It’s opening day – the time of year when everyone’s shining their crystal balls. Tiger fans are unusually anxious for the 2013 season to start because their team is loaded for bear – actually Indian, Twins, White Sox, and Royals – but you get the idea.
What does the ’13 season hold in store for the Tigs? No one knows. But that isn’t going to stop me from trying to identify some trends that will be important this year for our Motown heroes. I’m picking nine (for obvious reasons of baseball symmetry), but also because the more I toss out there, the better chance I have to get something correct.
#1 – Torii’s impact on the lineup
Easily the biggest add-on to the Detroit roster is veteran Torii Hunter, who will take over in right field. Hunter is mature (he’ll turn 38 at the All-Star break), but don’t let that worry you – he’s a great physical specimen. He’s averaged 149 games the last three years and he still runs and chases down fly balls like a man much younger than he is. That’s a welcome upgrade to the Tiger outfield defense, but Hunter will make his largest impact in the lineup. Nestled between Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera, Hunter provides a solid bat at the top of the order. There should be many more scoring opportunities in the first inning than there were last season. Detroit was wise to sign Hunter, because his gap power will be perfect for the wide expanses at Comerica Park.
#2 – When will The Phenom be called up?
The other side of the outfield will have Andy Dirks and holdovers Don Kelly and maybe Quintin Berry (if he’s recalled from Toledo). With their potent lineup, the Tigs won’t need a ton of production from the left field spot, but if Dirks & Co. struggle (and I think they will), it won;t take long for the calls for Nick Castellanos to become louder. Castellanos is future star prospect #1 in the Detroit organization. He has a great swing, his power is increasing, and he will eventually be an everyday player at the top level. The numbers say he’s probably ready now, but with a World Series in their sights, the Tigers figure they have time to let Castellanos ripen in Triple-A. I’d be willing to wager that Nick will make his big league debut before June 1.
#3 – Finding a closer
I’ve already written in depth about the Tigers closer situation. All I’ll add here is that this will be the biggest controversy of the first part of the 2013 season. If Phil Coke or Octavio Dotel or any of the other relievers tapped to close games blow a few games early, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see GM Dave Dombrowski trade for an established closer. The pressure is on DD to win it all, and Mike Ilitch realizes the window is not going to be open for long. For more of my thoughts on the bullpen, see #8 below.
#4 – Health and depth of the rotation
The Tigers have a deep, talented quintet of starting pitchers: Justin Verlander is on track for the Hall of Fame; Max Scherzer looks to be poised to become an All-Star with his filthy stuff; Anibal Sanchez is just 29 years old and has never had an ERA over 4.00 in a full season; tall, lean Doug Fister is stingy at allowing hits and walks and has strikeout stuff too; and Rick Porcello is still just 24 and is probably just learning how good he can be. After those four right-handers there’s southpaw Drew Smyly, who has all the looks of a solid big league pitcher. If any of the first five go down, Smyly can step right in. But I figure the rotation will be pretty damned good this year, as each pitcher tries to one-up the other. Without exaggeration, Detroit has three guys on their staff who are great candidates for tossing a no-hitter, their stuff is that good.
#5 – VMart
After sitting out one full season the Tigers designated hitter, Victor Martinez is back from a knee injury. It might be easy for Tiger fans to forget how good this guy is. He’s an All-Star and one of the best hitters in baseball. As the DH, sitting in the lineup behind Cabrera and Prince Fielder, VMart will see plenty of good pitches. Expect somewhere in the neighborhood of .3oo/20 HR/100 RBI for the switch-hitter. In fact, if Cabby or Prince don’t beat him to it, Martinez might lead the AL in runs batted in.
#6 – Jhonny and Alex
After being All-Stars in 2011, shortstop Jhonny Peralta and catcher Alex Avila fell off the cliff last season. While we assume that the superstars in the Detroit lineup will put up monster numbers, it’s still important that these two guys at the bottom of the order do much better. Avila is most likely to bounce back. I wouldn’t be shocked if Peralta’s power continued to wane this season, even though he reported to spring camp in very good shape. if both of these guys have seasons anywhere near their ’11 numbers, the Tigers lineup will be scarey good.
#7 – The Deadline Deal
No matter how good your team is, if you’re in the playoff hunt come July, you want to get better. the Tigers have shown that they are willing to deal at the trade deadline to improve their club. Although their starting lineup looks very good, an injury could necessitate a deal to fill a gap. A bench bat, a veteran reliever (maybe a closer), could be on their shopping list. Even in ’68 and ’84, when the Tigers were rolling toward the post-season, the front office made a trade or two down the stretch to bolster their roster. If the team is in the right position, my prediction is that they will grab a veteran bat for the bench (or maybe an outfielder) to make their lineup even more formidable. Dombrowski has the green light from Mr. I to do what he has to do to get that World Series trophy.
#8 – Bench depth
Last season the Tigers had a pretty miserable bench, with the exception of Gerald Laird, who isn’t back. Unfortunately Don Kelly and Ramon Santiago are back and will be relied on heavily. Because the Tigers carry 7 relievers (silly in my opinion), that means they have 12 pitchers out of a 25-man roster. That leaves just four players off the bench, with one of them your backup catcher. Brayan Pena will fill that role, with Matt Tuiasosopo serving as the other outfield reserve, in place of Ryan Raburn. Tuiasosopo and Santiago will serve as the primary pinch-hitters, but given the strength of the Detroit lineup they won’t be needed that much. Overall, it’s still a weak bench, but better than last year. Look for Tuiasosopo to open some eyes with his bat this year, I’m picking him to be the surprise on this roster.
#9 – Miggy’s legs
You’d be tempted to say that the Tigers got their share of injuries out of the way in 2012. VMart missed the entire schedule, Doug Fister was sidelined a few times, suffering an injury in his first start of the season, Austin Jackson was hobbled for about a month, and Max Scherzer had some nagging arm troubles. So, what more could happen? Look around baseball and you’ll see players falling left and right. There seems to be something in the air. An injury to one of the big Tiger stars would be tough to deal with. Detroit fans will be watching their triple crown winner very closely. The big guy has a large body on those legs, legs that have been gimpy at times. Knock on wood … Cabby will be able to extend his streak of 150 games or more to 10 seasons.
What do you think will be some key things to watch for in the 2013 season? Share in the comments below.