Let's get one thing straight: I don't like the Tigers. I don't like Jim Leyland, I don't like Kenny Rogers, and that time the Research Department and I spent a weekend in Detroit for an Orioles-Tigers series they had volunteers instead of real employees working all of the concession stands and it took like three entire innings just to get a frackin' cheese pretzel. Without the cheese. "We-don't-have-cheese-pretzels," the paper hat-wearing septuagenarian told me robotically. "But it's right there on the menu!" I protested. "I just watched you give someone nachos with cheese. You have cheese. You have pretzels. There's the price for it right there. I want my cheese pretzel!" "We-don't-have-cheese-pretzels."
Now it can be told. The real reason I have it in for the Motown nine -- no cheese on my pretzel.
Anyway. The Tigers went to the World Series last year. They led the AL Central virtually wire-to-wire until the Twins edged them out on the last day of the regular season. As a wild card, the Tigers calmly dismissed the Yankees and A's in the division series and ALCS losing only one game in the process. The World Series didn't go quite as well, but Detroit has returned virtually its entire playoff roster and brought Gary Sheffield on board to fill its vacancy at designated hitter. Almost every preview you read of the 2007 season has them back in the thick of things, favorites or at the very least co-favorites to win the division. A few prognosticators even have them winning it all this year. What do I think? I think they'll be lucky to go .500, and residual pretzel bitterness is way down on my list of reasons why.
First of all, the AL Central has gone in the blink of an eye from a punchline to the majors' most loaded division. The Tigers, White Sox, Indians, and Twins all think that they are playoff teams, and at most only two clubs can advance. The Royals are still miserable, but at least they have the vestiges of a competitive lineup this time around. The Tigers went 14-4 against Kansas City last season (14-1 before an entertaining final weekend gag job that gift-wrapped the AL Central for Minnesota) and will be awful lucky to do that well again. Detroit also rolled off a 15-3 record in interleague play at the expense of the sad-sack NL Central. In '07, they'll have to play Philadelphia, Atlanta, and the Mets in addition to Milwaukee and St. Louis teams that won't be sleeping on the Tigers' skills this year. That should chip five or six wins at least off of the lofty 95 Detroit won in 2006.
Secondly, who on this roster can possibly be expected to play better than they did in 2006? I'll give you Justin Verlander. Mike Maroth lost a lot of time to injury last season, but before last year his major league record was singularly unimpressive. People who think Kenny Rogers and Todd Jones will just keep steaming along at ages 42 and 39 respectively are deluding themselves. Veteran hitters like Sean Casey, Pudge Rodriguez, and Placido Polanco whose offensive value is linked primarily to their batting average are notoriously unreliable commodities. The talent level of the Tigers' young hitters was hugely overstated in the wake of their magical regular season last year. Past Marcus Thames, who still won't be a full-time player in 2007, the Detroit offense was driven by vets Carlos Guillen and Magglio Ordoñez. Magglio is always an injury risk, which is why he's wearing a Tigers uniform and not still a White Sox one, and Guillen in a contract year is understandably curious about why Jimmy Rollins makes so much more money than he. Brandon Inge, Curtis Granderson, and Craig Monroe are all nice complementary players but none of them are likely to get any better than they already are and none of them are particularly young (Inge and Monroe will be 30 this year). In fact, the deal for Sheffield means that the Tigers are counting on fortysomethings more than ever this season.
Most of the writing you will read about the Tigers' rotation this preseason will assume that it will continue to be as dominant as it was last year. I'm not so sure. Maroth, Jeremy Bonderman, and Nate Robertson all pitched real well in '06 -- and all three had multiple craptastic years in the bigs before that. You can certainly argue that Bonderman was rushed to the majors, but Maroth and Robertson sure weren't. Suggesting that all three of these guys will be at least as good or better than they were last year is a stretch. Then take into account that Verlander threw a lot more innings than he ever had before in his life last year and the fact that Kenny Rogers is due a tremendous reprisal from the Baseball Gods for blatantly cheating in the World Series last year. One thing that's not in question is the depth and quality of the Tiger bullpen, so long as you don't ask any of those pitchers to field their positions.
Remember the Anaheim Angels of 2003? The team that won the Series, returned like 24 of the 25 guys on their roster from that championship team, and then was absolutely gobsmacked when they went 77-85? Yes, Gary Sheffield is a little bit more of a get than Robb Quinlan. Nonetheless, this Tiger team wasn't as good as their record last year and is due for a close encounter with the Plexiglass Principle this season. Realistically I expect Detroit to win between 85 and 89 games next season, not at all a bad performance but comfortably out of the money in the cutthroat American League. However my memory of that terribly cold, dry pretzel is really sticking in my craw. For that reason, my "official" prediction for the Tigers will be 79-83, fourth place, and an explosion of ill-considered Dave Dombrowksi signings next offseason.
Almost forgot: 10-1 to win it all, over/under of 86.5. That's a pretty low over/under, isn't it? Maybe I know of what I speak.