It's not hard to spot the strengths and weaknesses on the Tiger roster entering the 2014 season. The starting pitching rotation is as good as it gets. Miguel Cabrera is historically great. There are holes at shortstop and in the bullpen, and there's not much depth. These things are apparent. But here are five key players and their keys to success this season.
1. Al Alburquerque needs to keep the ball in the ballpark. We know about his electric stuff, featuring a deadly slider. His strikeout rate is as good as any pitcher in the league. His walk rate was also the highest in the league last year. The walks aren't going to just disappear over night, but he can survive even with the walks if he can keep the ball in the park.
In 2013, Alburquerque allowed 25 earned runs in 53 appearances. 13 of those came in four games when he allowed five home runs.Previously, he did not allow a home run in his major league career. In fact, he rarely gave up a home run in the minor leagues, either. In 49 games in his prior two seasons, he allowed just 10 earned runs- no home runs, and posted ERAs of 1.87 and 0.68.
In a span of four games, Alburquerque allowed a home run in three of them, accounting for nine earned runs. In another game, two home runs and four earned runs. Home runs appear to be an aberration for him. As the pitcher who appears to be the set up man for Joe Nathan, Alburquerque needs to be effective, and keeping the ball in the yard is a big key.
2. Rick Porcello needs to improve against left handed hitters. The league's best rotation from a year ago could have a big hole if they can't replace the loss of Doug Fister, who was a top ten starter last year according to many measures. Drew Smyly is a very capable pitcher, but he threw just 70 innings last year and the team is hardly going to get 208 innings out of him, even if he were to match Fister's ratios.
That's where Porcello comes in. Kid Rick wasn't too far behind Fister in many ways. He does have to make up 31 innings, but getting more starts as the fourth starter can make up a chunk of that. Porcello posted a very good 2.14 BB/9 ratio and allowed just 0.92 home runs per nine frames. He had a higher strikeout ratio than Fister, and the difference in fielding independent pitching (FIP) was just 0.27 runs.
The numbers that jump out on Porcello's chart are his left/ right splits. While he was fourth in the league in wOBA allowed to right handed hitters at .265, he ranked 45th with a .353 wOBA against left handers. His K/BB was 7.45 against right handers and just 1.94 against left handers. He allowed a wOBA of .331 against left handers in 2009, then .346, .373, and .380 before dropping back to .353 last year. Bring those ratios against left handers back into line, and the Tigers have themselves quite a solid pitcher.
3. Austin Jackson needs to return to his 2012 form. Jackson looked well on his way to becoming an all star with a line of .300 .377 .479 .856 and 16 home runs in 2012, but dropped back to .272 .337 .417 .754 with 12 homers in 2013. A difference of 40 points on base percentage and 100 points OPS is quite a drop.
Jackson is slotted fifth in the lineup, which is now without two of the three most productive hitters from last year in Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta. Someone has to pick up the slack, and Jackson is the most likely candidate. Alex Avila, Andy Dirks, and Ian Kinsler are all candidates for rebound seasons, but Jackson holds the greatest promise of the lot.
4. Torii Hunter needs to age gracefully, and slowly. Hunter surpassed all expectations last season, being selected to the All Star team, winning a silver slugger award and finishing in the top 20 in the MVP voting. He posted a slash line of 304 .334 .465 .800, which is 25 points better than his career batting average and almost exactly equal to his career OBP, slugging percentage, and OPS at .800. His defense has fallen off noticeably, but he needs to contribute in a big way at the plate.
5. Andy Dirks needs to return to the form that he showed in the second half last season when he returns from the disabled list. Dirks is said to be out for eight weeks, and the Tigers will try to hold the fort in left field until his return. In 2013, Dirks had a poor start to the season, hitting .243 .305 .344 .649 before the All Star break. He bounced back very nicely in the second half, batting .278 .354 .395 .749. Not exactly what he did in 2012, but solid enough.
Dirks was one of the weaker hitting left fielders in the league in 2013, in a position that usually provides offense. His defense was very solid, being nominated for a gold glove, but he will need to get back on track at the plate upon his return. Being platooned with Rajai Davis should help, as his splits last season showed an OPS that was 67 points better against right handers than lefties.
Of course, there are other important factors, beginning with health. Miguel Cabrera needs to just stay healthy. If there is one thing that could completely mess up the Tigers' season, we saw what that was last October. An injury to any pitcher in the Tiger rotation means that Kyle Lobstein will likely be this year's Jose Alvarez, losing five of six starts with an ERA of 5.82. That won't win games.
The Tigers are not going to get much offense out of the shortstop position with what they've got in the organization. There are going to be games lost by the bullpen, no matter how they shuffle the order of what they have. And there are some live arms in the organization, and no doubt there will be a couple of players making their major league debut before the season is over. But the real keys to the season will be getting performances out of players that we have witnessed in the past.