Reassessing Detroit Tigers' Offseason Plan and What's Next
It's hard to find fault with what the Detroit Tigers have done the last two years. They won an American League pennant in 2012, played in the American League Championship Series in 2013 and have the reigning two-time AL MVP and 2013 Cy Young award winner on the roster.
The work done by general manager Dave Dombrowski is remarkable. He continues to make big splashes in free agency and trades, keeping the Tigers at or near the top of the AL year after year.
What's interesting about Dombrowski and the Tigers is a (slight) shift in philosophy halfway through last season. They acquired Jose Iglesias, a defensive wizard with little offensive upside, to play shortstop.
Subsequent moves have shown that Detroit, for the first time in years, is putting an emphasis on defense. We know this team can hit with anyone, but the one department that has been lacking is glove work.
Even with an improving American League Central in their rear-view mirror, the Tigers will enter 2014 as the favorites to win the division for the fourth consecutive season.
Let's take a look at what the Tigers have done so far in the offseason and what still needs to be done for the franchise to capture its first championship since 1984.
What's Happened Already?
Biggest Acquisition: Tigers acquired Ian Kinsler from Texas for Prince Fielder
The Tigers and Rangers pulled off one of the biggest one-for-one trades in recent memory, with Ian Kinsler coming to Detroit and Prince Fielder going to Texas.
It was a good move for both sides, though some declared the Tigers clear winners because Fielder has seven years and $168 million left on his contract compared to four years and $57 million for Kinsler.
However, when you factor in the $30 million Detroit is sending and the money the Rangers already had committed to Kinsler, it's basically like Texas signed Fielder for $81 million over seven years.
Kinsler is just two years removed from hitting 32 homers, stealing 30 bases and finishing 11th in AL MVP voting, but 2012 and 2013 were not kind to the former All-Star. He has hit a total of 32 home runs with 36 stolen bases in the last two seasons.
The Tigers likely view Kinsler as their new leadoff hitter, especially after the problems Austin Jackson had in 2013, but declining offensive numbers in one of the best hitters parks in baseball and turning 32 in June could mean the second baseman entered his decline phase in rapid fashion.
Trading Fielder does help the Tigers in other ways. Miguel Cabrera will move back to first base and save his body some unnecessary wear and tear at third base, where he rated as the worst defender in 2014 among qualifying players at the position.
Nick Castellanos, the Tigers' best prospect, can move back to his natural position of third base with a chance to make the team out of spring training.
It's strange to say about a player who hit 25 home runs with a .362 on-base percentage in 2013, but the Tigers might be a better team without Prince Fielder because of what it does for their defensive alignment.
Biggest Need to Fill: Bullpen
The Tigers have already addressed their bullpen this offseason, signing closer Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20 million contract, but that doesn't mean their problems are suddenly gone.
In fact, one could argue the Tigers didn't do anything to improve their bullpen. Nathan was added to the fold, but former closer Joaquin Benoit left for the greener pastures offered by San Diego.
What's more interesting is Benoit got less money from the Padres ($15.5 million over two years) than Nathan, despite the latter being nearly three full years older and working 10 fewer innings over the last two years.
Behold the power of the "Proven Closer!"
The only other major addition, if we want to call it that, the Tigers have made to the bullpen is Joba Chamberlain. The failed Yankees pitcher is coming off the worst season of his career, posting a 4.93 ERA, pitiful 38-26 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 47 hits allowed in 42 innings.
Chamberlain isn't breaking the bank in Detroit, making just $2.5 million, but anyone expecting him to make it through the season, much less add any value, hasn't been paying attention to his career arc.
Drew Smyly is an effective weapon for new manager Brad Ausmus, though it's possible the Tigers use him as their No. 5 starter.
He could be used for more than one inning at a time, if he remains in the bullpen and teams ever decided to cut loose with their relievers. But there's not a lot to get excited about beyond Smyly and Nathan.
Maybe Bruce Rondon can find a breaking ball to keep hitters off his 100-plus mph fastball. If Al Alburquerque stops walking nearly a batter per inning, he can be very good. Ditto for Phil Coke.
But with so many questions to be answered, the Tigers should try to make at least one more move, even if it's just a small one, to shore up the one glaring weakness the team has.
Second-Biggest Priority: Backup Infielder/Outfielder
The Tigers' starting nine is virtually all set, so there is nothing major that has to happen the rest of the offseason for them to be a playoff contender in 2014.
Two areas of potential weakness that I would like to see Detroit at least have a contingency plan for are shortstop and backup outfielder.
Rajai Davis was signed away from Toronto to be the right-handed half of a platoon in left field. He's performed well against left-handed pitching throughout his career, owning a .354 on-base and .425 slugging percentage in 802 at-bats.
Last year was even better for Davis, as he hit .319/.383/.474 against southpaws. He's a liability against righties, owning a career .255/.297/.353 mark against them.
Andy Dirks, who figures to be Davis' platoon partner, doesn't exactly mash right-handed pitching. The 27-year-old owns a .278/.333/.418 mark against them in his career but slumped to a lowly .260/.327/.371 in 2013.
Matt Tuiasosopo could also figure into the equation after hitting .313/.389/.521 against righties in 2013, but keep in mind that covers just 48 at-bats.
As for the shortstop position, I love Jose Iglesias' potential with the glove. He's got all the tools to be an elite defender, but his offensive slump in the second half of 2013 (.580 OPS) is about what you can realistically expect from him.
No matter how good the glove is at shortstop, if you are hitting worse than Pete Kozma, it's going to be hard for a team to keep running you out there day after day.
Steve Lombardozzi, acquired from Washington in the lopsided Doug Fister trade, could be the Tigers' contingency plan if Iglesias falls on his face, but he's not a very good defensive shortstop and doesn't hit enough to play anywhere else.
Depth on the bench is going to be a concern for the Tigers heading into 2014, though they would be smart to let the market settle for a few weeks and make one or two small acquisitions.
When you are a team like the Detroit Tigers, loaded with talent at the MLB level and virtually bare in the minors, everyone knows that your immediate goal is to win a World Series.
It also helps that sense of urgency when Max Scherzer can become a free agent after the 2014 season and Miguel Cabrera after 2015.
That's why any talk of a Scherzer trade has always seemed insane. However, according to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports at the winter meetings, teams did know the 2013 AL Cy Young winner was available.
Sources: AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer "definitely in play" in trade talks. Nothing imminent, but teams know he can be had.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 11, 2013
Since everything on the Scherzer front has been quiet since that particular report, don't expect anything to happen.
In fact, John Lowe of the Detroit Free Press reported that Dave Dombrowski says the Tigers aren't opposed to re-signing Scherzer in the offseason.
Contrary to non-Detroit reports, Dombrowski says Tigs haven't ruled out signing Schrezer this off-season and haven't talked Kemp with LA.— Freep Tigers (@freeptigers) December 11, 2013
Another reason not to expect a Scherzer trade is Doug Fister. The Tigers dealt the big right-hander to Washington for a package that everyone agrees was much too light given Fister's recent track record and two years of team control remaining.
With the possible exception of a minor move here or there, I would expect all things to be quiet on the Detroit trade market this winter.
It's hard to imagine things getting busy again in Detroit after all that Dave Dombrowski and the front office have been doing.
I haven't been a huge fan of all their moves thus far, specifically the Doug Fister trade, but they haven't regressed enough to the point where I think that Kansas City or Cleveland are suddenly going to catch them in the division.
Given where the Tigers stand with players under contract and age, their window of opportunity is closing. It's not a rapid close, as I would be shocked if they didn't make the postseason in 2014 and 2015.
Of course, these things can change rapidly, and the natural order of things can shift in a hurry. Detroit doesn't have to make any tweaks to be one of the best teams in baseball again next season.
Even the loss of Fister won't destroy the Tigers' pitching staff, because Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez are as good as any one-through-three in baseball. Additionally, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly could provide 250-300 quality innings at the back of the rotation.
The lineup doesn't figure to lose much production after trading Fielder. Victor Martinez was fantastic in the second half (.361/.413/.500) and appeared to be fully recovered from the knee surgery that kept him out in 2012.
Ian Kinsler should provide as much value on offense as Omar Infante did in 2013, while Miguel Cabrera will still be the best hitter on the planet.
Detroit has star power and depth in the lineup and starting rotation, two things I am told can lead to great success in baseball.
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