Complete Detroit Tigers 2014 Season Preview

Joel ReuterFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Complete Detroit Tigers 2014 Season Preview

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    David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

    The Detroit Tigers have been among the cream of the American League crop for the past three seasons now, sandwiching an AL pennant in 2012 with a pair of ALCS trips. They were knocked out of the ALCS in six games by the Boston Red Sox last year, and they will be looking to make another deep postseason run in 2014.

    It was a somewhat strange offseason for a team in win-now mode, as they traded slugger Prince Fielder and No. 4 starter Doug Fister with an eye on saving money for future extensions for Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer.

    They added a good deal as well, though, picking up Ian Kinsler in the Fielder trade and signing All-Star closer Joe Nathan to anchor their bullpen. If nothing else, they look to be a much faster team and an improved team defensively, and that could be exactly what new manager Brad Ausmus is looking for out of his club.

    They have been bit hard by the injury bug this spring, leaving them scraping to fill holes at shortstop, in left field and in the eighth inning, but they still look like a dangerous team.

    With all of that in mind, here is a complete preview of the 2014 Detroit Tigers, everything you need to know for the season ahead.

Spring Training Recap

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Most Impressive Hitter: CF Austin Jackson (22-for-50, 5 2B, 2 3B, 2 HR, 13 RBI, 16 R)

    After a big 2012 season, Jackson took a step backward last year, as his OPS fell from .856 to .754. With the addition of Ian Kinsler, he can finally move out of the leadoff spot, where his high strikeout rate has been a detriment. He's had a huge spring hitting primarily fifth, and he could in for a big age-27 season.

     

    Most Disappointing Hitter: C Alex Avila (14-for-46, 3 2B, 3 RBI, 8 R, 21 K)

    The .304 average is solid, but it's impossible to ignore the 21 strikeouts in 46 at-bats that Avila has posted this spring. A legitimate MVP candidate in 2011, the 27-year-old has fallen off substantially since, and he hit just .227/.317/.376 last year. The team doesn't really have a replacement option for him, so at this point it will be Avila behind the plate for better or worse.

     

    Most Impressive Pitcher: SP Justin Verlander (20 IP, 0 ER, 8 H, 5 BB, 17 K)

    Far from his usual dominant self last year, Verlander finally turned it on down the stretch and on into the postseason as he looked to reclaim his spot among the game's best. Surgery on a core muscle slowed him early on this spring, but he has been nearly unhittable upon returning and is ready to take the ball on Opening Day once again.

     

    Most Disappointing Pitcher: SP Rick Porcello (18.1 IP, 16 ER, 27 H, 2 BB, 15 K)

    Porcello has not gotten much love over the years, despite piling up 61 wins before his 25th birthday, and he was a solid 13-8 with a 4.32 ERA in 29 starts last season. However, he has been roughed up pretty good this spring, with opponents hitting .333 against him, and he will need to snap out of it quick.

     

    Surprise Roster-Spot Winner: SS Alex Gonzalez (1-for-3, 1 RBI)

    It's not so much a surprise that Gonzalez won a roster spot as it is a surprise that he is on the roster at all. The injury to Jose Iglesias sent the Tigers scrambling, and it looks like Gonzalez will get the bulk of the at-bats at shortstop to start off the year. He played in just 41 games last season, primarily at first base, but he was a plus defender during his days as an everyday shortstop.

     

    Surprise Roster Cut: RP Blaine Hardy (12.1 IP, 3 ER, 11 H, 6 BB, 7 K)

    It appears to have be down to Hardy and Evan Reed for the final bullpen spot, and the non-roster invitee will likely lose out in this case despite solid overall numbers this spring. The left-hander was 8-3 with a 1.67 ERA in 91.2 innings of work between Double-A and Triple-A last year, and at 27 years old is still looking for his first taste of the major leagues.

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    SS Jose Iglesias (stress fractures in shins): Sidelined by what was originally thought to be shin splints early in the spring, Iglesias instead was revealed to have stress fractures in both legs. According to Jason Beck of MLB.com, he will be re-evaluated in four months, but he could wind up missing the entire season. The team has acquired Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez in separate deals since the injury, and they will split time at shortstop in his absence.

     

    LF Andy Dirks (back): Expected to platoon with newcomer Rajai Davis in left field, Dirks is expected to miss roughly 12 weeks after undergoing back surgery, according to Adam Berry of MLB.com. The 28-year-old underwent a procedure called a microdiscectomy, removing a fragment of the disc between the L4 and L5 vertebrae that had torn away from the rest of the disc.

     

    RP Bruce Rondon (Tommy John surgery): Expected to win the closer's job last spring, the hard-throwing Rondon instead wound up in the minors to open the year after dealing with some control problems. He wound up making 30 appearances in Detroit, posting a 3.45 ERA and 9.4 K/9, and he was expected to be the primary setup man for Joe Nathan in 2014. Instead, he will be lost for the year, as a torn elbow ligament will result in Tommy John surgery, according to Mike Axisa of CBSSports.

Lineup Preview

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    Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Starting Lineup

    Player2013 Stats
    1. 2B Ian Kinsler136 G, .277/.344/.413, 31 2B, 13 HR, 72 RBI, 85 R
    2. RF Torii Hunter144 G, .304/.334/.465, 37 2B, 17 HR, 84 RBI, 90 R
    3. 1B Miguel Cabrera148 G, .348/.442/.636, 26 2B, 44 HR, 137 RBI, 103 R
    4. DH Victor Martinez159 G, .301/.355/.430, 36 2B, 14 HR, 83 RBI, 68 R
    5. CF Austin Jackson129 G, .272/.337/.417, 30 2B, 12 HR, 49 RBI, 99 R
    6. C Alex Avila102 G, .227/.317/.376, 14 2B, 11 HR, 47 RBI, 39 R
    7. 3B Nick Castellanos *134 G, .276/.343/.450, 37 2B, 18 HR, 76 RBI, 81 R
    8. LF Don Kelly112 G, .222/.309/.343, 6 2B, 6 HR, 23 RBI, 33 R
    9. SS Alex Gonzalez41 G, .177/.203/.230, 3 2B, 1 HR, 8 RBI, 14 R

    *Minor League Stats

     

    Outlook

    The Tigers had one of the best offenses in baseball last year, leading baseball with a .283 team average and trailing only the Boston Red Sox with 796 runs scored on the year.

    This is not the same lineup, though, as Prince Fielder was traded to the Texas Rangers, Omar Infante signed with the Kansas City Royals and Jhonny Peralta signed with the St. Louis Cardinals.

    With Fielder gone, all-world slugger Miguel Cabrera will move back to first base and top prospect Nick Castellanos will take over as the everyday third baseman. In return for Fielder, the team landed second baseman Ian Kinsler. He gives them a bona fide leadoff hitter and allows Austin Jackson to be moved down in the order.

    Shortstop Jose Iglesias and left fielder Andy Dirks will open the year on the DL, and that leaves a platoon of Alex Gonzalez and Andrew Romine at shortstop and reserve outfielder Don Kelly with a starting job to start the year.

    Protecting Cabrera will be the biggest thing for the new-look lineup, as veterans Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter will be expected to match their solid production from last season. Bounce-back years from Austin Jackson and Alex Avila could go a long way in helping keep the offense among the best in the league, as they look to provide some punch behind Cabrera.

     

    Projected Bench

    Player2013 Stats
    C Bryan Holaday *80 G, .260/.312/.372, 18 2B, 4 HR, 24 RBI, 28 R
    IF Andrew Romine 47 G, .259/.308/.287, 3 2B, 0 HR, 10 RBI, 9 R
    OF Tyler Collins129 G, .240/.323/.438, 29 2B, 21 HR, 79 RBI, 67 R
    OF Rajai Davis108 G, .260/.312/.375, 16 2B, 6 HR, 24 RBI, 49 R, 45 SB

    *Minor League Stats

     

    Outlook

    With Brayan Pena gone to the Cincinnati Reds in free agency, incumbent Bryan Holaday will take over as the backup catcher. He is a plus defensive backstop but is limited offensively, and he could have trouble matching the production Pena gave them last year.

    The speedy Rajai Davis, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal, will get the starts in left field against left-handed pitching. Speed is his biggest weapon, as his 216 thefts since the start of 2009 rank second only to Michael Bourn, and he was an impressive 45-of-51 on steal attempts last year.

    Andrew Romine will serve as the utility infielder, while Tyler Collins claimed the final bench spot after a power surge last season. A sixth-round pick in 2011, he saw his home-run total climb from seven in 2012 to 21 this past season in roughly the same number of at-bats.

Rotation Preview

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    Brad Barr-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Rotation

    Player2013 Stats
    1. RHP Justin Verlander34 GS, 13-12, 3.46 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 217 K, 218.1 IP
    2. RHP Max Scherzer 32 GS, 21-3, 2.90 ERA, 0.97 WHIP, 240 K, 214.1 IP
    3. RHP Anibal Sanchez29 GS, 14-8, 2.57 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 202 K, 182 IP
    4. RHP Rick Porcello 29 GS, 13-8, 4.32 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 142 K, 177 IP
    5. LHP Drew Smyly 63 G, 6-0, 2.37 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 81 K, 76 IP

     

    Outlook

    The Tigers pulled the trigger on a big move this winter when they shipped big right-hander Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals for a trio of players headlined by pitcher Robbie Ray.

    A big reason the team was able to pull the trigger on the deal was the presence of Drew Smyly, who was terrific last season in a setup role after serving as a starter in 2012. The 24-year-old made 63 appearances, posting a 2.37 ERA, 1.039 WHIP and 9.6 K/9.

    Justin Verlander will take the ball on Opening Day for the sixth straight season, as he looks to bounce back from a down 2013 season. He finished the year strong and pitched well into the postseason, and now he will look to regain his spot as one of the game's best pitchers.

    Behind him, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez will be looking to duplicate the success they had last year. Scherzer claimed AL Cy Young honors, while Sanchez took home the AL ERA title after signing a big contract in the offseason.

    Rounding out the staff once again will be Rick Porcello, and while he is certainly a notch below the team's big three, he has been a solid starter year-in and year-out since breaking into the league as a 20-year-old in 2009.

Bullpen Preview

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Projected Bullpen

    Player2013 Stats
    RHP Luke Putkonen30 G, 1-3, 0 SV, 3.03 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 28 K, 29.2 IP
    LHP Phil Coke49 G, 0-5, 1 SV, 5.40 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 30 K, 38.1 IP
    RHP Evan Reed*32 G, 1-4, 1 SV, 2.54 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 49 K, 49.2 IP
    RHP Al Alburquerque53 G, 4-3, 0 SV, 4.59 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 70 K, 49 IP
    LHP Ian Krol32 G, 2-1, 0 SV, 3.95 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 22 K, 27.1 IP
    RHP Joba Chamberlain45 G, 2-1, 1 SV, 4.93 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 38 K, 42 IP
    RHP Joe Nathan67 G, 6-2, 43 SV, 1.39 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 73 K, 64.2 IP

    *Minor League Stats

     

    Outlook

    The bullpen was a major weakness early on last year before Joaquin Benoit took over closer duties and Drew Smyly emerged as one of the better setup men in the league. With Benoit gone to the San Diego Padres and Smyly moving to the rotation, there are a number of newcomers who will be counted on to slam the door in 2014.

    Joe Nathan was signed to a two-year, $20 million deal after declining his end of a $9 million option with the Texas Rangers. He's now the active saves leader with Mariano Rivera retired, and he brings a proven commodity to the ninth inning.

    Setting him up will be Ian Krol, picked up in the Doug Fister trade, and former Yankee Joba Chamberlain, who agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million deal in free agency.

    Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke and Luke Putkonen return from last year's relief corps, while Evan Reed looks to have earned the final bullpen spot with an impressive spring.

    After posting a 4.01 ERA to rank 24th in the MLB last season, the Tigers look like they could have an improved bullpen in 2014.

Prospects to Watch

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    SP Robbie Ray (Double-A, 22 years old, No. 5 prospect-WAS)

    The key return piece of the Doug Fister trade, Ray went 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA and 160 strikeouts in 142 innings between High-A and Double-A last season. He has the most upside of any of the team's starters in the high minors right now, and while he may not be the first guy called on should the rotation need an arm, he could debut down the stretch this year.

     

    SS Eugenio Suarez (Triple-A, 22 years old, No. 7 prospect)

    Suarez didn't hit much in an extended look this spring, going 7-for-33 with one double, but he may be the next in line for playing time if the platoon of Alex Gonzalez and Andrew Romine does not work out at shortstop. He hit .264/.347/.396 between High-A and Double-A last year, so he does have some offensive tools, but it's his plus glove that makes him a potential big-league contributor in 2014.

     

    SP Drew VerHagen (Double-A, 23 years old, No. 12 prospect)

    The Tigers' fourth-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2012, VerHagen has moved quickly, as he reached the Double-A level midway through last season. All told, the big 6'6" right-hander was 7-8 with a 2.90 ERA and 1.147 WHIP over 127.1 innings, and he could be the first starter called up if someone goes down in the big-league rotation.

     

    RF Steven Moya (Double-A, 22 years old, No. 15 prospect)

    After repeating the Single-A level in 2012 and raising his OPS from .597 to .801, Moya made the jump to High-A Lakeland last year. He went on to hit .255/.296/.433 with 19 doubles and 12 home runs, and he looks like he could turn into a solid offensive contributor. His 18/106 BB/K ratio needs work, and he's a long shot to see Detroit in 2014, but he did open some eyes this spring by going 7-for-21 with two doubles and a triple.

     

    Note: Prospect rankings courtesy of Baseball America Prospect Handbook.

Breakout Candidates

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    3B Nick Castellanos

    Ranked as the No. 25 prospect in the MLB entering the season, according to Baseball America, Nick Castellanos is one of the few rookies this year who will open the season as the unquestioned starter at his position.

    The 22-year-old hit .276/.343/.450 with 37 doubles and 18 home runs at the Triple-A level last season, and he followed that up by going 5-for-18 in Detroit over 11 games in a late-season call-up.

    He has been terrific at the plate this spring, hitting .368/.383/.632 with nine doubles, two home runs and a team-high 16 RBI. The biggest question right now seems to be his defense at third base, as he makes the move back to the hot corner after playing the outfielder last year, but if he can provide an average glove and hit like he's capable of, he could make a run at AL Rookie of the Year honors.

     

    SP Drew Smyly

    The Tigers' primary setup man last season, Smyly actually began his career as a starter, going 4-3 with a 3.99 ERA in 23 games (18 starts) as a rookie in 2012. Now he will return to the rotation to replace the departed Doug Fister.

    The 24-year-old was 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA and 9.6 K/9 in 63 relief appearances last season, and he has the stuff to carry that success over to a starting role.

    He will be compared to Fister all season, and it is not inconceivable to think that Smyly could have the better numbers when the dust settles on the 2014 season. If nothing else, a solid season from the left-hander would keep the Tigers' rotation ranking among the best in all of baseball.

Top Keys to Success

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Figure out Shortstop

    The biggest question mark for the Tigers heading into the year looks to be the shortstop position after Jose Iglesias was lost indefinitely and perhaps for the season with stress fractures in both legs.

    The platoon of Alex Gonzalez and Andrew Romine is not exactly going to strike fear into the hearts of opposing pitchers, nor will prospect Eugenio Suarez should he be called upon.

    The team was already expecting the position to be a defensive-oriented one with Iglesias not likely to match his 2013 offensive production, but they can't allow the No. 9 spot in the lineup to become a black hole, either. Someone from the aforementioned trio will need to step up, or the team could start kicking the tires on Stephen Drew. Either way, it's an issue that will need to be settled.

     

    Protect Miguel Cabrera

    Prince Fielder may not have put up prolific power numbers during his two seasons with the Tigers, hitting 55 combined home runs, but his ability to protect reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera while hitting out of the cleanup spot made him incredibly valuable.

    With Fielder gone to Texas, it will fall to Victor Martinez to hit behind Cabrera. He is not nearly the power threat the Fielder was, but he did hit an impressive .361 in the second half last year and is capable of being a dangerous run producer in his own right.

    Behind him, Austin Jackson will be looking to break out in his age-27 season, and catcher Alex Avila will once again be looking to recapture his 2011 form after posting a dismal .693 OPS last year. If those two can have solid seasons, it would take a lot of pressure off of Martinez and would go a long way in helping protect Cabrera.

     

    Avoid Injury to the Starting Rotation

    The Tigers undoubtedly have one of the best starting rotations in all of baseball, but they don't have all that much depth should one of their starters be lost for any significant amount of time.

    Kyle Lobstein and Casey Crosby are the only other starters on the 40-man roster, and neither did much to inspire confidence they could step in this spring. Lobstein had a 7.11 ERA in 12.2 innings of work, while Crosby dealt with elbow soreness and only made one appearance.

    Prospects Drew VerHagen and Robbie Ray both look to have bright futures, but they are also both slated to open the year in Double-A and are still relatively short in experience in the high minors.

    Long reliever Luke Putkonen was a starter in the minors and could be an option, but it would undoubtedly be a major issue if the team were to have one of its five starters go down with a significant injury.

Preview Detroit Tigers' Opening Series

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    Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

    Game 1 (vs. Kansas City)

    When: March 31

    Time: 1:08 p.m. ET

    Pitching Matchup: RHP James Shields vs. RHP Justin Verlander

    James Shields will be the Kansas City Royals' Opening Day starter for the second straight year, and he will be pitching for a big contract with free agency on the docket next offseason. He did not pitch well against the Tigers last season, going 1-2 with a 4.96 ERA and 1.50 WHIP in five starts.

    Despite his less-than-impressive numbers, Justin Verlander earns the Opening Day nod for the Tigers once again this season after a terrific spring. He was just 1-3 in six starts against the Royals last year, but he did have a 3.27 ERA and 1.28 WHIP.

     

    Game 2 (vs. Kansas City)

    When: April 2

    Time: 1:08 p.m. ET

    Pitching Matchup: LHP Jason Vargas vs. RHP Max Scherzer

    Newcomer Jason Vargas will make his debut with the Royals in Game 2 after signing a four-year, $32 million deal in free agency to replace the departed Ervin Santana. He did not face the Tigers last year but has gone 2-1 with a 4.60 ERA in five career starts against the team.

    Reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer will go for the Tigers, and like he did against many teams, he was terrific against the Royals last year. In four starts, he was 3-0 with a 3.33 ERA and 28 strikeouts in 27 innings of work.

     

    Game 3 (vs. Kansas City)

    When: April 3

    Time: 1:08 p.m. ET

    Pitching Matchup: RHP Yordano Ventura vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez

    The 2014 debut of Yordano Ventura will come in Game 3 of the series, as he looks to make a run at AL Rookie of the Year honors after beating out Danny Duffy for the final rotation spot with a great spring. Ventura has just three big-league starts to his credit down the stretch last year, and this will be his first start against the Tigers.

    Anibal Sanchez takes the ball of the Tigers in Game 3 coming off of the AL ERA title, and he was 2-1 with a 1.33 ERA in his three starts against the Royals last year. He pitched at least six innings in each of those starts, allowing one earned run in each of those outings.

2014 Detroit Tigers' Season Outlook

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Predicted Record: 91-71

    Predicted AL Central Finish: First

    Postseason Prediction: Eliminated by Tampa Bay Rays in ALCS

    The Tigers have won three straight AL Central crowns, and they look like the favorites to come away with the division title once again entering the 2014 season.

    They will get all they can handle from the Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royals during the regular season, and they are certainly a different-looking team than they have been the past couple years, but they still look like one of the best the AL has to offer.

    Once again they will go as far as their pitching carries them in the postseason, and with one of the best trios in all of baseball in Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez, that could very well be all the way to the AL pennant.

    My pick to win the AL this season, though, is the Tampa Bay Rays, and I have the Tigers falling to them in the ALCS as they come up just short of the pennant for the third time in four years.