Brad Ausmus

2014 Preview: Detroit Tigers


Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2014 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers still the clear favorites in the AL Central?

Detroit has won three consecutive AL Central titles, but the margin of victory was just one game last season and the Tigers made some huge changes over the offseason in an effort to improve their bullpen and defense while shedding long-term payroll. Gone are Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, and Joaquin Benoit, plus manager Jim Leyland.

Fielder was traded to the Rangers in a move that brought in Kinsler to replace Infante at second base and cleared the way for Miguel Cabrera to slide across the diamond from third base to first base. Top prospect Nick Castellanos replaces Cabrera at third base as the Tigers count on him to be a key contributor as a 22-year-old rookie and ask him to move back to the infield after spending last season playing left field in the minors. That series of moves represents a massive shift in the type of team the Tigers are putting on the field under new manager Handsome Brad Ausmus.

Detroit’s haul from Washington for Fister was largely criticized for being not enough, but he was the Tigers’ fourth-best starter and they also felt Drew Smyly was ready for another chance in the rotation after thriving as a reliever last year. Benoit had an excellent three-season run in Detroit, but in bringing in the still dominant at 39 years old Nathan the Tigers are hoping that he can solidify the ninth inning while allowing the rest of the bullpen to fall into place.

One snag in the Tigers’ plans is slick-fielding Jose Iglesias, who was supposed to be the anchor of the much-improved defense and will instead miss the first half and possibly the entire season with stress fractures in both shins. In scrambling to replace him with 37-year-old Alex Gonzalez the Tigers overpaid for a seemingly washed-up player and likely put themselves in position to go shopping for a different replacement in a couple months.

Still, this is a much better team defensively, with a lot more speed, and if Castellanos lives up to the hype and they can piece together decent production in left field the offense is still plenty potent even without Fielder around. They just signed the world’s best hitter to a decade-long extension, after all. Getting the ball from the starters to Nathan may be an issue, but if everyone stays healthy the rotation remains one of the best in baseball with the reigning Cy Young winner in the No. 2 slot and the reigning ERA champ in the No. 3 slot. If the Indians or Royals had made big improvements this offeason the division could be totally up for grabs, but instead Detroit still looks like the clear-cut favorite for a fourth straight year.

What else is going on?

  • This is easier to say now that Fister is injured, but Smyly has a chance to be nearly as good for the Tigers’ rotation. As a reliever last year he threw 76 innings with a 2.37 ERA and 81/17 K/BB ratio, and as a 23-year-old rookie starter in 2012 he logged 99 innings with a 3.99 ERA and 94/33 K/BB ratio. Fister was really good and really underrated in his 2.5 seasons in Detroit, but Smyly throws strikes, has bat-missing raw stuff, and can be an impact starter.
  • Left-handed-hitting Andy Dirks and right-handed-hitting Rajai Davis were supposed to form a platoon in left field, but now Dirks is out for three months following back surgery. That pushes Davis into an expanded role, which will be good for the Tigers’ speed and defense, but he’s likely to struggle facing lots of right-handed pitching and left field is an area where general manager Dave Dombrowski may look to make a move midseason.
  • Home/road splits are far from the final word in projecting a player who’s changing teams, but it’s worth noting that Kinsler is a career .304 hitter with an .898 OPS in hitter-friendly Texas compared to .242 with a .710 OPS everywhere else. Toss in his overall decline recently as he crossed over into the wrong side of 30 and what to expect from Kinsler is a big question mark.

Prediction: Better defense, worse hitting, and another 90-win season. First place, AL Central.

Astros stave off AL West elimination, beat the Diamondbacks

Colby Rasmus, Gary Pettis
AP Photo

Facing an elimination number of one, the Astros staved off elimination in the AL West by beating the Diamondbacks on Friday night by a 6-1 margin. The Rangers suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Angels on Saturday afternoon, which temporarily put the Astros’ fate in their own hands.

Colby Rasmus hit a pair of solo homers and Jose Altuve added a solo shot of his own. Starter Collin McHugh tossed seven innings of one-run ball, limiting the Diamondbacks to six hits and a walk with six strikeouts. Reliever Will Harris allowed a solo home run to Paul Goldschmidt in the eighth, but Luke Gregerson closed out the game with a scoreless ninth.

The Astros trail the Rangers by one game in the AL West and lead the Angels by one game for the second AL Wild Card slot. The Rangers can clinch the AL West on Sunday afternoon with a win or an Astros loss. The Astros can clinch the second AL Wild Card on Sunday afternoon with a win or an Angels loss.

The Yankees lost both ends of Saturday’s doubleheader against the Orioles and lead the Astros by only one game for the first AL Wild Card slot.

If the Astros win and the Rangers lose on Sunday, they will play an AL West tiebreaker in Texas. The winner will win the second AL Wild Card if the Yankees win on Sunday, or the first AL Wild Card if the Yankees lose on Sunday.

If the Astros lose and the Angels win on Sunday, the two teams will be tied for the second AL Wild Card. They would play a tiebreaker in Houston, and the winner would play the Yankees in New York in the Wild Card game.

Video: Kelby Tomlinson slides in for an inside-the-park home run

Kelby Tomlinson
AP Photo
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Giants second baseman Kelby Tomlinson looked more like Ladainian Tomlinson the way he was running during Saturday afternoon’s game against the Rockies. In the first inning with one out against starter Chris Rusin, Tomlinson hit a fly ball into the right-center field gap at AT&T Park, a great place to go if you’re in the mood for an inside-the-park home run.

Neither Carlos Gonzalez nor Chris Dickerson could corral the ball before it rolled all the way to the 421-foot marker at the fence. Tomlinson motored around the bases, but Gonzalez made a strong throw into cut-off man D.J. LeMahieu, and LeMahieu made a great throw in to catcher Tom Murphy, but Tomlinson slid in safely just ahead of the tag.

It was an exciting play and the hit proved important as the Giants eked out a 3-2 win against the Rockies.