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Detroit Tigers 2014 Season Preview

The Tigers are coming off of a somewhat disappointing season, in which they failed to run away with the AL Central division like they were expected to do all season. Although they eventually wound up in the AL Championship Series, the Tigers barely made it past the Oakland Athletics in the AL Division Series, only to have the bullpen fall apart in the late innings.

The expectation for the Tigers in 2013 was to win the World Series, and they failed to do so. Most of the pieces were there, but clutch hits and a solid bullpen eluded them when they were needed most.

Heading into 2014, those expectations will remain the same: World Series or bust. Two-time reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera has had an entire offseason to recover from his abdominal surgery, and the pitching staff once again features three potential aces in Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and 2013 AL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer. Combine that with a new and improved bullpen, and you have a team primed for another late postseason run.

Key Losses: 

– Doug Fister (trade with Washington for RP Ian Krol, SP Robbie Ray, utilityman Steve Lombardozzi)

– Joaquin Benoit (free agency)

– Prince Fielder (trade with Texas for 2B Ian Kinsler)

– Omar Infante (free agency)

– Jhonny Peralta (free agency)

– Manager Jim Leyland (retired)

Key Additions:

– Joe Nathan (free agency)

– Joba Chamberlain (free agency)

– Ian Kinsler

– Manager Brad Ausmus

Storylines entering 2014:

The biggest question heading into the 2014 season is how the team will respond to first-time manager Brad Ausmus at the helm. Ausmus was well-respected during his time as a player, but has never led a major league team. How will this affect how the Tigers perform on the field? There will be a learning curve involved, but Ausmus has two things going for him: Spring Training and his coaching staff. He’ll be able to work out some of the kinks during March, and the experienced coaching staff he has around him will surely help with the rest.

On the field, the big question will be the play of both Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. Cabrera is coming off his second consecutive MVP season, but slowed down considerably due to his groin and abdominal injuries late in the year. Cabrera says that he feels great and is ready to go, but how will he feel in August and September? Verlander, on the other hand, is coming off a 2013 season in which he looked human. Verlander insisted numerous times throughout 2013 that he had figured things out mechanically, or had at least figured out what was wrong, but had trouble stringing together a run of solid starts.

Finally, can the locker room move past the drama of last year? If what we’ve heard of the soap opera between Avisail Garcia (now with the White Sox) and Prince Fielder (now with the Rangers) was true, it couldn’t have been easy to show up to work everyday. With those two gone, and a new manager in the clubhouse, the dynamic has changed, hopefully for the better.

Best Transaction:

Acquiring Ian Kinsler from Texas for Prince Fielder was one of the best and largest moves in Major League Baseball this offseason. I wrote about it after it happened, but to sum it up briefly, Detroit got rid of Fielder’s massive contract and Comerica Park struggles (not his fault), in exchange for a second baseman and top of the lineup speed/power presence that they desperately needed.

Plus, moving Fielder means that Cabrera can move back to first base, where he will be much less of a defensive liability. Prized prospect Nick Castellanos can take over third base, and the platoon of Andy Dirks and new addition Rajai Davis will handle left field. The defense improves, as does the lineup.

Honorable mention: signing closer Joe Nathan

Worst offseason move:

I still see people wondering how the Tigers got so little for Doug Fister. I would have loved to have received the Nationals’ top prospect, 3B Anthony Rendon, come over in the trade, but as it turned out, the Tigers got two pitchers and a utilityman. Lombardozzi will be another Don Kelly (even though Kelly is still on the team), and Krol will compete for a bullpen job in the spring. Robbie Ray will begin this season in the minors, and has the potential to join the rotation in a year or two, and possibly make a spot start here and there in 2014.

I didn’t mind the trade when it happened, because the Tigers’ farm system–especially in pitching talent–is completely depleted, and the trade showed GM Dave Dombrowki’s acknowledgement of the problem. However, FanGraphs stats showed that Fister has actually been one of the best pitchers in the league over the past few seasons. The Tigers could have, and probably should have, gotten more from the Nationals than what they did.

2014 Projected Lineup:

The Tigers have a lot of flexibility when it comes to designing their starting lineup. Kinsler provides both power and speed, and depending on who is in left field, Austin Jackson could spend the season all over the lineup. For Opening Day, I would go with:

1. Austin Jackson CF

2. Ian Kinsler 2B

3. Miguel Cabrera 1B

4. Victor Martinez DH

5. Torii Hunter RF

6. Nick Castellanos 3B

7. Alex Avila C

8. Andy Dirks LF

9. Jose Iglesias SS

With a bench of Lombardozzi, Kelly, Davis, and catcher Bryan Holaday, Ausmus will have a mix of speed and righties/lefties to choose from. However, the bench almost entirely lacks pop–don’t hold your breath this season for any pinch-hit home runs. That may prove costly down the road.

2014 Projected Rotation & Bullpen:

1. RHP Max Scherzer

2. RHP Justin Verlander

3. RHP Anibal Sanchez

4. RHP Rick Porcello

5. LHP Drew Smyly

Middle relievers: RHP Al Alburquerque, LHP Ian Krol, LHP Phil Coke, RHP Luke Putkonen

Setup: RHP Bruce Rondon, RHP Joba Chamberlain

Closer: RHP Joe Nathan

The Tigers rotation is easily among the best in baseball–Sanchez could be a staff ace on half of the pitching staffs in the MLB, and he’s #3 in Detroit. Dombrowski traded Fister to free up space for Smyly, so he’ll be looking to justify his GM’s decision.

Middle relief remains the biggest question mark on the team entering the season. If Alburquerque can find the strike zone, and if Coke and/or Krol can prove themselves as left-handed specialists, they should be able to bridge the gap to a much-improved late-inning lineup of Rondon, Chamberlain, and Nathan.

Prediction:

The Tigers are just as good offensively, and better defensively than they were in 2013. The pitching staff has a lot to prove, but should be able to hold its own. If the middle relief can step up from last season, late innings shouldn’t be as heart-stopping as they were in 2013. That’s a big “if” though, and there will undoubtedly still be struggles. It may take a midseason trade to shore up the bullpen, but that of course remains to be seen in the first few months of the year.

Looking at the AL Central, the Tigers’ biggest competition will come from the Cleveland Indians, who finished just one game behind Detroit last year. Cleveland is returning most of its core from last year, and their young players also have a full year under their belt entering 2014. The potential for an Indians run is large, but too is their potential to fall apart. Aside from Cleveland, the Kansas City Royals could be a dark horse, but will likely need a couple more years to develop the stars in their farm system.

Overall, it’s no secret: this team is good. Right now, I see the Tigers as the team to beat in the American League. Look for another AL Central title, and their second World Series appearance in three years. I would predict them facing the Los Angeles Dodgers, matching up two of the best starting rotations in all of baseball.

Record: 96-66

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