After the end-to-end overhaul that took place during the 2013 offseason, there are a lot of questions about the 2014 Tigers team that will remain unanswered until the season actually begins. However, after having spent the last three months or so looking at a lot of statistics and watching 2013 highlight reels and archived games, I feel safe in making the following predictions about the 2014 season.
1. We're going to miss Doug Fister more than we thought
Doug Fister was underrated and undervalued before he came to Detroit. He was also underrated and undervalued while he was with Detroit, but what can you do? He was pitching on a starting rotation that included Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez. Some in the fanbase understood this, and I heard the comment more than once, "He's a fourth starter on this team, but he'd be a first starter on most other teams." I think we'll fully understand this only in his absence, when we see the kinds of things he does for the Nationals.
2. The new and improved defense is going to feel great
When you've been watching an offense-heavy team for several years in a row, it can be easy to lose sight of the value of good defense. But do you remember watching games last year when it felt like every ball the Tigers hit got flagged down by a center fielder, or a shortstop, or a second baseman? Do you remember thinking, during those games, that it was a pain in the butt to play against teams with good defense? The Tigers are going to be that burr under the saddle for other teams this year.
3. Rajai Davis is going to be more valuable than we expected
It might take a couple of months for this to emerge, but it will. We've gotten used to watching games and expecting offensive domination, waiting for home runs, doubles, lots of runs batted in on big hits. But we also saw how much pressure an opposing team could put on our Tigers when they got a guy on base who could run. Rajai Davis is going to be that guy for Detroit. It's going to feel great to have him on base.
4. Miguel Cabrera is going to reach a milestone
Miggy is 35 home runs away from reaching his career 400th home run. Since his first full year in 2004, he has averaged 35 home runs per year. At this point, the only thing to do is start placing bets on whether he'll reach that milestone by the end of August, but it will happen, and it will be glorious.
5. Anibal Sanchez is also going to reach a milestone
"The Ice Cream Man," as we've decided to label him, is only 65 strikeouts away from racking up career number 1,000. He averages well over 100 strikeouts per year, and in years when he gets at least 25 starts, he's averaged closer to 180 strikeouts per year. Again, the only question now is when he'll hit that milestone, and whether it will be before the All Star break.
6. Drew Smyly is going to exceed our expectations
We saw him perform phenomenally out of the bullpen last year, but I don't think we've seen the best of what he has to offer. Just wait until we get to see him start 20-plus games in 2014. I don't know that he'll be able to replace Doug Fister per se, but I have a feeling it's going to feel that way several times this season, as we watch him pitch from game to game.
7. We're going to realize just how good Jim Leyland was
This isn't a knock against Brad Ausmus, because we have no idea how he's going to manage the team, and anyway, it won't be a fair comparison because Ausmus is getting a very different roster than Leyland had to work with. Regardless, I think there will be many moments in 2014 when we realize that Jim Leyland was much better as a manager and much more savvy than we realized.
8. The void left by Peralta and Fielder will be felt
Yes, Fielder had a comparatively bad year in 2013, and yes, Peralta had a career year that he's not guaranteed to repeat in 2014. Both of those players probably needed to move on, and it's difficult to complain about getting Iglesias and Kinsler in return. However, there are going to be many, many times in 2014 when we will wish to the high heavens that Peralta or Fielder were on deck.
All questions of decline or dependability aside, it can't be denied that both of these guys posed at least the threat of offensive damage, and let's face it, we felt good when they came to the plate with runners in scoring position. It's probably best that they're gone, but boy howdy, we're going to miss those bats.
9. The holes in middle-relief will be glaring, and will be addressed by July
Underneath the hype and hubbub surrounding the signing of Joe Nathan remains the simple fact that having an official Closer [TM] was not really an issue that needed to be addressed from 2013. The stats tell the story, and it's a strange story. Joe Nathan is better than Joaquin Benoit, but not by a lot.
The far, far bigger issue was having reliable arms in the bullpen to pitch the 6th-8th innings, and that issue has not really been resolved in 2014. In fact, more question marks have been added: will Joba Chamberlain be able to bounce back and be reliable for the Tigers, and will Ian Krol be a positive addition? The old questions still remain as well: will Bruce Rondon stay healthy, and will Al Alburquerque be able to tame his occasional wild streaks? Time will tell, but I suspect that the chewy center of the Tigers' middle relief will be exposed several times in 2014, and some pieces will be removed, rearranged, and added by the trade deadline.
10. The race to the AL Central crown will be won by a nose
We got incredibly spoiled in 2013. Even though the history books will show that the Tigers finished only one game ahead of the competition at the end of the year, those of us who watched them all year long will always remember a different story. They were in first place for over 80% of the season, and there was never really a question as to who was going to clinch the AL Central.
In 2014, I predict a slightly different pace and process. I don't doubt the early predictions by number crunchers who are far more qualified than I am - the Tigers are a favorite to win the division for a fourth year straight, a first for the franchise. But I don't think they'll spend 80% of the year in first place. I think the combination of the Indians and Royals will make life miserable for our fanbase, and more than a few of us are going to get nervous at several points during the season. I can't wait to see what Twitter looks like for the 2014 season.
But no matter which team ends up winning the division, it won't be by a landslide, and it probably won't be comfortable for anyone. Then again, isn't that what makes any sports team fun to watch?