Before Tuesday afternoon, I believed the Detroit Tigers were the surest bet of any team to win their division in 2012.
That was before the news release popped into my inbox a little after 3 p.m.: Designated hitter Victor Martinez, who batted .394 with runners in scoring position last year, tore the ACL in his left knee and is likely lost for the season.
Even without Martinez, the Tigers are the most talented team in the AL Central. They have three players who finished among the top 12 in AL MVP balloting last year: Justin Verlander (first), Miguel Cabrera (fifth), and Alex Avila (12th). No other team in the division put a player on that list. In fact, no other team in the division finished with a winning record.
The gap between the Tigers and everyone else in the division is large enough that they should win the division despite Martinez’s absence.
The Royals have an intriguing lineup, but they don’t have a rotation to counter Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer — yet. The inert Indians aren’t spending the money it will take to beat Detroit. The Twins are rebuilding. The White Sox are really rebuilding.
But for the Tigers to achieve their potential — that is, make the playoffs again — they will need superior performances from two key figures: manager Jim Leyland and superstar Miguel Cabrera.
Leyland said numerous times last year that Martinez was especially valuable to him, because his presence eliminated the daily questions — certainly from media, probably from within his own clubhouse — about who would offer Cabrera protection in the lineup.
Martinez, in that regard, was the perfect employee in his first year as a Tiger: He was reliable. He was a leader in his quiet, professional way. Most importantly, as evidenced by his 103 RBI, he frequently made the opposition pay when Cabrera was pitched around.
Now, one month before spring training begins, Leyland must ask himself the question he loathes: Who’s going to hit behind Cabrera? The season may hinge on his ability to find the answer, while ensuring that there are enough people on base ahead of The Big Guy.
Is that hitter on the roster now? Maybe, but Leyland prefers to keep his players in roles where they have thrived, rather than thrust them into unfamiliar roles. Witness the decision to keep Avila in the lower third of the order despite his All-Star numbers.
Keep in mind that Leyland has considered moving Cabrera up to the No. 3 spot, in which case Martinez’s injury may have put the Tigers into the market for a cleanup man. Brennan Boesch has that potential. But he’s also been guilty of putting too much pressure on himself.
The Tigers’ best course of action would be to find a veteran hitter who would make pitchers think twice before giving Cabrera four wide ones. Fortunately for them, there are several free agents out there: Vladimir Guerrero, Hideki Matsui, Raul Ibañez, Carlos Pena, Derrek Lee, even Jonny Gomes. Alfonso Soriano (Cubs) and Carlos Lee (Astros) are among the trade possibilities.
(Or, the Tigers could add speed to the lineup — Juan Pierre, perhaps? — and move the not-so-nimble Delmon Young from left field to designated hitter. Young’s defense could cost the Tigers in Comerica Park’s expansive outfield.)
No, Prince Fielder is not a realistic option. Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski said Cabrera isn’t viewed as an option to play third base on an everyday basis. So, there is no way to put Cabrera and Fielder in the same lineup without one of them at DH. And I don’t see that happening. (Each loves playing in the field too much.)
And since you’re curious: It’s hard to imagine Manny Ramirez is the answer, considering he must serve a 50-game suspension.
Martinez is, at his core, a premium run producer. He delivered important hits, with men on base, much more often than the average player. And he did it in a manner that affected Cabrera in an overwhelmingly positive way.
Cabrera seemed to put less pressure on himself in 2011 than during his three prior seasons in Detroit. I am convinced Martinez had a lot do with that. Cabrera set a career high in walks — and career low in strikeouts — because the guy behind him was equally capable of knocking in runs. Martinez, an older Venezuelan countryman, was a steadying presence during a season in which Cabrera underwent a treatment program for alcohol abuse.
Now, Cabrera must ignore the evolving lineup around him and take the same patient approach to the batter’s box that he did throughout 2011. If that were as easy as it sounds, the Tigers would not have been shut out of the postseason during Cabrera’s first three seasons in Detroit.
The Tigers should reach the playoffs again in 2012. But the task doesn’t look so easy anymore.