco has been extremely consistent over the years, and while he most likely won’t slug .460 in a full season in the spacious vacuum known as Comerica Park, I can’t see him being anything less than above league average at second base for the Tigers, unless he is abducted by aliens. You never know…
Here is where Brandon Inge finds himself after doing the position shuffle, and thankfully for the Tigers sake, he’s improved over that period. He was even able to hit 16 home runs last season, two less than 2003 third sacker Eric Munson. Although, at third base I see Inge as someone just keeping the seat warm until somebody else comes along, especially since he has the abilty to fill in at nearly every other position. He would certainly be an extremely valuable utility player. Honestly, how many catchers can turn into centerfielders? Besides Dale Murphy, of course?
Behold! The realm of the Shane Halter! The Tigers fixed that one in a hurry, and now entrust Carlos Guillen with their prime infield position. The key for Guillen is whether he can remain completely healthy for the entire season and return to the form that made him an all-star two seasons ago. Should he be able to stay healthy, expect him to do so. If not, then, uh, I’m sure Shane Halter is out there somewhere…
There are several hopefuls for all the outfield spots, but this one likely will belong to lefty-masher Craig Monroe, who led the 2005 team in RBI with 89. Monroe has always hit left handers well, but will look to improve against righties to prove himself as an everyday player. Besides, he’s better than that bum they put in left field back in 2003, a guy named… Craig Monroe? Oh, very well… moving along then…
The competion for the starting centerfielder job has all of the excitement of a heavyweight fight, or a … Ah who am I kidding, they’ll probably just give it to Curtis Granderson. Granderson came on very strong at the end of last season, and probably made a good enough impression to get the job, for now. There’s no denying that Nook Logan is unbelievably fast, and probably practices his speed by racing alongside the team bus on road trips, but he hasn’t really done much else yet. Centerfield is a big question mark for this team, as is…
Only because nobody is sure whether or not Magglio Ordonez is going to be healthy or not, but if he is, there is no doubt that he becomes this team’s best hitter, barring an offensive resurrection from Pudge. Ordonez did not hit up to standards upon returning from injuries last season, and the Tigers absolutely need him to do so. Otherwise they’ll find themselves like last year struggling to score runs. (11th in the AL) But Ordonez will certainly be better than 2003 counterpart Bobby Are-they-still-paying-this-guy? Higginson.
Dmitri Young shall be Detroit’s DH yet again this season, mostly because no sane manager would allow him play an actual position. Young is a good hitter coming off a season in which he was hankered with injuries. If healthy he can still be a very important piece in the Tiger’s batting order. It’s possible the achievements of his brother could overshadow him this season, but there’s no reason not to expect another season of at least 20 home runs and a slugging percentage on the upper side of .450. Comparing him to the 2003 Tiger DH is kind of pointless since once again they’re the same person. Hey, it was only three years ago…
Bench wise, the Tigers have pretty solid depth all over the diamond. Vance Wilson will back up Ivan Rodriguez, the loser of the centerfield job will make a good fourth outfielder, and Carlos Pena, Omar Infante, and Marcus Thames are kicking around. Yeah yeah yeah. Onward to the important part.
I will come right out and say now that much of the success of the Tigers 2006 season and beyond depends on one man, and only one man. Who is this international man of mystery? The name’s Bond… Jeremy Bond…erman…
Yeah, there’s no doubt that Jeremy Bonderman has the stuff to be one of the AL’s next great pitchers, and so much of the future success of the Tigers depends on whether or not he will indeed do so. Thus far he’s been a very good pitcher, but hasn’t yet achieved superstar status. Yet keep in mind, he’s only 23 years old, and that 2006 will be his fourth full season in the majors. For Detroit to one day contend, it is crucial that Bonderman take that next step and become a true ace.
Supporting him will be the chicken fryin’, camera shovin’, slow fastball throwin’ gambler, fresh outta Texas. After signing a two year deal with the Tigers, Kenny Rogers is expected to be a number two behind Bonderman while also helping groom young lefties Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson. These three will probably all turn in similar numbers, 10-12 wins, decent ERA, although Robertson hopefully won’t lose 16 games again. Meh. One of those things.
Finally, young Justin Verlander, forbidding some freakishly bad spring performance or alien abduction, will hold down the final spot of the rotation. Verlander’s stuff is just as good as Bonderman’s, and while they both are the same age, Bonderman is a much more refined pitcher and therefore much more reliable. Except Verlander to take his bumps and bruises, get roughed up and show flashes of brilliance. Ah, prospects.
The bullpen is much the same as last year for Detroit, and last year it was actually pretty good. Yeah, I was surprised as well. The one place it was bad was saves, where it ranked 12th in the AL in saves. The Tigers really did not have a closer last season, trying Troy Percival (who sucked and got hurt) Ugueth Urbina (who didn’t suck but they traded him) Kyle Farnsworth (who was very good but they traded him too) and finally a combination of Fernando Rodney and Craig Dingman. So, they went out and spent a ton of money on free agent and Detroit returnee Todd Jones, who sure cashed in on a 40 save season with the Marlins. Jones likely won’t be outstanding, but he should provide a veteran stability for a still relatively inexperienced bullpen. Rodney and Franklyn German will share the set-up duties, and that likely will not be problematic, but given this team’s luck with relievers the past few seasons, you never know.
As for the 2003 pitching staff, well Mike Maroth lost 21 games, a 20 year old Bonderman lost 19 and Nate Cornejo anchored the staff with his incredible 46 strikeouts in 195 innings. As for that bullpen, ugh…. Horrific memories… too much human suffering…
Well, what does all this prove exactly? Not much, except the 2006 Tigers will be better than the 2003 Tigers. They pretty have to be. But one last thing to consider. The last time Detroit had a winning record was 1993. It gets even worse. They haven’t finished higher than third place since 1991, and haven’t been in the playoffs since I was barely a month old. (Don't worry, my dad has sung me the tale of that 1987 stretch run. More than once.)
So after suffering with a variety of teams ranging all the way from mediocre to dreadful since their last moment of glory, the Tigers sense that now, maybe, they can reclaim some dignity with these new players and finally take a shot at contention.
Can they, maybe, possibly, after all this time in the cellar of the AL Central division... No.
No. This isn’t the year. I could see them breaking .500 if everything falls together (a healthy Ordonez) but it is not their time quite yet. But if those young pitchers develop, it soon will be, but for now...
76-86, fourth place in the Central
Thank you, Liam. I shall now make my contribution...
I always enjoy looking over the Blue Jays media guide every spring, because there's always active players moving up the Top 10 Lists. Doc and Vernon, in particular, are making their presence felt on the current lists.
This doesn't happen in Detroit, of course. The same name (Cobb, who else?) has been at the top of almost every hitting category since 1926. The lead atop the HR column last changed in 1968, when Al Kaline passed Hank Greenberg, and Kaline is still No. 1 with 399 homers in Detroit. The active Tiger with the most homers in Detroit? That would be... yes, Bobby Higginson, who could actually crack the top ten with 8 dingers this year.
As for the pitchers... well, Mike Maroth needs another 183 wins in Detroit to catch Hooks Dauss, who won his final game in 1926.
There were fierce Tigers, once upon a time. Perhaps we shall see them again. Someday.