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Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander are part of a youthful core in Detroit.

 The recent addition of Prince Fielder has elevated the Tigers status in the eyes of many as a favorite to win the World Series in 2012.  After a near miss last season, the Fielder signing has also increased the pressure within the organization to complete the job.  1984 is becoming a distant memory.

When Mike Ilitch opened his wallet to steal Fielder away from several perceived favorites, it signaled a willingness to do whatever it takes to bring a championship to Detroit.  Preferably, sooner rather than later.  Like, this year.

Yet, the window for the Tigers to win a title may not be as small as some think.  The Tigers will be an elite team in 2012, but also in the foreseeable future.

Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Justin Verlander, Alex Avila and Jhonny Peralta are All-Stars.  Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Austin Jackson and Delmon Young have All-Star potential.  Each and every one of these players also have one thing in common, they are all under the age 30.  The three elite talents, Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder are all under contract for at least the next three years. 

With a number of pitching prospects and third baseman Nick Castellanos on the horizon, and the return of Victor Martinez next season, the Tigers are in good shape for the foreseeable future.  The desire to win now is high though, and it should be.  Regardless of how good the Tigers will be for the next several seasons, you only get so many chances to win a World Series.   A sense of urgency should be present.   If it happens in 2012, great.  If it doesn’t, Tigers fans should still feel good about their chances for the next five years.

The organization is in tremendous shape thanks in large part to the willingness of Mr. Ilitch to spend money.  However, Dave Dombrowski and Al Avila have done a fabulous job of keeping this team on the radar after a decade’s of playoff-less summers in the Motor City.  The Tigers were a mess in the 90’s.  From 1994 to 2001, Detroit finished over .500 just once. 

Tigers fans are once again proud of their team.  With a core group that has yet to turn 30, they should be proud for some time.

 
 
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Ok, so how many of you saw this coming? 

With the news that the Tigers have signed Prince Fielder to a nine-year deal, he'll take his talents to his daddy's former stomping grounds and many around baseball are truly stunned.  Afterall, the Washington Nationals had him all but signed, sealed and delivered.  I've got to believe Adam LaRoche is pretty fired up right now.

When this deal becomes official, the middle of the Tigers lineup will be imposing to say the least.  Even without Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, Fielder and Brennan Boesch will hit a few homers and drive in some runs.  Where Fielder fits in the lineup apparently is not much of a question either.  Early indications are that he will play first base, while Cabrera slides to third.  Cabrera came up as a third baseman and played the position briefly with the Tigers in 2008, appearing in 14 games at the hot corner before moving to first base.

However, Cabrera hasn't played third base on a full time basis since 2007 as a member of the Florida Marlins.  Can he play the position again?  Judging by the way he has played first base the past couple of seasons, I would tend to think so.  In my opinion, he has shown good hands and good athletic ability.

The Tigers also must feel that he can play there as well.  After all, they were working Cabrera at third during the ALCS last season as a solution to keep his bat and that of Victor Martinez in the lineup had they advanced to the World Series.  It also appears that Cabrera is in terrific shape.  He looked lean and mean during the Tigers caravan last week in Detroit.

Fielder meanwhile will bring a workmanlike attitude to a hard working city.  I have spoken with two announcers that have broadcasted Prince's games, former Brewers announcer Daron Sutton and current Brew Crew voice Brian Anderson.  Both described Prince as a hard worker who comes to play every single day.  Anderson in fact noted that he has never seen Fielder fail to run out a routine ground ball in the five years he has covered him.  He plays hard and he plays every day.  Literally.  Fielder has played in no fewer that 161 in each of the last three years and has been as durable as anyone in his big league career.  That should ease concerns that some may have about Prince's weight. 

If you delve into his numbers, you see a guy that is truly an offensive force.  A bat that will provide over 100 RBI, 30-40 home runs and an on-base percentage over .400.  As an American League club, the Tigers would also have the option of DH'ing him in the last few years of the nine-year deal if needed.

The landscape has changed in the AL Central with this signing, but as 2008 proved, there are no sure things.   This much is true though, Cabrera-Fielder is truly stunning.


 
 
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With spring camp reporting dates less than a month away, the Tigers will head to Florida with the knowledge that the pitching staff is in good shape.  The starting rotation returns intact with the exception of Brad Penny.  The only question remaining concerns the fifth spot.  With deals for Gio Gonzalez and Matt Garza fizzling, and Roy Oswalt spurning a potential signing with the Tigers, it is looking more and more like the job will be filled from within.

The Tigers preference is still a veteran, but options remain in the organization.  At the top of the in-house list appears to be Jacob Turner.  The youthful Turner was selected in the 2009 draft out of high school with the ninth overall pick.  In the past, the Tigers have not been bashful about promoting young talent to the big leagues.  Justin Verlander (22), Joel Zumaya (21), Andrew Miller (21)  and Jeremy Bonderman (20) all reached the big leagues at a young age.  Granted Bonderman's arrival was out of necessity.  Turner will be 21 in May and had a taste of major league life last season.

Turner has all of the tools and is widely considered one of the game's top pitching prospects.  In fact any deal for an established big league pitcher this off season started with Turner going the other way.  One scout I talked to this winter described him as a potential number 2 and felt that he possessed a plus fastball, plus curve and good change-up.  Other scouts feel his potential may be even higher.  Pitching coach Jeff Jones said during the Tigers caravan that the change-up needs some refining, but the ability to have a big career is there.

This a big off season for the St. Charles, MO native.  Considering that the Tigers have not been able to secure the services of a veteran pitcher at this point, Turner has worked hard this off season to get himself ready for the competition that awaits in Lakeland in February and March.  In 43 minor league starts, Turner has a 1.14 WHIP and is averaging almost eight strikeouts per nine innings.

At the end of last season, Jim Leyland hinted that Turner might be better served with a little more seasoning in the minor leagues in 2012.  Yet, a strong spring could provided Turner with an opportunity if he out-pitches the other options in the organization.  One thing is for certain, the pressure on the 6'5" right-hander would be minimized by the talent in the big league rotation.  However, I can't help but to think about the fact that Turner was pitching in high school just a year and a half ago.  I got the feeling that Leyland thought the youngster needed more time following his brief big league cameo last year.

Turner is a year older and his future may be now.  Is he ready for the next step in his career.   It looks like we may find out this April.

 
 
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Victor Martinez has had a tremendous impact on his teammates.
_ With the stunning news that Victor Martinez is likely done for the 2012 season, the Tigers have had to make a U-turn in their off season strategy leading up to spring training.  Victor's bat was a major reason why the Tigers won 95 games in 2011 and nearly made a trip to the World Series.  A solid run producer, Martinez knocked in 103 runs and hit a robust .330 last year, but it was his impact on the rest of the lineup that may have been more important.

The arrival of Martinez immediately provided the Tigers with solid option for the fifth spot in the lineup.  An important position considering the bat sitting in front of him in the four hole, Miguel Cabrera.  Opposing pitchers avoided Cabrera like the plague in 2010, intentionally walking him 32 times.  With Martinez lurking behind him in 2011, Cabrera's intentional walks dropped by ten to 22.  Martinez also boasted a .380 on base percentage last year, often extending innings and creating scoring opportunities.

So, we know what the Tigers will be missing next year, the question is how do you replace him?  Almost immediately, the name Prince Fielder surfaced.  Signing Prince would give the Tigers three $20 million/year players.  Not a prudent use of payroll.  Aside from the money, the fact that Prince won't DH, nor will Cabrera, he's a perfect fit.

The more practical solution is for the Tigers to sign a more moderately priced free agent or to make a deal.  The good news is that the Tigers have time on their side.  Plenty of unsigned veterans remain on the market and Dave Dombrowski indicated that the solution the Tigers are are pursuing is short term.  Is Vlad Guerrero the answer?  He hit only 13 homers last year and will be 37 next month.  Johnny Damon?  I'm not sure that he would keep opposing managers from walking Cabrera.  If the Tigers sign Yoenis Cespedes, that could free up Delmon Young to DH.  Huge "if" with lots of competition.

Whatever the solution, there is still plenty of time to decide how to proceed.  the Tigers should still be considered the favorite in the A.L. Central, but last season proved how important the fifth spot in the lineup can be.

 
 
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Joel Zumaya
A warm Minneapolis evening in June, 2010  provided one of the toughest moments I have seen on a baseball field in a long time.  Tigers reliever Joel Zumaya unleashed a fastball to Delmon Young in the eighth inning of a game at Target Field and immediately clutched his right elbow, falling to the grass in agony.  Zumaya had suffered a fractured elbow, forcing him to miss the remainder of the 2010 season.
It was yet another frustrating moment in what appeared at one time to be a special career in the making. 

Zumaya's major league career has been one harrowing roller coaster ride.  He enjoyed rock star status in 2006 when as a 21 year-old rookie he took the American League by storm, lighting up radar guns at 103 MPH.  An intimidating demeanor coupled with  lightening-filled arm made Zumaya one of the most feared relievers in the game at a young age.  The Tigers marched to the World Series in 2006, and a good portion of the credit belonged to Zumaya who over matched hitters on a nightly basis.  Zumaya averaged 10 1/2 strikeouts per nine innings his rookie season. 

The sky appeared to be the limit.  Yet, the one thing that struck me about Zumaya's style was that he possessed one of the most maximum-effort deliveries this side of Troy Percival.  You only wondered if he would be able to stay healthy.  That question was answered over the next five years.  Multiple surgeries (two on his elbow, two on his shoulder and one for a ruptured finger tendon) left his fans wondering if he would ever return to his 2006 form.  So far he has not.

Zumaya is a person you root for.   Enduring the many surgery rehabs and mental strain of wondering if you will ever pitch again takes its toll on the psyche. Yet, he has bounced back every time.  The hope was that he would regain his form in a Tigers uniform, reliving the glory days of 2006.  That will not be the case.  The Twins signed Zumaya to a one year deal and his return to the major leagues will have to come on the very field where he fell to the turf with a devastating injury in 2010.

As Zumaya moves on, the memories remain.  His big league debut in Kansas City when he struck out three in two innings on opening day.  Watching him sneak a peak at the stadium radar gun after throwing a fastball, anticipating triple digits.  Having an opportunity to engage an intimidating,  yet approachable,  personality in the clubhouse on a daily basis.

 The Tigers could not offer Zumaya a guaranteed contract, especially after an endless string of injuries that left the club frustrated at every turn.  Sometimes a fresh start is a good thing.  In this case it is probably best that both sides move on.

 
 
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Tigers right hander Rick Porcello.
_ Three seasons into his big league career, Rick Porcello has put together double-digits wins each season.  At age 23, Porcello is already considered a big league veteran.  Drafted out of Seton Hall Prep in West Orange, NJ in 2007, Porcello hopped on the fast track to the big leagues.  Making 31 starts as a rookie, he won 14 games and posted an ERA of 3.96.  His rookie season ended with a gutty performance in Game 163.  A loss to the Minnesota Twins overshadowed 5 2/3 innings of sparkling work in which he allowed only one earned run and racked up 8 strikeouts. An eye-opening rookie campaign left Tigers fans wanting and expecting more.
 
If you break down Porcello's pitch selection the last three years, you see a pitcher in transition.  In 2009, Porcello's first year in the big leagues, he threw 77% fastballs, mixing in his breaking pitches more sparingly.  His sinker that season was obviously very good.  Fast forward to 2011 and Porcello threw just 65% fastballs and the remaining 35% were change ups and breaking pitches.  For instance, Porcello threw his slider 20% last year compared to just 8% of the time his rookie season.

Clearly, Porcello has thrown his secondary pitches more the last two seasons as he continues to develop them.  As the league adjusted to his rookie success, Porcello made adjustments of his own.  It will be interesting to see of he goes back to throwing the sinker more in 2012 as he did three years ago or,  if he continues to refine the change and breaking pitch.  When Porcello is at his best, his sinker is inducing ground ball after ground ball.  As his ERA has risen the last two years, his ground ball percentage has fallen from nearly 70% to 63%.

The fact remains however that Porcello is still only 23 years old.  Three years into his major league career he has won 38 games.  That win total matches up favorably with some of the game's top pitchers in their first three big league seasons.  Roy Halladay for instance won just a total of 13 games in his first three years and his career didn't take off until age 25 after he made some mechanical adjustments.  Greg Maddux meanwhile won 26 games his first three years, and was the same age as Porcello when he broke into the major leagues.  Mike Mussina won 36 games in his first three seasons with the Orioles.

A lot is expected from those that make it to the major leagues as quickly as Porcello.  Maybe too much too quickly.  2012 will be a big season for the right hander.  Fitting in nicely in a rotation that includes Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, Porcello should be ready to take that next step in his career.  We have seen flashes in the past.  Along with Game 163, there was the 8 innings of one-hit ball he threw at the Pirates last May.  Lowering his ERA and beefing up his ground ball ratio would make 2012 a special season not only for Porcello, but a deep starting staff as well.

 

 
 
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Is Matt Garza worth the price?
_ The chance to trade for Gio Gonzalez has come and gone, yet the Tigers continue to explore options to upgrade their starting rotation.  Cubs righty Matt Garza has become the latest hot name on the trade market.  Garza is drawing considerable interest from teams that have the pitching prospects the Cubs seek in return.

The Tigers, Yankees, Red Sox, Marlins and Blue Jays have all been linked to Garza in various reports.  Any deal for Garza would have to start with a premiere pitching prospect and all of the teams involved could provide one.  The Yankees have Manny Banuelos and Dellin Betances in their system, the Jays boast Kyle Drabek, the Red Sox could include former LSU star Anthony Ranaudo and the Tigers of course have Jacob Turner.

Every team considering a trade for Garza will certainly have to mortgage part of its future for the services of a proven big league starter.  Garza's stuff has never been questioned.   While he was only a .500 pitcher with the Cubs last season, his 3.32 ERA was 14th best in the National League.  Some question if his numbers were a result of pitching in the National League, or if the  27 year-old is maturing into an ace.

Garza's strikeouts per nine innings jumped from 6.6 in 2010 to 9.0 in 2011.  His ground ball to fly ball ratio also improved from less than one in 2010 to 1 1/2 in 2011.  Again, is this the product of pitching in the N.L. or the result of Garza taking the next step in his career?  

Garza has plenty going for him.  He has pitched in the rugged American League East with success, winning 34 games in three years with the Rays. If the Tigers acquired him, he would give the club a rotation that would boast three pitchers that would have a chance to strikeout 200 batters each.  That would be impressive.

Any deal for Garza would cost more than just Jacob Turner though.  The Tigers would have to weigh the cost of the other required pieces.  Turner's ceiling is certainly high, but he hasn't yet proven what he can do in the major leagues.  Can Turner be as good as Garza?  Better?  The Tigers passed on Gio Gonzalez because the A's wanted three premium prospects in return.  If they were reluctant to give that much for Gonzalez, I doubt they would for Garza who is under club control for fewer years than Gonzalez would have been.

The Tigers like Garza a lot, and they should.  He threw a no-hitter against them in 2010.  If they do land the talented right hander, it gives the Tigers another power arm.  You get the feeling that they sense a window.  Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera are in their prime.  Victor Martinez is one of the game's best hitters.  Alex Avila is a rising star and the pitching staff is deep.  The only question is, how much are they willing to pay?