An Optimist's Look at the Detroit Tigers
1. Justin Verlander and Joel Zumaya both made the team and throw a legit 100 mph. Probable multiple Cy Young winner Verlander, the second overall pick in the 2004 draft and Baseball America's top pitching prospect in all of baseball, won the competition for the fifth spot in the lineup this spring while Zumaya, Baseball America's 12th ranked pitching prospect in all of baseball, will start the season in the bullpen.
Probable multiple Cy Young winner Verlander has grabbed most of the headlines but Zumaya has scouts raving too. According to ESPN's Jayson Stark, some baseball execs have called him the best young arm they've seen while backup catcher Vance Wilson claims that catching his triple digit heater is "like catching a shot put." Zumaya might be groomed as closer, although he has been a starter throughout his entire professional career.
If these two young studs are truly ready for the bigs, the Tiger pitching staff is deep and will attack hitters in a variety of ways. Imagine facing soft throwing lefties Mike Maroth or Kenny Rogers for 6 innings then having the flame-throwing Zumaya and Fernando Rodney come in for an inning each in front of "Only the Lord Saves More Than" Todd Jones? That's a tough adjustment for hitters to make. If probable multiple Cy Young winner Verlander falters in the rotation, Roman Colon is nastier than Big Pun ("you nasty, twin-- I don't care").
2. Jim Leyland knows what he's doing. Detroit fans should notice an immediate difference in the attitude of their ballclub. Leyland called out his team a couple weeks back for being "too nice" and lacking emotion or character. Hmmm... wonder if that attitude reflects Alan Trammell at all? (No offense Tram, we love you and you kinda got screwed but we gotta move on.)
In between cigarettes, Leyland also assembled a coaching staff featuring crowd favorites Lloyd McClendon and Andy Van Slyke. I also like his decisions regarding Nook Logan and Roman Colon. Leyland was openly enamored with Logan's speed initially but rightfully will give Curtis Granderson the job after Nook showed once again that he can't really do anything well aside from running around (and play Halo 2). Marcus Thames deserved to make the team based on his performance for the Mudhens the last couple seasons. Hopefully, Leyland will find him enough at bats so that he can settle into a nice groove. Colon pitches better as a starter and therefore Leyland wisely sent him down to Toledo to continue his development. Leyland's lineup seems a bit off (Pudge batting third, Guillen seventh, and Shelton eighth) but that can be tweaked as needed.
3. Jeremy Bonderman and Curtis Granderson are going to be around for a long time. Bondermania is ready for a breakout season in his fourth year while Granderson leaves spring training as a starter for the first time. Both have won over the new coaching staff and Tigers fans have a lot to be excited about.
Granderson batted .379 with 5 homers, 11 RBI, 7 steals and 12 walks in spring training and just had his 25th birthday a couple weeks ago. The former UIC Flame is a sleeper in fantasy drafts because he has all the tools. Bonderman is just 23 and while Tiger fans are well acquainted with him, they shouldn't forget that he could easily have made the All Star team in 2005. With a fresh arm after getting shut down late in '05, Bondermania is an easy pick to win 15 games.
4. The AL Central is not as strong as you think. I'm not sure if I've read more stories about the White Sox re-loading for another championship run or about how promising Cleveland's future is. Digging a bit deeper, both teams are flawed and certainly not invincible.
The Pale Hose have some serious bullpen issues with Hermanson injured. Neil Cotts and Bad Bobby Jenks could be lights out but have had troubles in spring training and the rest of the 'pen is nothing special. The White Sox will also start a rookie centerfielder and an aging DH coming off a serious injury. Plus, Jon Garland and Jose Contreras will come back to Earth a bit, Freddy Garcia was only throwing 86 mph yesterday, Joe Crede and Juan Uribe are not as good as their postseasons, and Brandon McCarthy has been getting knocked around this spring like an aging Evander Holyfield.
Cleveland played a bit over their heads last fall when they put a huge scare into Chicago. Since then, they've lost Coco Crisp, Kevin Millwood, Bobby Howry and Scott Elarton and were unable to upgrade at closer. Don't get me wrong: the Indians are still making all the right moves, it's just that they might not be ready to win the division in 2006.
5. Owner Mike "Hairpuck" Ilitch has promised to spend money at the trading deadline if the team is still competitive. Ilitch hasn't done much to win over the hearts of Tiger fans, but in fairness to him, he hasn't owned a contending baseball team. Alright, enough of defending him; Ilitch has been a terrible baseball owner. However, if he is willing to spend to bring a couple stars in when the Motor City Kitties prove to be close to contention, some of his past transgressions will be forgiven.