Roaring into Contention

Prince Fielder signed a 9 year, $214 million contract with the Detroit Tigers on Tuesday

The signing of Prince Fielder by 2011 American League finalists, the Detroit Tigers, stunned most of the baseball world. Detroit, which already has the perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera as their first basemen, was not expected to try and sign another one.

All of that changed last week when their designated hitter, Victor Martinez, was lost for the season with an ACL tear. The Tigers, needing another bat in the heart of their order, quickly and stealthily snatched up Fielder. Add in Justin Verlander, and pitchers like Doug Fister and Max Scherzer into the mix, and you have a team that is once again a threat to make a deep postseason run.

Potentially, it gives the Tigers the most dangerous lineup in the American League. Think about it – the Red Sox, Rangers, Yankees and Angels will all have big bats in their line-up. Even though the Yankees are getting older in their line-up they still have great depth, even if Alex Rodriguez’s production continues to slide. Perhaps only a back-to-back combination of Cano-Teixiera comes close to matching Cabrera-Fielder in terms of explosiveness. They each bat from different sides of the plate, so late in the game, you won’t be able to match-up against one without having to make a pitching change to match-up against the other.

It should be obvious that Comerica Park is not Miller Park. Fielder may not be able to replicate his power numbers from Milwaukee because he will be playing in a more spacious park. But let’s not forget that Curtis Granderson once hit 30 home runs in the ballpark, and Miguel Cabrera has not been affected by the ballpark’s size. Regardless, Fielder brings more than power. Fielder was 4th in the Majors in both walks (107) and OBP (.415).

Perhaps this is the move that makes the Tigers the 2012 version of the Phillies and Red Sox – seemingly invincible teams that made the biggest splash during free agency to become odds on favorites to win their league. It certainly should put a scare into Texas’ grip over the American League, which has lasted two seasons. Last year, pitching depth (as well as Neftali Feliz’s implosion) ended up doing them in against the Cardinals in the World Series. You would have to think that without C.J. Wilson to anchor them, they would lose a playoff rematch to the Tigers, should that occur in 2012.

It should put a real scare into the Red Sox, who had no answers out of the bullpen in 2011 and then lost Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies in the off-season. Imagine a bullpen of that caliber trying to get out of an eighth inning, bases loaded situation with Cabrera and Fielder due up? The thought should make any Red Sox fan lose sleep at night.

The Yankees have faced off against the Tigers in the playoffs twice in the past five seasons, and lost both series. The Tigers, in each series, were faced with practically must win games after falling behind 1-0 in the series, only two win Game 2 at Yankee Stadium. The Tigers then won an elimination game at Yankee Stadium to close out last year’s ALDS. The Tigers, as long as Jimmy Leyland is managing them, are not afraid of the Yankees in a playoff series.

It will be tough for the Tigers bullpen to match their 2011 efficiency, which was among the best in all of baseball. Jose Valverde did not blow a save in the regular season and saved all three Tigers victories against the Yankees, and none of them were “cheap saves”. Bullpens are baseball’s most fickle business. To ask the Tigers to replicate last season’s quality would be akin to finding a cure for the common cold.

With one of baseball’s best pitcher’s in Verlander, the Tigers will be a threat to win any postseason series, and with decent depth in their rotation, they should be built for the long haul of a 162 game season. They may have to add another great starter to be championship worthy, but there is no reason to believe that this team doesn’t have as good of a shot at winning the American League as the Yankees, Sox, Angels or Rangers. For any flaw that the Tigers have, every other team has its own flaw. The Tigers may not have the lineup depth that the Yankees or Red Sox have, but they are younger and have been healthier (V-Mart aside). Their pitching is matched by only a few in the American League – the Yankees, the Rays, and the Angels – and that’s assuming the young Yankee arms develop and the Angels can build on last year’s career season by Jered Weaver.

The 2012 Tigers could fall short of a World Championship for any number of reasons, but they have put themselves in a wonderful position to be contenders for many seasons to come.

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