2014 Detroit Tigers Team Preview
The Tigers put together another successful campaign in 2013, finishing 93-69 while winning the American League Central for the third consecutive year. Detroit advanced to the ALCS before being ousted by the eventual World Series champion Red Sox in what turned out to be manager Jim Leylandís farewell season.
Once again, the Tigers were carried by their star-studded lineup (Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez) and hard-throwing starting pitchers (Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez). Despite battling injuries down the stretch, Cabrera did the impossible and one-upped his Triple Crown campaign of 2012 while earning his second consecutive AL MVP award. Scherzer took home the Cy Young award, as both he and Sanchez posted career-best numbers.
Despite sustained success over the past three years, the departure of Leyland resulted in Detroit making multiple adjustments this offseason. The team quickly replaced Leyland with former Tiger catcher Brad Ausmus. While Ausmus doesnít come with any major league coaching experience, he has been touted as a possible candidate for numerous jobs the past couple years, and as a former major league catcher has been compared to contemporaries like Joe Giradi and Mike Matheny.
Following the hire of Ausmus, Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski started making immediate changes to his roster, beginning with the trade of slugger Prince Fielder to the Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler. By moving Fielder, Dombrowski cleared up significant cap space and improved his teamís defense.
Dombrowski also moved starting pitcher Doug Fister, trading him to the Nationals for prospect Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol and utility man Steve Lombardozzi. The Fister trade has been panned by many, but this was another instance where the Tigers freed up cap space for future signings and/or extensions while also opening up a spot in the rotation for promising lefty Drew Smyly.
Aside from making a couple big trades and hiring a new manager, Dombrowski was also able to make waves in free agency by signing closer Joe Nathan and speedy outfielder Rajai Davis.
While the Tigers will look different in many facets this season, the core of the team remains the same. Cabrera, whoís recovering from groin surgery and should be ready for spring training, will once again anchor the offense. Verlander wasnít at his best in 2013, but he finished as strong as ever down the stretch and looks poised to return to his Cy Young form in 2014. Meanwhile, Scherzer and Sanchez have planted stakes at being aces in their own right.
The Tigers will have to contend with young, improving teams in the AL Central this season, but the Motor City Bengals once again look like the cream of the crop.
Lost Prince Fielder (Texas) and Doug Fister (Nationals) via trade, Joaquin Benoit (Padres), Octavio Dotel (FA), Omar Infante (Royals) and Jose Veras (Cubs) via free agency, as well as Matt Tuiasosopo (Diamondbacks) and Darin Downs (Astros), both of whom were claimed off waivers.
The loss of Fielder leaves a hole in the middle of the Tigersí lineup, but that move will free up some long-term cash for the club and shore up the infield defense. With Drew Smyly seemingly ready to step into the rotation, Tigers president Dave Dombrowski opted to part with Fister rather than any of his other starting pitchers. The Tigers signed Joe Nathan to handle the ninth inning duties and appear ready to rely on young arms to bridge the mid-to-late inning gap, which rendered Benoit, Dotel and Veras expendable. Tuiasosopo provided the Tigers with some punch against left-handed pitching last season, but the team filled that void with Rajai Davis via free agency.
Signed closer Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20 million deal.
The Tigers locked in on Nathan early in free agency, as the team made finding a veteran to handle closing duties a priority. Entering his age-39 season, thereís some obvious concern about health risks or an eventual decline in productivity, but itís hard to argue with Nathanís production from 2013 (1.39 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 43 saves, 73:22 K:BB ratio). Detroit will be among the best teams in the American League once again, which will lead to ample save opportunities for Nathan.
Traded first baseman Prince Fielder to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.
While Kinsler will be leaving the comfy confines of Arlington, heíll still have the benefit of hitting at or near the top of a potent lineup. His power will likely drop, but Kinsler remains a terrific contact hitter (89 percent contact rate) with an above average line-drive percentage (23.7 percent), which should translate well in spacious Comerica Park.
Signed outfielder Rajai Davis to a two-year deal.
The addition of Davis gives the Tigers some much-needed speed and a solid platoon partner with Andy Dirks in left field. Davis has the versatility to fill in at all three outfield positions, so heíll have the opportunity to see more at-bats than your usual platoon partner whoís on the wrong side of a timeshare.
Signed relief pitcher Joba Chamberlain to a one-year, $2.5 million deal.
One area that could turn into a problem for the Tigers this season is their middle relief. Chamberlain has struggled the past couple seasons, but if he can bounce back, heíll give the Tigers some nice stability in the middle innings.
Traded Doug Fister to the Nationals for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol and Robbie Ray.
The Tigers haul from the Fister trade was rightly criticized in most circles, but the team hopes Lombardozzi and Krol can contribute immediately. Lombardozzi will fill the role of utility man for Detroit, but his role could increase if a regular suffers a significant injury or rookie Nick Castellanos fails to produce at the major league level. Krol will see work out of the Tigersí bullpen, but the young southpaw will have to be better against right-handed hitters to make much of an impact.
Projected Lineup (vs. RH/LH)
1. Austin Jackson, CF
2. Ian Kinsler, 2B
3. Miguel Cabrera, 1B
4. Victor Martinez, DH
5. Torii Hunter, RF
6. Andy Dirks/Rajai Davis, LF
7. Nick Castellanos, 3B
8. Alex Avila, C
9. Jose Iglesias, SS
First-year Tigers manager Brad Ausmus hasnít given any hints at his preferred lineup, so a lot could change between now and Opening Day. The biggest swing would be a drop in the order for Jackson. Given his propensity to strikeout and other leadoff options available (Davis, Kinsler, Iglesias), Jackson could be a better fit in the 6-9 holes. Itíll also be interesting to see how Ausmus divvies up at-bats between Dirks and Davis in left field, as that could have a big impact on the projected lineup.
1. Justin Verlander
2. Max Scherzer
3. Anibal Sanchez
4. Rick Porcello
5. Drew Smyly
With the departure of Fister, the Tigers now have five clear cut starters for their rotation on Opening Day. Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez will form one of the best top-3 combos in the game, while Porcello and Smyly no longer have to worry about battling each other for a spot in the rotation. Despite Sanchez and Scherzer posting better results in 2013, Verlander is once again expected to be the Tigersí Opening Day starter.
Closer: Joe Nathan
Long gone are the ninth-inning question marks that Detroit had entering the 2013 campaign. Nathanís presence gives Detroit their best closing option in recent memory. Assuming the 39-year-old can stay healthy all season, heíll be among the league leaders in saves once again this season.
Key Bullpen Members: Bruce Rondon, Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, Ian Krol
While the Tigers have shored up the ninth inning, the bridge to get there remains questionable following the departure of Benoit, Dotel and Veras. Rondon remains the Tigersí closer of the future and should take on a late-inning role, while Alburquerque will likely see his responsibility from last year grow.
Notes of Import, Fantasy and Otherwise:
Is rookie Nick Castellanos ready for a full-time gig at the major league level?
Castellanos is one of the bigger wild cards for the Tigers this season. If he lives up to the potential he flashed the past couple years in the minors, heíll be a legitimate rookie-of-the-year contender in the American League. But if Castellanos struggles to provide consistent production, Detroit will have a huge hole at the hot corner.
Who will receive the majority of at-bats in left field?
Andy Dirks has proven to be a capable major league outfielder when healthy, especially against right-handed pitching. He should be deployed primarily against righties this season with Rajai Davis handling duties against southpaws. But the upgrades in speed and defense that Davis can provide could lead to the speedy veteran seeing more at-bats. From a fantasy perspective, Davis is the safer bet, as heís almost a sure thing to contribute in steals.
Will Drew Smyly flourish as a full-time starter?
Smyly has quietly posted two impressive campaigns to begin his major league career. In his rookie season, Smyly split time between the rotation and bullpen. In 18 starts, he finished 4-3 with a 3.79 ERA and 88:26: K:BB ratio in 95 innings. He was even better as a full-time relief pitcher in 2013, finishing 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA, 1.04 WHIP and 81:17 K:BB ratio in 76 innings. The former second-round pick isn't widely known among casual MLB fans, but he has the opportunity to make a big splash in 2014.
What type of philosophical changes will new manager Brad Ausmus bring to the table?
The two noticeable improvements to Detroitís roster are in the form of speed and defense. Under former manager Jim Leyland, Detroit was usually near the bottom of the league in stolen bases, which is highlighted by the Tigersí league-low 35 swipes in 2013. The additions of Davis and Kinsler, along with capable holdover thieves in Jackson and Iglesias, should lead to a big gain in the steals department for the Tigers. While the lack of threats on the base paths was a clear hindrance to the 2013 squad, their infield defense may have been worse. With Fielder now gone, Detroit is able to slide Miguel Cabrera back to first base. The team will also get a boost from a full season of Iglesias at shortstop. The only question mark on defense is Castellanos, but he projected out as a decent defensive third baseman before the team moved him to the outfield in 2012. Improvements on the defensive side of the ball could be huge for Detroitís pitching staff, especially a ground-ball pitcher like Porcello.
The Tigers have lost some punch in the middle of their lineup, but Miguel Cabrera remains an all-time talent who can carry a teamís entire offense on his shoulders. Detroit also sports one of the best rotations in the major leagues. Previous weaknesses in the closing, speed and defense departments could become strengths this season.
Detroit addressed many of their weaknesses from 2013, but the team has question marks in the middle of their bullpen. Bruce Rondon and other young relievers will need to show progression for that area not to be a concern.
The loss of Prince Fielder means less power potential for the Tigers, but this loss could be offset by bounce-back performances in the power department by Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila.
Rising: Rick Porcello, SP - While Porcello still hasnít lived up to the promise he showed as a rookie in 2009, he did take significant enough strides in 2013 to be considered a decent middle-of-the-rotation option. Porcello posted the best winning percentage of his career (.629) en route to a 13-8 campaign while posting a 4.32 ERA and career-high 142 strikeouts. The biggest boost to his fantasy value came with his increased strikeout rate (7.2 K/9), which easily bested his previous high (5.5 K/9). Some of Porcelloís improvement is attributed to his improved breaking ball, switching from the previously heavy-used slider to a curveball that became his go-to off-speed pitch. All the while, Porcello remained an extreme groundball pitcher who also effectively limits free passes (2.1 BB/9). As his xFIP (3.19) hints, Porcello could have been even more impressive with a better defense behind him. Luckily for Porcello, Detroit has taken the necessary steps to improve their infield defense this offseason, as the trade of Prince Fielder will pave the way for Miguel Cabrera to move back to first base, and having Jose Iglesias around for the entire season at shortstop certainly wonít hurt. The trade rumors should cease after the Tigers decided to flip Doug Fister to Washington in December. Entering his age-25 season, Porcello still hasnít hit his ceiling, but the strides he has made in 2013 have him headed in the right direction. Heíll once again be a breakout candidate for fantasy owners looking to fill out the back end of their rotation.
Declining: Torii Hunter, OF - Hunter continued to defy Father Time in 2013, putting together an All-Star campaign in his first season with the Tigers. The veteran outfielder slashed .304/.334/.465 in 606 at-bats while hitting primarily in the second spot of the Tigersí lineup. He totaled a career-high 184 hits thanks in large part to another year with a high BABIP (.351). His walk rate continued a downward trend dipping to four percent, but Hunter offset his drop in free passes by improving his contact rate to 81 percent. While he was certainly more aggressive at the plate than in past years, Hunter still managed to keep his swinging-strike percentage (11.2%) at his career norm, which indicates his drop in plate discipline is more of a philosophical change in his approach than a decline in ability. Despite a dip in his HR/FB rate (11.2%), Hunter was able to connect on 17 home runs, one more than his final season with the Angels. Hunter also took kindly to Comerica Parkís cavernous gaps, hitting 37 doubles and five triples. Heading into his age-38 season, thereís a chance Hunter finally shows his age and slows down some. While thereís production still to be had here, donít let his name value tempt you into drafting him higher than deserved.
Sleeper No. 1: Drew Smyly, SP - After working as a starting pitcher and reliever for Detroit in 2012, Smyly was moved to a full-time role in the bullpen last season. The 25-year-old lefty excelled in his new role, finishing 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA and a 1.04 WHIP in 63 appearances. He improved both his strikeout rate (9.6 K/9), walk rate (2.0 BB/9) and limited the long ball (0.5 HR/9). The young southpaw was lights-out against left-handed hitters (.189 BAA), but he also limited right-handed hitters to a .242/.374/.293 line, proving that heís far more than a situational pitcher. Originally a starter, Smyly has a steady five-pitch arsenal at his disposal. His fastball usually sits in the 90-92 mph range. He also mixes in a curveball with plus-pitch upside, a cutter and a changeup that needs some work. While none of his pitches are dominant, Smyly does a great job locating and keeping hitters off balance. The Tigers traded Doug Fister to the Nationals in December, opening the door for Smyly to take a permanent spot in the rotation and making him an excellent sleeper for 2014.
Sleeper No. 2: Nick Castellanos, 3B - Castellanos is the Tigers' top prospect and widely considered a top-25 prospect league-wide. He validated the high praise from scouts in 2013 by putting together a solid campaign during his first taste of Triple-A ball. In 533 at-bats with the Mud Hens, Castellanos hit .276/.343/.450 with 18 homers and 76 RBI. While his batting average dipped below .300 for the first time in his minor league career, Castellanos made great strides in the power department, as his 18 homers topped the 17 total home runs he had racked up through 1,068 at-bats the previous three seasons. He also flashed improved plate discipline, raising his BB/K ratio to 0.54 and his contact rate to 81 percent. The 22-year-old had his first exposure with the Tigers during a September callup. Castellanos was primarily deployed against left-handed pitchers, finishing with a .278 batting average in 18 at-bats. Despite the lack of playing time during his initial promotion, Castellanos is expected to battle for a full-time role in spring training. Following the trade of Prince Fielder to Texas in November, Castellanos is expected to be converted back to third base after spending the past season and half in the minors learning the outfield. While he initially projects to be more of a gap hitter in the majors, Castellanos' frame (6-foot-4, 210 pounds) and swing hint at 20-25 home-run power as he develops. Perspective owners will want to watch Castellanos closely during spring training to see if he can earn a full-time role with the Tigers. If he nabs the gig, Castellanos will be considered a preseason candidate for AL Rookie of the Year honors.
Super Sleeper: Bruce Rondon, RP - Rondonís debut season at the major league level was a disappointment. As one of the Tigers' top prospects, Rondon was expected to immediately take a large role in the bullpen, possibly even handling closing duties. Inconsistencies with his control during spring training led to Rondon starting his 2013 campaign in the minors, and he eventually split his time evenly between Triple-A Toledo and Detroit. He was dominant in his 30 appearances with the Mud Hens, posting a 1.52 ERA while racking up 40 strikeouts and 14 saves in 29.2 innings. His stint with the Tigers was bumpier, but Rondon was able to show improvement throughout the season and finish with a 3.45 ERA and a 30:11 K:BB ratio in his first 28.2 innings as a major league pitcher. Despite the ups and downs in his debut, the Tigers remain high on Rondon. He sports a triple-digit fastball and a decent slider that improved as the season wore on. The 22-year-old righty was sidelined by an elbow injury for the final month of the season. He was officially diagnosed with a flexor tendon strain after a visit with Dr. James Andrews in October, and the Tigers expect Rondon to make a full recovery and be ready for spring training. While heís still considered a closing option of the future for the Tigers, he will have to settle for a setup role with the team's addition of Joe Nathan in December. If youíre looking for a handcuff to Nathan or eying to vulture saves from a Nathan owner should the veteran go down, Rondon is your target.
Nick Castellanos, 3B Ė (See above)
Devon Travis, 2B Ė The diminutive (5-foot-9, 183-pound) second baseman made a big splash while splitting time between Low-A West Michigan and High-A Lakeland in 2013, hitting .351/.418/.518 with 16 homers, 76 RBI and 93 runs in 504 at-bats. His stellar performance led to Minor League Offensive Player of the Year honors via the fan vote Ė Houstonís George Springer took home the award as voted by MiLB staff members. Travis displayed good plate discipline in his first full season in the minors, drawing 53 walks while striking out just 64 times. He also did some damage on the basepaths with 22 steals. While his base-running instincts could lead to decent stolen-base totals in the majors, Travis doesnít have the speed to be a huge threat in the steals department. Defensively, Travis has a strong arm for a second baseman with good hands and decent range. As a 13th-round draft pick in 2012, Travis hasnít seen much hype in the prospect world, but he could earn more attention and start to warrant legitimate consideration as a future major leaguer with another solid showing in 2014 at the higher levels of the minors.
Bruce Rondon, RP Ė (see above)
Robbie Ray, SP Ė Ray broke through at High-A last year and held his own as a 21-year-old after a promotion to Double-A, and the Nationals wasted no time cashing in his new-found prospect status by dealing him for Doug Fister. Ray's control remains a work in progress, and given the Tigers' recent failures to develop left-handers with similar profiles (Exhibit A: Andrew Oliver) he can hardly be considered can't-miss. However, if Ray does build on last year's success, a 2015 major league debut seems likely.
Jake Thompson, SP Ė With Nick Castellanos set to move up to Detroit on a permanent basis, Thompson will make his case to become the Tigersí top overall prospect. The 2012 second-round pick saw his first action above rookie ball last season, going 3-3 with a 3.13 ERA and 91:32 K:BB ratio in 83.1 innings with Low-A West Michigan. The big (6-foot-4, 232-pound) righty features a fastball, slider, changeup, and he has been developing a curveball. His fastball usually sits in the low-90s, but good movement and the possibility of added velocity has the heater graded out as a potential plus-pitch once he reaches the majors. Thompsonís slider is already effective with good break, and it could develop into his best pitch, but his changeup and curveball still need work. The Tigers are currently loaded with starting pitching, which has afforded the team patience with Thompson. The 20-year-old should start progressing his way through the Tigersí system in 2014, but he is not expected to become a legitimate option at the major league level until 2016.
Jonathon Crawford, SP Ė The Tigers selected Crawford with the 20th overall pick of the 2013 draft. He has a strong frame (6-foot-1, 205 pounds), raw arm strength and electric stuff. His fastball routinely sits in the low-to-mid 90s with the ability to reach 97 mph, and he sports a swing-and-miss slider that could develop into a plus pitch. While his delivery creates some natural deception, thereís concern the uneven delivery could lead to command issues. At 22, Crawford is further along than many of Detroitís recent draft picks on the mound. Some scouts see him as a better fit out of the bullpen. While a conversion to the bullpen would expedite Crawford's arrival to the big leagues, the Tigers appear committed to giving him a long look as a starting pitcher in the minors. Heís likely a couple of years away from making an impact in the majors, but owners in deep keeper leagues will want to put Crawford on their radar to see if he can develop into a mid-rotation starter.