With interleague play happening throughout this season, we have some unfamiliar opponents. I asked Bless You Boys's Rob Rogacki some questions about the Tigers as they get set for the first of two series this season, starting with a two-game set at Nationals Park tonight.
1. I have to start with Jose Valverde. First off, what was the reaction when it was announced he was coming back, and second are Tigers fans ready to forgive and forget?
There was a vocal minority of Tigers fans who thought Valverde's return spelled the demise of the entire organization -- not to mention baseball, the economy, and mankind, it seems -- but most fans were cautiously optimistic about the move. At first, it smelled of desperation, as the rumors started immediately after Phil Coke blew a save during the first series of the season. It turns out that the organization did their homework, visiting Valverde in the Dominican Republic to see him throw. He didn't allow a run during a short stint in the minor leagues and has looked to be his normal self in his first few outings in the big leagues this season. As for whether Tigers fans are ready to forgive Valverde after his awful postseason, it depends on their level of interest. Most casual fans still seem to be a huge fan of Valverde, who is the consummate showman while on the mound. Diehard fans are still on edge, but most are encouraged by Valverde's fastball velocity, which severely declined towards the end of last season. With closer-in-waiting Bruce Rondon
still working on his command and secondary pitches in the minors, Valverde may be the perfect short-term stopgap until Rondon is ready to handle the ninth inning.
2. When Kansas City made some moves this offseason to compete for the AL Central crown, a lot of people laughed them off. Were Tigers fans concerned going into the season, and has the season changed that outlook? Or are they just playing the role of the Cleveland Indians this season?
If there were any Tigers fans concerned about the Royals
heading into this season, they were few and far between. The Royals got the top-end starter in James Shields
that they have sorely lacked recently, but don't have much beyond that in their rotation. They have gotten off to a good start thanks to improved production from Ervin Santana, Wade Davis
, and Jeremy Guthrie
, but until they can sustain that success for a longer period of time, people are going to remain skeptical. Davis has already floundered in his last couple of starts, both of which came against divisional opponents. Their offense hasn't come around either, and the loss of Wil Myers
-- a player who many believe should have been in the majors in 2012 -- doesn't help their outlook going forward.
One thing that seemed to go overlooked is how much the Tigers improved simply by shedding some dead weight in Delmon Young
and Brennan Boesch. Torii Hunter
has been even better than advertised in the #2 slot in the Tigers lineup, and his defense is miles better than anything the Tigers got from Boesch or Young last season. Victor Martinez has struggled out of the gate, but his track record suggests that he will end the season with much better numbers than the Tigers got from their designated hitters in 2012.
3. Is there any way to stop Miguel Cabrera? He's off to a great start after a great season a year ago. Is there an argument that he can improve over last season?
As scary as it sounds, Cabrera is already on pace to eclipse last season's incredible numbers. Part of that is due to the fact that Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter have been on base seemingly every time Cabrera steps to the plate. He already has 52 plate appearances with runners in scoring position this season and is hitting an astronomical .548/.615/.857 in those situations. After being intentionally walked a league-leading 32 times in 2010, the presence of Victor Martinez
and Prince Fielder
behind Cabrera over the last two years has made opposing managers think twice about walking him. However, with the way he's seeing the ball right now, walking him might be their best option.
4. It's only a two game series, which means that the Nationals only have to face two of the starters in the Tigers rotation. Both of the starters - Anibal Sanchez and Doug Fister - were acquired in trades and both came into Detroit with question marks of whether they could keep their success going. So far both have gotten off to great starts both with the Tigers and this season. What can you tell us about Sanchez and Fister?
Whether it's GM Dave Dombrowski, the scouting department, pitching coach Jeff Jones, or Sanchez and Fister themselves, someone in Detroit is making the Tigers' front office look like geniuses for the last two deadline deals that the team has pulled off. Fister finished 2011 with an 8-1 record and 1.79 ERA as the Tigers ran away with the AL Central, while Sanchez rebounded from a couple of rocky outings to finish 2012 with a 2.15 ERA in his final eight starts. Both moves paid immediate dividends en route to the Tigers' first consecutive division championships in franchise history.
The most impressive part of these two trades is the sustained success that Fister and Sanchez have had (so far) in a Tigers uniform. Fister has increased his strikeout rate by over two batters per inning since his days in Seattle without sacrificing his excellent command. It's a phenomenon that we still haven't been able to figure out, but we're not complaining. Oh, and he is still under club control through the 2015 season, making him one of the best values in baseball this side of a couple guys named Harper and Strasburg.
Meanwhile, Sanchez's changeup in particular has been on another level in 2013. Opposing hitters are whiffing an impressive 24% of the time he throws it. Overall, his swinging strike percentage has increased to 11.7% this year, well above his career average of 9.6%. He is well on his way to earning the big contract extension he signed last offseason, especially if he can replicate performances like his 17 strikeout outing against the Atlanta Braves
a couple weeks ago.
5. Victor Martinez has not gotten off to a great start this season. Are there signs that he can break out of his slump? Does the team need someone else hitting behind Cabrera and Fielder if Martinez continues to struggle?
Martinez has hit into some rotten luck in 2013, but it seems as if his bat is starting to come around. His BABIP is currently at .238, but it was below .200 a couple of weeks ago. He is hitting a solid .277/.271/.447 with a home run and 10 RBI in the last two weeks (prior to Sunday's action). Even if Martinez continues to struggle, it will still be a while before Jim Leyland considers using another hitter in the #5 slot. Tigers #5 batters hit just .252/.284/.387 last season, and it's hard to see a scenario where Martinez -- a career .301/.368/.465 hitter -- doesn't eclipse those figures by season's end. With another year at $12 million left on his contract, the Tigers will give Martinez every chance to show that he can still be a productive hitter. However, if he were moved out of that lineup slot for some reason, my guess is that Torii Hunter would move down in the order with left fielder Andy Dirks
moving up between Jackson and Cabrera.