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Tigers didn't stand pat, but should still stand tall in AL Central
Over the winter, the Tigers underwent the type of overhaul befitting a disappointing loser, not a 93-win division champ that came within two wins of a second straight World Series berth. They switched managers, traded their cleanup hitter, jettisoned their starting shortstop and swapped a front-line starting pitcher for a trio of younger players. Not every move made sense on its own (the return for righthander Doug Fister seemed egregiously light), but taken as a whole, the Tigers got younger, more athletic and more versatile — traits that could serve them well in 2014, when they should again be favorites in the AL Central. When your roster includes the best hitter in the game (Miguel Cabrera) and two of the last three AL Cy Young winners (Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer), you have a very good head start.
The Tigers, looking to shed a starting pitcher for some usable pieces and payroll flexibility, may have preferred to move righthander Rick Porcello, but everyone else wanted Fister. And so, it was Fister who was sent to Washington for two young lefty pitchers and a utility infielder. Hard as it was to say goodbye to a pitcher who had won 32 games in two-plus years in Detroit — plus three more in the postseason — the Tigers have the pieces to make fans forget Fister, as long as things go according to plan. This is still a formidable rotation, headed by Scherzer and Verlander, and with Anibal Sanchez and Porcello slotting in as Nos. 3 and 4. At the back end, the trade of Fister gives young lefty Drew Smyly, whom the organization is very high on, the chance to move from the bullpen to the rotation as the fifth starter.
The loss of Joaquin Benoit to free agency and the signing of veteran Joe Nathan to a two-year deal means the Tigers will be sporting their fourth closer in three years in 2014. Nathan may be 39 now, but he is coming off a resurgent season that saw him post career bests in WHIP (0.897) and home run rate (0.3 per nine innings). Flamethrowing phenom Bruce Rondon will be back in the eighth inning role, and while Smyly’s move to the rotation will cost the bullpen its top lefty from 2013, the Tigers hope Ian Krol, acquired in the Fister trade, can handle that role. Veteran Phil Coke and 25-year-old Jose Alvarez present additional options from the left side. And on the right side, free-agent signee Joba Chamberlain, returning from elbow surgery, is an intriguing addition, joining Rondon, veteran Al Alburquerque and Luke Putkonen.
The Tigers are basically starting over here, after letting double-play combo Omar Infante and Jhonny Peralta walk away via free agency and replacing them with Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias. The former, a three-time All-Star in Texas, was acquired in November in the blockbuster Prince Fielder trade, while the latter won the Tigers’ trust with his excellent fill-in work during Peralta’s 50-game PED suspension in 2013. Perhaps most important, the Tigers got a combined nine years younger up the middle with these moves, and both Kinsler and Iglesias are better defenders than the men they replaced — which should go over well with the Tigers’ pitching staff.
The combination of Cabrera and Fielder sounded great in theory when the Tigers added the latter via a nine-year megacontract in January 2012. But in reality, the lack of defensive range at the corners was difficult to overcome, especially when Fielder’s power fell off a cliff in 2013 (a career-low .457 slugging percentage). By trading Fielder over the winter, the Tigers allowed Cabrera to move back to first base, his natural position, while opening third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos. The rising star, just 22, completed his minor-league apprenticeship with a .276/.343/.450 season at Triple-A Toledo in 2013. Together, the Castellanos/Cabrera combo at the corners should be significantly better defensively than the Cabrera/Fielder combo it replaces.
The Tigers’ plan to return the same outfield they used in 2013 was derailed by Andy Dirks’ back injury, which led to surgery. He’ll be out until June. Supersub Don Kelly and speedster Rajai Davis will share the duty until Dirks in healthy enough to play everyday. Austin Jackson is still in center and veteran Torii Hunter in right. Of immediate concern is stopping Jackson’s offensive slide, which saw his OPS suffer a 100-point fall in 2013 over the year before. At his best, Jackson is a top-flight leadoff man. But he hasn’t been at his best in while. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Jackson batting fifth with Kinsler leading off. Meantime, like clockwork, you can put Hunter down for his usual .300 batting average, 15-to-20 homers and above-average defense in right field.
Since his spectacular 2011 breakthrough (.295/.389/.506), Alex Avila has seen his OPS fall nearly 200 points. Now, at 27, he is best described as a decent-hitting catcher, good for a dozen homers or so and a respectable .700 OPS. Avila’s real value, though, is behind the plate, where he has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the best game-callers in baseball. Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez all saw their ERAs rise by a half-run or better whenever someone other than Avila caught them in 2013. He may never have another year at the plate like he did in 2011, but the Tigers don’t necessarily need that.
Victor Martinez, now two years removed from the knee injury that cost him all of 2012, returns as the Tigers’ primary DH and occasional spot-starter at first base and catcher. He is now Cabrera’s personal protector. The team made solidifying its bench a major part of their offseason plan, and the additions of Davis (as a fourth outfielder or possibly the right-handed half of a platoon in left field) and Steve Lombardozzi (as a utility infielder) have accomplished that mission. One other key: Davis can serve as a late-inning pinch-runner, something they sure could have used in the 2013 postseason. These additions also should make the Tigers less reliant on Kelly — who remains useful, but in limited quantities. Because Lombardozzi isn’t a great option to back up at shortstop, the Tigers could also give infielder Hernan Perez a roster spot. At backup catcher, the Tigers appear poised to go with organizational man Bryan Holaday, after Brayan Pena was allowed to walk via free agency.
The Jim Leyland/Dave Dombrowski duo produced four playoff berths, three division championships and two American League pennants in eight years together in Detroit, and while the lack of a World Series title will taint that legacy in some minds, there were few GM/manager combinations in this generation that worked better together or produced more success. While Leyland retired, Dombrowski remains — at least for now. (He is considered to be a candidate to replace Bud Selig as commissioner.) In Brad Ausmus, the Tigers have a young and highly inexperienced manager, but one for whom communication appears to be a strong suit. Ausmus has a long way to go to match Leyland’s 1,769 career wins, but even Leyland had to start somewhere.
The Tigers underwent a lot of change for a team with such a winning pedigree — not all of it with a win-now mantra in mind. But the goal was to remain a World Series contender while keeping one eye pointed towards the future. It will be difficult for them, in the short term, to replicate Fielder’s power, Fister’s consistency and Leyland’s grizzled brilliance. But they also got better in some small (and not-so-small) ways, most notably the improved infield defense and the increased versatility of their bench. In the AL Central, the Indians made a surprising run at the Tigers’ dominance in 2013 and figure to be right there again in 2014, along with the emerging Royals. The Tigers’ ability to hold them off for another year will probably depend on the health of those horses at the front of their rotation and the big fella at first base.
CF Austin Jackson (R)
With Ian Kinsler also capable of leading off, Jackson needs to produce to keep spot.
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
Career .349 on-base percentage will play well at top of Tigers’ lineup.
1B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Two-time defending AL MVP is best right-handed hitter in the game.
DH Victor Martinez (S)
Cleanup spot is key because of protection for Cabrera; was mostly Prince Fielder in ’13.
RF Torii Hunter (R)
Batted primarily in No. 2 spot in ’13, but can be run-producer further down.
C Alex Avila (L)
Now three years removed from career year in ’11, but he’s still a capable hitter.
LF Don Kelly (L)
Jim Leyland favorite can play all three outfield spots, plus first, second and third.
3B Nick Castellanos (R)
Tigers think he’s ready to play every day; Fielder trade opened up third-base spot.
SS Jose Iglesias (R)
Filled in admirably for Jhonny Peralta in ’13; now gets the everyday job.
INF Steve Lombardozzi (S)
Versatile infielder can hit from both sides and also play some left field.
OF Rajai Davis (R )
Could start in left field against lefties, and should have great value as pinch-runner.
OF Ezequiel Carrera (L)
Played everyday for Indians during last two months of 2012 hitting a respectable .272.
C Bryan Holaday (R)
Has only 46 plate appearances in big leagues, but played well in spot duty.
RH Max Scherzer
Moved from front-line starter to true ace with Cy Young season in ’13.
RH Justin Verlander
Wins, innings, strikeouts, ERA+ were all five-year lows for veteran ace.
RH Anibal Sanchez
Had career year in first full season with the Tigers; fourth in Cy Young voting.
RH Rick Porcello
In fifth big-league season, had career-bests in WHIP and K rate.
LH Drew Smyly
Tigers hope his swing-and-miss stuff as reliever in ’13 translates to rotation.
RH Joe Nathan (Closer)
Four years removed from elbow surgery, appears to have regained stuff.
RH Bruce Rondon
Hard-throwing youngster will close someday, but not in ’14.
LH Ian Krol
Part of Doug Fister trade, he will try to reprise Smyly’s role as lefty setup man.
RH Al Alburquerque
Struggled for consistency in ’13, but has big arm and misses bats.
RH Joba Chamberlain
Former Yankees phenom gets new chance in new organization.
LH Phil Coke
Veteran swingman had an awful ’13 — career-high 1.670 WHIP — but he’s valuable when on his game.
RH Luke Putkonen
Performed well in sixth- and seventh-inning roles in spot duty in ’13.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jonathon Crawford, RHP
After not having first-round draft picks in 2011 or 2012, having the 20th overall pick in 2013 felt like a luxury, and the Tigers made a relatively safe pick by choosing Crawford, a righthander out of the University of Florida. While Crawford doesn’t have enormous upside, he projects as a No. 3 starter in the big leagues and could get there relatively quickly. He possesses a fastball that touches 95 mph, but his best pitch is probably his slider, which he throws in the mid-80s and can throw in any count. He had a successful pro debut in 2013, posting a 1.89 ERA in eight starts in the short-season New York-Penn League, and could start 2014 in Low-A ball. It’s not out of the question that he could make the big leagues in 2015.
RHP Jake Thompson (20)
Strong showing in Low-A (3.13 ERA, 9.8 K/9 IP) and new curveball made 2013 a solid year for this second-round pick.
C James McCann (23)
Made big strides at plate (.277/.328/.404) and was rewarded with spot on Futures Game roster. Likely to start in Class AAA but could earn a roster spot in bigs at some point.
3B Nick Castellanos (22)
Organization’s top prospect hit his way to big leagues in 2013, gets everyday third-base job in 2014 thanks to Miguel Cabrera’s move to first.
LHP Robbie Ray (22)
Centerpiece of the Tigers’ haul from Nationals in Doug Fister trade; has front-line-starter upside.
OF Steven Moya (22)
Massive (6'6", 230 pounds) specimen has top-flight power, but struggled with strike zone at High-A, whiffing 106 times in 388 plate appearances.
SS Eugenio Suarez (22)
Took step forward with strong showing at Double-A, but projects as more of a utility type in majors.
2B Devon Travis (23)
Great athlete, emerged as prospect during strong 2013 (.351/.418/.518, 22 steals in Class A).
RHP Corey Knebel (22)
The former University of Texas closer took the Midwest League (Low-A) by storm last summer. He held opponents to a .133 average and whiffed 41 over 31 innings.
Beyond the Box Score
Health watch Miguel Cabrera’s health will continue to be a major concern for the Tigers. Though he played in 148 games in 2013, it was the fewest since his rookie season of 2003, as he dealt with nagging injuries to his hip, back, groin and abdominal wall. He underwent surgery after the ALCS to repair a sports hernia and is expected to be ready for spring training. But he’ll be 31 in April, and for a player with his size, any minor problem can quickly become a major one.
Solid fit Rajai Davis was the perfect addition as an extra outfielder, given his ability to hit lefties (.294/.354/.425 for his career). He will likely wind up in a platoon with Andy Dirks in left field, given the latter’s struggles against lefties (.234/.306/.325 last season).
Planning ahead Part of the Tigers’ motivation for their big offseason moves (the trades of Prince Fielder and Doug Fister) was to gain some payroll flexibility, in anticipation of the looming contract battles with Cabrera and Max Scherzer, both of whom could become free agents after the 2015 season. Including the $30 million they paid to Texas, the Tigers saved about $76 million in the Fielder trade alone.
Bullpen woes The Tigers’ bullpen issues in 2013 were laid bare in the postseason, when, in 11 total games, they gave up 18 runs after the sixth inning — including 12 to the Red Sox in the six-game ALCS, essentially costing them a World Series berth. The Tigers initially targeted Brian Wilson as a closer candidate but were rebuffed and turned their attention to Joe Nathan, whom they eventually signed to a two-year deal.
Veteran closer Can Nathan fix the Tigers’ ninth-inning problems? He did have an excellent year in 2013, but that was partly attributable to a difficult-to-sustain .228 BABIP. Few closers in history have had success at such an advanced age (39). In fact, since 2000, only three pitchers — Mariano Rivera, Trevor Hoffman and Todd Jones — have finished 50 or more games at age 39 or older.
Questionable deal Many industry observers ripped the Tigers for the Fister trade, arguing that they didn’t get enough in return for a pitcher whom they perhaps undervalued. Indeed, as measured by fWAR, Fister was the ninth-most valuable pitcher in the game from 2011-13, just behind David Price and just ahead of Cole Hamels.