When the umpire yells "play ball" on opening day, 2014, the Detroit Tigers will have different players at first base, second base, third base, and shortstop. They'll have one new pitcher in their starting rotation, and at least four new players in the bullpen who were not on the opening day roster a year earlier. Tiger President and General Manager, Dave Dombrowski has indicated that the club in not looking to sign any more players, so this could be it for 2014.
Tiger fans are learning that Mr Ilitch has limits to how high he will allow payroll to go in search of a championship. Adjustments had to be made to the payroll in order to sustain success going forward. Even after allowing eight free agents to leave, and even after trading Fielder and Fister, the payroll is about $ 9 million higher than it was at the start of the 2013 season. Dombrowski seems to have made the adjustments with a minimum amount of pain.
Granted, some of the players who will be filling roles for the 2014 Tigers were a part of the team in 2013 for at least part of the season, but for a team that has been to baseball's final four in each of the past three seasons, next year's model features quite a bit of remodeling. The makeover is necessitated by an escalating payroll with eight players departing via free agency and nine others eligible for arbitration. Any further expenditures are more likely to come in the form of extensions given to players currently on the roster.
The most notable changes to the roster include the loss of Prince Fielder, Omar Infante, and Jhonny Peralta- three of the five most productive offensive weapons. Miguel Cabrera is the lone holdover in the Tiger infield. Add the loss of Doug Fister from the rotation, as well as Joaquin Benoit, Jose Veras, and Drew Smyly from the bullpen, and the adjustments amount to quite a bit more than just tweaking of the roster.
It's easy to look at the lineup and conclude that Jose Iglesias, Nick Castellanos, and Ian Kinsler can not possibly match the offensive production of the dearly departed infielders. The Tigers hope to make up for the lost offense with better base running and improved defense. Mathematically, that's nearly an impossible task, but the plan is to do enough to remain atop the Central division.
Add the fact that the Tigers have taken last year's 12th ranked bullpen ERA among 15 AL teams and replaced their three late inning relievers, now featuring a bullpen that has just one pitcher who has performed well for a full season recently. One has to question just how much worse the team has gotten. Nathan should adequately replace Benoit if he stays healthy, but the biggest questions are whether Bruce Rondon an fill the eighth inning role in his first full season in the majors, and whether Joba Chamberlain or Al Alburquerque can show dramatic improvement to hold leads in the seventh inning. At best, it's a big gamble, and they will need relief pitchers to perform better than they have the past couple of seasons.
The bottom line for the Tigers is that they need to register enough wins to win their division, and then make the key plays in October that were missing the past few seasons. How do the changes that have been made figure to help them achieve those goals? Brad Ausmus will need to make his team do more with less talent than they have done. Now, let's look around the division and see what the competition is up to.
Cleveland Indians: The Tribe came within one game of the Tigers in 2013, but we quickly note that the gap was narrowed at the end of the season, with the race decided and the Tigers resting up for the playoffs while the Indians raced to make the playoffs. Still, Cleveland was the closest competitor in 2013.
The Indians have lost two members of their starting rotation to free agency in Ubaldo Jiminez and Scott Kazmir. Those two started 61 games, posting 23 wins, each with an ERA below 4.00. Danny Salazar, who impressed in his rookie season in 2013 figures to fill one slot, and it's unclear what the plans are to fill out the rotation.
In the bullpen, the Tribe loses closer Chris Perez set up man Joe Smith, and reliever Matt Albers to free agency. Smith has signed with the Angels, while Perez was released at the end of the season, and they're expected to sign John Axford to fill the closer role. The lineup gains outfielder David Murphy, who is coming off an unimpressive season with the Texas Rangers, but has fared better in previous years. He went from a 126 OPS+ to just 77 in one season. He'll replace Drew Stubbs in the outfield.
The Indians out performed their Pythagorean projections (wins based on runs scored vs allowed) by two games, while the Tigers under performed their Pythag by six games. If Cleveland has closed this gap, it will be due more to the Tigers regressing, rather than anything they've done to improve their team.
Kansas City Royals: It could be do or die time for Royals GM, Drayton Moore in 2014. After trading Wil Myers, the top prospect in the baseball world, for two years of James Shields, the Royals need to win before Shields leaves as a free agent. Unfortunately, the Royals start the off season by losing Ervin Santana and Bruce Chen from their rotation, which led the league in ERA in 2013. One slot will be filled by Jason Vargas, who was signed for $ 32 million over four years.
In a significant move, the Royals traded lefty reliever Will Smith to the Brewers for outfielder Norichi Aoki, who posted an impressive line of .287/.355/.399 for an OPS of .754 in 2013, with good speed and some power. He figures to lead off in 2014. Smith was part of the leagues best bullpen last season, so they were dealing from a position of strength.
The Royals followed up by signing former Tiger second baseman, Omar Infante, to a four year $ 30 million contract. Infante will be a significant upgrade over Chris Getz, who was released. They also let utility infielder Jamie Carroll and backup catcher George Kottaras go.
Kansas City appears, to be the most improved club in the division so far this off season. They were also reported to be very interested in dealing DH Billy Butler, which will be good news to Justin Verlander if he's traded out of the division. The return that the eventually get if they move Butler could determinine whether they can close the gap and over take the Tigers in the Central division. They look like serious contenders, but they ranked 11th in the league in runs scored last season, and that won't improve by trading Butler, who was the second best hitter on the team after Eric Hosmer.
Chicago White Sox: After finishing in last place, 30 games behind the Tigers, with the third worst record in the majors last summer, one might expect the White Sox to be very active in trying to rebuild. Instead, Chicago has been relatively quiet after signing Cuban first baseman Jose Abreu to a six year, $ 68 million contract.
Both Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn are expected back next summer, and neither performed well in 2013, so the Sox are hoping for a major offensive improvement from Abreu. The White Sox began playing for the future in mid season, trading Jake Peavy to Boston in the deal that sent Tiger outfielder Avisail Garcia to Chicago, and Jose Iglesias to Detroit. Garcia figures to be starting in 2014.
In the rotation, Chicago non tendered starter Dylan Axelrod, traded Peavy to Boston, lost Gavin Floyd to free agency, and traded Hector Santiago for outfielder Adam Eaton in the deal that sent Angels' outfielder Mark Trumbo to Arizona. The rotation is expected to include Chris Sale and Jose Quintana. After that, it's anyone's guess. In the bullpen, the Sox picked up a $ 4 million option on Matt Lindstrom, but traded their best reliever, Jesse Crain to the Rays, and he remains a free agent.
The White Sox have freed up a bunch of cash, and could sign any free agent without losing their first round draft pick, so they could yet make some moves in free agency. There have been rumors of Sale or Quintana being available, but it's hard to imagine who they'd build around if they trade any more pitchers. The Sox are in rebuilding mode, but they have yet to acquire enough building blocks to lay a foundation for the future.
Minnesota Twins: After trading Justin Morneau to the Pirates during the season, the Twins didn't have much house cleaning to do, with only starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey set to leave as a free agent. The Twins began rebuilding with nine first and second round draft selections in 2011 and 2012, mostly due to compensation for losing free agents, the Twins have begun to add major league players to hold the fort until reinforcements arrive in a couple of years.
The Twins got out of the gate early by signing starting pitchers Ricky Nolasco to a four year, $ 49 million contract, and then signed former Yankee starter Phil Hughes to a three year, $ 24 million deal. Hughes was 4-14 with a 5.19 ERA for the Yankees last season, so the Twins are obviously hoping for improvement from the once highly regarded pitcher. Finally, they resigned their own free agent starter Mike Pelfrey for two years and $ 11 million.
In the lineup, the club has announced that they will move Mauer to first base, and use young catcher Josmil Pinto behind the plate. Otherwise, the lineup that ranked twelfth of 15 teams remains the same. In summary, the team has signed three average pitchers to $ 84 million in contracts and is otherwise in a holding pattern, waiting for the kids to graduate.
Back to the Tigers: It would seem apparent from the moves being made around the division that the Tigers hold their fate in their own hands. It's equally obvious that they have taken the opportunity to shed some payroll in order to recalibrate for the future, and have added younger, cheaper, faster and better defensive players in place of sluggers who move station to station around the bases.
Tigers' owner Mike Ilitch has not been one to pass up an opportunity to make a big splash to help his club in times of need. So while Dombrowski says that the team isn't looking to sign any more players, you can bet that they'll be looking for opportunities to improve as the market develops and the after Christmas sale begins in January. If there are areas where the club needs help. ownership won't be shy about addressing the needs.
The Tigers out scored Cleveland by 50 runs last year, and held opponents to 38 fewer runs. It wouldn't appear that the Indians have done anything to close that gap, on either end. The Tigers outscored the Royals by 148 runs, but the Royals actually were the only team in the league to allow fewer runs than Detroit, by a 23 run margin. That's because their bullpen made up for the difference in rotations, and then some.
The Royals have improved but still have major questions in their lineup. The Indians probably have not even kept pace, and the Twins and White Sox are a good distance away from being legitimate contenders. The Tigers still have the best rotation in the league, and more potent bats in their lineup than their division rivals. It won't be easy- it seldom is easy, but unless the Tigers' makeover destroys their run production, or the relief corps completely lets them down, the club should remain the favorites to repeat in the Central division.