Brad Ausmus

2014 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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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.

Mets leaning on Jay Bruce, Neil Walker as Lucas Duda insurance

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - MAY 12:  Pinch hitter Lucas Duda #21 of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out for the first out of the ninth inning against Clayton Kershaw #22 of the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on May 12, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  The Dodgers won 5-0.  (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
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The Mets have begun working outfielder Jay Bruce and second baseman Neil Walker at first base as potential insurance in the event Lucas Duda continues to experience back discomfort, Mike Puma of the New York Post reports. Duda has been sidelined recently due to back spasms and missed all but 47 games last season as a result of a stress fracture in his lower back.

Manager Terry Collins spoke about Bruce’s work at first base on Sunday, saying, “I liked everything I saw today. “It looks like he’s got the athleticism, he’s got the hands, he’s got the arm angle. He made some throws in our drills that you wouldn’t expect an outfielder to be able to make, but yet he does. If that’s where we have to go, I think we’ll be fine.”

Bruce has only three games’ worth of experience at first base at the major league level, but still has high expectations for himself. He said, “I am going to work at it. I want to give myself a chance and the team a chance. I am not going to go over there and be a butcher. It’s just not the way I go about my business on the baseball field and it wouldn’t be fair to the team if I wasn’t capable to do it, so I am going to work at it and we’ll see what happens.”

The Mets made Bruce available via trade over the offseason but didn’t get an offer that whet their appetite. As a result, Michael Conforto appears to be the odd man out in the Mets’ crowded outfield.

Jason Kipnis diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff

CLEVELAND, OH - NOVEMBER 02:  Jason Kipnis #22 of the Cleveland Indians celebrates after scoring a run on a wild pitch thrown by Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs (not pictured) during the fifth inning in Game Seven of the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field on November 2, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis has been diagnosed with a strained rotator cuff in his right shoulder, MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian reports. Kipnis has received a cortisone shot and will be shut down from throwing for the next four to five days.

There’s a lot of spring left, so it’s perfectly sensible for the Indians to play it safe with their star player. The club already had Kipnis on a shoulder strengthening program.

Kipnis, 29, helped the Indians to the playoffs after batting .275/.343/.469 with 23 home runs, 92 RBI, 91 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in 688 plate appearances during the regular season last year. He then helped the Indians reach Game 7 of the World Series against the Cubs, where they were eventually stopped, as he provided a .741 OPS including four homers and eight RBI in 15 playoff games.