It's not often that a team can say it improved by 29 wins from one season to the next. Then again, it's not often that a team only wins 43 games over an entire season. The Tigers were hoping to take that momentum and carry it into another productive offseason. A pair of major signings should help that process, along with development by some key youngsters.
1: CF Alex Sanchez
2: SS Carlos Guillen
3: C Ivan Rodriguez
4: RF Magglio Ordonez
5: DH Dmitri Young
6: 1B Carlos Pena
7: LF Rondell White
8: 2B Omar Infante
9: 3B Brandon Inge
The team is hopeful that it will get more production out of the top of its lineup in 2005 – Alex Sanchez can bunt with the best of them, but needs to improve his patience at the plate. Without that, he could very easily fall to the bottom of the order.
Next up are the Tigers All Stars from 2004. Carlos Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez were the top two hitters on the team in 2004, and figure to hold that role again (with the hope that Guillen's '04 breakout campaign wasn't an anomaly, and Rodriguez won't tail off in the second half of the season like he has the past two).
The Tigers big free agent signing of February, Magglio Ordonez should fit nicely in the clean-up spot in the order, assuming his knee troubles are behind him and he's ready to return to his .300-30-100 form.
Dmitri Young and Carlos Pena both figure to provide solid production from the 5 and 6 holes – as Young continues to provide a consistent bat in the lineup, while Pena finally began to realize some of his enormous potential in 2004 (27 homers, .810 OPS).
The 7th spot sports the biggest question mark. Rondell White once again battled health questions and also saw his production tail off in the second half, with just 18 RBI in 149 at bats after the All Star break. But at least White remained semi-productive when he was healthy; the same can't be said for Bobby Higginson, who has continued his slide after he received his huge contract before the 2001 season. The 34-year old Higginson can still take a walk, but has lost a step in the field and on the basepaths, and hasn't posted 20 Home Runs or 100 RBI since 2000, meaning it'll be tough to see him beat out White for the other corner outfield spot. Plus, you still need to factor in the emerging Craig Monroe for playing time.
Second base should be held by Fernando Vina, but injury problems appear to have ended his career – no worries though, as Omar Infante had a breakout 2004 season, and has the potential to be an All Star down the road.
Third base will also be a question mark, as Brandon Inge grabbed the spot by default, after free agent overtures to Troy Glaus, Corey Koskie and Adrian Beltre went unanswered. Inge, a catcher converted to utility player in 2004, will now get the opportunity to show that he can turn occasional success at the plate into a steady presence at the hot corner.
C Vance Wilson
IF Ramon Martinez
IF Jason Smith
OF Craig Monroe
The front office was at least able to upgrade the bench, adding gritty veterans Vance Wilson and Ramon Martinez. Wilson should allow the team to spell Rodriguez more often (hopefully keeping him fresh as the season winds down).
Martinez and Smith give the team a pair of infielders off the bench, one from each side of the plate (Smith from the left, Martinez from the right).
Monroe meanwhile will likely see plenty of playing time (as he has the past two seasons in a backup capacity), as he continues to put up great numbers (.488 slugging percentage) in a part time role. One problem that could arise for him is an offseason arrest for allegedly stealing a belt from a department store – the case has yet to go to trial.
LH Mike Maroth
Mike Maroth has endured much the past two seasons, and despite being mentioned in numerous trade talks over the offseason, will be the odds-on favorite to be the Opening Day starter after being the only starter in 2004 to break the 200-innings barrier.
That is, unless Jeremy Bonderman proves he's truly ready to take the next step into stardom. Bonderman was inconsistent in his second year, but in his final 8 starts went 5-3 with a 2.33 ERA, and looked more determined and confident than ever before.
Nate Robertson started Spring Training as a huge question mark, and ended up finishing leading the team in victories (12). Only a poor September brought along questions about his future – but most within the organization chalk that up to fatigue.
Jason Johnson was signed last offseason in the Tigers spending spree to come in and be the team's ace, but ended up proving why the Baltimore Orioles let him leave without arbitration. Johnson had an ERA of 5.14, and most show better if he hopes to regain his status as the team's ace.
Wilfredo Ledezma is the wildcard of the rotation, as the 23-year old built off an incredible minor league season with a 4.39 ERA in 15 games, including 8 starts. Ledezma has the potential to elevate himself to team with Bonderman to form one of the top young duos in all of baseball.
Closer Troy Percival
MR Jamie Walker
LR Gary Knotts
Troy Percival was signed to provide a solid presence in 9th innings, and he should do just that, although concerns remain about his age as well as his decreasing strikeout-ratio. Despite that however, Percival has remained solid in his 9th inning role, and should do the same for the Tigers.
Many expected Ugueth Urbina to be traded with the signing of Percival, but with a weak trade market (in part due to questions surrounding Urbina's kidnapped mother in his native Venezuela) Urbina looks to be headed towards the setup role for the Tigers – one he should perform well in.
Jamie Walker returns as the team's left handed reliever, and with Urbina now taking the setup role, should be less-worked, unlike last season.
Recently acquired Kyle Farnsworth has had his share of inconsistencies, but has incredible velocity, and if pitching coach Bob Cluck can straighten out his mechanics (along with taking him away from the Chicago nightlife), the Tigers think they may have landed a gem.
The final relief spot will be up in the air between a number of young relievers. Fernando Rodney, who was projected as the team's closer coming into last season, is coming back from Tommy John surgery, but with his talent, likely has the inside track on the spot. But don't rule out Steve Colyer either, in the event that Trammell wants a second left-hander. Franklyn German also could be dangerous, if he can learn to stay calm on the big league mound.
Gary Knotts is expected to be one of the better long relievers in baseball – assuming he doesn't steal one of the spots in the starting rotation.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK:
Carlos Guillen's and Magglio Ordonez's repaired knees
Guillen had what many considered an MVP-worthy season in 2004, reaching career highs in at bats, Home Runs, RBI, doubles, triples, stolen bases and OPS. Unfortunately, a torn ACL ended his season a few weeks early, and now puts his 2005 season in question. He's expected to be ready to play come Opening Day, but a torn ACL can always be unpredictable, especially for a Shortstop who was considered the backbone of a defense that struggled at times (and could struggle even more without him).
Ordonez meanwhile just received the richest contract in Detroit history – but it's all assuming he's over the knee troubles that kept him out of most of the 2004 season. The Tigers will be counting on his production to keep their lineup putting runs on the board.
Both finishing the 2004 season at 22 years of age, both have the talent and potential to be All Stars in 2005. Infante already put up All Star worthy numbers at Second Base in 2004 (including finishing third among AL second basemen in slugging percentage), and there's no reason not to expect a jump in his patience and power as he gains experience.
Bonderman meanwhile has all the talent in the world, and finally looked to be ready to put it together at the end of the year. His third pitch, his change-up, still needs work, but his fastball and slurve are already above average big league pitches, and carried him down the stretch.
The team will see some improvement between the Percival and Ordonez signings as well as developing youngsters, but it's hard to say if they're ready to really make a run at the division. The lineup (assuming their big three are all healthy) should put up plenty of runs, but a playoff push will be dependent on a young pitching staff becoming experienced and ready to pitch in pressure situations quickly. In all likelihood, the group is probably still a year away, leaving the Tigers somewhere in the middle of the division. But, .500 is certainly not out of the question and a very attainable goal – a level the organization hasn't reached since 1993.