As winter turns to spring, experts across the nation take to the airwaves, cable boxes and internet tubes to offer their predictions for which teams will win each of Major League Baseball’s six divisions. As a Reds’ fan, you probably paid the closest attention to the NL Central. But it was impossible to miss the commentariat announcingÃ‚Â in lockstepÃ‚Â that the division champion about which they were most certain was the Detroit Tigers.
Then, Opening Day arrived and teams started playing actual games. And a funny thing happened on the Tigers’ way to the AL Central title.
One-third of the way through the 2012 schedule, the Tigers (26-31, $132 million) find themselves looking way up at the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians, and neck-and-neck with the Kansas City Royals to stay out of fourth place.
Sparky’s second team arrives in Cincinnati, fresh from losing two of three in Motown against the Indians. The Tigers areÃ‚Â one of fourÃ‚Â MLB teams who have never played in Great American Ball Park. They competed at Riverfront Stadium (or whatever it was called in 2001) the last time they visited.
Tonight’s game (7:10) will be broadcast regionally by MLBN. Saturday’s game (4:10) features Tigers’ pitcher Justin Verlander. It has been sold out for almost a week, a singular rarity for non-Opening Day, non-Votto Bobblehead games. Sunday’s matchup (8:06 p.m.) is the national TV game of the week on ESPN.
PROBABLE STARTING PITCHERS
- Fri: Rick PorcelloÃ‚Â RH (3-4, Ã‚Â 4.86 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 5.4 K/9)Ã‚Â vs.Ã‚Â Mat LatosÃ‚Â (4-2, 4.91 ERA, 4.89 FIP, 8.1 K/9)
- Sat: Justin VerlanderÃ‚Â RH (5-4, Ã‚Â 2.67 ERA, 2.71 FIP, 8.8 K/9)Ã‚Â vs.Ã‚Â Bronson ArroyoÃ‚Â (2-4, 3.91 ERA, 3.34 FIP, 5.8 K/9)
- Sun: Drew SmylyÃ‚Â LH (2-2, 3.71 ERA, 4.08 FIP, 8.2 K/9)Ã‚Â vs.Ã‚Â Homer BaileyÃ‚Â (4-4, 4.39 ERA, 4.54 FIP, 6.4 K/9)
Rick PorcelloÃ‚Â (23) was selected in the first round of the 2007 draft, and two years later became the youngest player in the league. But the view of Porcello as a “potential ace” has dimmed over his time with the Tigers. His low K/9 and poor swinging strike percentage of 7.8% (Some comparisons: Verlander 11.6%; league average 8.5%; Homer Bailey 9.9%, highest among Reds starters; Aroldis Chapman 18.1%,third in MLB; and Sean Marshall 15.0%, ninth in MLB) demonstrate why he’s no longer considered a sure fire top of the rotation starter.
You may have heard about Justin Verlander‘s 2011 season. The twenty-nine year old won the AL Cy Young and the league’s MVP. He led the AL in strikeouts (250), wins (24), ERA (2.40) and IP (251). He’s a four-time all star and thrown two no-hitters. On May 18, he took a no-hitter into the ninth inning against the Pirates, to see it broken up by Josh Harrison, graduate of Cincinnati’s Princeton High School (my alma mater!).
Verlander’s fastball has often been measured at 100 mph late in games. Imagine. A world where a starting pitcher throws 100 mph. Cy Young. MVP. 250 innings pitched instead of 50. (Now imagine him being Cuban and left handed.) Verlander also features a brutal curve ball, a slider and a change-up. Lest you think the only indication of his mortality is failing admission to theÃ‚Â Perfect Club, Verlander has lost his last three decisions – for the first time since 2008.
Drew Smyly (“smiley”) is 22 years old. He was drafted by the Tigers in 2010 and named the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in 2011. He won a job in the Tigers 2012 rotation based on an outstanding spring training. Smyly’s been described as a polished college lefty, whichÃ‚Â might remind you of Mike Leake with a little more juice on his fastball. Smyly primarily relies on a moving fastball and his slyder for a strike out pitch. Don’t look for him to pitch late in the game, though. Smyly hasn’t pitched more than six inning in any game this year. And after a string of five quality starts in his first six appearances, he’s fallen short of that standard in his last fyve games.
STARTING POSITION PLAYERS AND LIKELY LINEUPS
The Tigers haven’t had to play without a designated hitter yet this year, so the lineup is speculation.
Jim Leyland manages a lot like the Reds’ Dusty Baker. And he has experience in the NL, having been the Pirates skipper for eleven years (like, back when they were really good) and leading the Marlins (back when they were Florida) to the 1997 World Series championship. Seriously, we may see a record number of sacrifice bunts in GABP this weekend. Leyland has been with the Tigers since 2006. Last night, he put struggling RF Brennan Boesch (.227/.259/.343) in the second spot in the Tigers’ order to (you guessed it) get him goin’. Boesch, who had been 2-for-38, went 2-for-4 with an RBI and two runs scored.
Check out these numbers: .331/.414/.544. They are undoubtedly unfamiliar to you, as they are the slash line stats for a legitimate leadoff hitter. Meet Tigers’ centerfielder, Austin Jackson. The good news for the Reds, he’s been on the DL with an abdominal strain since May 17. The bad news, expect his return during this series.
Jackson played yesterday for the Toledo Mud Hens, Detroit’s AAA team, and as of this morning, indications are that he’ll play one more game tonight with the minor league team, then rejoin the major league club on Saturday. Obviously, Jackson’s return willÃ‚Â add a major weapon to the Tigers’ lineup.
If you carefully read theÃ‚Â excellent articleÃ‚Â by Tom Verducci about Joey Votto as the BHB, you’ll notice the numbers show that Votto has actually been second best, behind the Tigers’ Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera led the AL last year in doubles, AVG and OBP (sound familiar?). He’s averaged 35 home runs the past five years. This year his numbers are just a notch below (.323/.373/.565) previous years, but needless to say, he’s incredibly dangerous.
Defensively, Cabrera made the switch to third base this year to accommodate his new teammate Prince Fielder, who the Tigers acquired through free agency. Reds fans, of course, are familiar with Fielder, who averaged 40 home runs the last five years with the Brewers. Just like Cabrera, in 2012, Fielder is performing well (.318/.384/.507) but a bit below his career numbers. It’s also worth noting that Fielder has been durable, missing only one game in the past three seasons. He and Cabrera make baseball’s best 3-4 punch.
A hamstring injury sidelining catcher Alex Avila will be a big blow to the Tigers. Avila went on the DL Wednesday. Not only will they miss his bat – Avila had a breakout season offensively last year – but he is also the only healthy and experienced battery-mate for the Tigers’ pitchers. Detroit called up rookie Bryan Holaday, and he played both Wednesday and Thursday.
THE TIGERS BULLPEN
The Tigers bullpen is old, but for the most part, still gettin’ it done. Closer Jose Valverde (34) and set up pitchers Octavio Dotel (38) and Joaquin Benoit (34) pitch a majority of the late innings for Detroit. Valverde, who has been solid in the ninth inning the last two years for the Tigers, has started to slip, walking 15 batters in 21 innings, with three blown saves in twelve attempts.
- Prince FielderÃ‚Â – signed 9-year, $214 million contract
- Octavio DotelÃ‚Â – RP signed for one year
- Gerald Laird – Back-up catcher, one year deal
TIGERS ON THE DISABLED LIST
- Al AlbuquerqueÃ‚Â – RP – 60-day DL, elbow.
- Doug FisterÃ‚Â – SP – 15-day DL, left side strain
- Dan SchlerethÃ‚Â – RP – 60-day DL, shoulder
- Victor MartinezÃ‚Â – C/1B/DH – 60-day DL, knee
- Alex AvilaÃ‚Â – C – 15-day DL, hamstring
- Austin JacksonÃ‚Â – CF – 15-day DL, abdominal strain
- Andy Dirks – OF – 15-day DL, Achilles tendinitis