A gaunt, 63-year-old chain smoker, Jim Leyland looks like a man who has been under pressure all his life. However, the manager of the Tigers lives for pressure. He relishes it so much that he came back to managing after a six-season exile in which the former Pirates, Marlins, and Rockies manager had a cushy special assignment scouting job with the Cardinals that never required him to leave his Pittsburgh home.
Thus, Leyland isn’t the least bit bothered that his Tigers are the consensus pick to win the American League Central division, two years after an improbable run to the World Series, and one season after missing the playoffs. “In this job, you’re under pressure every single day, that’s just a fact,” Leyland said. “If people want to put the pressure on us to win, then that’s fine with me. That’s a good kind of pressure to have. I’d rather have that pressure than the pressure of going into a season hoping you don’t lose 100 games. I’m happy there are expectations on us, and I know our players are, too.”
Having said that, Leyland immediately tried to take the pressure and place it on the Indians, last year’s AL Central champions. “Last year, we were the team to beat and understandably so,” Leyland said. “We had been to the World Series and we had a helluva team. I look at Cleveland the same way this year. The Indians have a great pitching staff. They’ve got C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in their rotation, and (set-up reliever) Rafael Betancourt was probably their MVP last year. They came within one game of the World Series. This year, the Indians are the team to beat.”
While PECOTA picks the Indians to win the AL Central, even the most ardent Cleveland fan would have to admit that the Tigers are an especially formidable foe after Detroit made the biggest trade of the offseason by acquiring third baseman Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis from Florida for a package of six prospects that included top prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin. Throw in the fact that the Tigers also traded with the Braves for shortstop Edgar Renteria and the Cubs for left fielder Jacque Jones, and a potentially outstanding lineup has been assembled in the Motor City.
While PECOTA only expects Detroit to score 842 runs, some analysts have suggested the Tigers could become just the eighth team in history to reach the 1,000 mark. Last year, they were third in the major leagues and second in the AL with an average of 5.48 runs a game. Eight of the Tigers’ nine regulars have been selected to All-Star Games: catcher Ivan Rodriguez, first baseman Carlos Guillen (who shifts from shortstop), second baseman Placido Polanco, right fielder Magglio Ordonez, designated hitter Gary Sheffield, Cabrera, Renteria, and Jones. The only non-All-Star is center fielder Curtis Granderson, and all he did last season was become the second player in major league history (and the first since Wildfire Schulte in 1911) to have at least 30 doubles, 20 triples, 30 home runs, and 20 stolen bases in the same year.
Thus, the Tigers batting order will look like this (with last year’s EqA in parentheses):
CF Granderson (.300) 2B Polanco (.288) DH Sheffield (.288) RF Ordonez (.336) 3B Cabrera (.321) 1B Guillen (.283) SS Renteria (.297) C Rodriguez (.237) LF Jones (.248)
Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon admits it is quite a luxury to have so many All-Stars at his disposal. But McClendon, befitting a man who spent five years managing in Pittsburgh before joining the Tigers’ staff in 2006, is wary of great expectations. “What you do have to guard against is that some guys decide to take days off because they figure there are so many other great hitters in the lineup to pick up the slack,” McClendon said. “We’ve got to work just as hard as any other team to make sure we get the most out of our talent. As much as I like our chances to have a really good lineup, just because these guys have done some great things in the past does not guarantee anything this season.”
One factor that could sabotage the Tigers’ offense is age. With the exception of the 24-year-old Cabrera and the 26-year-old Granderson, every other regular is at least 32. However, the Tigers do have depth, as the acquisitions of Cabrera and Jones have made third baseman Brandon Inge (.239) and left fielder Marcus Thames (.251) bench players.
While the Tigers are seemingly solid at every position on the field, they are also set in the starting rotation after acquiring Willis (2.0 SNLVAR last season) to join Justin Verlander (5.6), left-hander Nate Robertson (2.8), Jeremy Bonderman (2.4), and lefty Kenny Rogers (0.8). However, the Tigers were just ninth in the AL in runs allowed last year, giving up an average of 4.92, and the bullpen is a source of concern. Todd Jones is back as the closer after posting a 3.050 WXRL last season, and left-handed specialist Bobby Seay (2.303) also returns, but right-handed set-up men Joel Zumaya (0.902) and Fernando Rodney (0.390) have shoulder issues limiting their availability. Zumaya is expected to miss the first half of the season following surgery, and Rodney has yet to appear in an exhibition game this spring.
“It all comes down to pitching,” Leyland said. “It always does. We didn’t pitch very well last year, and we were sitting at home when the playoffs rolled around. I think it’s pretty obvious that we should score some runs this season, so it’s all going to come down to the pitching. If we pitch then we have a chance to be pretty good.”