By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2004 FINISH (72-90) - Fourth Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: RP - Kyle Farnsworth; SS - Ramon Martinez; OF - Magglio Ordonez; RP - Troy Percival; C - Vance Wilson
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Eric Munson; OF - Alex Sanchez; RP - Esteban Yan
PROJECTED LINEUP: Omar Infante (2B); Carlos Guillen (SS); Ivan Rodriguez (C); Magglio Ordonez (RF); Dmitri Young (DH); Rondell White (LF); Craig Monroe (CF); Carlos Pena (1B); Brandon Inge (3B)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jason Johnson (RHP); Mike Maroth (LHP); Jeremy Bonderman (RHP); Nate Robertson (LHP); Wilfredo Ledezma (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Troy Percival (RHP)
MANAGER: Alan Trammell
Two years ago, the Tigers were the laughingstock of baseball, as their 43-119 mark was one loss short of the major league record established by the 1962 New York Mets. However, 2004 was a complete turnaround. With perennial All- Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez in the lineup the Tigers went 72-90. Now the offseason additions of outfielder Magglio Ordonez and closer Troy Percival, plus a promising young rotation may push the Tigers to where they haven't been in over a decade.
The Tigers have not had a winning record since 1993 and have not been in the playoffs since 1987 when they captured the AL East under the guidance of Sparky Anderson. The Tigers have lost at least 90 games in six of the last seven years, but there is hope the team can break even in 2005. The club picked up the option on manager Alan Trammell's contract for 2006 and the entire coaching staff will return for the 2005 season.
Aside from Ordonez and Percival signing, the other big free agents decided to stay away from Detroit. Carlos Beltran, Carl Pavano, Derek Lowe and J.D. Drew all spurned the Tigers and decided to sign elsewhere. Nevertheless, with a young lineup, additional power at the plate and on the mound, this could be the year the Tigers finally make some noise in the AL Central.
Going into his third full season with the Tigers, first baseman Carlos Pena is working hard on becoming consistent at the plate. The left-handed hitter had some brutal months (22.8 in April and May, .213 in July, .233 in September), but his saving grace was in August when he batted .308. One of the reasons why he'll likely be dropped to eighth in the lineup is his 146 strikeouts from last year.
Look for Omar Infante and veteran shortstop Carlos Guillen to continue to develop into a decent double-play combination. Infante, who is 23 and going into his second full season in Detroit, has surprising power for a second baseman. He hit 16 homers last year, but should continue to work on harnessing his speed, as he was caught seven times in 20 stolen base attempts.
The advantage of having Guillen hit second is he's a solid hitter (.318 last year) and also has speed (10 triples) that can set the table for the middle of the lineup. He made a swift recovery from knee surgery and will likely show little effects from it in April.
Brandon Inge was Mr. Utility last year for the Tigers, playing five different positions, but this year he'll shift to third base on a full-time basis. Not only that, but because of a shoulder injury to Infante, there's a chance Inge could be elevated to the lead-off role.
Pudge remains the catalyst in the clubhouse. His .334 average last year was the fourth-highest in American League history among players who primarily served as a catcher throughout their careers. Rodriguez was able to lift his play at the plate partly because of the favorable dimensions of Comerica Park, as he hit .354 at home. An 11-time Gold Glove winner, Pudge's defense remains on the elite level, but his caught stealing ratio sharply declined last year.
This area represents the biggest difference in the Tigers this year. Alex Sanchez, who started nearly half of last season in center field, was released in mid-March. That starting spot is being fought over by Craig Monroe, Nook Logan, DeWayne Wise and Alexis Gomez. Ordonez takes over for Bobby Higginson in right field, while Rondell White remains in left field.
Monroe seems to be the favorite to lock up the starting job in center. He recently sought out Jim Edmonds for advice on becoming a standout centerfielder, and for obvious reasons. Monroe has to be more disciplined at the plate, as he walked just 29 times last year.
A former first-round draft pick of the Expos, White will be hard-pressed to return to a time when he was a .300 hitter, but stranger things have happened in free agent years. The 33-year-old hit .270 last year, but at Comerica can still push the 20-homer mark.
The wild card in the outfield is Ordonez, who was signed to a five-year deal. It's a $75 million package that could escalate to $105 million over seven seasons if options are exercised. He had two surgeries on his left knee last season, and the entire deal can be voided if he should spend 25 days or more on the DL due to problems with the knee. A four-time All-Star, Ordonez was limited to a career-low 52 games last season for the Chicago White Sox and batted .292 with nine home runs and 37 RBI. One downfall for Ordonez is his past performances at Comerica Park. His career average in the ball park is just .259 with one homer and 13 RBI. Yet, when healthy Ordonez can be a menacing hitter, as he had 29 homers and 99 RBI in 2003, which was actually lower than what he produced in each of the previous four seasons.
With the arrival of Ordonez, Dmitri Young moves back a notch to the No. 5 spot in the lineup. Young broke his right leg at the start of last season, but rallied to have a respectable .272 average. The Tigers are hoping he's back around 25 homers and 80 RBI again, which would be just fine if Ordonez' knee holds up.
Although the collective ERA was 4.93 last season, fifth-worst in the majors, the starting rotation has promise with Jeremy Bonderman, Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson mixed in with veteran Jason Johnson. Wilfredo Ledezma has also shown some good stuff, especially a sharp curve.
As of now, the Tigers don't really have a qualified No. 1 or even No. 2 starter. From Johnson down to Ledezma, each pitcher is no better than a three when grading rotations. Johnson's ERA ballooned to 5.13 last season, the highest since the righthander's dismal 1-10 season in Baltimore in 2001. He also lost 15 games. On the positive side, his location is much improved and he's hitting the corners better, as he walked just 60 hitters last year.
Maroth has come a long way since losing 21 games two years ago, but his ERA was still 4.31 last season, and judging from the number of homers he allowed in 2004 (25), that could go up. However, at just 27, the Tigers must give him a shot since his pitch selection and location have improved, as well as his strikeout numbers.
Bonderman could be elevated to the No. 1 spot if only for his potential and age (22). The righthander's ERA moved from 5.56 in 2003 to 4.89 last year. He also improved on his strikeouts (168 - 6th in AL) and showed good movement on his slider and fastball.
Both lefthanders, Robertson (4.90) and Ledezma (4.39) need better pitch location, as they have a tendency to allow too many homers or have too few strikeouts. The one advantage on their side is raw talent. Ledezma is 24 and Robertson is 27.
Percival has a tendency to allow inherited base-runners to score, but his 2.90 ERA and 33 saves were decent numbers last year for the Angels. Kyle Farnsworth provides some stability for the bullpen following his trade from the Cubs. Is having Ugueth Urbina is a luxury? At least that's what most would think, if the Tigers keep him. However, Urbina's 4.50 ERA was the highest since he broke into the majors in 1995, but what's even worse is his road ERA last year was 5.33. Fernando Rodney, Jamie Walker and Franklyn German join Farnsworth in set-up roles.
The Tigers would love nothing more than to trade Higginson, but there have been no takers for his salary and he's likely to be released. Higginson's numbers in 2000 were incredible (30 HR, 112 RBI), but he's fallen out of favor since then. Logan provides extra speed, if the Tigers will just give him that shot, as he had 55 steals at the minor league level three years ago. Ramon Martinez will be the utility infielder, while veteran Vance Wilson was brought in to back up Rodriguez.
Trammell did a tremendous job last season, and he was duly rewarded for his efforts. If the rotation is steady and mental toughness prevails, the Tigers may approach .500. It wouldn't be surprising to see a third-place finish this season; and if Percival performs like last year, they'll rack up even more wins in Motown.