The Detroit Tigers looked like a solid choice to win the AL Central title in 2011, after adding slugger Victor Martinez at DH and not losing any major components. Sure enough, they won the division, even with Martinez only posting a 2.9 fWAR on the season. They got contributions from plenty of players, and won the division in a cakewalk after the Indians collapsed in the second half of the year.
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Tigers won the AL Central and made it to the ALCS primarily because of two players: Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Cabrera ranked second in the AL with a 1.034 OPS, and was worth 7.3 fWAR. Verlander was the Outside Corner’s midseason Cy Young winner, leading the AL in most major pitching categories, and he was worth 7.0 fWAR. Take away those two players and replace them with guys that are replacement level, and the Tigers are a .500 team. In addition to those great seasons, Doug Fister was worth 2.4 fWAR in 70 innings after being acquired at the trading deadline (with a 1.79 ERA in that time period), closer Jose Valverde went 49 for 49 in save opportunities (despite 34 walks in 72 1/3 innings), catcher Alex Avila posted an .895 OPS in his second full season in the majors, and shortstop Jhonny Peralta not only played excellent defense, but hit the ball quite well, as his .823 OPS indicates.
WHAT WENT WRONG
Not a lot. Brandon Inge was a disaster offensively (just a .548 OPS), but at least contributed defensively. Magglio Ordonez made $10 million dollars for 357 plate appearances of .634 OPS ball. Carlos Guillen only played in 28 games, and struggled terribly with a .633 OPS. Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello both regressed on the mound, with ERAs over 4.00, but both pitchers kept their walks low, and most of their struggles could be tied to increased home run rate (odd considering Detroit’s home park).
This column begins and ends with Avila, the former Alabama catcher. In a 333 plate appearance tryout last season, he struggled to the tune of a .656 OPS. In 2011 though, Avila’s power blossomed, and his BABIP rose by 88 points, resulting in a fantastic .895 OPS and an All-Star nod. Based on that high BABIP, he’ll probably come down to earth next season, but “how far” is the major question. After a pair of subpar years, Peralta rebounded to his 2008 form, and looked like a star once again. It seems to go in spurts with him, though. He’s had three great seasons in his career, with two awful ones separating each good one. Fister’s acquisition at the break really solidifed Detroit’s rotation after Verlander, and gave them a nice number two option with both Scherzer and Porcello struggling on the year. The pickup of Delmon Young at midseason helped too. Young still didn’t walk at all, but showed some great power, including a barrage of homers in the playoffs.
A year after playing in 84 games, I don’t think the Tigers expected a lot from Ordonez. But…SOMETHING would have been nice. They got nothing. The declines of Scherzer and Porcello is worrisome too, as Detroit has to be wondering if they’d be better off having let Porcello get some seasoning in the minors, and not having traded Curtis Granderson and Ian Kennedy for Scherzer (and long-man Phil Coke, and reliever Daniel Schlereth). Scherzer’s second year as a Tiger saw his strikeout and walk rates decline, but his homer rate absolutely spike. Blip on the radar, or a sign of future struggles? As for Porcello, he’s still only 22, and his FIP and xFIP both dropped close to 4.00 this year.
The Tigers are actually going to be shedding some payroll this offseason, which should help. Guillen and Ordonez are both free agents that probably won’t return, shaving $23 million off the payroll. Oft-injured reliever Joel Zumaya will also test the free agent market, and backup infielder Ramon Santiago will be testing the waters as well. None of these guys were truly essential to the 2011 AL Central champs aside from Santiago, so the team should look pretty good for next year.
With fifth starter flop Brad Penny leaving town, the Tigers could use a fifth starter. Prospects Andy Oliver and Jacob Turner could be fighting for that role in the spring. The team will also get full years out of Fister and Young. Ryan Raburn should get a full load of playing time. The Tigers really don’t have many questions going into 2012, and should be the favorites yet again in arguably the weakest division in baseball, as they should be with the division’s best hitter and best pitcher.