Monday, March 31, 2008

MLB Blogging: Opening Day

The season kicked off yesterday but this not-so-fine, rainy, dreary, overcast day is when it begins in earnest. In Motown, at least. Where Comerica Park is going to be jumping and the seats are going to be packed when the new model Tigers take the field. Unlike last year when it was a thrill just to have a competitive team again, when it was a treat just to see winning baseball after a decade of futility, there's not going to be any settling this year.

After the Willis trade and the Cabrera deal, the goal isn't just to hit the playoffs. It's not even to make it back to the fall classic. This team wins a World Series or it's a disappointment.

That sounds like a bold statement but with the lineup the Tigers front office has put together, it's not so far fetched. The batting order is a murderer's row. Not of high-priced veterans who are past their prime. But one of proven plays entering their primes, young players on the rise, and cagey veterans to temper the whole process. There are four or five players there who are locks for the All-Star squad and another three or four who might be. The bats should be cracking and the scoreboard should be flying.

The concern, opposite of last year is with the pitching. There are questions with the starting rotation. Rogers is another year older and might not have any more of that magic pixie dust he's been sprinkling himself with (And, yes, that's a veiled reference towards the suspicion, as with any player who's extended their career as long as he has and seen a late revival, that he's juicing somehow.). And although Willis promises to be better with a better team around him he still had an awful year last season. Robinson is a solid starter in the 5th spot but no better than league average. Bonderman might break through this year or he might continue to tantalize. And even Verlander might not live up to the potential he showed last year as he struggled late in the season. A bigger concern is what happens when, as is likely, one of the starters goes down to injury and someone has to step up and fill in.

The closer spot is also a headache. Since the Todd Jones roller coaster ride (As in, "I will make the fans swear a Blue Streak") will continue. He's also aging and looked even more shakey that usual during the preseason. He's been riding the edge between being awful and just good enough to get it done for so long now. It won't take much to tip him over - and all pitchers have a hidden expiration date on their arms.

But the biggest worry is the bullpen. Where, thanks to former stand-outs Zumaya and Fernado Rodney being not just injured but injury prone. They can't be counted on to stick in the roster for long even if they do come back in full form. That leaves the rest of a weak crew and trading for some relief will be difficult since other teams will know Detroit is in the market.

If things go bad, even making the playoffs could be difficult. Basically, it comes down to this. You have Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, and New York and one of them isn't going to make the playoffs. Only the three division winners and one wildcard make it to the postseason. That leaves four elite teams fighting over three spots. Winning their division is the best way to get in, of course, because if they don't, they have to be better than #2 in the other two divisions. But even winning the Central could be difficult. The Indians look tough but so do the (other) Sox. Today's opponents, the Royals, look strong, too. Even lowly Minnesota looks scary with a strong pitching crew. If things go wrong, if the injury bug strikes then it could lead to a tight race that, again, leave the Tigers on the outside looking in, wondering about their squandered potential.

But today is Opening Day. It's a time for thinking about what could happen if things go oh so right. This team has a shot. It has potential. And while it doesn't have quite the ring to it, this year could be their chance to roar again.

Update: Aw, they dropped the opening 5-4 in 11. And people laughed when I said the Royals could be trouble. But, really, that game perfectly illustrates both the potential and the problems with this years Tigers. Great early innings - both at the plate and on the mound - but it all fell apart as the game wore on.

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