Holy crap! Tomorrow is Opening Day. The only thing I had written in my planner for the whole month of March was....and to write my Annual Detroit Tigers Season Preview. Now here it is a week into April and I haven't written a single word about the Tigers. I think the reason this season has snuck up on me is because it doesn't really feel like spring yet. For example, as I'm writing this right now a heavy and wet snow is falling outside my window and I'm trying to stay warm in my apartment by burning all of my books and wrapping myself in layers of bearskins and beaver pelts while growing a long grizzled beard. I look and feel more like I'm getting ready to join Henry Hudson on an expedition through Arctic waters than I feel ready to watch Opening Day tomorrow night. I'm sure it will be just as cold and miserable in Toronto tomorrow night as it will be in Michigan and I hope the Blue Jays do something to commemorate the occasion of opening the season in sub-zero (Celsius, of course) temperatures by having their most famous citizen, Yeti, throw out the first pitch.
In past season previews I have usually given a short recap of the prior year and tried to put a positive spin on it, but I'm going to skip that this year. This is because the Tigers 2008 season has to rank as one of the most depressingly disappointing seasons in the history of sports. Sure the Tigers have had several seasons with won-loss records worse than last years 74-88 record, but there were usually no expectations for those teams. However after the offseason trades that brought in Miguel Cabrera and Edgar Renteria, as well as the continued excellence of Magglio, Placido and Guillen, the rising stardom of Granderson and a dead cat bounce season from Gary Sheffield last years Tigers outfit came affixed with a guarantee to score a thousand runs and bludgeon opposing teams pitching staffs into submission. However in the time it takes to recite all the U.S. Presidents without consulting Wikipedia, (for me about a week because all the ones after Lincoln look identical, you know those guys...the ones with the moustaches) it became apparent the Tigers were over hyped and barrelling towards disappointment. The offense looked old and was wildly inconsistent, fluctuating between getting shutout on three hits by Gavin Floyd and scoring nineteen runs on a seemingly daily basis. The pitching staff wasn't able to pick up the slack as they dealt with injury, ineffectiveness and bad luck in almost equal doses. Finally the defense overwent a major facelift in the early stages of the season, with several players switching positions on the fly, and never seemed to gel. In fact I would go so far as to say the past year, dating back to the beginning of last April when Tigers began the year 0-7, has been the most difficult and trying year as a Detroit sports fan and Michigan resident in decades. It began with the disappointing Tigers season, then the Pistons losing to the Celtics in the playoffs, 0-16 for the Lions, 3-9 for Michigan football, Chauncey being traded, the Pistons struggling to make the playoffs this year, tens of thousands of people losing their jobs and homes and the Big Three teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. And to think, this is all Edgar Renteria's fault, and if Detroit were somehow relocated to 14th century Europe Renteria would certainly have been presumed to be some sort of warlock that had brought an evil spirit to the city and led to a year of darkness and bad hoodoo. Uttering his name in Detroit would lead to mothers covering their children's ears and elderly women blowing out their candles and slamming their shutters closed. Edgars swath of destruction in his one season as a Tiger is truly legendary and hopefully now that he's been banished to San Francisco happy days can return to Detroit.
Alas, the season preview...
Mike Ilitch: During the first few years that I wrote these season previews I was hard on Ilitch and his tenure as owner of the Tigers. I blamed him for sticking with Randy Smith as general manager for about 3 years to long. I cursed him for being reluctant to spend any money in free agency and failing to put a competitive team on the field during the first few seasons at Comerica Park, especially the 2003 season. I compared his appearance to Nosferatu with a gheri curl and blamed his cheap pizzas for giving me a heart murmur, but now I feel the need to defend him. We've become a version of the odd couple, the penniless, handsome, young and talented recent college grad and the billionaire, hideous, ancient and translucent pizza industry mogul. However I'm sick of all the rumors that the economy in Detroit will force some kind of massive firesale not seen in baseball since the '97 Marlins or early '90's Padres. The most egregious of these believers is Bill Simmons who has written about it repeatedly and even devoted a lengthy portion of one of his podcasts to the subject. He's practically counting down the days until the Red Sox trade for Miguel Cabrera in exchange for some middling overhyped Red Sox prospect like Ryan Kalish or something. Look I know shit in Michigan is bad right now. It's arguably the most economically depressed state in the country and if GM and Chrysler go under the damage would be devastating. However it's not like everyone in the state is penniless. Sure season ticket sales are down drastically but I think thats a product of a last place finish as much as anything. Also Ilitch's wealth isn't tied to the auto industry in the least (I think a lot of outsiders thinks the whole state of Michigan is employed by or financially dependant on GM/Ford/Chrysler) and his net worth supposedly went up in the past season (unlike several owners who have lost millions in this economy i.e. the Wilpons). He's also ridden out tough times in the NHL and isnt cut from the same cloth as some owners that care only about the bottom line. I believe that nothing motivates people like the icy cold hand of death approaching them. I don't mean to sound grim or insensitive but Ilitch is getting quite old and from everything I've read the one thing Ilitch wants more than anything right now, besides an endless supply of blood for sustenance, is to bring a World Series Championship to Detroit. I realize this is overly simplistic but so are many of the arguments about why the Tigers are facing economic disaster.
Jim Leyland: Leyland goes into this season with his managerial butt firmly on the hot seat, and not because he fell asleep on the couch with a cigarette in his mouth. After last season Leyland was a little miffed that he did not receive a contract extension. There were also rumblings of a growing discord in the previously tight relationship between Dombrowski and Leyland. How quickly past accomplishments are forgotten in a win now environment with the second highest payroll in baseball. It just seems like yesterday that Leyland was kissing his wife through the fence and getting carried of the field after Magglio's walk off homerun in the ALCS in 2006. There is no question that Leyland will be managing for his very job this season and Dombrowski is accommodating him by allowing him to take the 25 players that Leyland sees as the best fit for the team come north with him. Even if that did mean the embarrassing scenario of cutting bait and eating 14 million dollars in payroll for a much ballyhooed addition to the team just a couple of seasons ago, as well as allowing him to take a couple of pitchers who between them have very little pro experience and none above A ball.
Gerald Laird: Laird is the Tigers new starting backstop. If that statement doesnt really inspire a lot of confidence there is a reason for it. Laird broke out with the Rangers in 2006 while splitting time with Rod Barrajas. He was given the full time job in 2007 and promptly fell flat on his face. Last year Laird split time with a gaggle of Rangers catching prospects and after putting up slightly below average offensive production coupled with slightly above average defense was deemed expendable as the Rangers decided to flip him to the Tigers for a pair of live minor league arms. Laird is the definition of a league average catcher with decent pop, low OBP and decent defense. The thing that impresses me the most about Laird is that he has been able to succeed despite having an ugly sounding name. I'm a big believer that a person's name plays an important part in how their life will turn out. For example if your name is Colt McCoy is there really any doubt that you're going to grow up and become a star quarterback? Would Cole Hamels have grown up to be the ace of the World Champion Phillies and married to a model if his name had been Melvin Thorpe? If Gerald Laird were to exist in 1930's Hollywood I guarantee the first thing that would've happened is some cigar smoking, bowtie wearing studio executive would have changed his name to Jerry Sexington or Chase Powers or something outrageous like that. Just say Laird's name out loud and tell me it doesnt sound like the guttural sounds someone makes when they are having a stroke or vomiting.
Miguel Cabrera: There was some concern last season when Cabrera got off to a slow start at the plate, slugging about 100 points lower than his career average midway through June. This was coupled with his atrociously bad defense at third base, which prompted a move across the diamond (to replace the equally atrocious Carlos Guillen at first) as well as another round of questions about his conditioning and dedication to the game. Then over the course of the last three months of the season Cabrera caught fire and slugged over .600 and hit 21 second half homeruns which propelled him into the league lead. He also adapted quite nicely to playing first base and even though he may never cover much range he did prove adept at picking throws out of the dirt and making the occasional spectacular diving stab of a line drive shot. Questions about his conditioning still persist but with his natural talent and the fact that he's still so young, (he'll turn 26 in a couple of weeks) there is a chance that we haven't even seen his best seasons yet.
Placido Polanco: Polanco is entering the final year of the four year contract he signed with the Tigers shortly after his arrival in the trade that sent Uegeth Urbina to Philadelphia, back when Dombrowski was still making trades that worked out favorably for Detroit (Pre-Jurrjens/Hernandez/Renteria). No one can argue that Polanco hasn't been a bargain for the duration of this contract, back when Dombrowski was still signing guys for below market value (Pre-Robertson/Willis). It will be interesting to see what happens with Polanco following this season. If he puts up another .300/.350/.400 season with solid defense there will be a strong sentiment to re-sign him and possibly reward him for his past performance when he was vastly underpaid. However if there is one thing that my subscription to BP has taught me its that baseball is a business and the best route is to ruthlessly cut loose any player in his mid-30's regardless of sentimental value as they are likely on the downslope of their career. However, given the relative dearth of options on the free agent market following this season at the keystone (Freddy Sanchez anyone?) and the similar lack of options up the middle in the minors the Tigers may find themselves backed into a corner when it comes to negotiating with Polanco this offseason.
Adam Everett: When you live a fast paced lifestyle like I do, with sports cars (my 2001 Buick Century), illicit drug use (drinking cough syrup until I pass out), beautiful women (my obese cat Sgt. Hugs) and thousands of dollars (...in student loan debt) you don't have time to regret anything. In fact "No Regrets" is kind of my motto to live by as evidenced by the large Hello Kitty crossbones tattoo that covers my entire back will emphatically tell you. Long story short I can't really empathize with the regret Dave Dombrowski must feel when he looks out at Adam Everett starting at shortstop every day. Sure Everett isn't really costing them anything monetarily as he signed a 1 year 1 million dollar deal this past offseason, but his anemic bat and slick glove are whats left to show for Dombrowski's decision to trade Jair Jurrjens and Gorkys Hernandez for Edgar Renteria. I know I've mentioned that trade a hundred times already but it may take years of therapy for me to get over that deal, so instead of continuing to bitch about the trade I'll shift gears to something else. After the Rays shaved hundreds of runs off their runs allowed total en route to the World Series last year defense became the hot commodity during the offseason. Much of the credit for the Rays defensive turnaround was credited to their acquiring Jason Bartlett a no hit good-glove shortstop from the Minnesota Twins. Well lucky for Detroit they signed a similar scrappy white shortstop with a good defensive reputation away from their AL Central rival Twins. He should be a vast improvement defensively over Renteria who had all the range of my 84 year old wheelchair bound Grandpa. Did I mention we traded Jair.......whoops sorry.
Brandon Inge: I think the lesson I learned from Brandon Inge last season was that if things aren't going your way or your employee asks you to sacrifice for the good of the team the proper and professional way to act is to publicly question their decisions through thinly veiled passive aggresive remarks. Maybe even demand a trade or two or openly sulk to the point that it effects my job performance. Sure this method may get me called out by my boss and may even make my image take a hit but I would be so wildly overpaid that no one else would want me and eventually I would get my way and even a promotion. Probably from the sarcastic tone of those first few sentences its pretty clear that Inge isn't my favorite Tiger. He's joined the list of Tigers, headed by Bobby Higginson, who I once cheered for but who hung around long enough for me to grow to hate them. His defense at the hot corner is rather spectacular and he is exciting to watch while in the field but his performance at the plate has been putrid since his flukey 2006 power surge. His OPS the past two seasons have been sub 700, which means he has to be Brooks Robinson-esqe in the field to drag his worth above replacement value. However maybe now that he's been properly coddled and has the job he wants he'll be able to produce a little with the bat.
Matt Treanor: I don't know anything about Matt Treanor other than the fact that his wife is infinitely more popular and famous than he is and she's a professional beach volleyball player. This led to my startling discovery that there is such a thing as professional beach volleyball. Treanor joins the long line of backup catchers who passed through Detroit for only a season or two before fading away into oblivion, although there is still a chance that the team is waiting for Vance Wilson to return from his seemingly decade long rehab from Tommy John surgery. I'm a little disappointed in the teams decision to bring in Treanor as I had worked myself up into a hot sweaty lather over the prospect of the beginning of the Dusty Ryan era after his promising cup of coffee with the team last September. Oh well Dusty's absence will only make my heart grow fonder.
Ramon Santiago: I've always been a big fan of Santiago and I was hoping he would get a crack at landing the every day job after The Disaster Known as Edgar Renteria had his option declined within seconds of the 2008 season ending.
Magglio Ordonez: Magglio regressed from his MVP caliber 2007 season but still put together an impressive season. He's essentially a .300/.370/.500 player who will hit 20-25 homeruns and drive in 100 plus RBI's a season. He'll never come close to putting up the numbers he did two years ago but he's still well above average for a corner outfielder. Sadly this could be Magglio's final season in Detroit as his name constantly gets bandied about in trade rumors and if the Tigers struggle out of the gate and look to shed some payroll he could be moved. Given how critical many in the media were when the Tigers handed this contract out when Magglio was coming off a devastating knee injury that required some sort of radical surgery that wasn't even legal to perform in this country, this deal turned out surprisingly well for the Tigers.
Curtis Granderson: Granderson wasn't able to match his 2007 season at the plate or in the field. But he still had a productive season overall and ranks among the best centerfielders and most exciting players in the game. Even with a decrease across the board in Granderson's slash stats there were still improvements in his game that, like Cabrera lead some to belief that we haven't even seen the best of Granderson yet. Namely he increased his walk rate while slashing his strikeout rate for the third consecutive season. Also he learned to hit left-handers after previously being completely helpless against them. Granderson had been so bad against lefties before last season that there was a groundswell last spring to have him platoon with a 12 year old blind girl named Nicole Cramer who played in one of those leagues with the beeping baseballs. The only reason the Tigers didn't go through with it was because the idea of a 12 year old blind girl playing professional baseball would have made Rick Reilly orgasm to death and the Tigers didn't want that blood and.....uh....other matter on their hands.
Carlos Guillen: Once again Guillen is switching positions, this time heading to left field. Last year saw his odyssey take him from shortstop to first base, where his awful footwork around the bag almost led to him getting killed in a collision with someone barrelling down the first base line on several occasions. Once it became apparent that both him and Cabrera were out of place defensively the two swapped spots across the diamond where Guillen provided above average defense. He was sidelined at one point by a killer case of hemorrhoids, which is the worst possible injury imaginable. I know this from experience as I seemed to have developed a raging case of them just while writing this insanely long blog post. Anyways Guillen is still athletic enough to where he could be an asset defensively in the outfield and maybe the position takes some of the burden of his aching surgically repaired knees that will allow his bat to return to the level it was a couple of years back.
Marcus Thames: After years of being jerked around by the front office, dating back to 2005 when he didn't make the team coming out of spring training because the team was to gutless to cut ties with Bobby Higginson rotting carcass, Thames has finally forced his way into a major role on the team. A year removed from having the indignity of sharing the short half of a platoon with Jacques Jones it looked like Thames might once again lose significant playing time and possibly his spot on the roster to another aging and washed up veteran, this time future Hall of Famer Gary Sheffield. However, in a surprising move the Tigers cut ties with Sheffield and ate 14 million dollars in remaining salary just for the privilege of having Sheffield not play for them this season. If I were an owner with an infinite amount of money, I think a good way to punish a G.M. who had handed an ill advised contract would be to sit him down and make him actually eat 14 million dollars in singles with a knife and fork for my entertainment. With Sheffield gone Thames will appear to get a full seasons worth of at bats while rotating between the outfield corners and DH. He has the potential to put up the following slash stats in a full season of at-bats: .220/.280/.600. Just as an idea of what kind of player Thames could end up being Baseball Prospectus lists his top player comps as Dave Kingman, Pete Incaviglia and Steve Balboni. I've always had a soft spot for these kinds of all or nothing power hitters and I'm glad Thames finally seems to be getting a full season worth of playing time in Detroit.
Josh Anderson: Anderson is the newest Tiger, having been acquired for one of the several minor league relievers the Tigers seemingly throw into every deal. In this case a side arm reliver named Rudy Darrow. I know even less about Darrow than I do Anderson so I can't really offer any insight on to whether this is a good trade or not. I really cant offer any insight into anything though, so this couldnt really come as any surprise. Most of Anderson's value lies in his batting average, as a glance at his career number reveals little plate discipline and a modicum of power. He also brings a decent amount of speed to the lineup having stole 52 bases between AAA and the majors last season, while only being caught 8 times, so he could have his uses as a pinch runner. Supposedly he also brings good defense to the table, even though he might be a bit overmatched for the expansive centerfield at Comerica. But with a team currently running Magglio, Guillen and Thames out to play defense in the corners Anderson could have some utility as a late inning defensive replacement for any of the aforementioned aging/iron gloved trio. It's been awhile since the Tigers have had a legitimate speed threat on their roster, maybe since Alex Sanchez who was arguably the worst baserunner in Tigers history. Sanchez had as much sense on the basepaths as the squirrel in the video on those late night sports bloopers shows that ran around the paths to Benny Hill's theme music. Somewhere Andres Torres is wondering if Dave Dombrowski lost his phone number because Anderson's job was supposed to be Torres' destiny.