The Tigers went into 2006 looking to finish above .500 for the first time since 1993. After a disappointing 71 win season in 2005, manager Alan Trammell was immediately fired and replaced by Jim Leyland. Later in the off-season, they added veteran pitchers Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones. Many felt that, although they probably had the talent to reach .500, they had not made enough changes to go very far beyond that; not unless pretty much everything went right.
As it turned out, just about everything did go right and their good fortune revolved around pitching. First, rookies Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya burst onto the scene and developed much faster than most expected. Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Robertson both showed improvement over the previous year and Fernando Rodney impressed in his first full season as a Tiger. Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones proved naysayers wrong by pitching about as well as they've ever pitched at ages 41 and 38 respectively. Even when Mike Maroth went down with an elbow injury in May, they never missed a beat as Zach Miner and later Will Ledezma filled in more than adequately.
Along with good pitching came good health for the position players. After missing a good deal of action in 2005, Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordonez each played more than 150 games and anchored the offense. With a healthy line-up for most of the season, they were able to support excellent pitching with decent offense (5th in league in runs scored) and very strong fielding (among the top 3 in team defense by various measures). They also had a manager in Leyland who, by all accounts, kept them playing hard while staying at an even keel all season long. They rode the good fortune to a 95 win season and their first American League pennant since 1984.
As magical as the season was, it certainly wasn't easy. After reaching an amazing 76-36 and building a 10 game lead by August 8, they stumbled the rest of the way going 19-31 and limping into the playoffs. Many attributed the poor finish to Placido Polanco's shoulder injury which caused him to miss a good portion of the last two months. While they missed him, especially defensively, his absence was a only a small part of their decline. They went into a team wide hitting slump highlighted (or lowlighted) by the late summer struggles of Curtis Granderson, Magglio Ordonez, Ivan Rodriguez and Brandon Inge. Even their pitching slowed as Bonderman and Verlander were not as strong down the stretch as they were earlier. They ended up losing the division title to the Twins on the last day of the season and settled for the wildcard.
The magic returned for the playoffs with a thrilling upset over the heavily favored Yankees and a sweep of the Athletics. Then everything fell apart in the World Series versus the Cardinals. They embarrassed themselves on the national stage with 5 throwing errors by their pitchers and a nonexistent offense. Whether it was nerves, the long layoff before the series or just an unfortunate fluke, they played their worst ball of the year. Despite the disappointing finish, however, the season was a remarkable success for a team which lost 119 games just 3 years earlier.
Can they repeat their performance in 2007 and maybe even win the World Series this time? Well, winning in the playoffs is largely a matter of getting hot at the right time but Dave Dombrowski did not want to waste time trying to get the team positioned for another post-season run. While most of the country will remember the pitchers making throwing errors, Tiger fans know that pitcher defense is not something that needed to be addressed during the winter. On the other hand, the lack of offensive production late in the season and in the World Series was a problem that needed attention.
While the Tigers had an above average offense last year, they were vulnerable to good teams and good pitching. That weakness showed down the stretch and in the World Series. They hit for good power finishing 3rd in the league in homers but their league worst walk to strikeout ratio was an indicator of an undisciplined hitting attack which was prone to slumps. Thus, they traded three minor league pitchers to the Yankees for Gary Sheffield soon after the World Series ended. Sheffield, who regularly gets more walks than strikeouts should add a good deal of discipline and consistency to the line-up. If healthy, he and Guillen should be the team's two best hitters.
After the Sheffield trade, it was a pretty quiet off-season. They reportedly searched for a new left-handed hitter to balance a heavily right-handed line-up but they settled for Sean Casey who signed for another year. So, the only real difference you'll see this year is Sheffield at designated hitter instead of Marcus Thames.
Their pitching staff will also be pretty much the same in 2007 as it was last year. They have looked for a left-handed reliever to replace Jamie Walker who became a free agent and signed a three year deal with the Orioles. So far, they have come up with rule 5 lefty Edward Campusano and a group of journeymen. They did add veteran right-hander Jose Mesa to pitch middle relief in front of Zumaya and Rodney.
The lack of activity this winter was an indication of how stable the organization has become with the moves Dombrowski has made over the past few years. They didn't make a lot of moves, not because they couldn't, but because there was not much need. They did further solidy their future by locking up Bonderman and Brandon Inge through 2010 with 4 year contract extensions.
Along with the addition of a hopefully healthy Sheffield, the keys to the season will be a repeat performance from the pitching staff and, as always, good health. Playing in the tough American League central division does not allow a lot of room for error but I believe there is reason for optimism.
Over the next week, I will be giving a player by player run down of what to expect in the 2007 season. At the end, I'll translate everything into a final predicted win total. This will come in three more parts:
Part 2 - Offense
Part 3 - Fielding
Part 4 - Pitching and final wins forecast