Baseball in the American League Central, circa 2012, looks bad for every team not named Detroit. It really does. Just ask the Experts, most of whom pick the Tigers as hands down favorites to win the Division and advance well into the playoffs. Signing Prince Fielder (.299/38/120) will do that.
So what are fearful fans of foes to do? Exhale, play ball and remember 2008.
A Little background- 2008
The 2007 Tigers finished 88-74 and in second place, eight games behind the front running Indians. Expectations for 2008 careened wildly upward when the team acquired slugger Miguel Cabrera from the Marlins (and paid $152 million for the privilege), added former All Star pitcher Dontrelle Willis (for a mere $29 million) and infamous World Series hero Edgar Renteria, then gamblered and re-signed Kenny Rogers and closer Todd Jones.
The lineup already boasted Curtis Granderson, Gary Sheffield, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Guillen, Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman. Talking Heads babbled knowingly of massive amounts of runs to be scored and a relentless march to the playoff pool and World Series. Even our own ESPN meisters fell victim (of course, what do they know? Some also picked the Indians to win the Series).
Giddy with anticipation, Tigers officials announced the team was second in MLB merchandise sales behind only the Yankees and gleefully counted the take from record attendance in Spring Training. All was good.
Until the season started.
Detroit began 0-7, including a sweep at the hands of the lowly Royals, and did not reach .500 until the end of June. The Tigers muddled through July, faded in August (11-17), collapsed in September (8-18) and finished in last place at 74-88, 14.5 games behind Chicago.
No public word on merchandise returns.
Baseball is a game of luck, skill and improbability often confused with inevitability. Any and every thing can change in the stretch of an oblique (Choo, twice), the plant of a knee (Grady, twice) or the tweak of an elbow (Tomlin, once).
Take the 2007 Indians. How often does Cleveland beat the Yankees in the playoffs? We did anyway and, bubbling with momentum and a dominant 3 games to 1 lead, what happened against Boston? What were the odds? Don’t answer that.
For the Tigers the 2008 season impaled on the hook of aberrant expectations and performances. On the pitching staff, Willis was awful (0-2, 9.38 ERA in only 24 IP), Verlander (11-17, 4.84) and Rogers (9-13, 5.70) struggled, Bonderman pitched in only 12 games and closers Jones (4.97 ERA) and Fernando Rodney (0-6, 4.91) pumped a lot of gas, none of it good.
Cabrera (.292/37/117), Ordonez (.317/21/103) and a surprising Marcus Thames (25 bombs off the bench) led the offense but Renteria and Guillen disappointed and an aging Sheffield swaggered his way to a .222 average.
What for 2012?
What are we to make of this history lesson for 2012? As in 2008, pitching and health are key, with defense close behind.
Even Hall of Fame hitters miss 70% of the time. Failure can be contagious and luck and probabilities are prone to digress. Injuries remain a great unknown and an even greater leveler. Errors often prove costly and, as in a game of chance, much can hang on the tilt of a friendly pitch, walk off style.
Jose Valverde. The Tigers closer went 49 for 49 in saves last year despite declines in velocity and strikeouts and a career high walk rate (4.7/9 IP). He suffered elbow tendonitis in late 2010 and has some wear on his arm, so injury may await. His overall blown save ratio is 11% and thus, to make up for a perfect 2011, he needs to drop about 20% of his save chances this year (say 10), right? Even if not, the basic law of averages could make a huge difference in the standings.
Justin Verlander. He carried my fantasy team last year but I did not pick him this season. Why not? He pitched 251 innings (116 pitches per game) plus 20 innings in the post season and has averaged 221.2 IP the last five years. Although he’s only 29 years old, when does the wear and tear show?
Doug Fister/Max Scherzer. Fister, 12-30 with Seattle over 3 seasons, went 8-1, 1.79 in Detroit the second half of the year thanks to significant decreases in hits and walks allowed. Who is Jekyll and who is Hyde? Scherzer recorded a personal best 15-9 mark despite career highs in ERA (4.43), WHIP (1.35), hits allowed (207) and HRs (29). Can he really do that again?
Prince Fielder. A monster of a man, maybe he and ‘Tiny’ Cabrera irretrievably tilt one side of the infield, slide into oblivion and take Leyland with them. As noted by colleague Stephanie Liscio in her Central Division preview, Comerica Park is not as cozy as Milwaukee’s Miller Park and Fielder’s production will be in part offset by the loss of offense and protection Victor Martinez would have afforded from the No. 5 hole. Fielder is also only one year removed (2010) from a .261/32/83 season.
Defense. Cabrera’s already lost time after stopping a ground ball with his face and he and Peralta loom like statues on the left side of the infield with OF Ryan Raburn at 2B and Delmon Young part of a possible platoon in LF. The pitchers are nervous. Very nervous.
Patience, and Shuffle the Cards
A wise man once declared there is no taking a trout with dry breeches. The Tigers must still play the games and the Royals are improved and the Indians may be. We saw what happened to the Detroit juggernaut in 2008.
It really is a long year, each team will get it’s chances and the worm will meander.
Tilting at windmills? Not if you recall recent history.
Besides, Don Quixote himself laid out the best (and only) game plan: “Patience, and shuffle the cards.”