Health the Key for the Tigers in '06

When the Tigers break camp next weekend, they'll head north with a rather impressive lineup, easily their best on paper since the Juan Gonzalez era of 2000. If healthy, the Tigers could have one of the best offenses in baseball. But that ‘if' is a big one, and if track record is any indication, four Tigers in particular would be wise to hang onto whatever they've got that they consider lucky.

The Tigers have offensive firepower. On paper and on the field. Look no further than this past week's games when the Tigers put up 15 runs against the Yankees on Monday the 20th, then ten more against the Astros on the 21st. And it's not like the Tigers did this against a non-roster invite who was taking up innings while the team's stars were away at the World Baseball Classic. The Tigers tagged Mike Mussina for ten runs, and then followed that up with seven runs off Brandon Backe of the Astros.

So, the offensive potential is there. And everyone has seen the group produce. But will they make it through a full season together?

The track record issue is of no surprise. Magglio Ordonez missed almost all of 2004 and a good part of 2005 with injuries. Dmitri Young hasn't been able to stay healthy since he moved out of his mid-20's and into what should be the prime of his career. Carlos Guillen was a dark horse MVP candidate in 2004, emerging with a .920 OPS in what was likely his career season. Unfortunately, it was so out-of-the-blue not because he had never exhibited the talent, but rather because he had never been able to stay healthy (and his '04 didn't end on a good note, with a torn ACL in September that hindered him for much of '05).

Those who likely aren't big injury risks? Craig Monroe hasn't been unavailable for the Tigers in his three years with the club. Neither Curtis Granderson nor Chris Shelton experienced any injury problems at the minor league level. Brandon Inge led the team in at bats last season and has been very durable regardless of his position. Placido Polanco has also never had much of an injury problem, though he did find himself on the disabled list for a stretch in 2005 with Detroit.

Essentially, the Tigers success will likely boil down to the health (and production) of four players; Guillen, Ordonez, Young, and Ivan Rodriguez. When healthy, Guillen is still capable of a .900 OPS, Ordonez and Young both capable of 30 home runs and 100 RBI with a .500 slugging percentage, and Rodriguez while aging is still capable of an OPS well into the .800's, so long has rediscovers the art of taking a walk every once in a while.

If all four are healthy all year long, the Tigers should expect close to 100 homers from the group, a number no quartet of Tigers have reached in many years. But last year the group combined for just 48 homers and an average OPS of just .782.

It may or may not be fair to heap such enormous amounts of pressure on four players in a team game where all 25 players will see the field regularly, as opposed to basketball where the typical rotation will only play nine of the 12 available players, or football where 15% of the active roster doesn't even dress on game day. But the four also represent a substantial portion of the Tigers '06 payroll (about $35 million) and will need to produce in similar fashion.

If Curtis Granderson can play like a veteran in his first full big league season, or if Chris Shelton can turn the corner and become an elite power hitter, that will certainly help the Tigers' cause for the upcoming season. If Brandon Inge can manage to put together two healthy halves of a season, or if Jeremy Bonderman can make the jump into the top rung of starting pitchers, that won't hurt either.

But make no mistake about it, while those ‘ifs' would be nice, the Tigers can still compete if Granderson makes rookie mistakes, if Shelton falls short of the .300-30-100 plateau, if Inge can't put together a full year, or if Bonderman proves that while good, he'll likely never be Hall-of-Fame ace the Tigers hoped he'd become. But if those four Tigers can't stay healthy and produce similar results to what the Tigers got from them in '05, Detroit is likely headed for lucky #13 as far as losing seasons are concerned.


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