Is there a baseball analog to the championship New Orleans Saints? That is, is there an MLB city and squad that, like New Orleans and the Saints, combine civic misery with championship potential? Well, if you’re compelled by such possibilities then your team in 2010 should be … the Detroit Tigers.
Suffice it to say, Detroit — with its unseemly levels of crime, corruption and economic decline — has the "misery" part down. But what about the baseball? The Tigers are coming off a season in which they won 86 games and frittered away the division lead in the season’s final days.
Entering the 2010 season, the Twins must be regarded as the favorites. They won the flag last season, and they’ve quietly had one of the best winters of any team. And, the White Sox, while they’ll have problems scoring runs, figure to have one of the best rotations in the game and should also contend for the division crown
Detroit, though, has a strong chance.
They’ll return Justin Verlander, who’s one of the best starting pitchers around, and Miguel Cabrera, who’s one of the best pure hitters around. And Magglio Ordonez, according to most advanced projections, will recoup some power in 2010. Carlos Guillen’s still a useful hitter (if one in decline), and Adam Everett remains an elite defender.
In the bullpen, Jose Valverde is the new closer. The Tigers paid too much for him ($14 million plus a compensatory draft pick to Houston), but Valverde will give them some certainty in the ninth inning, which is something the Tigers haven’t enjoyed in quite a while.
On the downside, Detroit is working from a lower baseline than you might think. Last season, they won 86 games, but they finished the season with a run differential of -2. In other words, based on runs scored and runs allowed, their record should have been a middling 81-82. While, obviously, wins and losses are what count, the disconnect between run margin and record is a concern heading into the 2010 season.
Here, then, is a partial rundown of what else (besides health and typical production from Verlander, Ordonez, Guillen, etc.) needs to happen for the Tigers to make a run at the belt and the title in 2010:
• Rick Porcello must avoid regression. Porcello had an admirable rookie campaign, but some of his lackluster supporting numbers should worry Tiger fans.
Specifically, can Porcello post a sub-4.00 ERA in his second season if he again logs a strikeout rate of 4.7 and again doesn’t do a great job of keeping the ball in the park? That he has a year of major-league experience behind him is in his favor, but Porcello needs to miss more bats than he did in 2009.
• Max Scherzer needs to stay healthy. The Tigers probably upgraded the rotation by parting with Edwin Jackson and bringing in Scherzer. However, Scherzer’s high-stress, max-effort delivery raises concerns that he’ll be able to stay healthy.
Obviously, they need a healthy Scherzer in order to make a run at it in 2010. If that first bullet point and this one come to pass, then the Tigers will have an enviable front three in the rotation.
• Jeremy Bonderman needs to give them innings. There’s no doubting Bonderman’s raw gifts, but that breakout season we keep waiting for may never come to pass.
A more reasonable expectation may be for Bonderman, who’s recovering nicely from a shoulder injury, to pitch something like 175 innings and keep his ERA below 4.50. (That’s something he’s done just twice in his career, but he has done it.)
Those would be solid numbers for a fourth starter in the DH league.
• Rookies Scott Sizemore and Austin Jackson need to transition smoothly. Over at Baseball Prospectus, they’re projecting Sizemore to hit .263 AVG/.347 OBP/.401 SLG and Austin Jackson to put up a batting line of .270/.334/.413.
Those aren’t great numbers, but they are league-average-ish. For rookies who play up the middle, those are also perfectly adequate numbers. Of course, both players will be rookies in 2010, and rookies have a knack for defying expectations (for better or worse). The Tigers will be in a tight spot if Sizemore and Jackson don’t live up to forecasts.
• Joel Zumaya needs to be healthy and effective. The Detroit setup corps figures to be a weakness, particularly from the right side. That’s why Zumaya, who, like Bonderman, is coming back from shoulder problems, must stay off the DL and keep runs off the board this season.
Absent an addition to the bullpen, that is. Perhaps knowing he won’t be tasked with pitching the ninth will help Zumaya’s focus, but his substantial injury history remains a worry.
Know what else would help? GM Dave Dombrowski should leverage the current market, pay heed to rumors and sign Johnny Damon to a value contract. (Damon would make an ideal platoon partner for Ryan Raburn in left, and Damon’s practically giving the Tigers come-hither looks from across the room.)
If all those things happen, then Detroit will win the division.
If just two or three of those things happen, then the Tigers will still be in the contending fray.
Certainly, the Tigers would be merely a fourth-place team if they toiled in the AL East, but they don’t.
The point is to get into the postseason and see what unfolds. Baseball is a sport with much built-in parity, and in the crucible of the playoffs randomness plays a large role. You’re dealing with a small sample size of games, and, as a consequence, the best team doesn’t always win.
And that’s how the Tigers can lift the spirits of a battered and beleaguered Detroit.