When a team makes two suspicious trades in the offseason, adds a new manager, and has two of their best players see offseason surgery, you normally wouldn't expect that team to be a favorite to win their division. Except when that team is the 2014 Detroit Tigers.
The Tigers have had yet another dramatic offseason, and general manager Dave Dombrowski doesn’t seem to mind it one bit. I'm pretty sure My Life Your Entertainment by T.I. would be his walk up song if he ever had to suit up. Let's just put it that way.
Dombrowski traded away his four hole hitter for a second basemen and highly regarded Doug Fister for Ian Kinsler and three players most Tigers fans have never heard of this offseason. And that has the Tigers’ faithful nervous. As long as the Tigers have a great rotation and a slugger named Miguel Cabrera though, there shouldn’t be a whole lot to worry about.
In Miggy We Trust
There aren’t many players in baseball that can come off a year in which they won the Triple Crown and post better numbers the following year, but Miguel Cabrera did just that in 2013. Amidst rumors that he was battling a groin, abdominal, or hip injury over the last few months of the season, Cabrera posted his career best OPS+ (187), SLG (.636), AVG (.348), and OPS (1.078). The injury turned out to be a grade II or III groin strain, and he should be ready to put the team on his back again by Spring Training.
It’s only right to follow up Miguel Cabrera with Victor Martinez in this Tigers’ preview. With Prince Fielder traded away for Ian Kinsler, Martinez will likely go back to being Cabrera’s protection in the order. People forget that he’s done this before, and he did it very well posting a line of .330/.380/470 in 2011. While Steamer projects only a .293 average this season, they do have him posting a career best two steals in 2014, which leads me to ask one thing: What?
While Martinez’s career best two steals may have a tiny impact on the Tigers, it’s more likely that Rajai Davis' speed will play a bigger role in their offense. The 2013 Tigers played more station-to-station baseball than a 13 year old with his first girlfriend. Davis will help that area of need with his 45 steals in just 108 games last season. The 2013 squad stole just 35 bases, so Davis’ speed is greatly needed.
Nobody knows how first time manager Brad Ausmus will use Davis this season, but it's likely that he will be used as a fourth outfielder and will platoon left field with Andy Dirks. Dirks needs some of that 2012 magic to come back if the Tigers want to be one of the best lineups in baseball. He is projected to be the number six or seven hitter in the lineup, and producing an average of .256 with nine home runs and 37 RBI like he did last year isn’t going to cut it for a contending team.
Getting Iggy With It
Not only is this a Tigers’ team preview, but also a list of fantasy names for Tigers players. Last year’s midseason trade for Jose Iglesias gave Detroit better fantasy names and a better defense all in one move.
Iglesias’ bat is the questionable part of his game, but it’s bound to get better with more experience. His current approach to hitting seems to be to swing for the fences until he falls behind, then just put anything in play and run like hell. Last season it worked for a .303 average, but even statisticians that are anti-BABIP can’t ignore last year’s splits. In the first half of last season he hit .367 with a BABIP of .414. In the second half, Iglesias hit .235 with a BABIP of .288. There has to be some correlation there, though having veteran hitters like Cabrera and Martinez around him should help.
Iglesias’ glove was featured numerous times last season on SportsCenter's Top 10 and with good reason. The defense often reminded me of a youngster's tee ball team, where the kid who can catch and throw best is told to make any and every play on the field, with Iglesias being "that kid" (Humble brag, I was that kid back in the day, too).
The Tigers made one big move to change this tee ball mentality with the addition of Ian Kinsler to the infield. Last year’s second baseman, Omar Infante, had a DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) of -5, while Kinsler ranked tied for third last season with a DRS of 11. Not only did the Tigers get rid of a defensive liability, but they added a great defender and one that can be successful in front of Miggy in the order. Kinsler isn’t likely to hit 30 home runs this season, but he could easily add 15 stolen bases and 20 home runs to the two hole.
If you don’t believe me then just look at what Torii Hunter did last year hitting in front of Miggy. He hit .304 with a .465 SLG at the age of 38! He saw his K% drop 5.5%, and although he posted his lowest BB% ever (4.0%), he did it in a year in which he hit for his second-best average of his career. Ponce De Leon should have looked for the Fountain of Youth at Hunter’s house instead of Florida - it was that ridiculous. It’s unlikely that he’ll post those kinds of numbers again with the bump in the order to fifth, but it just shows you what Kinsler could be capable of this season.
Hitting leadoff in front of Kinsler this season will be Austin Jackson. He followed up a 2012 season where he had a 5.2 WAR and hit .300 with a 2013 campaign where he hit .272 with a 3.1 WAR. In the last three seasons, almost every defensive stat has gotten worse for him. Does anyone need to be reminded of his 2013 postseason? Please no.
The Best Three in Baseball
Overall, the Tigers defense will be better this season and that has to make the Tigers pitchers happy. And it’s scary to think what the top-three starters will do with a real defense behind them.
AL Cy Young winner, Max Scherzer, posted 240 strikeouts last season and helped the pitching staff put up the most strikeouts in a season. He also had a team leading 0.97 WHIP while his ERA was 2.90. With Justin Verlander likely sidelined to miss opening day, Scherzer should be on the mound game one.
Verlander might miss that first game, but he should come back with vengeance when 100%. His domination in last season’s playoffs showed that 2013 was more of a fluke then what’s next for him. He threw 23 innings, struck out 31 batters to just three walks, and gave up only one run (a home run) in the postseason. Even with those numbers in the playoffs, he is still going to be considered the number two coming into the season after an injury and a Scherzer Cy Young. The only thing this guy can’t do is hit. His triple slash line of .000/.000/.000 is the brunt of a lot of jokes in the Tigers clubhouse. Yikes!
The best number three starter in baseball has to be Anibal Sanchez. Not only did he set the Tigers record for most strikeouts in a game (RIP Dan Uggla), but he led the AL with a 2.57 ERA last year. Before last season, Sanchez hadn’t posted an ERA near that number since his rookie year in 2006, so there are some concerns from projection systems about whether he can repeat it. It’s safe to say though that even if Sanchez declines a little bit, he can still put up great numbers. There aren’t any other rotations in the MLB that have the kind of top three starters that the Tigers have.
The Other Guys
The other guys might be a common way to describe Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly this upcoming season. With good reason, too. Porcello was a 20-year old phenom when he broke into the big leagues with a 3.96 ERA in 2009. From there, he hasn’t posted numbers like those, but there seems to be a lot of progress. He has seen his ERA, WAR, FIP, and K/9 all improve over the last four seasons. These kinds of improvements have won Porcello the award for most written about player this offseason. If you have the Internet, then you’ve seen someone analyze why he’s a great candidate for a breakout year.
The other “other” guy in that rotation is going from a very good set-up man to a fifth starter. There are question marks about him, but he has started before (18 starts in 2012) and he did it pretty well (3.79 ERA and 8.34K/9). While it’s going to be tough to expect 200-plus innings from Smyly, it’s not unreasonable to think 150 isn’t out of the picture.
The Tigers aren't all starters and no closers though. This team now has the ability to not only start the conversation at the bar, but seal the deal and take the girl home. And that's because Joe Nathan was signed in the offseason with some of the money that Detroit saved in the Fielder deal.
The former Minnesota Twins closer is what people in Detroit like to call a "Tiger Killer”. Nathan’s career numbers against the Tigers are ridiculous, and some of his best against any one team. Not only did they add a closer with an ERA of 1.39 and 43 saves last season, but they no longer have to face a pitcher who has a 1.44 career ERA, a WHIP of .894 and 36 saves against. It's a welcoming site for the Tigers front office, and now the rest of the AL Central has to feel his wrath once again. Joaquin Benoit filled in nicely for the Tigers last season, but the need for a stable and experienced closer was a huge target for Detroit this offseason.
Changing Now for the Future
Cabrera’s move to first base this season will not only help his health, but help the Tigers find a place for top prospect Nick Castellanos. The 21-year-old former 44th-overall pick will relocate back to third where he spent 210 of his 394 minor league games in the field at.
Castellanos has a whopping 18 at bats in the MLB, but had 1,601 at bats in the minors, hitting .303. At the age of 20, he went full Ted Williams’ mode on the Florida State League, hitting .405 in 215 at bats. While the FSL is a notorious pitcher’s league, Castellanos obviously had the motto of “no new friends” coming into that season. His stats since then are not as exciting as that amazing 55-game stretch, but he did show an improvement in the BB% and K% categories, not to mention his power numbers. While he’s likely to never hit 35 or more home runs in a season, nobody will be confusing his stat page for Ben Revere’s.
World Series or Bust
While the Tigers have won the AL Central three straight seasons, they'd be lying if that's what they cared about most this season. The only thing that really matters is getting that stacked rotation and a Cabrera-led lineup to the World Series.
Coming into recent seasons, their fans have never had a problem with an offseason move, but this offseason has definitely been different. Dombrowski traded away Prince Fielder after just two seasons and many question the move of Doug Fister for two pitchers and a versatile backup infielder.
But there are times when you have to sit back and trust the man who has traded for prospects Miguel Cabrera, Anibal Sanchez, Omar Infante, and Doug Fister in the past. With all of these moves, it is very much a World Series or bust type of season for the Tigers.