Pressing Questions: The Detroit Tigers

If buzz scores and Q-ratings determined October results on their own, the Tigers might already have a ticket punched to the American League Championship Series. You can make a strong argument that Detroit employs the game's best hitter, the game's best pitcher, and the game's most imposing lefty slugger. The Tigers marketing department has plenty to work with this spring.

Detroit's 2012 edition of Pressing Questions essentially began two weeks ago, when owner and pizza guy Mike Ilitch threw major dough ($214 million) at free-agent thumper Prince Fielder. We covered the deal from a fantasy perspective here, and we made a case for Miguel Cabrera in the No. 1 roto spot over here. And everyone knows that if you want Justin Verlander on your fake club this year, it's going to cost an early pick.

So today's trip up and down Woodward Avenue won't be specifically about the Big 3 (though they'll come up in a tangential sense). You already have a good idea of what to do with those guys. Let's discuss the roto angles concerning the rest of the roster.

With Fielder at first, Cabrera auditioning at third, and ordinary options up the middle, does this pitching staff have a chance?

No one's delusional when it comes to the defensive values of Fielder and Cabrera. In both cases, their best position is "batter" — and yet they're too young (and perhaps too prideful) to move to DH yet. Jim Leyland is going to slide Cabrera to third and take his chances, a position Miggy hasn't manned since 2008. And it's clear Jhonny Peralta, Ramon Santiago and Ryan Raburn won't be challenging for Gold Gloves at shortstop and second base.

The makeshift infield is most worrisome to the grounder-reliant pitchers in the rotation, Doug Fister and Rick Porcello. Fister probably would be near the top of my sleeper list if I didn't hate the infield gloves behind him: he struck out almost four men for every walk last year, he keeps the ball on the ground, and he's very difficult to take deep. Porcello is more of an extreme ground-baller than Fister, though the young righty has yet to really push his K/9 rate into an area we can get excited about. At the end of the day I'm still prepared to snag Fister ahead of his current ADP (183), but Porcello (365) will have to push his way onto the mixed-league radar.

Verlander and Max Scherzer are fly-ball pitchers with zestier strikeout rates; that's a good plan of attack in Comerica Park. Mad Max needs to find a way to keep the ball in the park on the road; he allowed 18 gopher balls in just 86 road innings last season. I've slotted Fister a few slots higher than Scherzer on our first pass at 2012 ranks.

Take me out of the infield before someone gets hurt. What's cooking in the outfield?

Leyland has yet to commit to a 2012 batting order, but right fielder Brennan Boesch is the likely candidate for the No. 2 slot, hitting in front of Cabrera and Fielder. That's the catbird seat, obviously. Boesch's solid 2011 stats would have looked a lot better had a thumb injury not wrecked his final quarter, but that means we can get him on the cheap this time around. "I love Boesch in the second hole," Leyland offered a few weeks back. "He's a big, strong, left-handed pull hitter. Plus he's going to get fastballs to hit because (leadoff man Austin) Jackson can steal. You set that up for the big boys."

Boesch's career numbers are oddly better against left-handed pitching (he has a .319/.380/.471 slash against southpaws), so there's no need for the Tigers to push him into a platoon. Keep him hale for six months and I could see a .285-90-23-85-10 season going on the board. Boesch is currently a steal at the No. 214 slot in early mockery.

Jackson remains a work in progress as the leadoff man, but he could be an interesting roto value if Leyland sets him free on the bases. Jackson is 49-for-60 stealing as a pro, but he's still working on the manager's leash: no green light yet.

Jackson nudged his walk rate up a speck as a sophomore, but his strikeouts also went up — you can't have your leadoff man whiffing 27 percent of the time. The Tigers don't have another logical leadoff candidate, so Jackson figures to keep the spot, skill set be damned. I'll pay for 95 runs and 25-30 steals with Jackson, and he should get back about half of the 44 batting-average points he lost in 2011. His current 174 ADP seems reasonable — not a steal, not a reach.

Left fielder Delmon Young is the cheapest Tiger in the outfield, checking in at 225 with the early mockers. He's also playing for his next big-league contract, working on a one-year deal. Young's defense is a mess and he's allergic to taking pitches (he walked just seven times in 192 Detroit at-bats), but he also whacked 13 homers for Leyland and Co. last year (including the playoffs), and that's enough for Young to start the season in the No. 5 slot.

Considering how regularly Cabrera and Fielder get on base, Young should be good for 85-95 RBIs over a full season. I'm also expecting modest power here and a neutral average, but Young won't run much and he'll quietly sap your effort in runs scored (that .321 career OBP doesn't inspire confidence). This is the line I'm prepared to bid on: .281-71-22-87-1. Season to taste.

Jose Valverde was perfect in saves last year (49-for-49). Safe play, right?

While I never want to say never on any closer — there are no bad save grabbers, simply bad prices — I doubt Valverde will be on any of my teams in 2012. His save-conversion run last year obscured a bunch of fuzzy stats in other areas. His FIP (3.55) and xFIP (4.01) were considerably higher than Valverde's 2.24 ERA out the door, and you can't trust a closer who walks 4.23 men per nine innings. Valverde's lofty strand rate (82.9 percent) also belongs in the fluke file.

It's important to note that Valverde's pitching style has changed in Detroit: he's striking out less men, and he's getting more contact on the ground. The first thing is a red flag, of course, and as we established at the front, this team's infield defense is going to be dicey. Leyland typically is very loyal to his closers and Valverde will have to be horrendous to flat-out lose the job, but there's no way I'm paying for his misleading 2011 stats.

Any other Tiger Tales to discuss?

Alex Avila's breakout year passes the smell test: he wasn't a liability against left-handed pitching (.779 OPS), and he did plenty of damage in roomy Comerica Park (.949 OPS, compared to a still-acceptable .844 OPS on the road). Avila's most common batting spot last year was eighth, but he'll probably hit sixth or seventh this year, depending where Leyland wants Peralta. Avila's current ADP of 108 seems fair, though he's slightly more expensive in early industry mocks. … I can't imagine how Raburn wins the second-base job, given the state of the rest of the infield. He's not a natural second baseman. Santiago isn't going to make anyone forget Tito Fuentes, but he's a better defensive player. Perhaps Raburn can hang in at left field, pushing Young (a horrible outfielder) into a DH role. … Octavio Dotel comes in to fortify the bullpen; it was clear Leyland only trusted Valverde and Joaquin Benoit at the end of 2011. Phil Coke figures to be the first lefty out of the pen, followed by Daniel Schlereth. … Right-handed pitcher Jacob Turner is the flashiest of the prospects and might break camp as the team's No. 5 starter. The ninth overall pick in 2009's draft, Turner had a 3.44 ERA and 1.16 WHIP between Double-A and Triple-A last year, striking out 3.14 batters for every walk. Turner was Baseball America's No. 21 prospect in 2011, and he checked in at No. 27 on Keith Law's current prospect list (subscription required). The young righty doesn't turn 21 until late May, but the Tigers have shown a willingness to push it with precocious prospects before (see Verlander, Porcello and Jeremy Bonderman as prime examples). … Comerica Park has become somewhat misunderstood in recent seasons — it's not the Death Valley stadium it's made out to be. It's run-scoring index over the last three years is 102 — slightly above the average of 100 — and it's only hurt home-run production by three percent over that time. The biggest sapping effect comes versus left-handed power (a drag of 11 percent), but the way Fielder hits them, I'm not worried about him. (Hat tip to the Bill James Handbook for the park stats, invaluable data.) … Brad Penny has mercifully signed with a Japanese team. No one in Michigan will miss him (but American League hitters might).

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