The 2014 Tigers may not even clinch the AL Central. There, I said it. And I hate that I said it, because I like to try and be optimistic about things wherever I can, but at the moment I'm seeing a lot of honeymoon sparkle in the eyes of the fanbase at large, and I think it's unwarranted.
What's happening here is quite normal. A large portion of humanity -- the baseball lovers as well as the other weirdos -- lives perpetually under the mistaken notion that "new always equals better," period. It's a large part of why people change jobs, end relationships, move to different cities, and so on. The New isn't yet tainted by past history, so it becomes a tabula rasa on which to sketch the stuff of pure fantasy. That's neither here nor there, I suppose, it's just the way a lot of people tick.
The 2014 Tigers team is definitely new. It's not a simple upgrade from 2013, it's a full-scale renovation, top to bottom. The offense, the defense, the starting rotation, the bullpen, and the coaching staff are all different. The fact is, we really have no freaking clue what's going to happen in 2014, no matter how many numbers we crunch, how much we speculate, or how many good feelings we have.
I'm not saying the 2014 Tigers are out of the race. I'm saying "wait and see." I'm saying good things could happen, if the planets line up and the baseball gods stay the hell out of it, but the reality is that the march to the postseason isn't going to be a walk in the park. It might not even be a walk at all, but more of a limp, or a crawl.
There are two big assumptions that I see being made in a large portion of the fanbase. First, that Brad Ausmus is going to do things differently than Jim Leyland (and the subsequent assumption, that Ausmus' way is going to be better), and second, that the Tigers are a faster team now, so they're still going to score a bunch of runs even though three of their bigger bats are gone.
Brad Ausmus has no idea how to run a bullpen, and he's absolutely terrible at constructing lineups. "How do you know that?!" you scream at me, spraying my face with a fine mist of cheap vodka. It's easy: the same way anyone knows that Ausmus and Leyland have different managerial styles, which is to say "I don't know, and neither do you." Ausmus may prove to be a genius at running a team. Or he may fail miserably. We'll have to wait and see, and any predictions made at this point carry about as much weight as a weak fart in a high wind.
As for the 2014 Tigers being a faster team, what do we mean by "faster?" "Faster" in the same sense that a turtle is faster than a snail? Or "faster" in the sense that we think this Tigers team is now stacked with speedsters like Coco Crisp or Jacoby Ellsbury? Is Jose Iglesias faster than Jhonny Peralta? Yeah, sure. But is Jose Iglesias going to swipe 50 bags and be a constant threat on the basepaths? Probably not. Same goes for Austin Jackson, Ian Kinsler, and Nick Castellanos.
The only major speed boost in the 2014 roster comes by way of Rajai Davis, who was second in the American League last year in stolen bases. However, it has been rightly said that Davis will primarily see lineup action against left-handed pitchers, because his career slashlines vastly favor the southpaws. But there's an important point that goes unmentioned: the Tigers only faced left-handed pitchers 35 percent of the time last year. Whatever potential for extra bases, steals, or small ball runs Davis brings to the table, we're talking about a minority of situations.
Well, thank God for the major defensive boost, right? Because, as people like Dan Dickerson and Brad Ausmus have said recently, run prevention through stellar defense is almost as good as having a hot offense. Except, that's not really true, because baseball teams don't win games by preventing runs, they win games by scoring runs. Slight difference, but important.
And just how good did the team get, defensively speaking? Going by the numbers, the defense got only marginally better in some places, and in others it got worse. For example, replacing Fielder with Cabrera at first base gains a mere half-point in UZR, while replacing Infante with Kinsler results in a three-point drop in UZR.
What about Castellanos? Making predictions about the new kid at third base, either defensively or offensively, is about as foolish as pontificating about what kind of managerial style Brad Ausmus will have. We're talking about big, fat unknowns. All in all, and according to some sets of numbers, the Tigers went from somewhere around a -30 defensive rating in 2013 to a -2 in 2014. Maybe those numbers are off here or there, but they paint the right general picture: the defense went from being shockingly bad to fairly tolerable, but we're still a long way from The Golden Glove Emporium.
Comparisons have been made between this still untested 2014 team and the 2013 World Champion Red Sox. The new and improved Tigers are faster, more balanced (which just means "faster"), more athletic (again, "faster"), just like the Red Sox, so ... World Series bound, right? But the Red Sox didn't lead the major league in runs scored because of their speed alone, they scored a lot of runs because they also led the majors in on-base percentage (not to mention slugging percentage). I realize that the Tigers are a slightly faster team now, but by any projection, their on-base percentage is going to decline from where it was in 2013, and their slugging percentage is going to drop even further.
Being faster doesn't automatically equate to scoring more runs. You have to get on base before speed matters. Ellsbury was a threat for the Red Sox, not just because he stole 52 bases, but because his on-base percentage was .355. The Tigers had only four guys on the team who matched or bested that number in 2013 - two of them are gone in 2014, and none of the four could really run anyway.
So what does 2014 hold for the Tigers? I don't know. None of us knows. With a lot of ifs and maybes going the right way (if Dirks has a better year, if Avila stays healthy and hits, if Castellanos is better than average, if Smyly can handle the burden), it could easily be another division-clinching year, and maybe even another trip to the World Series. But this could also just as easily be the first year since 2011 that the Tigers don't even make it to the postseason. Who knows? We're just going to have to wait and see.