The Detroit Tigers won the American League Central last season by 15 games. They were the only team in the division with a winning record. They committed over $200 million in the off-season to improve the team, mostly with an eye on the near future. You'd be right to think that they're favored in the Central in 2012, too.
It's hard to remember now, but the Tigers were in a honest-to-goodness race in the middle of August last season; it wasn't as much of a runaway as it seems in retrospect. The Tigers went on a crazy winning streak, and most of their lead was built in the last month-and-a-half, right as the Indians disintegrated. Literally disintegrated. Downtown Cleveland is still covered with Grady Sizemore ash and dust. The teenagers are snorting it and coming down with knee problems. It wasn't a great finish for the Indians. But that meant it was a great finish for the Tigers.
The Tigers are the favorites, but it would be an easy advantage to overstate. They were closer to a 89-win team based on Pythagorean record and they went 29-17 in one-run games, hinting at a team that would have trouble being as successful if the season were replayed 100 times. Fans hate the word "luck." Fine. I'll phrase it in a diplomatic way, then. The Tigers had a lot of things go right during the regular season last year. Probably because of all that good luck.
That isn't to say that the Tigers weren't good, or that they weren't better than the Indians. They were. But if you're looking at the Tigers as a 95-win team that added Prince Fielder and got substantially better, well, you're probably going to be disappointed.
For one, the addition of Fielder is swell, but there's also the loss of Victor Martinez. And by the end of the playoffs last year, the Tigers didn't look like they were a hitter away from blowing away the rest of the league, even if Martinez were still healthy. In the deciding game of the ALCS, Delmon Young was hitting fifth. Austin Jackson looked over-matched as a leadoff hitter. Alex Avila was like an expired inkjet cartridge that Jim Leyland had to shake and shake because there wasn't an alternative at the end of the season. The parade of outfielders who replaced Brennan Boesch were uninspiring at best
The two brightest spots in the rotation, Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, both had seasons that were dramatically better than anything they'd done before. That means something different for both pitchers -- Fister went from workmanlike to fantastic, where Verlander when from fantastic to ethereal -- and it could be that both pitchers have reached new levels of performance. It seems more likely, though, that they'll take a little step back next season. That isn't to say that Verlander's going to turn into Livan Hernandez and Fister is going to turn into … well, Livan Hernandez. Just that they aren't great bets to be quite as spectacular.
One reason they might not be as spectacular: the defense. Specifically, the infield defense. More specifically, holy crap they're really putting Miguel Cabrera at third base. Cabrera is one of the best hitters in baseball right now, remarkably healthy, and still just 28. But at some point in June or July, Jim Leyland is going to look out to the field, see Cabrera tangled in a garden hose, and realize that something needs to change. Before that happens, the ERAs of contact pitchers like Fister and Rick Porcello will probably suffer.
Based on those last four or five paragraphs, it might seem like I'm setting the Tigers up for a 90-loss season. No, not quite. It's just boring to say that the Tigers are the prohibitive favorites in the division. Every team preview of the Tigers will laud their strengths, promote them as the eventual division winners, and hype Prince Fielder in a way that will make you want to buy six boxes of Crazy Bread just to support the cause.
The Tigers are the favorites. There's no question about it. The AL Central is probably the easiest division to predict, if only because for every way I've picked apart the Tigers, there are three ways to pick apart their closest competition. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are amazing. Fielder is outstanding. The Tigers have a heckuva head start on the rest of the division.
They're likely to be the best team in the AL Central. I wouldn't put $20 on anything other than the Tigers to win the division, but I can envision all sorts of ways that things can go wrong for them. It's a flawed team, quite possibly the sixth-best team in the American League. That's probably where I would have put the Cardinals last year -- right around the sixth-best team in the NL to start the season -- so please note that a) baseball has a funny way of picking champions at random from the top half of baseball, and b) that smell you're picking up on me when I walk into a room is the aerosol wrong wafting about.
The lineup looks solid if you're convinced that Alex Avila really is one of the best-hitting catchers of his generation and that Jhonny Peralta is going to stop being so danged perplexing. If you have any questions about either of them, though, you can see how the lineup might frustrate, with Delmons and Dirkses and Raburns and Inges and Santiagos (always, always, always Inges and Santiagos) getting in the way of the fantastic and well-compensated players in the middle of the order.
The rotation has one of the best anchors in the game, and Fister found a strikeout pitch -- something that he didn't have at any previous professional stop, really -- on the way over from Seattle. FanGraphs has the Tigers' rotation as the fourth-best in all of baseball, but that presupposes that Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer shake off whatever was dragging them down last year. Both have had better years in the past; both will probably have better years in the future.
There's enough talent in the lineup to carry the rotation if things go right, and there's enough talent in the rotation to do the same for the lineup. The Tigers' closest competition in the AL Central isn't a great team -- possibly not even a very good team -- and the rest of the division falls off from there. By the trade deadline, the Tigers should have a great idea of what's working and what isn't, and they'll reinforce according, much as they did last year with Fister.
Just don't equate "prohibitive favorites" with "peerless team."
Coulda Shoulda Woulda (Move they didn't make)
The fifth-starter competition this spring hasn't been a total disaster, other than top prospect Jacob Turner coming down with shoulder discomfort, but it's not inspiring, either. Andrew Oliver's problem in the past has been with control, and he's not doing much to allay those fears in the spring. Duane Below might be a harmless left-handed innings eater as soon as this year, but he could also have an adjustment period. A trade for someone like Gavin Floyd or Wandy Rodriguez would have taken out a lot of the guesswork.
It really didn't take long to get used to Avila becoming a Piazza-type hitter. Probably the Lasorda connection subconsciously working on us, frightening us into submission. But Avila is still something of an unknown. It's hard to say that his 2011 was miles ahead of anything he did in the minors, mostly because he didn't have a lot of minor-league time. He could be this good. He could be better. He might have had the best year of his career, and it's all downhill from here. No clue. The wildest of wild cards.
They'll win the Central, but not by more than five games. Justin Verlander is better than he was before 2011, but not as good as he was last year. Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago go 3-for-4 in the division-clinching game … in 2039. Not sure how they'll help next year, but they'll be around. Austin Jackson gets better, even if he'll still be a long way from being the ideal leadoff hitter.