The Detroit Tigers have won three consecutive division titles for the first time in their history. They have played in the American League Championship Series in each of those three years, and been to the World Series once. Yet, the roster that has produced such success has undergone much more than a simple tweaking. The Tigers' roster has been overhauled.
Of the 25 players who were on the Tigers’ Opening Day roster in 2013, 13 players -- more than half the roster -- are no longer on the roster, and two more are on the bubble.
The 2014 Tigers will have a different player starting at every position around the infield. The bullpen will feature five or six pitchers who started last season in the minors or in another organization. The bench will have three, if not all four new faces.
Equally significant, the Tigers will have a new manager and five of seven coaches have been replaced. To say that the Tigers will have a new look in 2014 would be the understatement of the year.
Yet in another sense, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The Tigers starting pitching rotation returns four of five starters, adding only Drew Smyly who moves up from the bullpen. Also returning are Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Alex Avila, and the entire starting outfield. The differences will be in the infield, where Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, and rookie Nick Castellanos will team up with Cabrera, and in the bullpen where Joe Nathan leads a cast of young guns into the 2014 campaign.
There is some familiarity with many of the new Tigers. Of the 13 players tentatively penciled in for 2014 -- and that is sure to change -- six came from other organizations this winter, one (Iglesias) joined up during the 2013 campaign, and seven have moved up the ranks in the organization. The new Tigers include three free agents, four players acquired by trade, and six homegrown players. About how it should be.
The Tigers have gotten younger, faster, and much better defensively, even if the power has dropped off significantly. Rajai Davis, who is expected to platoon with Andy Dirks in left field and serve as the team’s fourth outfielder, stole ten more bases than the entire Tiger team in 2013. Ian Kinsler is one of the more efficient base runners in the game, taking an extra base in 60% of the opportunities to do so.
The Tigers are losing players who combined for over 100 home runs, and over 250 RBI, replacing them with players who project to hit fewer than half as many homers, and drive in about twenty fewer runs. They’re replacing power with better baserunning and defense.
Also gone is some $50 million in salaries. The players who earned those salaries, or at least the ones who have signed with other clubs, will be making twice as much next season. A clear sign that keeping the old gang together was not an option.
How the new look Tigers turn their skills into wins is something that remains to be seen. They still have the best pitching rotation in the league, and they’re still the consensus favorite to win their division for a fourth straight season.
In just over six weeks, pitchers and catchers will report to Lakeland. Despite all the turnover on the roster, the fans will be back. The Tigers don’t necessarily have to score as many runs, as long as they score more runs at the right time. That means in the late innings, as they did not do last season, and against their division rivals, which they did last year. And they need to score in the postseason.
Among the Tigers’ division opponents, only one, the Kansas City Royals, figure to have improved enough to mount a challenge, but you never know until they take the field. The same fans who are now used to winning. In that sense, the more things change, the more they remain the same.