The Detroit Tigers have been kings of the American League Central for the last three years, winning one league pennant in the process but falling short of the ultimate prize each time.
General manager Dave Dombrowski took a different approach this offseason to hopefully get the Tigers over that last hurdle, trading away Prince Fielder and trying to get more athletic at various positions on the infield.
Not all of the moves have been dynamite, specifically trading Doug Fister to Washington. The Tigers got decent talent in return, notably left-handed prospect Robbie Ray, but nothing worthy of a top-tier right-handed starter who had two years of control left.
Even with those changes, Detroit's hallmark has been, and will continue to be in 2014, starting pitching. Max Scherzer emerged as one of the best pitchers in baseball last season, winning the AL Cy Young award. Justin Verlander, in a "down" season, had 217 strikeouts in 218.1 innings.
Anibal Sanchez, always a solid starter with the Marlins, led the AL in ERA (2.57) and averaged 10 strikeouts per nine innings last season.
Oh yeah, two-time AL MVP Miguel Cabrera is still hitting in the middle of the lineup, and Victor Martinez was up to his old tricks again in 2013, two years removed from knee surgery.
Even with Cleveland and Kansas City directly in their rear-view mirror, and Minnesota boasting one of the best farm systems in baseball, the Tigers are still the class of this division heading into 2014 with designs of winning a championship for the first time in 30 years.
With big things expected, here are the biggest stories and questions surrounding the Tigers heading into spring training.
2B Ian Kinsler (Trade with Texas), OF Rajai Davis (Free Agent), RHP Joe Nathan (Free Agent), RHP Joba Chamberlain (Free Agent), IF Steve Lombardozzi (Trade with Washington), LHP Ian Krol (Trade with Washington), LHP Robbie Ray (Trade with Washington)
1B Prince Fielder (Trade with Texas), RHP Doug Fister (Trade with Washington), SS Jhonny Peralta (Free Agent), SS Ramon Santiago (Free Agent), RHP Jose Veras (Free Agent), RHP Jeremy Bonderman (Free Agent), RHP Joaquin Benoit (Free Agent), 2B Omar Infante (Free Agent), RHP Octavio Dotel (Free Agent)
The Tigers, possibly spurred on by the toll playing third base took on Miguel Cabrera's body last season, sent Prince Fielder to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler in a rare one-for-one blockbuster trade.
It made sense for both teams, but especially for the Tigers because, as Michael Rosenberg of Sports Illustrated wrote shortly after the deal, they already had the best offensive first baseman in baseball when they signed Fielder in 2012.
The Tigers could have kept Fielder, withstood a few April boos, and watched him produce. The problem was not Fielder himself, or his postseason flop (figuratively and literally), or even his huge contract. The problem was the exact problem everybody saw coming when they signed him: He was the second-best first baseman on the roster, and they owed him a bunch of money into his mid-30s.
Kinsler hasn't been the same player the last two years that he was in 2011, when he had a 30-30 season, but does provide solid on-base percentage numbers (.344 last season) and average defense at second base.
Kinsler will take the place of Omar Infante, who signed a contract with division rival Kansas City in the offseason.
Joe Nathan is the other major addition to the roster, taking over the closer's role vacated by Joaquin Benoit.
The Tigers are betting a lot of money ($20 million through 2016 with an option for 2017) on the 39-year-old Nathan. He's been fantastic the last two years with Texas but also had the lowest average fastball velocity (92.2) and highest slider use (35.4 percent) of his career in 2013.
Doug Fister was traded to Washington in a surprise move for utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi and minor league pitchers Robbie Ray and Ian Krol. It was a baffling move, given how good Fister had been for Detroit since being acquired from Seattle and how little the Tigers received in return.
Dave Cameron of FanGraphs declared the deal a "steal" for the Nationals, citing the low cost for Fister over the next two years and lack of impact talent dealt by Washington.
Dealing Fister does open a rotation spot for Drew Smyly, who was an effective multi-inning reliever for the Tigers last season and has the ability to start but isn't likely to be as immediately valuable as Fister would have been.
Jhonny Peralta will be the biggest free-agent loss for the Tigers. He had the 50-game suspension last season for being involved with the Biogenesis scandal but led all AL shortstops with an .815 OPS in 2013 (min. 425 plate appearances).
Jose Iglesias, acquired from Boston last July, has star potential with the glove at shortstop, but there are real doubts about his ability to hit enough to play every day. He hit just .235/.274/.306 in the second half, which isn't going to play in the big leagues regardless of how good the glove is.
According to Jordan Bastian of MLB.com, Verlander underwent surgery on January 9 to repair a "preexisting abdominal injury" that will keep him on the sidelines for six weeks.
General manager Dave Dombrowski is quoted in the report, saying that he's not sure exactly how the surgery will impact Verlander's spring training.
"All those things I do not know as of yet," Dombrowski said. "When they say six weeks, they think he'll be 100 percent in six weeks."
Using the six-week time frame, Verlander should be back to full strength about one week after Detroit's pitchers and catchers report to camp on February 13.
One of the biggest question marks at the end of the 2013 regular season was about how Cabrera's abdomen and lower half would respond in the postseason. He had moments in October, most notably in Game 5 of the Division Series against Oakland, but overall it was clear the MVP wasn't quite right.
Cabrera had surgery on his groin at the end of October, which was expected to require between six to eight weeks of rehab, putting him back up to 100 percent around the start of the new year.
Cabrera told reporters two weeks after the operation that he was working to be ready for spring training, per Jason Beck of MLB.com.
I'm doing great. I'm right where I want to be. I feel much better this week. I want to be ready for Spring Training and the first day [of workouts], I'm going to be ready to do anything.
Just based on timing, the Verlander injury is the bigger story. He's always been one of the most dependable starters in baseball, starting at least 30 games since 2006. If there is even the slightest setback in his recovery, he could miss enough time in spring that will push back the start of his 2014 season.
Coaching Staff (Seasons w/ Detroit)
|Manager: Brad Ausmus (1st season)|
|Hitting Coach: Wally Joyner (1st season)|
|Pitching Coach: Jeff Jones (4th season)|
|First Base Coach: Omar Vizquel (1st season)|
|Third Base Coach: Dave Clark (1st season)|
|Bench Coach: Gene Lamont (2nd season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Mick Billmeyer (2nd season)|
After eight years managing the Detroit Tigers, Jim Leyland retired following the team's loss to Boston in the American League Championship Series, making this one of the most desirable jobs to have, given the team's current roster and ownership's willingness to spend money.
Needless to say, it was a bit of a shock when Brad Ausmus, who had no previous managerial experience, was named Detroit's new manager on November 3. He has been building up to this moment for a long time, even being one of the top contenders for Boston's job last year.
The good news is Ausmus has a veteran staff around him that will guide him through any early hiccups while he gets his feet wet.
Wally Joyner worked as an assistant in Philadelphia last season. Jeff Jones has been a staple of Detroit's staff since taking over as pitching coach halfway through 2011. Omar Vizquel basically spent his last few years as a player mentoring younger guys.
This is a good, deep staff with three key members returning who have worked with the players on this roster for a long time.
Detroit Tigers' Projected 2014 Lineup
|1. Ian Kinsler, 2B|
|2. Torii Hunter, RF|
|3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B|
|4. Victor Martinez, DH|
|5. Alex Avila, C|
|6. Rajai Davis, LF|
|7. Austin Jackson, CF|
|8. Nick Castellanos, 3B|
|9. Jose Iglesias, SS|
|Bryan Holaday, C|
|Steve Lombardozzi, IF|
|Andy Dirks, OF|
|Don Kelly, IF/OF|
The biggest question heading into the season is what the Tigers will do at the top of the order. Austin Jackson, despite losing his spot in the postseason, is the incumbent leadoff hitter. Ian Kinsler hit in that spot for Texas, and the assumption is he would be an upgrade.
Let's not forget that Kinsler's on-base percentage in 2013 was just seven points higher than Jackson's (.344 to .337), and Jackson actually had a higher slugging percentage (.417 to .413). Both are coming off seasons where they missed at least 26 games, so perhaps a return to form is in store for each if they stay healthy.
After the leadoff spot, the only other question marks, barring injuries, are at the bottom of the order. Jose Iglesias isn't much of a hitter. Nick Castellanos will be a rookie hitting in a lineup filled with veterans on a team with World Series aspirations.
Alex Avila is the wild card in this equation. His OPS has dropped more than 200 points since that breakout 2011 season, but he appeared to turn a corner in the second half of 2013 (.876 OPS) and has star potential if he can stay on the field.
Rajai Davis and Andy Dirks will platoon in left field, with Davis playing against lefties (.779 career OPS) and Dirks handling the job against right-handed pitching (.751 OPS).
Detroit Tigers' Projected 2014 Rotation
|1. Max Scherzer, RHP|
|2. Justin Verlander, RHP|
|3. Anibal Sanchez, RHP|
|4. Drew Smyly, LHP|
|5. Rick Porcello, RHP|
If you believe in rotations needing a split between right- and left-handed pitchers, the Doug Fister trade might make a little more sense when you look at what the Tigers have lined up for 2014.
Assuming Justin Verlander doesn't miss time after his core surgery, the trio leading Detroit's rotation is as good as there is in baseball. Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez combined to strike out 659 hitters in 614.2 innings.
Sanchez did miss time last season with a shoulder injury. The Tigers don't have as much depth in the rotation as they did in 2013, which will make any injury to one of their big three starters more difficult to deal with.
Drew Smyly is an interesting arm in this rotation. Aside from being the only lefty in the bunch, he's not a typical reliever transitioning to a starter. He throws four pitches, has had success getting hitters from both sides of the plate out (.699 OPS vs. righties, .471 vs. lefties in 2013) and started 18 games in 2012.
Porcello has gotten better in each of the last three seasons, dropping his ERA from 4.92 in 2010 to 4.32 last year and increasing his strikeout rate from 4.6 to 7.2. It was easy to dismiss him as a bust because the results weren't always pretty, but keep in mind he just turned 25 in December.
Even with the loss of Fister, this is a good, deep rotation that has a great mix of veteran presence (Scherzer, Verlander, Sanchez) and youth (Smyly is just 24).
Detroit Tigers' Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Joe Nathan, RHP|
|Setup: Bruce Rondon, RHP|
|Setup: Ian Krol, LHP|
|Reliever: Joba Chamberlain, RHP|
|Reliever: Phil Coke, LHP|
|Reliever: Al Alburquerque, RHP|
|Reliever: Luke Putkonen, RHP|
Like the starting rotation, Detroit's bullpen is right-handed heavy. That's not a surprise considering the organization spent nine of its first 12 picks in the 2013 draft on right-handed pitching. If you're a right-handed pitcher with velocity, Detroit will find you.
Bruce Rondon is going to be the arm to watch in spring training. The Tigers would have liked him to throw enough strikes and develop a consistent breaking ball to take over the closing job this season but didn't trust him enough and signed Joe Nathan to a two-year deal.
Ian Krol, one of the pieces acquired for Doug Fister, finished 10 games for the Nationals last season and will play a prominent role in Detroit's bullpen. He did give up five home runs in 27.1 innings, which is a big concern heading into 2014.
Joba Chamberlain and Phil Coke are basically two guys the Tigers hope to catch lightning in a bottle with. Coke is murder on left-handed hitters when healthy, so there are reasons to be optimistic.
Chamberlain, on the other hand, basically just fits Detroit's mold of big, hard-throwing right-handed pitchers.
Overall, as has been the case for years, the Tigers don't have a deep bullpen, but it should be good enough to get by assuming the starting rotation covers 950-1,000 innings.
Nick Castellanos, 3B
The Tigers are finally going to give Nick Castellanos, their top prospect, a chance in the big leagues.
Castellanos did toil around in the outfield in 2013, when it appeared his path to Detroit was blocked by having Prince Fielder at first base and Miguel Cabrera at third base. That changed with the Fielder trade to Texas, with the star prospect telling MLB.com's Jonathan Mayo that manager Brad Ausmus told him he'd be moving back to third base.
[Manager] Brad Ausmus called me in early November and told me I'm going back to third base, so [first-base coach] Omar Vizquel has come down to work with me twice this year already. The outfield was getting easier, just because of the reps I was getting out there. But, 100 percent, I would much rather play the infield than the outfield.
Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski told Chris Iott of MLive.com that Castellanos will start the season as the team's third baseman, taking a lot of pressure off him in spring training. Instead of feeling the need to win a job, he can relax and focus on playing his game.
I've seen Castellanos play in the minors multiple times. He's got a great feel for hitting and exceptional wrist strength to project for above-average power in the big leagues. Even with average defense at third base, his ability to hit for average and power will make him a star.
Robbie Ray, LHP
Robbie Ray made just 11 starts in Double-A last season, so the odds of him starting 2014 in the big leagues is slim. He's been groomed as a starter, at least with Washington, but a lack of a consistent third pitch and average control make the 22-year-old better suited for a bullpen role.
The good news is Detroit will need bullpen help as the season moves on, unless Joba Chamberlain rediscovers his 2007 form.
Ray also has the advantage of being a left-handed pitcher in an organization filled with righties. If the Tigers are in playoff contention late in the year, they will need another arm who can get lefties out in key spots.
Phil Coke will be the first choice, but Ray can put himself on the map with a strong performance in Double-A and, eventually, Triple-A this season.
Drew Smyly, LHP
Even though Drew Smyly has been in the big leagues for two years and pitched great out of the bullpen last season, 2014 is going to be the year where we finally start talking about the 24-year-old left-hander.
He's going to get his shot in Detroit's rotation, trying to replace the production left behind after the Doug Fister trade.
With Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera hitting the open market soon—Scherzer after 2014, Cabrera after 2015—the Tigers had to figure out a way to clear some money to lock those two up long term.
Smyly has all the makings of a quality MLB starter. He has displayed an innate ability to throw strikes consistently and had an impressive 4.76 strikeout-to-walk ratio. That will come down as hitters get to look at him two or three times in a game, but lefties who throw four pitches and can touch 94 mph are hard to find.
Bruce Rondon, RHP
I've been cautious about calling Bruce Rondon a future closer in the past, but I will start buying into some of the hype because he's such a unique pitcher.
Rondon throws 102 mph, more than should be possible. It's not always easy, as there is some violence in his delivery, and the lack of a consistent breaking ball does limit his ceiling.
Even without the arsenal and subpar mechanics, Rondon still struck out 30 in 28.2 innings last season. He will give up more hits than his power arm suggests he should, but the ability to miss bats is going to take a leap forward with regular work in 2014.
Leadoff spot: Austin Jackson vs. Ian Kinsler
The biggest battle to watch in spring training will be for the leadoff spot. Austin Jackson has held that position in the order since his rookie season in 2010. He's only had one bad season, 2011, but has otherwise been a consistent presence at the top of the order.
Jackson isn't without limitations. He's always struck out a lot, including 129 times in 129 games last season. His stolen base totals have decreased every year of his career, from 27 as a rookie in 2010 to eight last season.
Overall, though, Jackson has gotten on base at a .344 clip in his career and is one year removed from posting an .856 OPS.
Ian Kinsler doesn't swing and miss nearly as much as Jackson, having never struck out more than 90 times in a season. He has basically the same batting average (.273) as Jackson (.278) in his career.
There is a storm of support for Kinsler, at least from fans, heading into the season as the leadoff hitter. Ultimately, I think Jackson's postseason struggles and inability to make consistent contact will bump him out of the top spot in the order.
Prediction: Ian Kinsler
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