Just like last year, everyone expects Detroit to waltz to an AL central victory. It was far from easy last year, and I tend to think the same for this year. Let me run down all of the concerns I would have as a Detroit fan going into this season. We will avoid injury risk since all teams have that, and we know that if both Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera go down for the year in a chicken wing eating contest gone wrong, then Detroit’s prospects for the season change drastically.
First, there are 4 players in the Detroit line-up that could end up as liabilities:
Andy Dirks just turned 27 and has only two partial years in the majors. Last year he looked good in the 344 plate appearances he received. Two things jump out at me though. A BABIP of .365 is probably not sustainable, but more importantly how he has been used. Of those plate appearances 261 came against righties and 83 against lefties. They plan to platoon him due to his splits, but the other side of the platoon is uncertain. Also, his power is limited with a career high of 15 homers between AA and AAA in 2010 and he rates out negatively defensively as well.
Torii Hunter had an incredibly lucky year at the plate last year with a BABIP of .389, and he is now 37 years old. His aging has been showing slowly with power ticking down over time. His average is likely to drop back to the .260s or 70s and 15 HRs is likely the max. His walk rates and K rates got significantly worse last year. He was always a defensive stud, but his legs aren’t what they used to be although he rated out very well last year by UZR for the first time in a number of years.
Victor Martinez is now 34 and just sat out a whole year. His power looked diminished two years ago even though he put up a stellar batting average. Projections see him taking a big step back overall this year. He will probably still be useful as a hitter, but not a significant piece you want in the middle of your line-up.
Jhonny Peralta hit .239/.305/.384 last year. He used to hit for power, but those years seem behind him. His average will probably come back a little, but the rest of what he offers is pretty mediocre.
Based on these the Royals are obviously better than Detroit at Left Field, DH, and Short Stop. Jeff Francoeur is still worse than a diminished Torii Hunter. It would not surprise me if Second Base was similar for both teams as Omar Infante is nothing special, and Salvador Perez should be significantly better than Alex Avilatoo. Those six positions will need to be decidedly in the favor of the Royals for run production between the two teams to be similar because the other three positions are solidly in Detroit’s favor.
In the last nine seasons Miguel Cabrera has been very, very good. Good enough that he is heading toward certain Hall of Fame territory and that Triple Crown is quite a feat. Prince Fielder is pretty good too in case no one had noticed. Austin Jackson is not in that rarefied air, but he is better than Lorenzo Cain unless Cain takes a large step forward. Still, a big year out of Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, which is not out of the question, could make the offensive difference between the Royals and Tigers negligible. Just to clarify though, this means the Royals would need to close up a 50 run gap from last year, which means the Royals need to take a big step forward (as they should) and the Tigers take a small step back.
On to the second problem for the Tigers, defense:
Over the years I have gone from loving the new defensive metrics, to looking at them askance, to checking multiple sources hoping to find a consensus. The Tigers corner infielders are Miggy and Prince, and their defense last year, and every year, has been bad. For some reason though, UZR has like Jhonny Peralta the last two years at short after making him look terrible for most of his career. At the same time UZR hates Alcides Escobar in 2012. I have no idea how to process Jhonny Peralta being two WAR better than Escobar based on defense. Baseball Reference had them closer to the same last year, but I am starting to believe Jeff Zimmerman’s theory on shifting helping out Moose and hurting Alcides in the advanced stats. Everything I see tells me Omar Infante is the only decent defender in the infield for Detroit. In the outfield, Dirks had negatives last year, for what it’s worth, and Hunter is not what he used to be due to age, so center is the only place with a plus defender. Avila seems to be a decent catcher, but catcher fielding is even harder to quantify than the others, so I won’t try and give a sweeping pronouncement. Here I think the Royals have a significant advantage in LF, 3B, SS, 1B, and Catcher.
The third problem for the Tigers is the bullpen:
Let’s get the good out of the way first. Joaquin Benoit and Brayan Vilarreal are probably pretty good. I only say probably because Vilarreal only has 54 2/3 innings of quality relief to his name in the bigs. Even last year, when Vilarreal established himself, his xFIP was 3.96, so he may not actually be good. Benoit, on the other hand, has been good for the last three years and is their best relief pitcher. After those two you have a lot of questions. Bruce Rondon is supposed to be the closer, but he has major control problems and is probably not going to be taking care of the 9th inning this year if his spring continues as at began. Phil Coke and Darin Downs are not impressive in any way along with Octavio Dotel who is 49 and has been consistently middle of the road. Maybe Al Alburquerque is a stud, but he still hasn’t done it over a whole season. This is a bullpen that would be lucky to have three really solid guys. The Royals have Greg Holland, Aaron Crow, Tim Collins, and Kelvin Herrera at the back end, and this is a huge advantage.
Now for Detroit’s huge advantage:
The rotation for the Tigers is much, much better than the Royals. In fact, it is better at each of the five rotation spots. Justin Verlander is better than pretty much everyone, Royal or not, and James Shields is not in that stratosphere. Then Detroit has three somewhat indistinguishable guys in Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Anibal Sanchez. Scherzer is probably the riskiest since he has been inconsistent. Fister has had solid seasons the last two years. He is likely to be good again, but without the upside of Scherzer. Anibal Sanchez has put up sub-4 ERAs in the past three seasons, four seasons if you include a partial season in 2009. Sanchez puts people on base at too high of a rate to be dominant, but he has been consistently good. I think the Royals could match these three with Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and Wade Davis, but that will take some luck and on an expectation basis the Tigers are well ahead. If I were ranking these six I would probably go Fister, Sanchez, Guthrie, Scherzer, Santana, and Davis. The first three are the most solid, and the other three have the highest upside. Finally, the fifth spot. The Royals are bound and determined to make Luke Hochevar fifth, while Detroit has Drew Smyly and Rick Porcello. I will be honest. I hate Porcello, and always have. In my opinion he is only marginally better than Hochevar, so I hope that’s who gets the job. He cannot strike anyone out, and is not a great control pitcher either. Drew Smyly on the other hand is a giant ball of potential. He blew through the minors and struck out everyone on the way. There are still some control issues, but nearly a K per inning can make up for some walks. He is a question mark due to the limited time at the major league level, but he is likely better than anything the Royals can put in the 5thspot.
It is unlikely that the Kansas City rotation will find a way to outperform Detroit’s. The main hope will be trying to match their starters and hope to take advantage of the other weaknesses. For that to happen, Ervin Santana will need to be like his last couple of months last year rather than the atrocious start. Hopefully being in Kauffman will help him keep the home runs down a bit. On the bright side it is unlikely he will have an 18.9% HR/FB rate again…unless he is done as a major league pitcher. KC will also need Davis to smoothly transfer back to the rotation and post an ERA near or below four. Those are both possible, and coupled with Shields being what he has been and Guthrie doing the same, minus the Coors Field Experience, that would be a decent front four. The fifth spot being Luis Mendoza would make me feel like this is an average rotation with some upside. Instead we will likely see Hochevar, and that makes this a slightly below average rotation, so any of the other pieces breaking down could lead to a lot of problems, at least until Danny Duffy and Felipe Paulino get back. Those two make me very optimistic about next year’s rotation.
Overall the Tigers are the favorite due to their top end talent, which is second to none. There are enough questions on this Detroit team though, that I don’t think they will go out and win 100 games and run away with the division That means the Royals have a shot, but they will need to have a few things go their way with the rotation, and have the hitting disappointments of last year turn into positives.