This isn’t the first time the Tigers have started off the season on a roll. In 2004, the Tigers also started the season 5-1. Coming off of the 2003 season that featured arguably the worst team in Major League Baseball history, 5-1 was a pleasant surprise for Tigers fans. Even the most steadfast Tigers fans realized that the 2004 Tigers weren’t good enough to keep things going past May. The talent was lacking in every aspect of the team. Flash forward to the 2006 Tigers and their 5-1 start, and there’s a whole different feel. This team can win, and barring a disaster, it will win.
The likelihood that each of the Tigers’ starting pitchers would have a win after the first five games was a doubtful proposition at best just ten days ago. Not only did each starter pick up a win, but most of them were in dominating fashion. For the first time in ages, the Tigers have a number of luxuries. They have a legitimate 1-2 punch at the top of the rotation in Kenny Rogers and Jeremy Bonderman. Rogers might be the number one starter in name only but Rogers’ presence might take some pressure off of Bonderman. The Tigers have a star-rookie pitcher in Justin Verlander that actually looks to be good enough to live up to the accolades. For every Verlander, the Tigers have had 30 guys that failed miserably. Each of Detroit’s five starters has a legitimate chance of winning each time out. That’s without Joel Zumaya. Zumaya might even be better than Verlander which isn’t hyperbole. Many analysts listed Zumaya as their choice for rookie of the year in the American League! Keep in mind that not only has Zumaya never pitched a big league game, but he isn’t even a starter or a closer. Baseball experts were picking him to win the rookie of the year award as a middle reliever! It has been suggested that Zumaya won’t stay out of the rotation past July. I suppose it could go either way. If Zumaya is really that good, then that might force Jim Leyland to make a move. However, unless Robertson and/or Maroth have meltdowns, I would be surprised to see either of those two sent to the bullpen. The good news is that if that happens, it’ll happen because Zumaya is just simply too dominating to be kept in the pen. That’s a situation the Tigers haven’t been in since, well, maybe never!
The success of the bullpen and starters 3-5 will probably dictate how much success the Tigers end up having this year. Since it hasn’t happened in thirteen years, my wish for the Tigers is to finish at or above .500. However, if the Tigers continue playing the way they’re playing now, I will probably start expecting more. This team is capable of winning consistently throughout the season. Few teams in baseball are able to end the game in the 8th and 9th innings with two formidable closers. The Tigers have this luxury with Fernando Rodney and Todd Jones. Combined with Zumaya, that makes three above average pitchers coming out of the bullpen. Jamie Walker, Bobby Seay, Chris Spurling and Jason Girili give the Tigers a number of effective arms out of the bullpen. If Zumaya is moved into the rotation, Maroth or Robertson could be moved to the pen if not traded. Robertson might actually be suited for a relief role as a power lefty but Maroth is probably more effective starting. It is important to remember that there were high hopes for the Tigers bullpen headed into last year with Percival, Urbina, Farnsworth, and Rodney. That bullpen fell faster than Ginny Sacramoni jumping after a piece of ham out of a tenth story window. That doesn’t mean this year’s bullpen will suffer the same fate. It’s just important to remember that bullpens can be fickle. Even though it’s only been six games, it is overtly apparent that this year’s bullpen is deeper, more versatile, and more talented than last year’s mess.
The most telling sign of the Tigers pending success this season is that both the pitching and hitting seem to be strengths. There aren’t too many teams that can make that claim. While the pitching may be up and down at points this season with inexperience, the hitting should be a strength from now until game 162. I doubt I was the only one that balked at seeing Chris Shelton hitting sixth on Leyland’s opening day scorecard. Shelton was arguably the Tigers’ best hitter last year and is clearly the best hitter thus far this season. Shelton hitting sixth isn’t an indictment of Leyland managerial deficiencies. It simply speaks for the depth and power the Tigers have in the lineup from 1-9. If Shelton weren’t hitting sixth, someone else with even better career accolades would have to. If Shelton hitting sixth looks strange, just imagine how Craig Monroe feels hitting 8th. Monroe led the Tigers with 89 RBI’s last season. With Placido Polanco, Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez, and Carlos Guillen hitting at the top of the order Leyland is able to increase the productivity of the lineup by moving Shelton and Monroe down in the order without costing potency at the top of the lineup. That is certainly an affordability that most managers do not have. Even better for Tigers fans is that it seems to be working. The Tigers broke a major league record for most home runs by a single team through the first six games of the season. Shelton seems to relish hitting in the sixth spot where he can sneak up on unsuspecting pitchers who may relax after getting through the meat of the order.
The most exciting aspect of the 2006 Detroit Tigers isn’t the fact that the team is off to a fast start or appears to be good enough to reach .500 or better. The biggest reason to be excited is that best is yet to come for the Tigers organization. The young talent on the team is second to none in baseball. Bonderman, Verlander, Zumaya, and Tata are easily the best group of young pitchers in major league baseball today. Curtis Granderson and Chris Shelton are just starting what hopefully will be long careers in D-town. The minor leagues feature a wealth of capable big league talent waiting in the wings. That doesn’t mean that the Tigers won’t win this year. That simply means that if the Tigers do end up winning this year, it won’t be in one and done fashion.
The chances for success this season lie within a bunch of variables--some of which the Tigers can control and some of which the Tigers cannot. If the Tigers can get good, consistent pitching from starters 3-5 and the bullpen, there is no reason that this team can’t finish .500. However, for the Tigers to make a run at the Central Division title, the division can’t be a breeding ground for baseball perfection like it was last year. The White Sox and Indians each had dream seasons in 2005. I doubt Chicago’s pitchers can duplicate a year in which all five starters had career years. The White Sox are a good team but last year’s performance was an aberration. If Chicago doesn’t come back to Earth this season, the Tigers will simply be out of luck. The same goes with Cleveland. Despite not making the playoffs last year, the Indians finished 93-69. My guess is that the division as a whole will be less potent. Success against the Kansas City Royals may become the differentiating factor between Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and even Minnesota.
Despite my optimism after one week of play, I have to be honest and say I felt the exact same way going into last season. I was quietly optimistic yet realistically reserved. That did me no good. So, I’m going to take a different approach this season. There is no reason for the Tigers to finish below .500. The team is better. The division has to be weaker. The pitching is better. The hitting is better. The coaching is better. Everything is better. My prediction for this season is 87-75. That won’t be good enough to win the Central (Chicago or Cleveland will win more than 87 games) or the Wild Card (Boston or New York will win more than 87 games). While my prediction for the Tigers would be their best showing since 1988, they will have to do better than that to make the playoffs. My prediction aside, I’m still awaiting the chance to root for a .500 team.