With the acquisitions of Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Dontrelle Willis during the off-season, fans and media across the country were predicting a division title and more for the Tigers in 2008. Some thought they would score as many as 1,000 runs. I thought the 1,000 runs was a bit far fetched but I had them pegged for around 900 runs and a divisional battle with the Cleveland Indians. Nothing went as planned though.
A hand injury to Curtis Granderson near the end of spring training set the tone for one of the most disappointing seasons for Tigers fans in years. The whole offense sputtered in the early going with new centerpiece Miguel Cabrera one of the main culprits. The offense eventually got moving and they finished a very respectable fourth in the American League in runs scored.
Unfortunately their pitching staff was awful all season. Jeremy Bonderman developed a blood clot and underwent complicated surgery causing him to miss most of the season. Justin Verlander had command problems all year and had his worst season as a Tiger. Kenny Rogers had a bad season, Nate Robertson was a complete disaster and Dontrelle Willis was worse than that. Their bullpen was no better as Todd Jones crumbled in the second half and Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney predictably struggled with injuries. The staff finished twelfth in the league with a 4.93 ERA.
They had a few flashes during the season where it looked like they might turn it around and challenge in a weak division but they they could not sustain any momentum. They finished in an unthinkable last place with a record of 74-88 14 1/2 games behind the division winning White Sox.
It was a season almost devoid of good memories. The only saving grace for their pitching staff was a break out season for Armando Galarraga who led the team in with a 3.73 ERA in 178 2/3 innings. Miguel Cabrera had a strong second half and led the league with 37 home runs. Otherwise, it was a season to forget.
After expanding their payroll drastically the previous year, the Tigers had little money to spend this off-season so they needed to be creative. They concentrated on improving the defense and with good reason. After finishing in the top five in baseball defensively in the 2006 and 2007, they were 24th in the majors in 2008 with 15 runs saved below average (according to the Fielding Bible plus/minus system). In 2007, they were 54 runs saved above average. That's a 69 run swing between 2007 and 2008 which translates to roughly 7 wins.
First, they moved Brandon Inge back to third base and Carlos Guillen to left. That will certainly help them at third and possibly in left as well. They then subtracted Renteria and added Adam Everett which should be a big boost. They also acquired Jeff Laird to replace Pudge Rodriguez who had a difficult time blocking pitches last year. Another position where they should improve is center field where Granderson had an off year defensively in 2008. He is a very good bet to return to his previous form.
To bolster their rotation, they acquired starting pitcher Edwin Jackson in exchange for Matt Joyce. Jackson has so far failed to live up to his promise but should be a substantial improvement over Rogers/Robertson/Wills. They absolutely have to get a rebound season from Verlander if they are going to contend this year. They also need Jeremy Bonderman to get healthy again. Bonderman's recovery from Thoracic surgery has been expectedly slow but I'm still fairly optimistic that he will make a positive contribution this season.
Galarraga is not likely to repeat his sub-4.00 ERA but they need him to be league average and I think he will be. Twenty-year old Rick Porcello could also give them a lift but there are likely to be some bumps in the road for him as well. Zach Miner, who had had two successful partial season runs as a starter will get a chance to open the season in the rotation this year.
The other area where they needed to improve was the bullpen. They added Brandon Lyon to help out in the late innings but that was about it. They still don't have a really reliable stopper and this could prove to be their Achilles heel this season. Some combination of Rodney and Lyon will close games which does not inspire a great deal of confidence. The hope is that a couple of relievers can capture lightning in a bottle. One possibility is rookie right-hander Ryan Perry who had an excellent spring winning a spot on the 25 man roster after just 14 innings of professional experience. They have also added former Minnesota Twins right-hander Juan Rincon. Rincon had a lot of past success but struggled the last two years.
Offensively, their top five - Granderson, Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez, Cabrera and Guillen - can match any team in the majors. Polanco, Ordonez and Guillen are getting older but should be able to maintain their performance of last year. Cabrera and Granderson are candidates to get a little better this year. Marcus Thames and Jeff Larish should be able to combine to replace Gary Sheffield's .726 OPS of 2008. The bottom third of the line-up is weak with Gerald Laird, Brandon Inge and Adam Everett. I do expect Inge to hit better than he did last year though.
The release of Sheffield gives them a more flexible bench. They no longer are tied down by a full-time designated hitter who tries to play through injuries. Instead, they will be able to use the DH spot to rest Cabrera, Ordonez and Guillen without removing their bats from the line-up. This will open up opportunities for Larish and speedy outfielder Josh Anderson. Ramon Santiago will take on the utility infielder role and could play more frequently if Everett proves to be brittle again. Matt Treanor will be the primary backup catcher.
The Tigers offense should be fine and their defense much improved. I think that there are two keys to success for the Tigers this year (other than the usual "stay healthy"): (1) They need bounce back seasons from Verlander and Bonderman. If Bonderman can't come back, then they'll need a surprise season from a Jackson or a Porcello but you can't rely on those types of break outs. (2) The bullpen is probably not going to be good but it can't be awful if they are going to stay in contention. Leyland's use of the bullpen will probably be important as he'll need to mix and match a mediocre crew carefully.
In the end, I think they'll be able to compete in the relatively weak American League central. They should once again score between 820-830 runs. Last year, they gave up 857 runs and they'll need to cut that down to 800 or fewer to contend. I actually think they can cut at least 30 runs off that just with improved defense. The rest will need to come from better pitching. The staff is full of question marks but I'm going to predict 84 wins for the Tigers this year. This should be enough keep them in a divisional race which could involve all five teams. It's a really tough division to project but I will guess the Tigers finish second behind the Indians.