Despite winning a fourth straight AL Central crown, the Tigers took a small step backward in 2014, getting swept by the Orioles in the Division Series and falling short of the ALCS for the first time since 2010. The chief culprit was easy to spot — a bullpen that, by October, lacked even one shutdown arm, leaving rookie manager Brad Ausmus completely exposed in late-inning situations. On the surface, the 2015 edition of this roster is not terribly different than the 2014 Tigers. The big changes have come in the rotation — which loses Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello while adding Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene, not exactly an upgrade — and in right field, where Yoenis Cespedes replaces departing free agent Torii Hunter, essentially a wash in terms of production. But the addition of center fielder Anthony Gose and the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias signal an emphasis on up-the-middle defense, and the middle of the lineup — now with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Cespedes and J.D. Martinez — remains as scary as any in the game.
The rotation remains the foundation — spiritually and financially — of the Tigers. Lefty David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young winner, slides into Scherzer’s ace role without much of a drop-off, but the rest of the rotation is now chock-full of questions. Was Justin Verlander’s rough 2014 an aberration or a sign of permanent decline? Can Anibal Sanchez remain healthy after an injury-shortened 2014? Was Simon’s 2014 breakthrough with the Cincinnati Reds more than a fluke? And is Greene more like the pitcher who went 29–43 with a 4.39 ERA as a minor leaguer, or the one who posted a solid 5–4 and 3.78 as a big league rookie last year in the Bronx?
To be fair, GM Dave Dombrowski tried valiantly to shore up the 2014 Tigers’ bullpen, adding closer Joe Nathan last offseason, trading for promising young lefty Ian Krol, then adding Joakim Soria as a setup man in July. But none of them could prevent the ugly collapse. And nearly everyone is back in 2015, including Joba Chamberlain who signed a one-year deal at the start of training camp. The Tigers believed enough in a Soria bounce-back to pick up his 2015 option, so he will return as Nathan’s top setup man. But the best things that can happen for this unit are for hard-throwing righthander Bruce Rondon to make a full recovery from 2014 elbow surgery, for Krol to make a big leap from last year’s disaster and for a couple of youngsters to emerge as dependable middle-inning solutions.
The Tigers have yet to see their projected double-play combination together, as shortstop Jose Iglesias, runner-up for Rookie of the Year in 2013, missed all of ’14 with stress fractures in his shins, just as All-Star second baseman Ian Kinsler was arriving from Texas. Iglesias’s expected return will be a boost both offensively and defensively. Kinsler was exactly what the Tigers expected. You can pencil him in for 150 games, 15 homers, 80 RBIs and 15 stolen bases — as well as exceptional defense — in 2015.
The monumental November 2013 trade that sent Prince Fielder to Texas for Kinsler allowed the Tigers to shift Cabrera back across the diamond to first base — where he had another great 2014 while not killing the team too much with his glove — and perhaps more important, opened up third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos. At the plate, Castellanos’s 2014 rookie season was encouraging, as he produced a respectable .259/.306/.394 slash line at age 22, but he was disappointing on the other side of the ball, with advanced defensive metrics measuring his performance somewhere between dismal and abysmal. Part of that could be attributed to his shift from shortstop (where he played primarily in high school) to third base (after being drafted) to left field (after the signing of Fielder) then back to third. Perhaps the stability of remaining at one position will help.
The Tigers are replacing two-thirds of their 2014 outfield. With Hunter’s departure, the Tigers went out and acquired a statistical clone who is a decade younger in Cespedes — a move that pushes Rajai Davis to the bench, or into a platoon in center field. That platoon would be shared with Gose, a top defender who was acquired from Toronto over the winter. Gose has never played more than 94 games in a season, and it remains to be seen whether the Tigers can live with a hitter who slugged .293 in 274 plate appearances in 2014. Returning in left is J.D. Martinez, who was merely one of the best surprises in baseball in 2014. Released by the Astros in spring training, he signed with the Tigers two days later and spent the season shedding his underachiever label with a dazzling .315/.358/.553 line.
Alex Avila seemed poised to take his place as one of the top young catchers in the game following his breakout season of 2011, but a series of concussions and a steady decline in production have followed. Nonetheless, his numbers are still decent enough for a catcher, and his performance behind the plate is brilliant enough that the Tigers wasted little time in exercising his $5.4 million option for 2015. Still, whoever the Tigers have as backup — James McCann, a rookie who made a big-league cameo in 2014, is the top choice — may get more time behind the plate and more at-bats than the typical backup catcher.
Thank heaven for Victor Martinez. The venerable DH had the best season of his illustrious career, leading the league with a .974 OPS, bashing a career-high 32 homers and finishing second in MVP balloting. Martinez tore the meniscus in his left knee and underwent surgery in early February, but the team is optimistic that he will be ready to play come Opening Day. While Martinez is not a huge concern at this point, the Tigers’ bench, however, is another story, as it was exposed in the three-game sweep at the hands of the Orioles in the ALDS. Getting Iglesias back at shortstop will help with depth, allowing Andrew Romine, who saw the bulk of the playing time there last year, to slide into a utility job, where he probably belongs. But outside of Davis, who got bumped by the Cespedes acquisition, this looks to be a dangerously inexperienced bench for such an established team. Youngster Tyler Collins is in line to be the fifth outfielder, and McCann is the top choice as backup catcher.
Dombrowski is regarded as one of the top GMs in the game, and deservedly so, but he appears to have made a rare misstep with the pivotal Doug Fister deal of December 2013. Of the three players acquired from Washington in the trade, only Krol remains — a weak return for one of the most consistent pitchers in the game. To his credit, Dombrowski checked off the major items on his list in 2015 — re-signing Martinez, finding a center fielder and replacing departed free agents Scherzer and Hunter — but you have to wonder why he didn’t do more to beef up a bullpen that was exposed last October. As for Ausmus, 90 wins and an AL Central title would qualify as a successful rookie season in the dugout, but he was overmatched against counterpart Buck Showalter in the ALDS.
By acquiring Gose for center field, picking up Avila’s option and keeping shortstop open for Iglesias, the Tigers, long known as the home of power arms and power bats, appear to be trying to build around defense. They will still be a formidable team in 2015, but with major questions concerning the bullpen and the impact of the loss of Scherzer — not to mention the rise of the Royals as a tireless challenger and the radical offseason improvement of the White Sox — the path to a fifth straight Central title appears more difficult than ever, and this Cabrera-Verlander-Martinez-Kinsler core may only have a few more seasons to try to capture that elusive World Series title.
2015 Prediction: 1st in AL Central
2B Ian Kinsler (R) At least 13 homers, 15 stolen bases and 70 RBIs in six of the last seven seasons.
C Alex Avila (L) OPS has declined average of 70 points per season since 2011 breakout (.895).
1B Miguel Cabrera (R) Still managed 25 homers, 109 RBIs, .895 OPS in injury-plagued “down” season.
DH Victor Martinez (S) Had best season of his career last year at age 35; signed new four-year deal.
RF Yoenis Cespedes His 2014 slash line: .260/.301/.450. Torii Hunter’s 2014 slash line: .286/.319/.446.
LF J.D. Martinez (R) From spring training release with Houston to .912 OPS with Detroit in eight months.
3B Nick Castellanos (R) Despite high strikeout total, low OBP, his 2014 rookie season was encouraging.
SS Jose Iglesias (R) Injury kept him sidelined all of 2014; Tigers missed his glove more than his bat.
CF Anthony Gose (L) Career OPS+ is just 76, but Tigers traded for him to shore up outfield defense.
OF Rajai Davis (R) His 2014 splits define platoon player: .617 OPS vs. RHPs, .939 vs. LHPs.
OF Tyler Collins (L) Corner outfielder showed knack for pinch-hitting during September call-up.
C James McCann (R) Second-round pick in 2011 had breakout year at Triple-A in 2014 and is top candidate to back up Avila.
INF Andrew Romine (S) Started nearly half Tigers’ games at shortstop last year; moves to utility role in 2015.
LH David Price Career-high 248.1 regular-season innings pitched in 2014, most by AL pitcher in four years.
RH Justin Verlander Three straight years of rising ERA and WHIP, declining IP and K/9 IP.
RH Anibal Sanchez Injury, inconsistency in 2014 resulted in step back after career year in 2013.
RH Alfredo Simon 13 of 22 HRs allowed in 2014 came in Cincinnati; deep Comerica fences should help.
RH Shane Greene Two of his five wins in 2014 rookie campaign with the Yankees came against Tigers.
RH Joe Nathan (Closer) Tigers hope for bounce-back year in 2015, but he’s 40 and coming off career-worst season.
RH Joakim Soria July trade acquisition failed to stop bullpen’s bleeding, but team picked up 2015 option.
RH Joba Chamberlain Big righty is back after going 2-5 with a 3.57 ERA in 69 games last season.
RH Al Alburquerque Most consistent member of 2014 Tigers pen, but manager Brad Ausmus stayed away from him in October.
RH Bruce Rondon Promising career as future closer interrupted by elbow surgery that cost him all of 2014.
LH Ian Krol Last man standing from Doug Fister trade gets another chance after dismal 2014.
LH Kyle Lobstein Respectable as a spot-starter in 2014, he may get first crack at long man in 2015 bullpen.
Beyond the Box Score
Who’s up first? It appears as if the Tigers will be without a true, everyday leadoff man again in 2015, with Ian Kinsler expected to be pressed into duty, as he was for much of 2014. Rajai Davis, a speedster who has stolen 25 or more bases in seven straight seasons, would seemingly be a natural leadoff man — and against lefties, he is — but his splits against righthanders (.247/.290/.327 in 2014) have been awful, which is why he likely will find himself on the bench.
Take a walk Kinsler’s walk rate took a precipitous fall, dropping to 4.0 percent of his plate appearances, less than half his 2013 rate of 8.3 percent. In a league-leading 726 plate appearances, Kinsler walked 29 times, the first time since ’08 that he walked fewer than 50 times. His OBP dipped to a career-low .307.
Is the Price right? In letting ace Max Scherzer walk, the Tigers may have been setting the stage to re-sign lefty David Price, a free agent after 2015, to a long-term deal, using the money that otherwise would have gone to Scherzer. Price is slightly younger and left-handed, and he throws with a less violent delivery that should make him less prone to an arm injury.
Top Tiger Although Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez draw the most attention, Kinsler was the Tigers’ best player in 2014, as measured in WAR. Kinsler measured 5.4 WAR in the Fangraphs.com model and 5.5 in the Baseball-Reference.com model.
Trending down Justin Verlander’s numbers are trending in the wrong direction. Since his Cy Young season of 2011, his ERA has risen in three straight seasons, nearly doubling from 2.40 in 2011 to 4.54 in 2014, and his WHIP has seen a similar rise. What has been dropping? Namely, Verlander’s average fastball velocity, which has fallen from 95.0 in 2011 to just 92.3 last season — perhaps one reason he has come to rely much more frequently on sliders (8.4 percent of his pitches in 2011, 15.1 percent in 2014).
Bullpen woes How bad was the Tigers’ bullpen in 2014? Despite being called upon to throw the third-fewest innings of any pen in baseball (447 innings), it posted the fourth-worst ERA (4.29) and FIP (4.09) and the third-worst BB/9 IP rate (3.87). Take out Joba Chamberlain’s 0.8 WAR, and the rest of the Tigers’ relievers combined to pitch below replacement-level.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Derek Hill, OF
After picking Hill, a center fielder out of Elk Grove (Calif.) High School, with the 23rd overall pick, the Tigers went slightly above the slot figure to sign him for $2 million and keep him from his commitment to the University of Oregon. Hill is a 6'2", 190-pound speedster who graded as an 80 for speed on the standard 20-80 scouting scale. He advanced out of rookie ball to short-season Class A in 2014, and stole 11 bases in 13 tries, but he hit only .208/.296/.295 combined. It will be a few years, at least, before Hill ever appears in a Tigers uniform, but his pure speed and a body that should fill out over time give him a high ceiling as a prospect.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Steven Moya, OF (23) In a farm system depleted by trades, he is the closest thing to a high-impact prospect. Bashed 35 home runs with 105 RBIs in Double-A.
2. Buck Farmer, RHP (24) Former Georgia Tech star climbed all the way from Class A to the majors last September — he started two games — and has shot to make 2015 team.
3. Derek Hill, OF (19) Speedy center fielder was Detroit’s 2014 top draft pick. He will be in Class A this season.
4. Kevin Ziomek, LHP (23) Second-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2013 went 10–6 with a 2.27 ERA in full-season pro debut (Class A). He lacks plus stuff and projects to be no more than a middle-of-the-rotation starter.
5. Austin Kubitza, RHP (23) Former Pirate draft pick went 10–2, 2.34 as a starter at High-A, but the lack of a dependable third pitch may send him to bullpen.
6. Hernan Perez, INF (24) The Tigers thought enough of Perez that they put him on 2014 postseason roster and worked him out as an outfielder this winter.
7. Tyler Collins, OF (24) Had two short stints in big leagues in 2014 — appearing in 18 games — and bench job is his to lose this spring.
8. Spencer Turnbull, RHP (22) Struggled in short-season Class A, but strong build and mid-90s fastball put him on this list.
9. Jose Valdez, RHP (25) Hard-throwing reliever struggled a bit in Class AA, but team encouraged by declining walk rate.
10. Drew VerHagen, RHP (24) Big, hard-throwing righthander spent nearly all of 2014 in Class AAA, but got spot-start for Tigers in July and could be back in 2015.