.258: The wOBA of Detroit's 2B last year. Detroit came into 2012 with a stacked lineup, even with losing Victor Martinez to an ACL injury. However, the one weak point was at second base. They might not have been worst positional unit in baseball, but they were up there. The Tigers went through a combination of Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, and Ryan Raburn before they got Omar Infante as an add-in with Anibal Sanchez. Now, Infante's career wOBA is only .311, and ZiPS projects him to be at .303, but even that below average level (According to FanGraphs) is better than the horrendous showing the group had last year.
11.08: Max Scherzer's K/9 rate in 2012. This was the highest in the majors for qualified starters, and the 2nd highest over the past 10 years. Scherzer has always shown strong strikeout stuff in both the Minors and Majors, but he really ramped it up in 2012, increasing over his previous career high by almost two Ks per nine. Maybe it was the uptick in velocity that caused it. Maybe it was more movement on pitches. Either way, batters were whiffing more against Scherzer (12.2% Swinging Strikes compared to 9.8% in 2011). The Tigers' second starter (According to MLB Depth Charts) might nominally be Doug Fister, but there's no doubting that Scherzer has the stuff to fill that role.
2012 Season In Review
The Tigers came into the season the prohibitive favorites to win the AL Central and a leading contender for the American League pennant. However, they got off to a mediocre start, and the end of June saw them sitting in 3rd with a 38-40 record. July and August were kind to Detroit (31-21 record), and a strong September put the Tigers over the White Sox and into the playoffs for a second straight year.
In the playoffs, the Tigers hung on against the A's and then swept through the Yankees in the ALCS. However, the week-long wait for the NL champion appeared to get to Detroit as it did in 2006. The Tigers went down to the Giants in four closely contested games to fall just short of the World Series.
Key Offseason Moves
Signed Torii Hunter to a 2-year, $26M contract: Going into 2012, Torii Hunter was supposedly in decline. He had turned 36 and was on the backside of his career. Then 2012 happened. A .356 wOBA and his best UZR since 2003 led to 5.1 fWAR, 10th best amongst outfielders. His .389 BABIP may have helped him, and the projections for the year have him regressing, but he definitely should improve on Brennan Boesch from last year.
Signed Anibal Sanchez to a 5-year $80M contract: The Tigers had acquired Sanchez at the trade deadline in 2012 for prospects Jacob Turner and Rob Brantly, and he delivered solid showings down the stretch and in the postseason. He should be a solid addition to the rotation for the entire year, despite the projected slide in K/9 and projected uptick in FIP.
Signed Justin Verlander to a 7-year, $180M extension: Yes, it's the largest contract for a pitcher in history, but there's little doubt that Verlander has earned it. Over the past four years, he's had the highest fWAR by 3.5 (Averaging 7.0 fWAR per season), led in WPA, averaged over 9 K/9, averaged over 230 IP, and thrown exactly 1,000 more pitches than any other pitcher. He turned 30 back in February, and it'll be interesting to see how all those pitches wear on him as he gets older, but he's earned it either way.
The Tigers have one of the stronger starting lineups in baseball, but are a little thin on the bench. Fielder and Cabrera are in the middle of their primes, while Austin Jackson and Alex Avila should be entering theirs. In addition, the return of Victor Martinez should bolster the lineup even further. The main questions will be if this team sustains an injury. Their bench of Ramon Santiago and Quintin Berry (And Don Kelly in AAA) is hardly inspiring. Maybe prospects Nick Castellanos or Avisail Garcia can step in, but it's still a concern.
The pitching staff is in a similar situation. The rotation appears strong, but the bullpen has questions. The top of the rotation with Verlander, Fister, and Scherzer are solid, as is Sanchez at four. The real question is Rick Porcello. Is this the year he really breaks out? Do the Tigers continue to listen to offers for him? It will be interesting to see what happens with him. The bullpen was solid if unspectacular last year and the entire cast returns, with the exception of Jose Valverde. And that's where the big bullpen question is: Who will close for Detroit? Prospect Bruce Rondon was optioned to AAA after a rough Spring. Could Phil Coke or Joaquin Benoit be an internal option? While some think that a dominant closer is not necessary, it certainly doesn't hurt.
Even with slight questions of depth and closer, the Tigers are the cream of the AL Central. Even with improvements by the Indians and Royals through trade and free agency and the White Sox performance from 2012, this isn't a question. The Tigers should be able to win 90+ games and take the division by 10 games and advance to the playoffs. What they do there is how this team will be judged. At worst, the Tigers should be co-favorites with the Angels for the AL pennant.
You'd be surprised how difficult it is to come up with something bold for Detroit that 1) hasn't happened or 2) seems plausibly bold. Seemingly everything is in the realm of possibility. They win the World Series: entirely plausible. Miguel Cabrera wins the Triple Crown: done. Verlander wins the Cy Young and MVP: also done. So, we're going with this: Austin Jackson leads all CF in fWAR this year. Now before you ask about Mike Trout, remember that he's out in LF now.
Jackson came up big last year, coming in 4th among CF in fWAR at 5.2. Of course, his BABIP was at .371, which isa bit high. ZiPS projects him to come back to earth a bit this year with .332 wOBA and 4.1 fWAR. However, Bill James projects .351 wOBA, which, combined with ZiPS fielding and baserunning projections, should get him very close to the likes of Kemp and McCutchen.