Detroit Tigers Preview

The Detroit Tigers started knocking on the door when Jim Leyland came to town for the 2006 season and haven’t stopped. The Tigers have made the playoffs four times, captured the AL Central thrice, and on two of these occasions captured the American League pennant in the 2006-13 run. The one thing they haven’t done is give the fan base its first World Series title since 1984.

Leyland retired after last year’s loss in the American League Championship Series to the Boston Red Sox and now rookie manager Brad Ausmus takes up the cause. TheSportsNotebook offers its Notebook Nine, our nine focal points as the 2014 campaign begins…

*The smart money isn’t fazed by the postseason losses or the managerial change. Detroit is still the 4-1 favorite to win the American League pennant. That’s respect, given the New York Yankees went on what was, even for them, a massive spending binge, and the Boston Red Sox are coming off a Series triumph. But it’s the Tigers the market loves the most in the American League.

*Detroit was busy in the offseason on the trade market. The Tigers dealt first baseman Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers and got Ian Kinsler in return to play second base. It’s a deal that’s got the potential to be good both ways, but I’ve liked Detroit’s end of this the most. Kinsler is a consistent offensive player and getting rid of Fielder’s big contract makes it more likely the team can manage some other impending big deals.

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*An underrated benefit of trading Fielder is that Miguel Cabrera can move back to first base. Cabrera further validated his greatness these past two years by making the difficult 1B-to-3B position switch. He won a Triple Crown and two MVP awards. But a groin injury slowed Miggy down at the end of last season and his diminished power might have been the difference against Boston. Playing first won’t be as taxing on the body, and nothing matters more to this franchise then Cabrera staying healthy.

*The left side of the infield has both big question marks and big possibilities. Detroit acquired 24-year-old shortstop Jose Iglesias from Boston last season. Iglesias posted a .349 on-base percentage, but there are questions as to whether he can sustain that. We know for certain that he’s a fantastic glove. At third base is Nick Castellanos, a top prospect at age 22 and another reason the Tigers were confident in trading Fielder and flipping Cabrera back to first base.

*Can the reliable veterans keep producing in the lineup? Tori Hunter is 38-years-old and the rightfielder is as dependable a player as there is. Who can forget his dangerous (albeit futile dive) to try and stop David Ortiz’s grand slam in the Game 2 of the ALCS? Hunter flipped over into the bullpen and came within an inch of making a play that almost certainly gives the series a different outcome. Hunter posted a stat line of .334 on-base percentage/.465 slugging percentage and played stellar defense all year. And at DH, 35-year old Victor Martinez put up a stat line of .355/.430. Hunter and Martinez have more pressure on them with Fielder gone.

*And how about the younger players who suffered declines in 2013? Alex Avila has seen his numbers slip each of the last two years, although the catcher has built a solid reputation for the way he calls a game. Centerfielder Austin Jackson is a similar case—a solid defender at a position where that’s important, but also saw his OBP drop to .337, a number too low for a leadoff hitter that doesn’t hit for power. Avila and Jackson need to step it up.

*The starting rotation didn’t escape the personnel changes. Doug Fister, the #4 starter who is good enough to be a #2 in a lot of places, was dealt to the Washington Nationals for a package of two mostly unproven players and mediocre second baseman Steve Lombardozzi. The moving of Fister puts pressure on two young pitchers—25-year-old Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly, age 24, to stabilize the rotation’s back end. Porcello already has five full major league seasons under his belt, and while it’s been mediocre, the age tells you he can improve. Smyly has done good work in the bullpen and has earned this promotional opportunity.

*Problems in the bullpen hindered Detroit all of last season, the same as it did in the pennant-winning year of 2012. The bullpen is ultimately the reason they didn’t at least make another World Series. The Tigers went out and signed veteran closer Joe Nathan, fresh off a 43-save/1.39 ERA year in Texas. There are still problems in the setup areas, as evidenced by the fact Detroit reduced themselves to bringing in disgraced former Yankee Joba Chamberlain.

*The Big Three of the starting rotation is what has to anchor this team. Justin Verlander has made 30-plus starts a year for seven straight years and the only question is whether he’ll be good, great or superhuman. Max Scherzer won 21 games and the Cy Young Award last season and has improved each of the last two seasons. Anibal Sanchez had a career-best 2.57 ERA in 2013. The fly in the ointment is that Scherzer is in the last year of his contract and is not yet signed to an extension. What are the Tigers waiting to do with all that money saved on Fielder, spend it on the office Christmas party? Get the deal done.

Detroit’s Over/Under betting number on the win futures is 90. That seems low for the American League favorite, and indeed it is. Both the St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers have higher expectations, but no one else in the AL does.

I had expected to be picking the Under on Detroit this year because of concerns about the bullpen that could drop them into the 86-88 win category. That could still happen, but they could also go to 94-95 wins if just one good setup reliever comes through. The fact the Over/Under is pretty reasonable makes it feasible to pick the Over, so that’s what I’ll do.