Lights! Camera! Action! The five keys to Tigers success in 2012

In his second season, Austin Jackson struggled at the plate, though he's one of the finest defensive center fielders in the game.

As the villainous Penguin used to squawk to Batman in the old TV series:

“Well, my fine-feathered fink, the time is nigh!”

So maybe most of you never saw that show, but when I was a kid I used to watch it every afternoon. My point is: the time is here, the time is now. Opening Day is upon us! Hope springs eternal! All that crap.

How far will the Detroit Tigers go in 2012? Which players will have big seasons? Is this the year the Tigers win a World Series championship? Have you seen The Hunger Games?

All (maybe all) of these questions are on our minds as the Tigers square off against the Boston Red Sox later today in Game #1 at Comerica Park.

There hasn’t been this level of anticipation for a Tigers season in a long time. What will be the keys to the Tigers 2012 season? Which players will be critical to the team’s success? Let me offer my opinion on that right here in black and white, using the titles of current movies playing in theaters as a tie-in. See if you agree with my take. Get it? take …

1. “Wrath of the Titans” – The health of the Tigers new big three

The Tigers New Big Three is Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Prince Fielder. It used to be the first two and closer Jose Valverde. But, now that The Dreadlocked One has arrived in Motown, he joins the ranks of Tigers superstars. And if any of those three miss significant playing time due to injury, the season could be a disaster. It’s easy to say that injuries are a key to any team’s success, but it’s vital on this team which feeds off the talents of the big guys. JV’s success in 2012 often trickled down to the rest of the staff and the team. The Tigers seemed to play more inspired with their ace on the mound. Cabrera is The Man in the middle of the Detroit lineup and the most worrisome when it comes to injury concerns. He’s never been sidelined with any sort of injury in his entire career – since his rookie year he’s played no fewer than 157 games every year. But, this is a big man, even after losing the weight he did in the off-season. if he isn’t healthy, it increases the pressure on Fielder and the rest of the lineup.

2. “The Hunger Games” – The maturation of Rick Porcello

Right-hander Rick Porcello has now made 89 starts in the big leagues. He has two 14-win seasons under his belt, and he’s at times shown flashes of brilliance on the hill. But the time is now for him to take the step forward and become a consistent big league pitcher. At some point you have to stop having promise and start having presence. Hopefully Porcello was paying attention last season when staff mate Verlander was having his epic season. Porcello had a front row seat for JV’s work ethic, approach, and dominance. In 2012, it would be nice to see Porcello try to match the performances of Verlander and Fister and Scherzer. If he can do that, it will make the Detroit rotation one of the best in the game. The 23-year old had 19 quality starts in 2011, the second highest total on the team, but in his five worst starts he had an ERA of 16.94.

3. “Project X” – Leyland’s leadoff problem

It’s easy to say that because the Tigers won their division by 15 games last season that they don’t need to tweak their lineup. But that’s simply not the case. The Tigers got very sub-par performance from the leadoff spot in 2011, due to the poor offensive season from second-year man Austin Jackson. Jackson’s strikeouts are a hot topic in Detroit, and they should be. A man with his speed should be putting the ball in play as much as he can to put pressure on the defense. While we’re at it, just because he has speed doesn’t mean that Jackson should hit first in the lineup. For some reason, Leyland is from the old old school of baseball philosophy which states that you put a fast singles hitter in the #1 spot. That theory is stupid, as has been illustrated by the Moneyball tactics employed by Oakland and other teams. The primary role of any hitter, and especially of your leadoff man, it to get on base. He should be able to draw a walk, for example. Last season, Jackson walked 56 times, which wasn’t a terrible total, but the problem is he only hit .249 so his on-base percentage was a meager .317. Yet, cleanup hitter Cabrera still drove in over 100 runs and Victor Martinez did too. But for all their slugging, Cabrera and VMart only had 208 RBI’s in almost 1,300 plate appearances. Imagine how many more runs the Tigers middle of the order could drive in if their leadoff man could post a decent OBP? Jackson has this season to prove he can handle the role as a leadoff man. If he struggles (last year Jackson didn’t get his OBP above .300 until June), Leyland shouldn’t stubbornly cling to him either. Brennan Boesch is a good candidate for the leadoff role – he puts the ball in play, has a good approach at the plate, and he can hit the ball with authority to every part of the field.

4. “The Three Stooges” – Production from the second base position

Which one of Detroit’s second base options is Larry and which is Moe? We know who Curly is. But seriously, nyuk nyuk nyuk, Ryan Raburn has been swinging the tick like Rogers Hornsby this spring and he should be the everyday starter, as I’ve already told you. But all three players: Raburn, Brandon Inge, and Ramon Santiago, are on Leyland’s roster to start the season. Santiago brings the leather, Raburn brings the lumber, and Inge brings the levity. If the Tigers can get 20 homers and 80 RBI out of that position, which is quote possible if Raburn plays 120-130 games there, they will have an even more dangerous lineup in 2012. Additionally, it seems about time the team did something about Inge. If Dombrowski (urged by Ilitch?) insists on keeping him on the roster, and if Leylamd insists on letting him step into the batters’ box, the least they can do is make him be a super utility player: filling in at catcher, outfield, and the infield spots. That’s only the value he really has anymore.

5. “October Baby” – Benoit, Valverde and the pen

Last year the Tigers got an historic season from Jose Valverde, as I’ve written previously, we can’t expect the closer to be that good again in ’12. Setup man Joaquin Benoit is equally critical to the team’s success. After a rocky start last year, Benoit was so damned lock-down good the remainder of the season that you could overlook a crater-sized pimple on his face. Literally. In order for the team to go deep in the playoffs, Papa Grande, Benoit, and Phil Coke will need to pitch well and have enough gas left in their tanks to push deep into October.

What do you think will be the key to the Tigers success in 2012? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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