CATCHER: Not often do you see a team with only 1 catcher on its roster, but that’s what the Tigers have. Pudge Rodriguez will carry the load until Vance Wilson’s return. I’ve also read Pudge could bat leadoff in Curtis Granderson’s absence. I’m not in favor of this move. Pudge’s OBP was .294 last year and it’s been a while since he posted a solid OBP (.383 in 2004, fueled by a .334 BA). Pudge’s line for 2007 was .281/.294/.420. Hopefully his solid spring continues into the real season. His OPS+ last year was a below average 85. Brandon Inge, when not filling in for Granderson, will be the backup catcher until Wilson comes back.
FIRST BASE: Word out of camp is that Carlos Guillen has made a seamless transition from shortstop to first base. Infield coach Rafael Belliard says in the Free Press that Guillen’s defense compares favorable with former Gold Glove winner Andres Galaragga. Guillen batted .296/.357/.502 last season and could have a bigger year in 2008. His OPS+ last year was 123. Guillen is an upgrade over Sean Casey, who was .296/.353/.393 (OPS+ 96). Marcus Thames will be the backup. Thames batted .242/.278/.498 (OPS+ 99) last season and provides power off the bench, whether at 1B or LF.
SECOND BASE: Placido Polanco played errorless ball while batting .341/.388/.458 (OPS+ 122). He scored 105 runs from the No. 2 spot in the order. He puts the ball in play a lot, but only batted into 9 DPs, probably thanks to Granderson’s speed in front of him. Ryan Raburn, another super sub like Inge, can backup, as can Ramon Santiago. Raburn was terrific in 2007, with a line of .304/.340/.507 (OPS+ 119). Santiago is a superior defensive player, but batted .284/.324/.388 (OPS+ 87).
SHORTSTOP: Edgar Renteria takes over for Guillen. Renteria batted .332/.390/.470 (OPS+ 125) and would be my choice to bat leadoff in Granderson’s absence. Renteria’s previous AL experience was a disaster. Hopefully, that was a fluke. Santiago backs up here too.
THIRD BASE: Miguel Cabrera takes over the spot he should hold for the better part of the next decade. Cabrera is supposed to be in the best shape of his career, at least recent career, and is getting approval for his defense, which was thought to be a potential liability. There’s no doubt what Cabrera can do with the bat, as his .320/.401/.565 (OPS+ 150) line attests. Historically, he compares to Hank Aaron at his age. Only question is whether adjusting to a new league will be a hindrance. Inge will be his backup. Stellar with the glove, Inge batted .236/.312/.376 (OPS+ 80) last year. He had a nice spring and it would be good to see him return to his 2004 form of .287/.340/.453 (OPS+ 109).
LEFT FIELD: Craig Monroe saw the bulk of the time last year before being dealt. He was awful, going .222/.264/.373 (OPS+ 65). Enter Jacque Jones, who should see the bulk of the action, with Thames. Jones was .285/.335/.400 (OPS+ 87) for the Cubs last season. His 2007 numbers are not unlike 2004 and 2005, so Jones is probably not going to light it up. But he’s still an upgrade. If he returns to the .285/.334/.499 (OPS+ 108) in 2006, he’s huge. Lifetime, he’s .294/.342/.483 vs. RHP and .233/.281/.355 vs. LHP, which might suggest a platoon.
CENTER FIELD: Curtis Granderson had a historic season in 2007 and played terrific defense. His line was .302/.361/.552 (OPS+ 136) and he seems poised to be a star for several years to come. Of course, he needs to improve against LHP after going .218/.277/.395 last season. Inge will start in center until Granderson is ready to return from a broken finger.
RIGHT FIELD: Magglio Ordonez became the Tigers’ first batting champ since Norm Cash in 1961. Ordonez’s complete line was .363/.434/.595 (OPS+ 167). It would be unlikely Ordonez can repeat that season, but anything close would be nice. Now healthy, it’s reasonable to expect Ordonez to produce an OPS+ between 125 and 140, such as his prime days with the White Sox. Inge, Raburn or Thames will back up.
DESIGNATED HITTER: After a slow start, Gary Sheffield was a terror until a bum shoulder ruined him. If he’s healthy he will improve on his .265/.378/.462 (OPS+ 120), which isn’t shabby to begin with.
STARTING PITCHING: This is a scary stat – Justin Verlander (125) was the only Tigers’ starter with an ERA+ better than 100 (not counting Kenny Rogers’ 103). The two players nearest to 100 are no longer on the team, Chad Durbin and Jair Jurrjens (both 97). Verlander appears to be establishing himself as an ace. Rogers might be able to eek out another solid season. Jeremy Bonderman was hampered by arm woes and struggled through the second half. Nate Robertson never found consistency. Newcomer Dontrelle Willis is beset by control trouble. This could spell trouble. Much of the talk about the Tigers’ pitching has focused on the bullpen, which is a concern as well, but Detroit is going to need at least two pitchers to step up behind Verlander to make a postseason run. The potential is there, but there’s no guarantee.
RELIEF PITCHING: Todd Jones is back as the closer, which means no lead is comfortable. But we’ve lived through this before. Fernando Rodney and Joel Zumaya are on the sideline. But we’ve lived through this before. Lefty Bobby Seay was ridiculously good last season, holding left-handed hitters to a .201 BA and posting an ERA+ of 196. Tim Byrdak also had a good campaign, but was horrible this spring and got released. Zach Miner has proven to be a reliable middle man. Denny Bautista and Aquilino Lopez will need to continue their good springs and Yorman Bazardo could blossom. Aside from Jones, I feel the Leyland will be able to cobble together a workable bullpen with the arms available. I’m more confident in the pen, actually, than the starters at this point.
OUTLOOK: The pitching concerns might be offset by the offense. If the offense hits any slumps, though, it might spell big trouble unless the starters get it together. The Yankees led the AL with 968 runs last year while posting an OPS+ of 118. The Tigers OPS+ last season was 110 and they scored 887 runs. It would seem with Cabrera in the lineup, the squad should be able to get into the 950 range. The pitching, I suppose, should be no worse than last year, so any improvement in offense could be enough to push Detroit into the playoffs. If the pitching does improve, then the Tigers are a legit World Series team.