The Detroit Tigers currently sit in first place in the American League Central, and the Kansas City Royals do not. Barring something unexpected, you can expect that reality quite often during the season.
It's not that the Detroit Tigers don't have their own question marks heading into 2013, but when you employ the reigning AL MVP and CY Young award winner, you have a pretty good head start on the competition. Detroit enters the season with a quality lineup and rotation, something no other Central team can confidently claim, and has enough depth that they could suffer a few injuries and still emerge with a third consecutive division crown.
Major Off-Season Transactions
Hunter is a big name coming off one of the best seasons of his career, so many expect him to give Detroit a large boost in right-field this season. Joe Sheehan, however, argued in his newsletter that Hunter's .389 BABIP masked the beginning of his downfall last year, writing ominously:
Torii Hunter fell apart last year. Remember that when the numbers change this year.
Detroit traded for Sanchez last season, but they are hoping to get receive a year's worth of starts this season from the former Miami Marlins pitcher than the twelve they received last season. The contract is not cheap, but he would be the #2 starter in Kansas City and slots as the #4 starter for the Tigers.
So yeah, that's a pretty solid lineup. Jackson has quietly turned himself into one of the top centerfielder's in the American League, hitting above league average and playing above average defense at a premium position. Cabrera and Fielder shouldn't need any introduction.
Martinez is unlikely to repeat his .330/.380/.470 line that he produced in 2011, but should still provide solid at-bats despite missing the entire 2012 campaign. Dirks should be adequate at the plate, but might be better served as part of a platoon in left field. Peralta and Avila both had monster 2011 seasons but were average in 2012, and Charlie Manuel once selected Omar Infante to an All-Star game.
Cabrera and Fielder are the clear superstars, but there are quite a few average to above-average players who compliment the duo and give the lineup depth.
So yeah, that's a pretty solid rotation. Verlander has been the best pitcher in the AL the past two seasons, and doesn't look to surround his throne anytime soon.
Scherzer led all starting pitchers in K% last season; some regression is expected, but he was a top-15 pitcher last season. Fister and Sanchez combined to produce 7.1 fWAR last season; the Royals starters combined for 8 fWAR.
Porcello has underpormed peripherals, but has struggled with runners on base and surrendering home runs. His groundball rate is great, but he doesn't strike anyone out. He's an interesting pitcher who could be above-average, but has a below average ERA after 691 innings. At some point you are who you are.
The Tigers also have Drew Smyly waiting for the first injury or Porcello to struggle; he posted a 3.83 FIP and 3.99 ERA in 99 innings pitched last season. According to ZiPS projections, Smyly would be the second best starter for the Royals.
Finally, something that resembles a weakness! Well, kinda. The Detroit bullpen has a lot of quality arms and interesting pieces, but doesn't have players slotted in specific roles.
Jim Leyland doesn't have a traditional closer, as he plans to mostly use Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit in a closer by committee role. As a Royals fan, I hope the plan completely fails and the Tigers blow 60 saves this season, but as a baseball fan I hope it works. It could help change how relievers are used across baseball by bringing in relief pitchers in optimal situations instead of slotted situations.
Octavio Dotel, Al Albuquerque, Bruce Rondon and Brayan Villarreal are useful arms as well. Dotel will occupy the ROOGY role that Louis Coleman could operate for the Royals, while the other three all post strong strikeout numbers.
I think the success of the Tigers bullpen will come down to Leyland carefully managing the pitchers and using them properly. You could make that argument about almost any bullpen, but I think it's especially important this season for Detroit.
Top Ten Prospects (According to John Sickels)
1) Nick Castellanos, OF-3B, Grade B+
2) Avisail Garcia, OF, Grade B
3) Bruce Rondon, RHP, Grade B
4) Jake Thompson, RHP, Grade B-
5) Danry Vasquez, OF, Grade B-
6) Eugenio Suarez, SS, Grade B-
7) Tyler Collins, OF, Grade B-
8) Casey Crosby, LHP, Grade B-
9) Austin Schotts, OF, Grade C+
10) Brenny Paulino, RHP, Grade C+
Detroit has one of the weakest farm systems in baseball. Nick Castellanos, however, is a top prospect with a high ceiling as a hitter, and tore the cover off the baseball in spring training. He will be in AAA working on his outfield defense, and will likely get a chance in the majors if Dirks falters in left.
Avisail Garcia is also a quality outfield prospect, but he is still young and needs some more polish in the minor leagues. He could play rightfield in Hunter gets hurt/falters. None of the other Tigers prospects are particularly interesting.
Baseball Prospectus: 89-72
Vegas O/U: 90
Detroit is the consensus best team in the American League, and after viewing the team, it's not difficult to understand why. The White Sox did challenge the Tigers last season when they weren't expected too, so it's certainly possible the Royals could contend in the Central. Based on what we know heading into the 2013 season, Detroit should field a team a cut above the rest of the division.