Two years ago, the Tigers were American League champions; out-of-nowhere ones, at that. Last season, they took a step backwards, missed the playoffs, albeit by collapsing after the All-Star break, going 36-40 and losing nine games in the standings. Pitching was the primary culprit. After leading the majors in ERA (3.84) and ranking among the top six in batting average allowed (.257) and WHIP (1.32) in 2006, the Tigers failed to place higher than 12th in any of those categories in 2007. Offense wasn't a problem; the team actually improved its performance from 2006 to '07.
So, naturally, what did the Tigers go out and do this winter?
The questions, all on the mound, though: Can Jeremy Bonderman's elbow hold up long enough for him to bounce back? Is Todd Jones capable of one more respectable year as the ninth-inning man? Will Willis bounce back from a dreadful 2007? Is there enough rotation depth in case of injury? Such answers hold the keys to the Tigers' chances in 2008, but make no mistake, this team will score and compete.
Ballpark: After seven consecutive years -- according to the Park Factor page -- of serving as a pitching-friendly venue, Comerica Park actually leaned towards hitters in 2007. It was only slightly so, though, ranking 13th in runs scored (1.051) and ninth in home runs (1.140). Much of that was the result of the most loaded offense Comerica had ever seen. The 2007 Tigers averaged 5.48 runs per game, batted .287 and logged an .802 OPS. By comparison, in the first six years of the park's existence, the Tigers' numbers in those categories were 4.49/.263/.740, and from 2004-06, 4.88/.273/.771.
Trainer's room: Bonderman's injury warrants the closest attention in the spring. He didn't pitch after Sept. 9, and was 1-8 with an 8.23 ERA in his final 10 starts of 2007, primarily due to elbow pain caused by pinched cartilage. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), Bonderman avoided surgery, though he's no lock to return to form. He's a must-watch once spring camps open, as a guy whose value could range from fantasy ace to complete bust destined for surgery.
Sheffield is another player to watch during spring training, coming off October surgery to clean up his right shoulder. He's expected to be fully ready once camps open, but at age 39, he's no lock to make it through an entire season unscathed. Fortunately, the Tigers boast the offensive depth to survive a potential Sheffield absence; that's not so much the case with Bonderman. After all, it's a lot easier to replace a DH -- Brandon Inge or Ryan Raburn the likely benefactors -- than it is a No. 2 (on his team, not for fantasy) starter.
Platoons: Left field boils down to a straight platoon between Jacque Jones and Marcus Thames, and it really should stay that way. Oh, you'll say Thames, who has averaged one homer per 14.0 at-bats the past two seasons combined, shouldn't be limited just to matchups against left-handers, but be aware that he's a lifetime .266 hitter with a .766 OPS against right-handers, .263/.845 against lefties. Jones, by comparison, is at .294/.825 against righties, .233/.636 against lefties. Sounds like an ideal match, doesn't it?
Sure, it'd be nice for either in the counting stats -- home runs, RBIs, runs scored -- if either Jones or Thames steps up and wins the bulk of the at-bats, but the loss in batting average might easily offset any of those gains. The bottom line: Each has AL-only value and is a fine matchups option for daily leagues, but the current setup is for the best.
What that leaves the Tigers in the second half: Of 67 scheduled games, they battle the Royals 12 times, Orioles and Rays seven apiece, Athletics and Rangers six apiece and Twins three, a total of 41 contests against teams considered the league's weakest. Among teams considered contenders, the Tigers play the Indians 10 times and Angels three. In other words, if you draft them, practice patience with your Tigers, and if you don't, be aware there could be some buy-low opportunities at midseason.
Future closer: He went unmentioned in the "trainer's room" only in that he's out until at least June, but Joel Zumaya continues to tantalize fantasy owners with his "closer-in-waiting" status. It's been two years now that we've been waiting for him to unseat Todd Jones as closer, and it could easily be another, with Zumaya coming off October surgery to reconstruct the AC joint in his shoulder, injured while he was moving personal items during the California wildfires. He'll resume throwing sometime in March, but the best-case scenario has him back in action around the All-Star break. Even then, his best chance at saves in 2008 is a long-term Jones injury, or the Tigers being wholly uncompetitive as a team after his return, neither of which seems likely.
Backup to watch: A starter a year ago, Inge is a man without a position in 2008, or at least he is at the onset of spring training. He was set to report to camp along with pitchers and catchers, lending credence to rumors that the Tigers would try him out as a backup catcher to go along with his almost certain utility role. That's not enough of a role for Inge to be of much use in mixed leagues, unless he quickly qualifies at catcher and Ivan Rodriguez gets hurt, but it'll keep him AL-only worthy, especially once he can be slotted in as a No. 2 catcher. Remember, Inge belted 27 homers with 83 RBIs two years ago, so there's no other player who stands to benefit more should an opening arise.
Fantasy stud: About the only thing you can cast as skepticism regarding Cabrera is the time he'll need to adapt to American League pitching, but if you've watched this guy play the past five years in the Senior Circuit, he's the type that should get acclimated quickly. He'll turn 25 in April (meaning he's only entering his prime), has three straight years of at least a .320 batting average, 26 home runs, 114 RBIs and a .946 OPS and now he's in a loaded lineup. If Cabrera slots in at No. 3 ahead of Ordonez -- as he should -- a massive season is in order. That's a certain first-round pick, folks.
Prospect to watch for 2008: There won't be much of a buzz surrounding Yorman Bazardo in the spring, but in AL-only leagues, as a late sleeper, perhaps there should. Baseball America ranked him the team's No. 5 prospect, lofty status for a guy in his third organization, and let's not forget he's only 23 years old, with time to grow. On a team like the Tigers, with the aging Kenny Rogers and risky Bonderman, someone is going to need to step in once a rotation opening arises. With a standout spring from him, bank on it being Bazardo, the kind of guy who at least could warrant AL-only matchups status given the chance, and perhaps better backed by this elite offense.
Prospect to watch for the future: With Cameron Maybin and Andrew Miller now in Florida, Rick Porcello, the team's No. 1 pick in the 2007 draft, inherits this throne. A 19-year-old right-hander drafted out of high school, Porcello has drawn comparisons to fellow Tiger Verlander, or a better parallel, Josh Beckett, both in terms of ability and likelihood of reaching the majors quickly. Such arms can really go in any direction -- the Tigers have had some bad luck with highly drafted pitchers in the past decade -- and Porcello is at least two years off, but it wouldn't be at all shocking if he makes a late-2009 appearance in Detroit. By 2010, Verlander and Porcello could be one of baseball's best one-two punches, so keeper-league owners, take note.
Fearless prediction: For all the Tigers' reinforcements, the pitching isn't truly much better than it was a year ago. Like in 2007, the team dominates on offense, but the rotation has to squeeze more than 50 starts out of someone not currently tabbed as a member of the top five, and Jones finally shows chinks in the armor, blowing more ninth-inning leads than a contending team can tolerate. Unfortunately, with notably fewer trade chips, those are holes difficult to plug, and the Tigers have to live with what they have on hand. With the exception of Verlander, no Tigers starter ranks as much more than a matchups or ride-him-while-he's-hot option, and Jones keeps his job despite all his problems. Think of him as the 2008 edition of Joe Borowski and stick with him for the saves.
Games plateau: Inge is the interesting one, depending on how his return -- at least on a part-time basis -- behind the plate pans out in the spring. In leagues with a five- or 10-game eligibility requirement, he could become No. 2 catcher worthy by the end of April. In other words, monitor the reports on Inge's progress, particularly in the early workout sessions in February.
Of concern to keeper leaguers: Carlos Guillen is slated to be the everyday first baseman and will likely lose his shortstop eligibility for 2009.
Tristan H. Cockcroft covers fantasy sports for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.