The sting of the Tigers loss to the Texas Rangers in the American League Championship Series will take a while to wear off. After vanquishing the New York Yankees in five games in the ALDS, the Tigers find that after their loss in Game Six of the ALCS, rather suddenly and abruptly, their season is over.
2011 was a hallmark season for many reasons – Justin Verlander had one of the finest pitching campaigns in the history of the franchise. He should win the American League Cy Young Award in November, and he may haul away the Most Valuable Player Award as well.
First baseman Miguel Cabrera continues to show why he’s one of the game’s best hitters, winning his first batting title. It’s the 25th batting title for a Tiger hitter, the most by any franchise. Cabrera becomes the 11th Tiger to garner a batting crown, and since he’ll turn just 29 in 2012, he has many more productive seasons ahead of him.
The Tigers won 95 games in the regular season, a lot more than many expected. Perhaps most significantly, they won their first AL Central title, and with their talented superstar corps of Verlander, Cabrera, and closer Jose Valverde, the Tigers are poised to be a force in the division for years to come.
But there’s room for improvement, and if Detroit wants to get back to the World Series and win their first title since 1984, here are some of the things they need to do.
1. Upgrade at second base and third base
Both of these infield positions are up for grabs in 2012. Ramon Santiago performed well down the stretch in 2011, but he’s better served as a super utility infielder than an everyday regular. Wilson Betemit and Brandon Inge are a mutt-and-jeff platoon duo. Neither is skilled enough to deserve even part-time work. Next season, the Tigers will have to decide what to do with both of these spots in their lineup. They have several options: sign or trade for a true second baseman and third baseman, give the job to a young player in their organization, or get a shortstop and move Jhonny Peralta to second or third. Unfortunately the Tigers don’t have any players in their minors who can step into big league jobs at second or third. Peralta was an All-Star shortstop, but if owner Mike Ilitch could be convinced to open his wallet for New York Mets shortstop Jose Reyes, Peralta should be moved. Second base is a perfect spot for him. David Wright (also a Met) is a third base option. The time is here for the Tigers to get productive major leaguers at those two infield positions.
2. Make the bullpen deeper
When the Tigers entered the eighth inning with a lead in 2011, they were 85-0. That’s largely due to the amazing season of closer Jose Valverde. Entering his age 34 season, Papa Grande probably won’t duplicate the season he had in 2011. But that doesn’t mean the Tigers need to get a new closer, however they should add more firepower to their pen. One thing that’s certain in baseball is that relief pitchers go up and down, often having mediocre seasons after stellar seasons and vice-versa. That’s one of the reasons Mariano Rivera has been so valuable – he’s always great. Detroit had Valverde and Joaquin Benoit for the backend of their bullpen, and Al Albuerquerque seems to have the stuff to close someday, but in the meantime, another arm or two would look nice for the sixth and seventh innings. Phil Coke will be re-signed, but the Tigers would improve their pitching staff immensely if they acquired a shut-down situational lefty. In their win over the Tigers, the Rangers showed how critical a strong, deep bullpen can be to success.
3. Get quicker
The Tigers are really playing the wrong type of offensive ball for their ballpark. They have one of the most potent lineups in the league, but since they play 81 games at cavernous Comerica Park, they often find their long drives falling harmlessly into the gloves of enemy outfielders. In addition, they usually have 3-4 guys in their lineup who strike out a lot – and I mean a lot! If they want to improve their offensive attack they should become more diversified. Detroit ranked dead last in baseball with 49 stolen bases in 2011. It’s not that they need to swipe a ton of bags, but they could add a few baserunning threats and more importantly get some of the guys in their order (ahem, Austin Jackson) to hit the ball to more parts of the ballpark. Strangely, Leyland likes to play small ball (the Tigs were third with 50 sacrifice hits in ’11), but he has few players in his lineup who can run or hit-and-run. Lastly, someone needs to teach Jackson how to get a good lead and swipe bases.
4. Fill out the rotation
The Tigers have four right-handed starters all under contract for at least the next two seasons: Verlander, Scherzer, Fister, and Porcello. That young quartet will be making most of the starts for the club for the foreseeable future. Blue chip prospect Jacob Turner is on the horizon, but not quite major league ready. Brad Penny was under contract for just one season and was signed so he could chew up innings until Turner or some other young starter was ready. Penny essentially served his purpose. It’s almost certain the Tigers will not bring him back, which means they could be on the market for one of the starting pitchers who’ll be available in the off-season. Scott Kazmir may be an affordable option if he bounces back from an arm injury. The lefty was once one of the most heralded young hurlers in the game and he would fit nicely among the righties in the Tiger rotation. Mark Buehrle, C.J. Wilson, Javier Vazquez, and Chris Carpenter will also be on the market. The Tigers would be wise to get an upgrade over Penny for 2012, especially considering the inconsistent nature of Scherzer and Porcello.
5. Improve production from the leadoff spot
It’s not a secret that Austin Jackson struggled in his second season. After finishing second in AL Rookie of the Year voting in 2010, Jackson spent much of 2011 trying desperately to keep his average above .220 and his OBP above .300. He nearly set a franchise record for strikeouts, which means he wasn’t getting on base and he wasn’t even putting the ball in play that much. He struck out 19 times in the post-season and hit under .200 from the top of the order. In 2012 Leyand will have to either demote Jackson to the #9 spot until AJax gets more seasoned, or find a way to transform the young center fielder into a more patient hitter who can make better contact. If he does that, Cabrera, Delmon Young, and Martinez will have even more RBI opportunities in 2012.
The 2011 season was a great success for the Detroit Tigers and a joy for their fans to watch for many reasons. The Tigers should be favored to repeat as division champs in 2012, but if they want to go deeper in the playoffs, addressing some or all of the issues above will help them do that. What do you think? Tell us in the comments section below.