2015 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 2015 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

The Big Question: Are the Tigers falling apart?

Detroit has had a very impressive run of success built around bold trades, big-money investments, and a roster full of star power, winning four straight AL Central division titles and a pair of American League pennants. Brad Ausmus took over for Jim Leyland as manager last season and kept things rolling with 90 wins, but the Tigers were swept out of the playoffs by the Orioles and enter 2015 with a lot of question marks thanks to injuries, free agent departures, and an aging core.

Detroit finished last season with three former Cy Young winners in the rotation, but Max Scherzer is gone, signing a $210 million deal with the Nationals after going 39-8 with a 3.02 ERA and 492 strikeouts in 435 innings for the Tigers during the past two seasons. Justin Verlander is still around–he’s signed through 2018 at a cost of $28 million per year–but looked like a shell of his former self last year while allowing the most earned runs in the league.

Detroit’s biggest star, two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera, failed to top a .900 OPS last season for the first time since 2008 and underwent offseason surgeries on his foot and ankle. Cabrera actually thrived down the stretch despite being beat up physically, but at age 31 and one year into a $248 million deal he’s been hobbled an awful lot recently.

Victor Martinez had a career-year at age 35 and then re-signed with the Tigers for $68 million, but now he’s at risk to miss Opening Day after tearing the meniscus in his left knee during offseason workouts. Concussions have made Alex Avila a question mark behind the plate. Joe Nathan appears to be on his last legs despite being a $10 million closer. Anibal Sanchez’s arm acting up again limited him to 126 innings. Jose Iglesias needs to show that he can solidify the shortstop position after shin problems knocked him out for all of 2014.

You get the idea. If healthy the Tigers’ star power is still unmatched in the American League, but nearly every impact player’s health and/or production is an issue. Fortunately for the Tigers no other AL Central team looks particularly strong this season and it may not take another 90 wins to claim the division title, which is why they remain the consensus favorites.

What else is going on?

  • Yoenis Cespedes was the Tigers’ big offseason pickup, coming over from the Red Sox in exchange for 25-year-old starter Rick Porcello. In addition to his big-time power Cespedes injects some much-needed upside into the lineup. Cespedes is generally talked about as being a much more fearsome hitter than his modest .780 career OPS would suggest and Detroit is betting on him making The Leap at age 29 because Porcello took a big step forward himself with a 3.43 ERA in 205 innings last season.
  • Despite losing Scherzer and trading Porcello the Tigers still have more than $70 million invested in the starting rotation and David Price is 33 starts away from free agency. They need Verlander to bounce back in a huge way and they need Sanchez to stay healthy for 175-plus innings, but the Tigers are also counting on the success Alfredo Simon had with the Reds last year carrying over despite his sub par strikeout rate of 5.8 per nine innings not matching his raw stuff. He’s obviously not going to replace Scherzer, but more or less replacing Porcello would be key.
  • Bullpen problems have plagued the Tigers and signing Nathan to an expensive two-year deal compounded the problem instead of fixing it. Nathan now looks more like a middle reliever than a closer, which could lead to Joakim Soria stepping into ninth-inning duties. Joba Chamberlain was re-signed to fill a setup role despite mixed results last season and Ausmus figures to count on Tom Gorzelanny to get lots of key outs versus left-handed hitters. There’s plenty of talent in the bullpen, but if the relief corps is once again a weakness in 2015 the Tigers’ rotation may not be quite as able to carry the pitching staff.
  • J.D. Martinez’s breakout 2014 season being for real is a huge key in 2015 and beyond. Martinez was once a top prospect in the Astros’ farm system, but then he hit just .251 with a .687 OPS in 252 games through age 25. Houston released him, Detroit snatched him up, and Martinez went on to hit .315 with 23 homers and a .912 OPS in 123 games last season. He’s a big reason why Detroit’s lineup could be scary for opposing pitchers.
  • Detroit’s recent success has revolved around power arms and power bats, but the Tigers have shifted their focus to add more defense of late by acquiring Iglesias, center fielder Anthony Gose, second baseman Ian Kinsler, and outfield speedster Rajai Davis. And ditching Torii Hunter in right field will also help, as the 39-year-old former Gold Glove-winning center fielder rated as one of MLB’s worst defenders statistically in 2014. It’s a much more balanced offense/defense approach, at least in theory.

Prediction: It won’t always be pretty, but 86 wins takes home the most mediocre on-paper division in baseball.

Astros hitting coach receives 20-game suspension; A’s Laureano six

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
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OAKLAND, Calif. — Houston Astros hitting coach Alex Cintron received a 20-game suspension and a fine Tuesday for his role in a benches-clearing brawl at Oakland, while Athletics outfielder Ramon Laureano was given a six-game suspension and a fine.

Cintron’s suspension is the longest for an on-field transgression in 15 years, since Texas pitcher Kenny Rogers received 20 games for his altercation with two cameramen in 2005.

“I accept MLB’s suspension and will learn from this,” Cintron said in a statement. “Although I never referenced Ramon’s mother, my actions were inappropriate. I apologize for my part in Sunday’s unfortunate incident. As coaches, we are held to a higher standard and should be an example to the players. Hopefully, other coaches will learn from my mistake so that this never happens again in the future.”

Laureano appealed, so his discipline didn’t begin Tuesday night in Oakland’s game against the Angels. He was in the lineup batting second and playing center field at Angel Stadium.

Laureano was hit by a pitch from Humberto Castellanos with one out in the seventh inning of Oakland’s 7-2 victory Sunday. He began exchanging words with a gesturing Cintron then left first base, threw down his batting helmet and began sprinting toward the 41-year-old Cintron.

Astros catcher Dustin Garneau tackled Laureano before the A’s outfielder got to the hitting coach. Laureano is a former Astros player and the rival clubs have been the top two in the AL West the past two years. A’s pitcher Mike Fiers, another former Houston player, revealed the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal in November to The Athletic.

Laureano was hit for the third time in the weekend series swept by Oakland – the fifth time the A’s were hit in all while the Astros didn’t get plunked once – and he pointed at Castellanos.

Players rushed out of both dugouts. Laureano was ejected by plate umpire Ted Barrett, and the umpiring crew could easily be heard yelling at the players to “get back to the dugout!” through a ballpark with no fans.

“I just thought that, whew, boy they threw the book at us big time. But what can you do?” said Astros manager Dusty Baker, who had already been ejected by the time the brawl occurred and didn’t see it on TV. “The ruling is the ruling. I talked to the powers that be in the commissioner’s office this afternoon and we had a good conversation. So … we have to deal with it and hopefully this brings our guys even closer together. He was a big part of our team.”

The A’s lost the AL wild-card game each of the past two seasons after winning 97 games both years to place second in the AL West behind three-time reigning division champion Houston, which won a World Series in 2017 and an AL pennant last season.

Laureano began Tuesday batting .259 with three homers and 10 RBIs as the A’s regular center fielder and No. 2 hitter.

“It’s just something we have to deal with,” Oakland manager Bob Melvin said of the suspension. “I don’t make those decisions, and whatever I think about them doesn’t really matter anyway, so I think the best thing to do is try to get it behind us as quickly as we can.”

Melvin wasn’t sure how he would potentially structure his outfield and lineup without Laureano for several games.

“You can’t replace him,” Melvin said. “You just have to play short.”

The Dodgers and Astros had their own dustup when Los Angeles visited Houston last month. LA lost the ’17 World Series to the Astros when the sign-stealing scam was happening.

In announcing the punishments, MLB said Cintron’s discipline was “for his role in inciting and escalating the conflict between the two clubs.” Given the coronavirus pandemic, baseball has established strict guidelines about avoiding brawls.

“The explanation was that he’s a coach and especially with the COVID situation out here … in essence they’re not going to stand for it,” Baker said. “Basically, somebody had to be the example. Especially in these times that we’re going through.”

A former infielder from Puerto Rico, Cintron played parts of nine major league seasons with Arizona, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore and Washington. He won’t be eligible to coach again until Sept. 2, when the Astros are scheduled to host Texas.

“Cintron said what he did was wrong, and he apologized for it,” Baker said. “It still doesn’t take the fact away that it happened.”