In September we were talking about the Tigers slashing payroll drastically, but they're in the $125MM range to start '09. The club remains saddled with multiple bad contracts.
While the Tigers' offense last year didn't quite meet expectations, the team did rank fourth in the AL with 5.07 runs per game. The '09 lineup has new regulars Laird and Everett and will be without Joyce at the outfield corners. Using CHONE projections and Baseball Musings' lineup analysis tool, it seems that this crew can match last year's performance.
The question mark remains on the runs allowed side of things. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski took steps to improve the team's defense (8th in the AL last year according to the Fielding Bible II) by bringing in Everett and Laird. Using Brandon Inge at third base all year will help as well.
The Tigers had lousy pitching last year, in both the rotation and bullpen. Jackson is an improvement over Kenny Rogers, while Justin Verlander and Nate Robertson should bounce back to some extent (though Armando Galarraga should regress). 30 healthy starts from Jeremy Bonderman would go a long way toward solidifying this group, but it almost has to be better than the '08 rotation.
I feel similarly about the bullpen. Brandon Lyon is better than Todd Jones, and Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney are hopefully healthy. The pen should be better, we can say that much. It's hard to predict, but if the Tigers are able to get to around 775 runs allowed they should be on track for 85-86 wins.
Bottom line: Dombrowski trimmed payroll but still made improvements to the Tigers' defense and pitching. If a few of the many wild cards in the rotation come through they'll be in contention.
The Tigers aren't likely to finish in last place again. Especially not with their payroll.
Granted, I'm not convinced they can finish fourth in the league in scoring again this year. Not with Brandon Inge and Adam Everett in the lineup most days, and with no assurances that Gary Sheffield will bounce back. But Nate Robertson simply can't post another 6.35 ERA; if he's doing that poorly again, he'll be replaced (but he's highly unlikely to do that poorly). Kenny Rogers' 5.70 ERA is gone. And Jeremy Bonderman is well, at this moment it seems that he is a perpetually disappointing might-have-been. But he's better than Dontrelle Willis (speaking of bad contracts).
And as Dierkes notes, the defense figures to be better, maybe a lot better (if Everett's healthy and doesn't non-hit himself out of the job). Last year the Tigers won 74 games but scored/allowed runs like a 78-win team. It's not much of a leap from 78 to 81, and in the AL Central it's just a slightly larger leap from 81 to contention.
On paper, the Tigers and their bloated payroll aren't the best club in the division. But when August rolls around they'll probably be in the mix.