Detroit Tigers 2004 Season PreviewBy Robert Nishihara
It won't get any worse.
And, frankly, I believe them.
Inexperience and ineptitude devoured the team in 2003. A woefully inexperienced pitching staff was collectively given a brutal initiation to the majors by the rest of the AL. The lineup was peppered with broken-down veterans and weak-hitting newcomers playing in a home park notorious for being stingy with offensive numbers. And a rookie manager was given the unenviable task of overseeing it all. Fortunately for the club, at least some of those elements have been turned around in varying degrees for the better in 2004.
The brightest spot for the Tigers in 2004 will be having a bona fide star player in their everyday lineup. Their virtually punchless offense, which averaged a paltry 3.6 runs a game in 2003, will be helped immensely by the addition of star free agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez. "Pudge" surprised nearly everyone in baseball by leaving the defending World Champion Florida Marlins to sign a four-year deal with Detroit in the offseason. After missing 176 games over the previous three seasons, Rodriguez played in 144 games for the Marlins in 2003. His 16 homers and 85 RBI in 2003 supercede the offensive production (or lack thereof) of Detroit's 2003 starting catcher, Brandon Inge, by leaps and bounds. Defensively, Pudge's credentials are impeccable. He can showcase 10 Gold Glove Awards and is widely regarded as one the best defensive catchers in baseball in recent years.
In addition to Rodriguez, Detroit also added a legitimate leadoff man in Fernando Vina and a power-hitting outfielder in Rondell White. Both were also acquired via free agency, Vina from the Cardinals; White from Kansas City. While Vina's career OBP of .350 seems far from exceptional, consider that the combination at 2B for the Tigers in 2003, Warren Morris and Ramon Santiago, compiled OBP's of .316 and .292, respectively. Compared to that, .350 probably seems like nirvana. Vina is also a two-time Gold Glove winner and gives Detroit another solid defender up the middle.
Though Rondell White has had a long history of injury, when healthy, his career has yielded decent numbers, both offensively and defensively. In 2003, White produced an .829 OPS and played average-to-better-than-average defense. His presence in the batter's box and in the field qualifies as a reasonable upgrade in both areas for Detroit in 2004.
The Tigers also dealt the aforementioned Ramon Santiago (he of the .292 OBP) to Seattle for veteran shortstop Carlos Guillen. Guillen's 2003 numbers in the Northwest produced some career-highs, including a .359 OBP. Defensively, however, he has remained below average.
Among the young incumbents in the Tigers lineup, Detroit will sport at least a few promising hitters as carryovers from 2003. First baseman Carlos Pena likely has the highest ceiling of this small group. Once considered a "can't miss" prospect while with Texas, Pena is now 25 years old and his window to prove his worth at the major league level is diminishing quickly. On the upside, Pena's pitch selection (BB:K ratio) and, consequently, his OBP have increased in small but potentially meaningful increments. There is little doubt, however, that Carlos Pena is on the clock. He has, at best, two seasons to transform himself into a legitimate force in the batter's box (30-35 HR, 100-120 RBI). If Pena blossoms as a hitter in 2004, the Tigers will improve immensely on offense. If he does not, the team will likely struggle again for runs.
Another alum from the Texas Rangers minor league chain, outfielder Craig Monroe showed promise at the big league level in 2003. His 23 homers and 70 RBI were the second highest in each category for the club in 2003. However, his paltry .287 OBP was troubling. Monroe needs to significantly improve his pitch selection to continue his positive development as a hitter.
At third, young Eric Munson may be ready to emerge. His 2003 numbers were decent: 18 homers (in just 313 AB's) and a .449 SLG pct. If Munson can continue to grow as a hitter and uphold the recent tradition of the hot corner in Tiger Town that has seen the likes of Evans, Fryman, and Palmer, he will be a definite asset to the team.
The Tigers most valuable returning hitter may be DH Dimitri Young. There is little doubt that Dimitri Young knows how to hit a baseball. His glove, however, has always been questionable. If the team can afford to make him a full-time DH, Young's value to the club increases dramatically. His 29 homers, .537 SLG pct, and .372 OBP were career-highs. With Young and Ivan Rodriguez at the heart of Detroit's lineup, the team's prospects on offense improve considerably over their 2003 incarnation.
However, to reiterate, if 1B Carlos Pena doesn't join the party, the Tigers will still be looking at the wrong end of the boxscore more often times than not in 2004.
Detroit's pitching woes in 2003 were considerable. Top prospect Jeremy Bonderman lost 19 games while sporting a 5.56 ERA and Nate Cornejo lost 17 en route to a 4.67 ERA. Yet, both remain among the team's most promising prospects in the rotation. The good news is that Bonderman and Cornejo are 20 years old and 23 years old, respectively, their big league futures far from being determined.
However, there is no doubting that each compiled truly miserable numbers in 2003 despite pitching in the one of most pitcher-friendly parks in either league. How go Bonderman and Cornejo in 2004 will go a good deal in determining how the Tigers pitching will fare.
One key off-season acquisition may help to bolster the young staff. Jason Johnson was picked up from the Baltimore and is coming off a decent 10-10 season (with a 4.18 ERA) in 2003. His veteran presence (6 years in the league) should help, and his durability (+185 innings in two of the last three seasons) will be a welcomed addition to a starting rotation starving for quality innings.
Lefty Mike Maroth is another young pitcher who suffered a trial by fire in 2003. However, Maroth was asked to jump on a grenade that hasn't exploded since 1980. Not since Brian Kingman lost 20 games for the Oakland A's has a major league pitcher reached that rather ignominious mark. Until Mike Maroth in 2004.
To his credit and the credit of his manager Alan Trammell, Maroth gamely accepted his turn in the rotation without hesitation, even as the ugly 20-loss mark loomed larger and larger. Both men realized that it is a special privilege to don a major league uniform, and any refusal to take the field in order to avoid a poor stat line is an insult to the game.
And Maroth's manager knows a thing or two about playing the game the right way. Alan Trammell played shortstop for the Tigers for 20 seasons and collected 4 Gold Gloves, a World Series ring, and over 2,365 hits (185 of them leaving the ballpark) along the way. Trammell was also highly respected by his peers during his playing days. He was considered an extremely smart player whose quiet intensity often belied his hard-nosed style play.
And in the dugout, little has changed about the former six-time All-Star. He still strives to win, he still garners the respect of those around him, and even as those 119 losses were piling on top of him and his players he never panicked or lashed out.
To say that a good baseball man like Trammell deserved better than the 119-loss train wreck that was the Tigers' season in 2003 is a massive understatement.
In 2004, Trammell will, indeed, preside over a better product than he did in 2003. How much better will depend on a lot of things. He must somehow coax something better out of a starting rotation that lost 79 games a year ago, a closer that had an ERA of over 6.00 in 2003, and successfully integrate a World Series hero into an everyday lineup that produced the fewest runs in the AL the prior season.
Will the Tigers again be fleeing the futile legacy of the 1962 NY Mets as they did for much of 2003? No.
Will they make some meteoric rise from worst-to-first to shock the baseball world in 2004? No.
They'll likely struggle to win 60 games in 2004, and the fact that that will represent progress just illustrates how awful 2003 was for the Detroit Tigers and how much better 2004, comparatively, promises to be.
Tigers Photos I
Tigers Photos II
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