Breaking down the 2012 Detroit Tigers
CATCHER: You can't worry too much about a position when you've got the reigning All-Star starter, can you? In his third season, Avila overcame an ugly midseason slump – he had one RBI in July – to post a .295 batting average and 19 homers. His slugging percentage was .506, and he also put up a remarkable .389 on-base percentage. Although Jim Leyland has made it clear that he wouldn't consider it, Avila might be the most natural leadoff hitter on the team.
He's also a fine defensive catcher who works well with Detroit's young pitching staff. At 25, he's still a couple of years from his prime, and there's not a team in the American League that wouldn't love to have him.
Behind Avila, though, is a problem. Last year, when Victor Martinez's knee kept him from catching late in the year, Avila wore down under the workload and hit just .073 in the postseason. This year, the Tigers tried to fix that problem by signing old friend Gerald Laird, who just won a World Series ring as the Cardinals' backup.
Laird, though, has gotten hurt twice during spring training, including a hamstring injury sustained Wednesday against Toledo. If he's not ready, the farm system is just as barren as last year. Omir Santos, by default, would have to come up from Toledo and play once a week to give Avila some rest.
FIRST BASE: My first year covering the Tigers was 1990, and the Tigers had just signed a husky power-hitter named Fielder to play first base. It is now 2012, and the same thing has happened again. It isn't the exact same story – Cecil was an unknown coming from Japan, while Prince is an established major-league star. Also, I had more hair back then, and none of it was gray.
The Tigers, though, will be thrilled if the short-term results are the same. Cecil hit 51 homers in his first season and led the American League in RBIs for three straight years. Detroit might hope for a little more staying power from Prince – Cecil was done by the age of 33 – but he should easily fill Victor Martinez's shoes in the lineup.
Defensively, Fielder hasn't been particularly good. He'll be a step downward from Miguel Cabrera, who had worked hard to improve his defense in recent years.
At first base, the bench isn't an issue unless the extremely durable Fielder sustains the first serious injury of his career. He's never missed more than five games in a season, and has sat out just one in the last three years combined. Cabrera will probably play first on occasion, with Fielder going to DH.
SECOND BASE: The first problem. Ryan Raburn is going to get most of the playing time at second base, and the Tigers need him to stop starting every season in a slump. In his six-year career, Raburn has hit .228 before the All-Star break and .300 (with power) after the break. If the Tigers can convince him that Opening Day is really July 1, it will solve one of their few offensive problems.
Nothing, though, is likely to even make Raburn an average defensive second baseman. He's a poor outfielder at best, and his glove even gets more exposed at second. Expect Ramon Santiago to make a lot of late-inning defensive appearances.
Santiago might get the start on Opening Day, but he isn't scheduled to be Raburn's platoon partner. That role will go to Detroit's least favorite player, Brandon Inge. Once Inge recovers from a groin injury, he is expected to make some starts against left-handed hitters. Inge hasn't hit over .250 since 2006, has never played a game of second base in his career, and last year even lost the power that saw him hit 27 homers in 2009. Also, while he's not in the top 10 for career at-bats by a Tiger, he is the franchise leader in strikeouts, having passed Lou Whitaker in 2010.
SHORTSTOP: When the Tigers decided on Jhonny Peralta as their everyday shortstop, gales of laughter rolled across Lake Erie as Indians fans recalled his struggles in Cleveland. Twenty-one homers, 86 RBIs and a .299 batting average later, the giggles from Ohio have turned mostly to frustrated grumbling.
Peralta hit his way into the All-Star Game and provided much better defense than anyone expected at shortstop. He's nowhere near a Gold Glover, but he might be the best defender in Detroit's shaky infield.
He's played at least 146 games every season since 2006, so durability isn't a problem. Santiago is perfectly capable of making a start every 10 days or two weeks.
THIRD BASE: Miguel Cabrera is back where he started his Tigers career – third base. It didn't work well then, as he ended up at first base early in the season, and he wasn't even considered an option at third last season when the Tigers were trying to get Martinez and Avila into the lineup at the same time.
This year, though, everyone swears that he's been working incredibly hard and that he's ready to play everyday at third base. The jury is still out, especially since he missed the end of spring training after a hard grounder hit him in the face and broke a bone near his eye.
If he can't handle third, the Tigers will have to piece together the position using Don Kelly and Inge, with Cabrera going back to first and Fielder becoming the everyday DH.
LEFT FIELD: Delmon Young did a nice job after joining the Tigers in midseason, and then hammered the Yankees in the ALDS. He struggled in the ALCS while dealing with an oblique injury, but Detroit is expecting power from Young again this season. He won't walk much – something he has in common with a lot of his teammates – but he'll get a lot of pitches to hit batting behind Cabrera and Fielder.
Defensively, Young is below average, so expect to see Andy Dirks or Kelly in the late innings with a lead. Dirks and Clete Thomas will also get starts in left, along with Kelly and even Raburn at times.
CENTER FIELD: Austin Jackson is an incredible centerfielder – one of the best in the game, and every Tigers pitcher wants to see him out there when they are pitching.
He's also the biggest hole in the Tigers offense, and Jim Leyland insists on putting him in the leadoff position. Last year, Jackson scored 90 runs hitting in front of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. A top leadoff hitter might have pushed 120, and things aren't going to change with Cabrera and Fielder hitting 3-4.
Jackson has struck out 351 times in his first two seasons – the second-highest total in baseball history – and hit just .249 with a .317 on-base percentage, which is 70 points below a decent leadoff hitter. With his speed, if Jackson can find a way to make contact on 50 or 60 of his strikeouts, he could add a significant number of runs to Detroit's offense. Thus far, he hasn't been able to do it.
RIGHT FIELD: Brennan Boesch was putting together a nice offensive year when his season was ended by a thumb injury, but he's back to 100 percent this season. As a better defensive outfielder than Young – a low bar, to be sure – he'll play right field, and he's expected to hit second in front of Cabrera and Fielder. A healthy season from Boesch could produce a lot of runs, given his speed and power.
He'll be backed up by the same group that is behind Young, with Dirks and Thomas seeing the most time.
DESIGNATED HITTER: Unless Fielder ends up here after a Cabrera move to first, the Tigers aren't expected to have an everyday DH like they did last year with Martinez. The best-case scenario is that they fill the role with everyday players who need a day off from the field, and then get Martinez back to fill the role in 2013.
STARTING ROTATION: Justin Verlander had a good enough spring to keep his spot as Detroit's ace. In other words, his arm is still attached to his body. As you probably remember, Verlander went 24-5 last season, pitched his second no-hitter, led the AL in ERA, innings pitched, winning percentage, strikeouts and WHIP, then carted off the Cy Young and MVP awards. He's almost certainly not going to match that – it was a once-in-a-lifetime season, but 90% of that will suit the Tigers just fine.
With the 29-year-old Verlander under contract for three more seasons, the Tigers have the makings of a dominant rotation. The next three pitchers – Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello – average just 26 years of age, and all have the potential to be top-line pitchers. Scherzer went 15-9 despite constantly fiddling with his mechanics – an issue the Tigers hope to cure – while Fister was a spectacular 8-1 after coming over from the Mariners. Porcello was 14-9, but still hasn't lived up to his potential. Keep in mind, though, he won't turn 24 until after Christmas.
Given a solid offense and one of the better four-man rotations in the American League, the Tigers can experiment with the fifth spot. They are going to have to, as none of their prospects grabbed the brass ring in spring training.
Duane Below came into camp as a slight favorite over Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner, but none of them did enough to gain the confidence of Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski. In the end, it was 22-year-old Drew Smyly that got the job, despite only having one year of pro experience and never having pitched above Double-A. If Smyly struggles, the others are all ready to take their shot at the job.
BULLPEN: Jose Valverde is almost certainly going to blow a save this season. The world will not end, nor will the Tigers' pennant hopes. Given his struggles in non-save situations, Valverde's 49-for-49 was one of the biggest flukes in baseball history, but he's still an outstanding closer with infectious enthusiasm.
Joaquin Benoit overcame a midseason slump to regain his spot as Valverde's set-up man, and he'll be joined this year by Octavio Dotel, who won a World Series ring with the Cardinals last season. Phil Coke and Collin Balester will also be in the mix, with Below as the long man after missing out on the last rotation spot.