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.

Jim Crane thought the heat over sign-stealing would blow over by spring training

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The Astros’ sign-stealing story broke in November, a steady drumbeat of coverage of it lasted through December and into January, when Rob Manfred’s report came out about it. The report was damning and, in its wake, Houston’s manager and general manger were both suspended and then fired.

After that a steady stream of media reports came out which not only made the whole affair seem even worse than Manfred’s report suggested, but which also suggested that, on some level, Major League Baseball had bungled it all and it was even worse than it had first seemed.

Rather than Manfred and the Astros putting this all behind them, the story grew. As it grew, both the Red Sox and Mets fired their managers and, in a few isolated media appearances, Astros’ players seemed ill-prepared for questions on it all. Once spring training began the Astros made even worse public appearances and, for the past week and change, each day has given us a new player or three angrily speaking out about how mad they are at the Astros and how poorly they’ve handled all of this.

Why have they handled it so poorly? As always, look to poor leadership:

Guess not.

In other news, Crane was — and I am not making this up — recently named the Houston Sports Executive of the Year. An award he has totally, totally earned, right?