Baseball is back, and our long wait is over. In years past, my previews tended to have a theme loosely tying all my thoughts together. Those themes have ranged from expectations to redemption to potential. I'm having trouble coming up with a theme this year. Nearly every year I discuss ability and expectations, and the same is true this year. This is a VERY talented team, probably one of the most talented teams they've had in my lifetime (Okay, I was alive during the 80s but I really don't remember those teams). However, they've still got to get the job done on the field and stay healthy.
I'm going to admit, I really did not pay much attention to the position players during spring training. The only open positions were a couple of bench spots, and the only real concern among the starters was how Victor Martinez would bounce back from injury. Outside of some minor back issues midway through spring training, it appears he's good to go. There is a little bit of concern surrounding Torii Hunter regressing a bit at the plate from last year (both from age and from a high BABIP, and don't worry, I don't break out that stat very often), but he will be a HUGE defensive upgrade in the outfield. Miguel Cabrera can't really top last year's Triple Crown performance, but it's safe to expect another big year from the best hitter in baseball. Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta are looking for bounceback seasons. Peralta set career-highs in almost all offensive stats in 2011, only to post career-lows nearly across the board in 2012. He's only 30 years old, so reason would suggest that his 2013 numbers will be somewhere in between those two seasons. Avila's a bit harder to predict because he hasn't been around as long as Peralta. His struggles last year seemed to be some combination of his knee problems from the previous year and thinking too much at the plate. Has he made the adjustment? Only time will tell.
I was never a real big proponent of trading Rick Porcello, but as we got closer to spring training, I got more and more reluctant because I began to realize the lack of depth of starting pitching that the Tigers have. If he can carry over his really good spring into the regular season (and granted, that's a big "if"), it could turn out to be one of the best non-trades ever made. People forget that he's only 24 and that on some teams, he'd be the staff ace. Heck, on most teams, he'd probably be a #3 or #4 starter. Justin Verlander's spring in terms of pitching was fairly unremarkable. The most exciting thing regarding him is that he's going to be a Tiger for a very long time to come, and that's probably the best piece of news from all of spring training. On the flipside, Doug Fister had a spring training to forget. He says he starts slow. Of course, last year he got hurt three innings into his first start of the season, so we'll have to see how he does this year. Anibal Sanchez's spring was also kind of so-so (and it's pretty much impossible to judge anything from the World Baseball Classic, since he got chased by a rain delay and Venezuela made a really early exit). The important thing for him is to not feel pressure from the new contract he's gotten from the Tigers. I've been watching him with the Marlins for years, and I liked what I saw, even before he was traded to Detroit. And as far as Max Scherzer is concerned, let's not forget that as dominant as he was for most of the summer last year, he did get off to a rough start and he had the shoulder fatigue toward the end of the season. I am not necessarily a fan of extending him (which I know is not a popular opinion; I am not as emotionally attached to Scherzer as a lot of people are, but I do understand how it feels to passionately love a player. I will get further into my reasoning at some point in the future, but now is not the right time). I am curious to see if he can sustain that dominance throughout an entire season.
I already discussed the bullpen quite a bit at Walkoff Woodward, so I won't repeat myself here. The one thing I would like to reiterate is that I think the Tigers have more than enough talent to close games even without Bruce Rondon. I know the "closer mentality" concept is hotly debated. Personally, I believe that it does exist, but that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak. It's become a mental thing. Relievers nowadays hear about how those last three outs are toughest outs to get, and how the ninth inning is "different." And when you hear something like that over and over, you start to believe it. Those last three outs become difficult because the pitchers believe they're difficult. That mental aspect is very hard to block out, but as far as talent is concerned, this has the potential to be a very strong bullpen. I would very much like for Brayan Villarreal and Al Alburquerque in particular to both take advantage of this opportunity, be it closing games or getting some setup situations from the domino effect of having someone like Benoit close (As an aside, I know there's a large contingent of people who would like Alburquerque to close; I'm a little hesitant with that unless he can really cut down on the walks). And I'll hazard a guess that Bruce Rondon will be with the Tigers sooner rather than later. It's important to realize that Benoit and Dotel are both free agents after this season. If Rondon, Villarreal, or Alburquerque can nail down the closer role (yeah, I know my personal preferences are fairly obvious, but again, I will address that later), it would be nice for the other two to be able to take over the setup jobs for 2014. That way, the Tigers could still have a strong relief corps without having to use a lot of payroll on relievers and could instead use that money to extend Cabrera or address the upcoming needs in the infield. But I don't want to get into discussing 2014 too much. After all, we're just getting started on 2013. There's many months ahead of us.
And so there you have it. I'm not big on making predictions because I'm awful at that sort of thing. The Tigers get it started in Minnesota and my one prediction is that they're all going to freeze their butts off (Already two of them have remarked on Twitter about the snow and cold). I still don't know why the Twins didn't build a retractable roof stadium. Anyways, it's Justin Verlander against Vance Worley, whom the Twins got from the Phillies in the offseason for Ben Revere. The Twins are the consensus pick for last place in the AL Central, but they've still got a good 3-4-5 in Mauer, Willingham, and Morneau. Plus, weird things happen with the Twins (though not nearly as often as they did when the Metrodome was around). And before we begin, I think we should all take a moment to be thankful that Denard Span is no longer in a Twins uniform.
Happy Opening Day!