On paper: Tigers are g-r-r-reat

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 11:15 PM

The Tigers added power hitter Prince Fielder to a team that won 95 games last season. And Justin Verlander is back with all his trophies.

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Prince Fielder

LAKELAND, FLA.

The 2008 Tigers looked this talented, too.

They'd made the big offseason trade for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis, adding to a nucleus that had reached the World Series only two years earlier.

But that 2008 team started 0-7. One day after finally winning a game, manager Jim Leyland was holding court with the beat writers in the visiting manager's office at Fenway Park when the phone rang.

"Wrong number; he wanted the clubhouse man," Leyland grumbled after hanging up. "If we don't win a few more, I might be the clubhouse man."

The Tigers never recovered, finishing in last place, 14 games below .500. The expected race between Cleveland, which had been to the American League Championship Series, and Detroit never materialized.

The Twins, who had lost Johan Santana and Torii Hunter the previous offseason, forced a Game 163 tiebreaker against the White Sox before Chicago finally claimed the division title.

But that's how it usually works in the AL Central. The consensus favorite often flops. It happened to the White Sox in 2006. It happened to the Twins in 2005, 2007 and 2011.

Now, the Tigers are coming off an ALCS loss to Texas and have added former Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, bringing yet another new force to the division. Over the past five years, Fielder has averaged 160 games played, 40 home runs and 113 RBI.

He'll bat cleanup behind Cabrera, who has been equally durable the past five years, averaging 158 games played, 35 home runs and 116 RBI.

Delmon Young will follow those two sluggers in the No. 5 spot, ahead of Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta.

"I've got two MVP candidates in front of me and two All-Stars behind me," Young said. "We've got a very good lineup, we've got a great pitching staff and a great bullpen. We're just going to go out there and play as a team and see where team baseball can get us."

The biggest question now is defense.

With Fielder at first base, Cabrera has moved to third, a position he hasn't played since 2008. Cabrera slimmed down during the offseason and didn't look terrible at third base early in spring training. But on March 19, he broke a bone beneath his right eye when a hot smash from Philadelphia's Hunter Pence took a bad hop, crushing Cabrera's sunglasses.

"You're going to pick up the paper tomorrow and read that Cabrera can't play third base," former Red Sox manager Terry Francona said on ESPN's broadcast. "But that ball hits every third baseman in the majors in the face."

Even if Cabrera can handle routine plays, the Tigers won't cover much ground with him at third, Peralta at shortstop, Fielder at first, Young in left field and Brennan Boesch in right.

That defensive alignment would be a disaster for the pitch-to-contact Twins. But Tigers pitchers do a better job of missing bats. Reigning AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander averaged 9.0 strikeouts per nine innings last year, Max Scherzer averaged 8.0 K/9 and Doug Fister averaged 7.3 after getting traded to Detroit from Seattle.

The one who should be concerned is Rick Porcello. The 23-year-old sinkerballer still is growing as a pitcher, and his strikeout rate last year was 5.1.

It's hard to imagine any of this slowing down Verlander at age 29. He went 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA last year, leading the majors in strikeouts (250) and innings pitched (251).

The 2008 Tigers were counting heavily on Verlander, too, and he had the most frustrating stretch of his career, going 1-7 with a 6.05 ERA in his first nine starts. But he's learned plenty since then.

"A lot of times last year, you saw him throw 90-91 [miles per hour], just hitting his spots, mixing his pitches well and getting quick outs," said Avila, the Tigers catcher. "And when he got into jams later in the game, when he needed 98-99, he would bring it out of nowhere. And that's like having another pitch."

Verlander said his confidence never has wavered, even in 2008. What he has now is swagger, without the slightest hint of doubt that he'll be one of baseball's best pitchers year after year. He has a long, lean frame and terrific mechanics, which should help him bounce back from throwing 20 extra innings last October.

Asked if he's glad he doesn't have to face the Tigers lineup, now that they've added Fielder, Verlander said, "Yeah. It'd be fun, though."

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