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2014 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Mar 28, 2014, 10:21 PM EDT

Brad Ausmus Getty Images

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers still the clear favorites in the AL Central?

Detroit has won three consecutive AL Central titles, but the margin of victory was just one game last season and the Tigers made some huge changes over the offseason in an effort to improve their bullpen and defense while shedding long-term payroll. Gone are Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, and Joaquin Benoit, plus manager Jim Leyland.

Fielder was traded to the Rangers in a move that brought in Kinsler to replace Infante at second base and cleared the way for Miguel Cabrera to slide across the diamond from third base to first base. Top prospect Nick Castellanos replaces Cabrera at third base as the Tigers count on him to be a key contributor as a 22-year-old rookie and ask him to move back to the infield after spending last season playing left field in the minors. That series of moves represents a massive shift in the type of team the Tigers are putting on the field under new manager Handsome Brad Ausmus.

Detroit’s haul from Washington for Fister was largely criticized for being not enough, but he was the Tigers’ fourth-best starter and they also felt Drew Smyly was ready for another chance in the rotation after thriving as a reliever last year. Benoit had an excellent three-season run in Detroit, but in bringing in the still dominant at 39 years old Nathan the Tigers are hoping that he can solidify the ninth inning while allowing the rest of the bullpen to fall into place.

One snag in the Tigers’ plans is slick-fielding Jose Iglesias, who was supposed to be the anchor of the much-improved defense and will instead miss the first half and possibly the entire season with stress fractures in both shins. In scrambling to replace him with 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez the Tigers overpaid for a seemingly washed-up player and likely put themselves in position to go shopping for a different replacement in a couple months.

Still, this is a much better team defensively, with a lot more speed, and if Castellanos lives up to the hype and they can piece together decent production in left field the offense is still plenty potent even without Fielder around. They just signed the world’s best hitter to a decade-long extension, after all. Getting the ball from the starters to Nathan may be an issue, but if everyone stays healthy the rotation remains one of the best in baseball with the reigning Cy Young winner in the No. 2 slot and the reigning ERA champ in the No. 3 slot. If the Indians or Royals had made big improvements this offeason the division could be totally up for grabs, but instead Detroit still looks like the clear-cut favorite for a fourth straight year.

What else is going on?

  • This is easier to say now that Fister is injured, but Smyly has a chance to be nearly as good for the Tigers’ rotation. As a reliever last year he threw 76 innings with a 2.37 ERA and 81/17 K/BB ratio, and as a 23-year-old rookie starter in 2012 he logged 99 innings with a 3.99 ERA and 94/33 K/BB ratio. Fister was really good and really underrated in his 2.5 seasons in Detroit, but Smyly throws strikes, has bat-missing raw stuff, and can be an impact starter.
  • Left-handed-hitting Andy Dirks and right-handed-hitting Rajai Davis were supposed to form a platoon in left field, but now Dirks is out for three months following back surgery. That pushes Davis into an expanded role, which will be good for the Tigers’ speed and defense, but he’s likely to struggle facing lots of right-handed pitching and left field is an area where general manager Dave Dombrowski may look to make a move midseason.
  • Home/road splits are far from the final word in projecting a player who’s changing teams, but it’s worth noting that Kinsler is a career .304 hitter with an .898 OPS in hitter-friendly Texas compared to .242 with a .710 OPS everywhere else. Toss in his overall decline recently as he crossed over into the wrong side of 30 and what to expect from Kinsler is a big question mark.

Prediction: Better defense, worse hitting, and another 90-win season. First place, AL Central.

  1. nymets4ever - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:43 PM

    this whole “Brad Ausmus is handsome” meme among the HBT writers is so friggin’ lame. Don’t worry, you don’t have to agree with me now, you will a few years from now when you look/think back on these posts.

    • historiophiliac - Mar 28, 2014 at 11:58 PM

      That’s Beautiful Brad Ausomness!

      • happytwinsfan - Mar 29, 2014 at 10:59 AM

        that’s only if the tigers have a good season. if they have a bad one he is denigrated to Pretty Boy Brad.

    • zzalapski - Mar 29, 2014 at 12:07 AM

      Generally, the rest of us don’t have to wait nearly that long for a consensus opinion on your comments.

    • spudchukar - Mar 29, 2014 at 9:49 AM

      Detroit 94-68
      K City 86-76 (WC)
      Cleveland 82-80
      Chicago 74-88
      Minnesota 58-104

    • spudchukar - Mar 29, 2014 at 9:58 AM

      Why do I like Brad Ausmus, and believe he will be successful? After Lidge gave up his memorable mammoth home run to Albert Pujols in 2005, Game 5, Ausmus did this on the flight to St. Louis which the Astros indeed won Game 6, and captured the NLCS, but I digress.

      Ausmus dropped off a script to the airplane’s pilot, in which he told the team that the plane had reached cruising altitude, and if they looked out of the west windows for the next three miles they might see the ball that Phat Albert hit. Everyone including Lidge roared, the gloomy ice was broken and the Astros bounced back and went to the WS.

  2. historiophiliac - Mar 29, 2014 at 12:24 AM

    Whew, that made me feel a lot better, Aaron. Thanks for that. It’s probably because you didn’t talk about Joba. I don’t know that I think this is a better team — so much as a different one. Still, it’s a good team and if it ends up gelling, could be a winner. I expect to be AL Central champs again. Beyond that, I’m not too confident (not because I’m afraid of other teams — just unsure of ours).

    • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2014 at 1:08 PM

      Joe Nathan is only five years younger than the incredibly handsome new manager. Rotoworld has Joba Chamberlain projected as his set-up man. Rajai Davis stinks against RHP’s, and that opens up all kinds of playing time for Don Kelly.

      That’s right, your season is in the hands of Joba Chamberlain & Don Kelly. :*)

      • historiophiliac - Mar 29, 2014 at 1:12 PM

        Slightly better than Brandon Inge and Jose Valverde, I think. I’ll take it.

      • unclemosesgreen - Mar 29, 2014 at 1:17 PM

        I get to see ole Spuds do his wiggle until the Mets designate him for assignment, SNY is part of my cable package.

        Clearly Inge 2.0 is growing on you. But you still haven’t addressed Joba. What about Joba?

      • gigab0t - Mar 31, 2014 at 10:45 AM

        Never count out Don Kelly.

  3. Minoring In Baseball - Mar 29, 2014 at 12:33 AM

    The Tigers are a work in progress at this point. Hopefully fans will be patient, but I think they’ll be a very good time after the all-star break. It will take some time to adapt to Ausmus, but I think he’ll do well in Detroit and that his offensive strategies are better suited for Comerica Park than Leyland’s were. They still have one of the best rotations in baseball, and Miggy, so they’ll be tough to beat on any given night.

  4. cjvirnig - Mar 29, 2014 at 1:51 AM

    Generally speaking, I believe the AL Central is going to be a major disappointment. Detroit clearly has the best team and should win the division barring key injuries, but they lost some key components of their lineup which is going to put an even larger premium on the health of Miguel Cabrera. Can he make it through the second half of the season without his body wearing down like last year?

    As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I also believe Dave Dombrowski made a huge mistake in breaking off contract talks with Max Scherzer. It’s fairly obvious to anyone who understands the game that in the playoffs, good pitching almost always beats good hitting. The Tigers found this out firsthand during the 2012 World Series when the Giants totally shut down Detroit’s lineup.

    My question is, if you let Scherzer hit the open market next winter, how can the Tigers hope to ever win a title with this roster?

    Elsewhere in the division, the Indians felt fluky last season and I definitely look for them to take a step back. With the White Sox and Twins in full-on rebuilding mode, that only leaves the Royals as a legitimate contender for the division crown.

    In the end, I see Detroit pulling away from the divisional competition in the second half of the season, but since they weren’t able to win a World Series in ’12 or ’13, I don’t have any reason to believe they’ll be able to pull it off this year. Be that as it may, without Scherzer, the Tigers will not be legitimate title contenders anyway, so 2014 may very well be Detroit’s final real championship run.

    • detroitr1 - Mar 29, 2014 at 7:43 AM

      The AL Central will not be a disappointment. The Royals are putting out their best team in decades (and could win it all). The Indians have Tito and two starters that could carry them to the playoffs. Cabrera’s body didn’t ‘break down.’ He suffered a groin injury and the medical team attending to him couldn’t believe he was able to play in the playoffs.

      “Everyone” but Dave Dombrowski knows that good pitching beats good hitting. This being the GM that identified Fister/Scherzer/Sanchez when no other GM did. He clearly doesn’t see the value in ‘good pitching’ and won’t continue to identify other promising starting pitching. Maybe he will learn this lesson from the Twins GM and trade for Vance Worley.

      How can the Tigers ever hope to win a title? The same reason why a mid-market team can sign Miguel Cabrera. The owner wants to win above all other considerations.

      Speaking of good pitching–how’s the Twins rotation looking?

      • cjvirnig - Mar 29, 2014 at 3:59 PM

        Max Scherzer is a Cy Young winner entering the prime of his career. Regardless of Dombrowski’s savvy at identifying quality starting pitchers, he’s NOT going to magically discover another Scherzer in the Wal Mart bargain bin. Furthermore, Scherzer was already well regarded as a top prospect when the Tigers traded for him, so it’s not as if Dombrowski found a diamond in the rough. Ditto for Annibal Sanchez (who had already thrown a no-hitter with the Marlins).

        But my point still stands: the 2014 Tigers are not as deep as the ’12 or ’13 Tigers and if they fell short during those seasons, why should I believe they’ll suddenly find that extra gear this year?

        As for the Royals, I agree this is the best team they’ve had in quite some time. Still, we’re talking about the Royals here. In a lot of ways, they’re like the Detroit Lions of MLB. Regardless of how good they look on paper, they usually find infuriating ways to disappoint. Thus, most people expect them to take a big step forward this season, but nobody will be surprised if they underperform.

        We’ll have to disagree on the Indians. I like Justin Masterson as much as the next guy, but I’m absolutely not buying into their lineup quite yet. Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana, etc. had good seasons last year, but they’re going to have to prove they can consistently put up that production. To me, the 2013 Indians reeked of overachievement, I’d almost be willing to bet they’ll lose 10-15 more games this season.

        BTW, the Twins rotation is actually doing pretty good. They signed Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes over the winter, so it’s a heck of a lot better than it was last year. Everyone is eagerly awaiting 2015, though, when Byron Buxton (the top prospect in baseball) breaks onto the scene, along with Miguel Sano (another top 5 prospect) and Eddie Rosario. The Twins farm system is absolutely STACKED right now. Right when Detroit’s window slams shut in a couple years, the Twins will once again reclaim their rightful throne.

  5. thegreatstoneface - Mar 29, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    brad is a great american beauty, it’s true…

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