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LATE ONE night this spring Jim Leyland sat at the desk in his windowless office at Tigertown, ashtray by his side, and did the math on whether third baseman Miguel Cabrera, acquired in a trade with the Marlins in December, should bat third or fifth in the lineup. The way Leyland figured it, if Cabrera were installed in the five hole, he would have four players (Curtis Granderson, Placido Polanco, Gary Sheffield and Magglio Ordoñez) who batted a combined .320 in 2007 hitting in front of him. It all added up: Cabrera, who averaged 115 runs batted in over the last four years with the thin-hitting Marlins, would have the opportunity to surpass his career high of 119 RBIs. "I was a horses--- math student," says the 63-year-old skipper, "but I didn't go to school just to eat my lunch."
You don't need a calculator to determine that Detroit will score plenty of runs again this season. The Tigers' offense will feature seven of the top 40 active leaders in career batting average--and that doesn't include Granderson, the leadoff hitter who last year became only the third player to have 20 stolen bases, 20 homers, 20 triples and 20 doubles in a season. (Eventual NL MVP Jimmy Rollins became the fourth shortly thereafter.) The lineup is so deep that newly acquired shortstop Edgar Renteria, who hit .332 with an .860 on-base plus slugging percentage last year in Atlanta (better numbers than any AL shortstop's), will bat seventh. "They're going to be one of the most dominant offenses, other than maybe the Yankees', that any team has fielded in the last 10 years," says a rival AL general manager.
That Detroit's pitching staff will keep pace with its offense is more a matter of faith than mathematical certainty. Tigers starters had a 4.68 ERA last season and sputtered badly after the All-Star break, when Jeremy Bonderman, Nate Robertson and Kenny Rogers combined to go 6-19 with a 5.76 ERA. The Tigers had the majors' best record (58-37) on July 21, but they lost 37 of their final 67 games to miss the playoffs, and for that the Detroit staff must shoulder much of the blame. Also worrisome is that the Tigers' big off-season pitching acquisition, two-time All-Star Dontrelle Willis, is coming off his worst professional season. The 26-year-old lefthander (whom the Tigers picked up, along with Cabrera, from the Marlins for a six-player package that included top prospects Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin) had a 5.17 ERA last year, which ranked 59th of the 62 pitchers who threw at least 180 innings. In one miserable stretch from June 3 to Aug. 8, he went winless in 13 starts. "I just played bad," Willis says. "That's pretty much it."
Despite last year's struggles, the outlook for the Tigers' rotation is far from bleak. The righthanded Bonderman, 25, was off to a 10-1 start in '07 before his second half was ruined by pinched cartilage in his pitching elbow; he's healthy now, as is the lefthanded Rogers, 43, who never completely recovered last season from the circulation problem and elbow inflammation that limited him to 11 starts. And while pitchers don't normally improve when they move from the NL to the AL--a New York Times analysis last winter found that the move precipitates an average ERA spike of 0.70--Willis is poised to buck the trend. "Pitchers have down years," says Tigers G.M. Dave Dombrowski, "but he threw the ball extremely well in September, when we scouted him, and we find no reason why he won't bounce back."
And Detroit still has Justin Verlander, who at 25 is developing into the Josh Beckett-type of ace who can carry a team. His strikeout rate, which jumped from 6.0 batters per nine innings to 8.2 last year, should continue to climb.
Therefore, the equation that defines Detroit's upcoming season will most likely prove to be a simple one: One of the most productive offenses in the history of the game + a rejuvenated rotation = the Tigers' first world championship since 1984.
CONSIDER THIS a modest proposal ...
The Tigers are desperately seeking a trading partner who will take Brandon Inge--but they might be better off making him their everyday third baseman and taking advantage of his spectacular defense. Over the last three years, according to Baseball Prospectus's defensive metrics, Inge has prevented 57 more runs than the average third baseman. It won't take Detroit long to become nostalgic for Inge's glove once it experiences Miguel Cabrera's indifferent fielding. Stationing Cabrera (left) in leftfield and restoring Inge at third will help the Tigers' pitchers, and it would come at little offensive cost. Inge would take the lineup spot of current leftfielder Jacque Jones, who hits for better average but with less power than Inge.
DON'T LIE .341