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.

Straight-away center field will be 385 feet at London Stadium

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Marley Rivera of ESPN has a story about some of the on-field and in-game entertainment, as well as some aspects of the field conditions, for this weekend’s London Series.

The fun stuff: a mascot race, not unlike the Sausage Race at Miller Park or the President’s race at Nationals Park. The mascots for London: Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII and the Loch Ness Monster. I suppose that’s OK but, frankly, I’d go with Roger Bannister, Shakespeare, Charles Darwin and Guy Fawkes. Of course no one asks me these things.

There will also be a “Beat the Streak”-style race which had better use the theme to “Chariots of Fire” or else what the heck are we even doing here.

They’ve also taught ushers and various volunteers who will be on-site to sing “Take me out to the ballgame,” which is a pretty good idea given how important that is to baseball. As a cultural exchange, I think some major league team should start using “Vindaloo” by Fat Les during the seventh inning stretch here. It’s a banger. It also seems to capture England a bit more accurately than, say, “Downton Abbey” or “The Crown.”

That’s all good fun I suppose. But here’s some stuff that actually affects the game:

The end result will have some interesting dimensions. The field will be 330 feet down each foul line, and it will have a distance of 385 feet to center field, which will feature a 16-foot wall. Cook also said it would have an expanded, “Oakland-like” foul territory, referencing the Athletics’ Oakland Coliseum expanse.

Those dimensions are unavoidable given that the square peg that is a baseball field is being shoved into the round hole that is a soccer stadium. As Murray Cook, MLB’s senior field coordinator tells Rivera, that sort of thing, while perhaps less than ideal, is at least in keeping with baseball’s strong tradition of irregular field conditions. It will, however, be one of the shortest dead center distances in baseball history.

Oh, and then there’s this:

Protective netting was also an important issue addressed when building the ballpark, with Cook stressing that his team has implemented netting that “is the largest you’ll ever see in any major league ballpark.”

[Craig makes a mental note to bookmark this for the next time MLB says it won’t mandate extended netting in the U.S. because doing so is too difficult]