By Eric Gold, MLB Editor (Sports Network)
2003 FINISH (43-119) - Fifth Place (AL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: C - Mike DiFelice, INF - Carlos Guillen, SP - Jason Johnson, RP - Al Levine, C - Ivan Rodriguez, 2B - Fernando Vina, OF - Rondell White
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: 3B - Shane Halter, DH/3B - Dean Palmer, SS - Ramon Santiago
PROJECTED LINEUP: Alex Sanchez (CF); Fernando Vina (2B); Ivan Rodriguez (C); Dmitri Young (DH); Rondell White (LF); Bobby Higginson (RF); Eric Munson (3B); Carlos Pena (1B); Carlos Guillen (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: Jason Johnson (RHP); Mike Maroth (LHP); Jeremy Bonderman (RHP); Nate Cornejo (RHP); Nate Robertson (LHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Fernando Rodney (RHP)
MANAGER: Alan Trammell
It's apparent that the Detroit Tigers have nowhere to go but up in the victory column in 2004. They won five of their last six games to end the 2003 season at 43-119, one loss short of the major league record established by the 1962 New York Mets. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch was apparently sick of being bothered by critics of his team so he decided to do something about it in the offseason. After setting an American League record for defeats, Ilitch had some input in his team's signing of All-Star catcher Ivan Rodriguez, second baseman Fernando Vina and outfielder Rondell White. Detroit also worked a trade to get infielder Carlos Guillen from Seattle.
The Tigers also signed Jason Johnson to be their No. 1 starter in a very young rotation, which saw Mike Maroth lose 21 games. As a staff last season, the Tigers had the second-highest ERA in the majors at 5.30 and struck out the fewest batters (764). The offense wasn't much better, as Detroit finished next to last in runs scored (591), last in batting average (.240), hits (1,312) and on-base percentage (.300).
Yet, ticket sales and excitement in Detroit have picked up. The experiment of trying to win with a vast array of minor league players came to a conclusion after Alan Trammell's first year as manager and the offseason additions have added some flavor to the club.
Last year the Tigers fielded one of the youngest infields in major league history, opening the season with Carlos Pena at first base, Ramon Santiago at second, Omar Infante at shortstop and Eric Munson at third. Pena (25) and Munson (26) remain starters, but Guillen (28) and Vina (34) give the Tigers added experience on the diamond. Yet, this spring has not yielded to improvement as the Tigers have committed too many errors and may need that learning curve to extend into the season.
The ultimate veteran leader though will be Rodriguez, who signed a four-year, $40-million contract. It marked the biggest free-agent signing in Tigers' history. Joining the Tigers will be a vast contrast to where Pudge played last season when he helped the Florida Marlins to a World Series title.
At least the Tigers have an experienced double-play combination up the middle with Guillen and Vina. Guillen hit .276 in 109 games last season, splitting time between short and third base. Due to a torn right hamstring, Vina, a two- time Gold Glove winner, was limited to 61 games for the Cardinals last season and he hit .251.
Pena has to cut down on his strikeouts as he heads into his third full season in the majors. He fanned 123 times last season, taking just 53 walks and at times looked like a lost cause at the plate as he hit .248 with 18 homers and 50 RBI. If Pena continues to struggle at first, don't be surprised to see Dmitri Young moved into that position with Pena possibly being moved to designated hitter.
Munson's first full season was actually cut short by a broken thumb. He hit .240 with 18 homers and 50 RBI and is expected to hit near the back of the lineup. It will take more time for him to develop, especially defensively. Last year, Munson committed 19 errors in 91 games at third.
Injuries have hampered Rodriguez since he was the AL MVP in 1999. Although he played 144 games last season, he was in only 91 contests in 2000, as the campaign was cut short due to a broken thumb. He had surgery in September 2001 due to tendinitis in his left knee and then played only 108 games in 2002 because of a herniated disc in his lower back.
Because of the injuries, there is a chance Pudge could play first or even third base at times this season. That would give him a chance to remain in the starting lineup even on days his knees seem sore. On those days, expect to see Brandon Inge or Mike DiFelice behind the plate.
A 10-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove winner, Rodriguez was paid $10 million for his one year with the Marlins. Last season was another banner one for Pudge, who hit .297 with 16 homers and 85 RBI. He will go into his 14th major league season playing for only his third different team after spending the first 12 years with the Texas Rangers. Rodriguez was the NL Championship Series MVP when the Marlins beat the Cubs. Rodriguez is a lifetime .304 hitter with 231 homers and 914 RBI.
Speedy center fielder Alex Sanchez will once again bat lead-off in the revamped lineup, but now he has some good contact hitters behind him. Last year, the lefthanded hitting Sanchez batted .287 playing for the Brewers and Tigers. He also stole 52 bases, 44 of which were with Detroit. Sanchez still has a lot to learn as a fielder though, as his seven errors last year were tied for the second most among major league center fielders.
Bobby Higginson figures to get the start in right field and he'll get another chance to rebound from back and hamstring injuries that have plagued him the last two seasons. Last year, Higginson had 14 homers and 52 RBI in 130 games, but his .235 average was the worst of his career since he was a rookie in 1995. If Higginson falters, look for Craig Monroe to get a shot in right.
White will no doubt add punch to the lineup, as he hit .289 with 22 homers and 87 RBI in time with San Diego and Kansas City. Although he's 32, White still has good bat speed and a strong arm in the outfield. He inked a two-year, $6 million contract with the Tigers and has the ability to be at least a 25 home run hitter at Comerica Park.
Young was the best hitter for the Tigers last season, as he batted .297 with 29 homers and 85 RBI as part of his first All-Star appearance. Although the 30-year-old switch hitter will likely head into this season as the DH, Young gives Trammell flexibility with the ability to play several positions. Young played 61 games in left field last year and also saw extensive time at third base. He can play first, but his time at that position has waned in the last few years.
Starting pitching remains this team's Achilles' heel. Incredibly, the 10 wins Johnson had in 2003 were more than any Detroit starter had. Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman and Nate Cornejo have learned a lot from the pitfalls of 2003.
The 30-year-old Johnson was signed to a two-year, $7 million contract by the Tigers. He went 10-10 with a 4.18 earned run average last season. The 10 wins equaled a career-best, but he tailed off in September, going 0-4 with a 6.91 ERA in five outings. Johnson's ERA has come down considerably from the 7.02 mark in 2000.
Despite becoming the first major league pitcher in 23 years to lose 20 games (6-20) in a season, Maroth is ticketed to be the No. 2 man in Trammell's rotation. The 26-year-old lefthander had a brutal second season in the majors, as his 34 homers allowed were tied for the most allowed in the American League. Although he had a rough 2003, the Tigers are confident Maroth will turn things around. His 5.73 ERA and .299 opponents batting average should certainly improve this season.
Bonderman, who also nearly lost 20 games (6-19), is expected to fill the third spot. The 21-year-old righthander had a 5.56 ERA in his rookie season and he seemed to tire late in the season with an ERA of 6.75 after the All-Star break.
The 24-year-old Cornejo, a righthander, won 20 combined games at the minor and major league levels in 2001. However, he's gone just 7-22 the last two seasons for the Tigers, including a 6-17 mark last year with a 4.67 ERA.
Nate Robertson, Esteban Yan or Gary Knotts are expected to battle for the final slot.
Righthander Fernando Rodney is expected to be given a shot to close games this year, possibly putting Danny Patterson in a setup role. The 27-year-old Rodney sparkled at Triple-A Toledo last year with 23 saves and a 1.33 ERA in 38 appearances. However, his time at the major league level has been a struggle. Rodney's ERA has 6.00 in 20 appearances in 2002 and 6.07 last year when he had three saves. Still, the Tigers believe Rodney is the closer of the future.
If Rodney fails, the Tigers may go with righthander Matt Anderson as their finisher since he has the ability to rise his fastball to 100 mph. Anderson hasn't been a regular closer since 2001 when he saved 22 games for Detroit. However, his career 4.89 ERA isn't a ringing endorsement and he's likely to start the year in the minors.
Franklyn German can also close games and is powerful at 6-7, 270 pounds. He had five saves last year, but his 6.05 ERA and 45 walks against 41 strikeouts was further evidence he needs work on locating pitches.
Lefthander Jamie Walker and righthander Al Levine will also lend a hand in the bullpen. Walker (3.32) and Levin (2.90) each had decent ERA's last year.
Warren Morris, Omar Infante and Greg Norton could provide support roles in the infield with Monroe getting the best shot for time off the bench in the outfield. Morris, who is expected to be Vina's backup, saw action in 97 games last year, including 89 at second base. Morris hit .272. Infante, known more for his defensive skills, hit just .155 against lefties. Monroe may be the key, as he can hit for power (23 HR, 70 RBI in 2003) and can play all outfield positions.
A big part of Detroit's downfall last year was giving up first inning runs. They scored 68 times in the opening frame, but allowed 129 runs, second-most in the majors. It would almost be a miracle if the Tigers would lose more than 119 games this year, especially after adding standout free agents in Rodriguez and White. Nonetheless, Trammell should come out of his second year as Tigers manager with a few more wins since the competition in the AL Central has seemed to level off.