Friday, February 11, 2005

No One Said It Would Be Easy: Part One

Here at Twins Chatter we usually focus our efforts primarily on everyone’s favorite hometown nine, the Minnesota Twins. However, the Twins obviously wouldn’t be the three-time reigning Central Division Champions if there weren’t four other teams to beat up on! The rest of the division has been pretty active overall this off-season, with three teams (Cleveland, Chicago, and Detroit) positioning themselves to challenge for the 2005 crown. Today I’ll be starting a four-part series in which we’ll take a brief look at the competition in the AL Central before the beginning of spring training.

Today’s Topic:The Detroit Tigers

Key Acquisitions:
Troy Percival (CL, free agent)
Magglio Ordonez (OF, free agent)
Kyle Farnsworth (RP, trade w/Cubs)

Key Losses:

Pre-Spring Training Outlook:
In my mind, I compare the Tigers to one of those pick-up basketball players who talks big, but really doesn’t have the game to back it up. Detroit has made waves the past two off-seasons by doling out exorbitant multi-year contracts to high-profile/high-risk free agents. They did it last winter with Ivan Rodriguez and did it this year by committing $91 million to injury-prone former superstars Troy Percival and Magglio Ordonez.

However, even though I may not agree with their costly methods, I have to admit that Detroit will debut a pretty formidable lineup in 2005. Speedster Alex Sanchez will be followed by All-Stars Carlos Guillen (who had a tremendous 2004 season), Rodriguez, and Ordonez. Back that up with the likes of Dmitri Young (16 HRs, 60 RBIs in 104 games last season), a revitalized Rondell White, and young slugger Carlos Pena (27 HRs in ’04), and you are looking at a lineup that should average well over 5 runs a game.

Unfortunately, five runs a game won’t do you too much good if your pitching staff gives up six. For all the money they’ve spent the past two years, the Tigers still haven’t addressed one of their most pressing needs from a year ago: starting pitching. While Jeremy Bonderman (4.89 ERA, 168 Ks in 184 IP) certainly has the stuff to be a number one starter, the rest of this staff is thoroughly mediocre. Lefties Mike Maroth and Nate Robertson are serviceable pitchers but would each be #4 or #5 guys on a true contender. The signing of Jason Johnson last winter was (predictably enough) a less-than-brilliant move by GM Dave Dombrowski, as I will be surprised if he posts an ERA under 5.00 this season. 6-4 lefthander and former Rule-5 pick Will Ledezma is an intriguing possibility (much like the Royals’ Jeremy Affeldt) but I’m not sure how much of an impact he’ll have this season.

The Tigers’ bullpen, another sore spot for the Tigers a year ago, should be improved with the additions of Percival and Farnsworth. However, neither one of those guys is a “sure thing.” Percival is clearly on the downside of his career and could break down at any time, although he still dominates the Twins. No one can deny that Farnsworth is immensely talented, but even a change of scenery may not be enough to eliminate his sometimes maddening inconsistency. Returnees Estaban Yan, Ugie Urbina, and Jamie Walker help fill out a bullpen that, barring numerous disappointments, should actually be one of the better units in the division.

The Tigers took out the checkbook last winter and were rewarded with a 29-game improvement from their dreadful 2003 campaign. Yet, the fact remains that the team still lost 90 games and was never a true threat to win the division. If everything goes right (Percival stays healthy, Mags reverts to his pre-injury self, two or more starters emerge) the Tigers could battle for a playoff spot until late in the season. However, seldom (if ever) does everything go according to plan in baseball. I predict that the Tigers’ starting pitching still holds them back despite a potent offense, good enough for a .500 record and third place in the Central.

Next week we’ll review the other three teams in the division, starting with the Cleveland Indians on Monday. Be sure and stop by Twins Chatter then also. In the meantime, have a great weekend everyone!

-Ryan M.