There is one key factor which plays directly into the success for this year's Detroit Tigers that has been overlooked & often goes unmentioned...Health. Each time I peak at Detroit's roster (via MLBDepthCharts), I get more & more worried that a injury(s) could cripple this team due to it's lack of depth. Last year the Tigers were very lucky when it comes to actual days spent on the Disabled List (DL). In 2013, only the spry Kansas City Royals spent less days on DL. I am in no way an expert regarding the Tiger roster or prospects (or lack there of) within the organization, but in my opinion if an everyday player, a rotation arm, or high-leverage reliever makes a lengthy trip to the DL, this team could be in trouble.Catcher
I'll start with the player most likely to make an appearance to the DL this coming season, Alex Avila. Lets face it, he gets banged up quite a bit & is not the most durable guy to strap on the tools of ignorance. Last year Avila had two DL stints for a concussion & bruised forearm. Unfortunately, as much as some Tiger fans bashed him, the team will not have Brayan Pena at their disposal to spell the Assistant General Manager's Son. Switch-hitting Pena provided a very respectable batting average of .297 as Avila's back-up in 2013. This year, barring a breakout spring by prospect James McCann, Avila's back up will be the unproven Bryan Holaday. Holaday will be better defensively than Pena but will not contribute as much offensively. Last year Holaday hit .260 in Toledo with an OPS of .684 & ZIPs projections peg him to hit .237 in the bigs next year. Expect him to start at least once a week and likely against tough lefties like Chris Sale. If Avila were to go down early in the season (or in spring training, heaven forbid), I do not see a combination of Holaday & McCann taking us to another AL Central Title & beyond in 2014.Corner Infield
If you are like myself & many other Tiger fans you have already asked yourself "What if Nick Castellanos fails to make a successful transition to the major league level?" or "What happens if back-to-back MVP winner Miguel Cabrera's occurs more injuries in 2014?" I will tell you this, the alternatives are not pretty. There is not another prospect like Castellanos in Toledo (or anywhere in minors) awaiting a promotion to major league level. The primary backups in the corner infield are recently acquired Steve Lombardozzi, late blooming Jordan Lennerton, & everyone's favorite 25th-man, Don Kelly. Lombardozzi & Kelly will each see some spot starts but that is their ideal role along with pinch running or entering as a late inning defensive replacement. Castellanos is the real X-Factor here. He has not been officially named the opening day starter at third base but it is his spot to lose; however, there appears to be no one to lose it to. Needless to say, the season could be a disaster if Cabrera were to land on the DL for a extended amount of time. Anything beyond a start or two a week from Lombo or DK means the Tigers are in trouble.Middle Infield
Once again, Tiger fans will be cheering for #1 and #3 up the middle. It's a new version this time around with slick fielding Jose Iglesias at shortstop & recently acquired Ian Kinsler at second base. Here are two more positions where an injury & lack of depth could really hurt the Tigers. Lombardozzi will enter the season listed second on the depth chart at both positions (as well as third base). He has played 102 games at second base in his career & could probably provide replacement level play at the position should Kinsler visit the DL. However, if Iglesias needs an extended rest, the Tigers would face a difficult challenge. Lombardozzi has played exactly TWO games at shortstop at the major league level totaling 18 innings. New manager Brad Ausmus recently confirmed that he will focus on shortstop this spring. Both Danny Worth & Hernan Perez should start the season in Toledo & would be the first middle infielders called up from the Triple-A club if needed. Worth's has hit .242/.307/.315 in his big league career spanning 115 games. However, he struggled last year with injuries & only hit .223 in Toledo last year. Over 71 plate appearances with the Tigers last year, Perez hit .197/.217/.227. If Iglesias or Kinsler suffer major injuries the Tigers could be forced to look for help outside the organization if they want to contend for a World Series in 2014.Outfield
Finally, a position where Tigers have some depth to speak of. The Tigers project to have a starting outfield of Andy Dirks, Austin Jackson, & Torii Hunter. Newly signed free agent Rajai Davis is expected to platoon with Dirks LF & may also see some time in CF & RF. Davis would be the first outfielder called upon to play a more extensive role if one of the three previously mentioned starters were to need an extended break from action. This is a scary thought because Davis only hit .228 & posted an OBP of just .273 vs. right handed pitching last year. On the other hand, Davis hit .319/.383 vs. lefties. He defense would questionable in CF or RF. The Tigers would be in trouble if Davis is expected to be anything more than a platoon player & pinch runner. Super-sub Don Kelly will also play a role as a backup outfielder but if he gets forced into everyday action, I feel sorry for Tiger fans (myself included). The depth, albeit shaky, comes from minor league free agent signings (Trevor Crowe & Ezequiel Carrera) & prospects whom probably are not quite ready (Daniel Fields & Tyler Collins). Both Crowe & Carrera may be familiar to Tiger fans from their days playing with the Central Division rival Cleveland Indians. Hopefully the change of scenery helps these two in case they are need to step up but I don't see either in a World Series starting lineup anytime soon.Starting Rotation
In 2013, the Tigers were very lucky & only needed to use six starters. Anibal Sanchez was the only starter to visit the DL & it was only for a total of 19 days. It is unlikely the remarkable health in the starting rotation gets replicated in 2014. The starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, & Sanchez will likely combine to spend more time on the DL than 19 days in 2013. In the past, Tiger GM Dave Dombrowski frequently mentioned that they had six major league starters for five spots. This luxury is no longer now that Doug Fister has been dealt in a questionable trade to the Washington Nationals.
There will plenty of left handed options awaiting the phone call in Toledo. Most will remember 2013's rotation fill-in & likely this year's as well, Jose Alvarez. In 2013, Alvarez posted a 5.82 ERA & 1.50 WHIP over 38.2 innings with the big league club...not exactly confidence inducing statistics. Other options the Tigers could call upon in case of injury in the starting rotation are all left handed & include recently acquired prospect (via Doug Fister trade) Robbie Ray, former Rule-5 pick Kyle Lobstein, & Michigan native Duane Below. None of these guys would scream savior if promoted to make the drive north on I-75.Bullpen
The Tigers went out and solidified their back end of the bullpen by inking former Tiger killer Joe Nathan to a two-year deal. Some of the other bullpen spots are locked up but rookie manager Ausmus must piece the parts together. However, beyond the new closer, no one is locked into a role. The days of Beniot-Valverde in the eighth & ninth innings are over. So again I find an area of the team with plenty of question marks. Can finger-pointing Phil Coke return to form? Will newly acquired & inexperienced Ian Krol be the go-to lefty the Tigers hope he'll be? Will Al Alburquerque be able to keep his walk rate at a respectable level? Can Joba Chamberlain be the high-leverage reliever the Tigers signed him to be? Will Bruce Rondon stay healthy & live up to the hype? For a team with World Series aspirations, there are a lot of questions in the bullpen (sound familiar?). If any of these questions get answered "no" or the injury bug bites, there does not appear to be any concrete answers in waiting. There is no Rondon-type arms in the high-minors on the verge of breaking north with the Tigers. There is some hype around prospects Corey Knebel & Melvin Mercedes but both are at least a half year away. The Tigers did also sign a couple minor league free agents (Justin Miller & Jhan Marinez) but it is unknown the level of contribution, if any, they will provide & are lottery tickets at this point. Speaking of which, I would love to see another cheap, low-risk lottery ticket or two. Guys like Ryan Madson & Joel Hanrahan are still on the market & could be available on minor league deals. Former big leaguers Luis Marte, Jose Ortega, & lefty starter turned reliever Casey Crosby all will likely start the season in Toledo barring a breakout spring training performance but could be end up being key contributors this season.Summary
Some fans will argue correctly that every team faces the same risk of injury & that no team is all-stars waiting on the bench. My point is that just one lengthy injury to ANY of the eight positional starters, or ONE of eight or so members of the pitching staff could be catastrophic for the Tigers. This speaks to the lack of experience & talent of the projected bench players along with the poor farm system.
While many Tiger fans have their mind on Triple Crown's, MVP's, CY Young's, contract issues, stolen bases, & improved defense in 2014, I am worried about something much more impactful...health. Let's hope for a healthy spring & summer along with a couple of breakout seasons.