The horrible finish to the season of the Detroit Tigers should not diminish what the Tigers accomplished in 2011. They ran away with an albeit weak American League Central division and then sent the New York Yankees to an unexpectedly early end to that team's season. A lot went right for the Tigers this season. Jose Valverde, Jhonny Peralta and of course, Justin Verlander all had career seasons. Alex Avila blossomed into one of the best catchers in baseball and Doug Fister gives them a strong number two starter to compliment Verlander. If you think the Tigers are satisfied with finishing as the second best team in the American League, you haven't been following baseball.
The Tigers are always dynamic in the off season and are not afraid of making bold moves to improve their team. And a few moves are certainly in the offing heading into 2012. They look to have little resistance again in the AL Central next season. The Royals and Indians will be more competitive but the Twins and White Sox have some major rebuilding to do. But the Tigers want more than to just win the division. This loss to the Rangers in the ALCS will make them even hungrier to take it further in 2012. So let's take a look at 2012 and where the Tigers go from here.
Good bye Brad Penny. Have a nice life. You can be certain that Penny will not be back and that's what is so encouraging about the Tigers' rotation heading into 2012. They are four deep already with Verlander, Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. They can fill the fifth role with either Jacob Turner or Casey Crosby (their two best pitching prospects) or go after someone like Mark Buehrle. Either way, they should be in better shape than what they started with in 2011. Verlander's season was no fluke. He truly is a stud and barring injury (heaven forbid), should lead this staff for many years to come. Having Doug Fister all season (and on the cheap too!) will be a boon for them. The guy simply knows how to pitch. In 448 career innings in the big leagues, Fister has walked only 1.7 batters per nine innings and keeps the ball in the ballpark really well. Unlike some, the comparisons to Maddux for this writer do not seem far fetched.
The two to worry about are Porcello and Scherzer. Of the two, there is less worry for Scherzer. Scherzer has the more dynamic arm of the two and he just needs to get better at keeping the ball in the park and limit the times when he flattens out in the hitter's zone. Porcello, on the other hand, doesn't fool many batters over the long haul and his 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings is of great concern. That's why it's important to either bring in another pitcher or hope that one of their two great pitching prospects (Turner and Crosby) can make the next step. Jacob Turner has been compared to Verlander and did get his feet wet this season. He's only going to be 21 in 2012, but Clayton Kershaw proved it can be done. Turner did get cuffed around in his cup of coffee, but he's got a great arm.
Jose Valverde had a great season, make no mistake about that. Forget the close rate as that stat isn't all that meaningful. Saying that, he was fifth in the majors among relievers in WPA and until his last outing, was lights out in the playoffs. This writer would like to see him lose some weight and take better care of himself. And to expect him to not blow a save in 2012 seems like a stretch, but he's proven himself to be a reliable ninth inning game finisher and should be all set for 2012.
Joaquin Benoit was the target of a lot of early season jibes after he signed a big contract and then started so poorly. But Benoit turned it on in June and in the second half, he was nearly unhittable. He's a solid back of the bullpen guy. Phil Coke (can we forget the starting pitcher experiment please?) is a reliable arm from the left side with some juice. Leave him in the bullpen and we have no problems.
Alberto Alburquerque needs to be the pre-concussion pitcher and not the post-concussion pitcher. He also needs to find a way to throw more strikes. There's no doubt he has electric stuff and can strike out a ton of batters. He has the talent to be a David Robertson type of bullpen guy if he can throw strikes. After Alburquerque, the bullpen is thin (as we saw in the playoffs), so the Tigers will need to scrounge around and get themselves some more arms. But that's the case with pretty much every team in baseball.
You can pencil in Miguel Cabrera's name in there for years to come. He too looked heavy at the end of the season, but how can you argue with those results? Pencil him in for another season of a 1.000+ OPS. The rest of the infield is a question mark. Third base was a wasteland of Wilson Betemit and Brandon Inge. Inge is one of those guys you root for and is a very good fielder. He just doesn't carry his weight with the bat. Betemit should be allowed to walk (or run). It's too bad the team gave up on Scott Sizemore. This writer still thinks that Sizemore could become a very good player. And to think they gave him away for David Purcey?
Second base is also a big question mark. The Ryan Raburn experiment is interesting. The Tigers should probably explore that further in Spring Training. Ramon Santiago isn't the answer and don't even discuss Carlos Guillen. Second basemen on the market are probably led by Aaron Hill (Towers is talking tough about not keeping him in Arizona). With a market led by Hill, Raburn looks a lot better.
Jhonny Peralta surprised a lot of people with his play this season. He certainly had a career year and played brilliantly at the plate and adequately in the field. To expect a season like that next season seems like a stretch. Peralta can play other positions and if the Tigers can pull off a Jose Reyes/Jimmy Rollins type free agent haul, they should do it and move Peralta to second or third. Prospects Dale Iorg and Daniel Fields both look like they will not be able to hit big league pitching.
Catcher and DH
There are no worries behind the plate for the Tigers. Alex Avilla is your number one catcher for years to come and Victor Martinez can catch the odd days and of course, is one of the best DHs in baseball.
The outfield is sort of a landmine for the Tigers. It didn't help losing Brennan Boesch to injury after 115 games. If he can come back healthy, he's set for right. He's only adequate in the field, but he can rake. Austin Jackson has proven himself as a fine defensive center fielder. But as a batter, he's a ninth hole hitter at best. He's got to get out of the lead off spot. Do that, and you can live with his inadequate offense. This writer doesn't believe in Delmon Young no matter how good he played in the post season. Magglio Ordonez is probably done, so you can't look there. You know who would really look good in this outfield? Andre Ethier. The Dodgers will be motivated to trade him and the Tigers would do well to get him say for Young and a strong second tier pitching prospect.
The Tigers have a solid core of pitching and offense to again win the AL Central next season. A few tweaks here and there and as scary as the Tigers were in 2011, with a few tweaks, they can be even better in 2012. The playoffs might have ended badly, but this team will be back in the playoffs again next season.