Pressing Questions: The Detroit Tigers

The 2012 Tigers were supposed to be a good-hit, bad-field bunch that contended for the AL Pennant. The last target came to pass, even if the path getting there didn't take the expected shape.

In spite of Miguel Cabrera's Triple Crown season (and controversial MVP), Detroit finished a mere 11th in the majors in runs (726), dropping 61 from the previous year. And don't blame it on the home yard, as Comerica Park played slightly favorable for offense in 2012. The full-season loss of Victor Martinez obviously didn't help, though the addition of Prince Fielder countered that nicely.

The Motown defense turned out to be problematic in spots, passable in others: while Fielder was mediocre at first and Cabrera was predictably messy at third, the Tigers were sharp up the middle (center fielder Austin Jackson, late arrival Omar Infante and even shortstop Jhonny Peralta graded well in most advanced defensive metrics). You'll find some team defensive formulas that gave the Tigers an acceptable grade, while some other measures went heavy with the red ink.

The pitching staff held its end of the bargain, mostly due to the name brands who took the ball every fifth day. Detroit finished third in AL ERA (3.75), sparked by the second-best rotation ERA (3.76). The tenth-worst bullpen (3.79) did nasty things to Jim Leyland's blood pressure, to the point that the Tigers shockingly made a closer change in the midst of the ALCS. Thanks for the memories and the ridiculous over-celebrations, Jose Valverde.

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While Detroit isn't the primary AL or World Series favorite as we wait for the snow to melt, the Tigers are on just about anyone's short lists of contenders. The roster has a score of proven and projectable veterans, which is what owner Mike Illitch deserves for the $150 million or so he'll sign for in 2013. Illitch turns 84 in the middle of the summer and desperately wants to get a World Series trophy in his lifetime, which means Detroit will probably act aggressively when the trading season opens. The goal is to win now.

Make the jump and we'll fire off Q and A from The D. And we'll start things off in the unsettled ninth inning . . .

Q: Okay, so Papa Grande is out in the ninth inning, finally. Who's in? Talk to me about handshakes.

A: Please allow Bruce Rondon to introduce himself. He's a 22-year-old rookie flamethrower from Venezuela, and the club will give him a shot to grab the ninth and run with it. He's yet to appear in a major-league game.

"We're not anointing him the closer, but we're hopeful he'll take the job in spring training," GM Dave Dombrowski told USA Today on Thursday. "He's got a quality, quality arm, his breaking stuff is much improved, he has that mentality, that golden arm."

Rondon was shifted to the bullpen early in his minor league days and he's compiled 65 saves in the bushes, for whatever that means to you. More concerning is the lack of control: while he's struck out an impressive 9.8 batters per nine innings (and can dial up the fastball to three digits), he's also walked 5.1 men per segment. He did push his K/BB rate up to a snappy 2.54 last year (over three stops), but 4.4 walks per nine is simply too many. At least batters rarely do a lot with him when they do connect: Rondon had a 1.53 ERA over his 53 innings in 2012 (just 5.4 hits per nine), and he's allowed a mere five homers over five minor-league seasons.

Rondon is also right-handed, which gives him a notable edge over October's temporary closer, lefty Phil Coke. The Tigers also have veterans Octavio Dotel and Joaquin Benoit as options, but they'd prefer to keep both guys from the ninth. Rookie, there's a big job waiting for you if you can seize the day in spring training.

Rondon currently carries an ADP outside 220 on Mock Draft Central, not that the number means a lot right now. Rondon's a high-upside, high-risk name to scout in March. If he slams the door in his early Grapefruit work, his ADP will take a significant jump. But if things fall apart, he could slide into a set-up role, or head back to the minors for more seasoning. There's no reason to get dug in on the stock right now; the Tigers certainly aren't. Just get your clipboard and your radar gun ready.

Q: What should we expect from the old bats, Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter?

The harder (and more important) call here comes with Martinez, a 34-year-old DH coming off an ACL tear and lost year. The silver lining: Martinez suffered the injury before the 2012 season, so he's had ample rehabilitation time. While he's not running at full speed yet, early workout reports have been positive (if those reports matter at all). The Tigers plan to use V-Mart exclusively as a designated hitter this year, but it's my understanding he'll have catching eligibility from the jump in Yahoo's game. (Don't fire your arrows if that doesn't suit your plans or if things wind up being changed; I'm just the Pianow, playa).

The two public Martinez projections on Fangraphs seem reasonable to me: Bill James calls for a .303-70-16-91-1 line, while the public signs for a .301-78-15-78-1 return. I handled the catcher profiles and projections for Lindy's Fantasy Baseball and punched up this Martinez line back in December: .282-73-18-79-0. Maybe I'm underestimating his speed. Bottom line, if Martinez is grandfathered into the Y! game as a catcher (again, that's not official), he makes sense as a Top 10 option, maybe the seventh or eighth backstop off the board. He's going to be in the middle of a deep lineup (at least on paper).

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Hunter's case is more open-and-shut: barring a downright giveaway price, I don't expect to roster the 37-year-old outfielder. Hunter's surprising .313 average last year was driven by a .389 BABIP that won't return; even with a gaggle of line drives, we all know a glaring fluke when we see one. Hunter no longer grabs double-digit steals every year, and Jim Leyland runs less than Mike Scioscia anyway. Hunter's power, walk and strikeout numbers all went in the wrong direction in 2012, and it's too late in the game to bet against those trends.

Q: Has Max Scherzer finally grown into a bankable star?

I've been skeptical of Scherzer's game in the past, frustrated by loud mechanics and short starts, but it's hard to deny what he accomplished in 2012. Although Scherzer wasn't sharp in April and fed a gopher problem in May (eight homers), he still turned in a dynamite season (16-7, 3.74 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 231 strikeouts in 187.2 innings, devilish slider). If we grade all 5x5 starting pitchers from May 1-onward (yes, that's cherry picking), Mad Max grades out as a Top 7 option, beating out Jered Weaver and Cole Hamels, among others.

The run continued in the playoffs (17.1 IP, 4 ER, 4 BB, 26 K), though Scherzer had trouble working deep into games. That will always be a potential issue here (along with a low ground-ball rate and a difficulty putting lefties away), but the strikeouts help balance it out. Scherzer has a chance to settle in as a legitimate fantasy SP2, and some might be lucky to slot him further down the depth chart. He turns 29 in late July: settle in for a fun peak.

Q: Can you make some sense of Rick Porcello, stalled prospect?

Detroit's rotation is deep enough for Porcello to be on the fringe of things; despite a $5.1 million contract and almost 700 MLB innings, he's not guaranteed a spot when the team heads north in April. The Tigers have liberally shopped Porcello during the winter, kicking the tires on a deal here and there. Drew Smyly might be better than Porcello already, and obviously Justin Verlander, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez and Scherzer have spots secured.

Porcello's lack of growth in The Show has been frustrating, given this is a first round draft pick who arrived in Detroit at Age 20. His strikeout rate hasn't gone past 5.5/9 in any season, and his ERA has been 4.59 or higher for three straight years. The Tigers didn't let Porcello throw many sliders as a rookie; these days, there's a case he should junk the pitch altogether.

But let's not throw the baby right-hander out with the bathwater. Porcello still boasts a snappy ground-ball rate (52.3 percent) and his K/BB ratio is a tick over the 2/1 mark; at least he's not giving anything away. Perhaps he'd become a sneaky sleeper if he moved to the right city. Detroit's hit-or-miss defense hurt Porcello more than most last year; note the .344 BABIP. We'll revisit the Porcello case when the time is right; don't delete him from the radar yet. And if he lands in an NL environment (save for a Colorado or Arizona), I'll gladly shift Porcello to the endgame target list for mono leagues.

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