Calling the Race so Soon?

Frankly, I don’t see what all the hoopla’s about. The Tigers signed Prince Fielder, and ESPN and every Royals blogger are ready to crown them AL Central champs. That doesn’t make sense to me. Fielder’s contract doesn’t make sense (nine years really?), and the assumption that adding Fielder equals a for-sure division championship doesn’t make sense to me.

I know Fielder is a great hitter. I watched him frequently destroy the Cubs with massive home runs over he last five years or so. His career slash line is pretty good: .282/.390/.540. But will he make the Tigers’ offense that much better than it was last year? And will that offense necessarily make up for what is sure to be one of the worst infields, defensively, in all of baseball with Fielder at first and Miguel Cabrera at third? I don’t think so. I think the Tigers will be about as good as they were last year (record wise). Here’s why.

The hype surrounding the Fielder acquisition seems predicated on three things: 1) Fielder will have another incredible year. 2) The offense will be productive enough to make up for the defensive fall off. 3) The rest of the Tigers team will produce as it did last year.

The first one seems like a given, and it virtually is. Barring injury, Fielder will probably have another very good to great year. He did struggle a bit in 2010, but his OBP was still over .400 and his SLG was still .471, a down year for him—not so much for your normal humans. Most people predict a drop in home runs for Fielder when hitting inside the cavernous Comerica Park in Detroit. Still, it’s safe to assume Fielder will make it to 30-35 home runs; Comerica’s not Petco. Hell, it isn’t even Kauffman.

The second predication is more interesting and has been discussed in numerous articles all over the blogosphere. Fielder is a bad … well, fielder. There is no other way to slice it. He has very little range and only average hands. He’s bad. Cabrera is also a bad fielder, and indications are he’ll move to third to bump Brandon Inge, or Inge-like players, from the lineup. Add in Johnny Peralta, and the Tigers’ infield defense will be very bad.

Consequently, the Tigers’ pitching staff will suffer, especially Rick Porcello, whose FIP was already lower than his ERA by more than half a run last year. Cabrera has a career UZR/150 of -4.5. If Cabrera plays 150 games at third, which I don’t actually think will happen, I think it’s a safe bet to say he will cost the Tigers 8 runs in that time, conservatively. He’s gotten older, heavier, and hasn’t played the position regularly in five years. Combine those numbers with Fielder’s career -6.4 UZR/150, and the defense looks like it will cost the Tigers a few runs in 2012, probably around 20, when the other positions are taken into account.

This is a trade off the Tigers willingly made: more offense, less defense. Surely, they believe with a Fielder infused lineup they can score more than the 787 runs they did last season. But a potential problem exists with that reasoning. They received amazingly productive years out of some players that don’t seem likely to repeat themselves. Alex Avila, Peralta, and even Cabrera, had offensive years outside the norm. Avila’s BABIP was .366. Does anyone on Earth believe that will continue? For the two years prior to 2011, Peralta was around a .250 BA and .310 OBP. That shot up to .299 and .345 in 2011. Cabrera is always a great hitter, but .344/.448/.586 is remarkable even for him. Some of these players will inevitably regress. Bill James predicts seasons in the .270-.280 BA range for Peralta and Avila.

Remember also, that the Tigers lost Victor Martinez, which seemingly was the catalyst for the Fielder trade. It’s reported that they’ll replace him with Delmon Young, a decent hitter, but unlikely to put up the year Martinez did in 2011.

None of this means their offense will be worse. I just don’t think it will be so much better that it makes up entirely, and then some, for their defensive struggles. I’ll be surprised if they surpass 810 runs this year.

Of course, the hitters aren’t the only over achievers from 2011. Justin Verlander? I mean come on. How’s he going to have another year like that? That’s rhetorical; he won’t. Nobody knows what Max Scherzer will do from year to year. It’s a safe bet Porcello will struggle as mentioned before. Doug Fister looked like a breakout pitcher last year, but he’s really an unknown still.

Upon closer review, things look more uncertain in Detroit than the hype of having two monster mashers would make it seem. Are they a good team? Yes. Are they the favorite in the AL Central? Absolutely. But their title as 2012 division champs certainly isn’t a forgone conclusion; the same way it wasn’t in 2008. Remember 2008? When the Tigers were suppose to have an unbelievable lineup and rotation? They were coming off a World Series appearance, and everyone picked them to storm away with the AL Central. They went 74-88 and finished dead last in the division.

Let’s not give them the title just yet. There are a couple of AL Central teams who’d like a shot at it first.

Tags: Detroit Tigers

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