"March Madness" for many of us is watching baseball games that don't count and monitoring a club for any sign of hope/despair that evolves over the six or so weeks a club trains in the Grapefruit League.
To be honest, I've taken most of the Hot Stove Season off. Once the Winter Meetings were complete and it started to look like the Tigers were done making significant moves, I checked out for the first time in many years. I didn't monitor minor league signings, read up on prospects, read every morsel of Tigers' related articles, or pay much more than passing attention to the final few movements of the Astros, Rays, or Rockies. This winter was about family time, my daughter's swim team, daily fun with my 3-year old son, plenty of date-nights with my lovely wife, the release of P90x3, reading fitness blogs, and a new interest in Belgian beers (the beer angle not exactly a perfect match with the fitness pursuits...but none of us are perfect!). It's been great.
However I looked at the calendar last Thursday and suddenly felt genuinely excited about Opening Day for the first time. I also felt an emptiness when the Tigers were rained out that afternoon. It must be time to get back on the horse!
Family time and pursuing other interests weren't the only reasons for checking out of "Obsessed Tiger-fandom" for a while. I was, overall, very lukewarm to the direction Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski steered his ship. I started the off-season with high expectations. I had long held the view that a significant roster shakeup was on the docket for the Tigers. With so many players approaching free agency in 2014 and 2015 it was pretty obvious that the club that lost the ALCS to Boston was not coming back intact. The roster shake up occurred as expected. But the approach left me uninspired.
I had no issue whatsoever with unloading Prince Fielder. As good as Fielder is, I never loved the deal he signed two years ago and in my estimation there was almost no chance that a man that large was going to age well in his 30‘s deep into a 9-year contract. If a real chance to extricate themselves from that deal materialized, it had to be done. Getting a player like Ian Kinsler was fine. He has some ability. But freeing up a massive piece of Fielder's cash for other moves was the highlight.
The infield re-alignment caused by the deal is also a positive. Getting Miguel Cabrera off of 3B and over to 1B to replace Fielder will be a positive. Opening a comfortable defensive position for Nick Castellanos should also pay dividends in time. With Jose Iglesias and Kinsler up the middle the Tigers pitching staff should feel a lot better on grounders this season.
After the Fielder Deal? Meh.
I certainly hope Robbie Ray is a mid-rotation or better starter in due course. Perhaps Ian Krol is a long time bullpen stalwart. Maybe Steve Lombardozzi is a great utility piece. But I feel there was more to be had from dealing Doug Fister. I didn't see the rush to move him. I also did not agree with almost solely targeting pitching as the return in the deal. Dombrowski has been quoted a couple of times that he had a list of 15 pitchers he wanted in a Fister trade. He did supposedly get one in Ray...and that's fine. However I feel that in the off-season a club should work to accumulate the most talent possible if you're talking about getting minor leaguers, almost regardless of position. It would be great to know what minor league bats were out there in trade instead of Robbie Ray.
But more importantly, what left-handed power/OBP bats were possibly attainable for Fister? That seemed to be the major league club's biggest need and it still looks that way. (all the more so with the Andy Dirks' recent injury)
Signing Joe Nathan? Yes...he is great. No debate there and I am not denigrating Nathan as a pitcher. However, was signing the premier Closer on the free agent market really a bigger priority then a lefty bat to balance the righty-dominant Tigers lineup? That seems very questionable to me.
Rajai Davis? Speed. Steals. Good. Low OBP, bad defense, massive platoon split issue. Bad. Kind of a snoozer move. Not worth getting riled up about but nothing to celebrate either.
Joba Chamberlain? 100% in favor of that one. Relievers are nuts. They can find a groove and give you 60 good innings at any time even when they've stunk for a long while. Chamberlain was worth a shot for the low rent deal they gave him. But he's also not likely a season-changer for Detroit.
Once it became obvious that the Tigers weren't going to make the big splash on Shin-Soo Choo and a Max Scherzer extension wasn't in the immediate offing, I settled into other pursuits (P90x3 is pretty great by the way. If anyone is interested in getting in shape and not going to a gym, I say "go for it" if you're healthy enough to try it!). Choo was the big miss from my perspective. His high-OBP/solid power game from the left-side of the plate would have been ideally suited to the Tigers offense. Given the money flowing in today's game and the massive savings from the Fielder and Fister deals, it seemed like the time to jump on an offensive force. Instead they went for Nathan and Davis. Predictable moves...safe moves...but not very inspired.
However all of that is simply a part of the 2014 story now. The club is on the field. It's time to start looking at how things are coalescing in the Florida sun. I approach this season with significant hopes, tempered expectations, and real trepidations.
This can still be a very solid Tigers team that new manager Brad Ausmus sends onto the field. It's set up with a good looking starting rotation, an improved defense, and Miguel Cabrera. Add in a rather unimposing set of division opponents and there is every reason to expect that a 4th consecutive AL Central crown is on the horizon.
However, as noted, there are trepidations. Let's take a look at the top two.
Offensive Power Production
Power. There is a good chance that this will be a very power-deficient lineup without a few things breaking right. (Yes...I did see the Monday power outburst against the Cardinals!) Certainly, given good health, Cabrera can be counted on to do what Cabrera does. But there will need to be some power production from the group including Kinsler, Austin Jackson, Alex Avila, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez. If you look at the last three years for each guy on that list, if they can produce at (or at least reasonably near) the upper end of their best Slugging Percentages over that timeframe then perhaps the worries over power production will be overblown.
Each player has question marks on the power side. Avila spent much of last season in the abyss before ending on an upbeat note. Martinez had a very unproductive three-month string to start the season before catching fire. So we can point to a prolonged funk on his recent resume'. Hunter turns 39 and it's a fair question to ponder if the bottom falls out at some point. It's hard to put high expectations on a player in his twilight years. Kinsler has hit 30+ homers but now leaves the friendly environs of Arlington and has even talked about changing his approach to be more of a gap hitter. That's fine...all extra-base hits are welcome when talking about "power", not just homers. But it sure seems Kinsler himself sees a possible power dip in his future. Jackson didn't follow up a stellar 2012 with a similar 2013. What will be produce after being dropped in the order (assuming that plan sticks)?
It's probably not realistic to expect all five of those players to produce near their best slugging rates. Maybe 3? 2? Hard to say. Certainly if Nick Castellanos performs as a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate, his production could be a huge boon to the lineup. It's probably fair to expect growing pains for him and it seems more realistic to simply count on league average production at best until the young man proves otherwise.
The Tigers are transitioning to a club that is emphasizing speed and aggressive base-running. It's not my cup of tea, to be honest. Certainly you'd like the club to be excellent on the base paths and there is no doubt the Tigers had plenty of tug boats running the bags last season. Given a choice though, I'll always roll with power bats, high OBP, and crooked numbers even if there is a paucity of stolen bases. The "create runs" approach via base-running should be interesting to watch evolve in Detroit. Can that conversion go smoothly after one off-season of creating the makeover? I predict some real growing pains there. Davis is a part-timer and not a high OBP guy. His speed isn't likely to be a consistent presence. Kinsler brings the reputation of being a rather careless baserunner. Will Jose Iglesias get on base enough to take advantage of his good legs?
No...to me, it boils down to the power production created after Miguel Cabrera. The Tigers will not be an elite offense without it. Who is going to produce it? Will Dombrowski have to pursue some via trade during the summer months to augment his new model offense?
Starting Pitching Depth
Any team that can line up a starting rotation of Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello, and Smyly will win their fair share of ballgames if the unit can answer the bell health-wise throughout the season. Last year the Tigers were able to use one of their preferred starters in 156 games. They never had to really commit to starters 6, 7, or even 8 that some clubs need in a given season. The Tigers simply needed Jose Alvarez to take 6 starts and one of those was voluntary on the final weekend during the "We Mean No Harm Tour" stop in Miami.
Will the Tigers get another season of exemplary health from their rotation? It's always a question for any club. If they need to dip into their depth, the pickings might be a little slim. There is precious little depth beyond their top 5. Alvarez is back and competing for a spot. Kyle Lobstein pitched fairly well at Erie last year and will probably be pushed into action if a need arises. Certainly the Tigers would love to see Robbie Ray take the next step and be a viable option at some point this season. Drew VerHagen is another prospect that could draw attention if he gets off to a good start at Erie or Toledo.
Let us not forget that Smyly has never pitched more than 126 innings in any season of his career, college included. Smyly has also had blistering issues during his time as a starting pitcher. He had a reliever's workload last season to boot. Is it even fair to pencil him in for more that 150 innings in 2014? It's probably safe to say that Smyly may have a caddy taking the occasional start for him to make it into September effectively.
Of course any club that experiences difficulties keeping their rotation healthy may struggle. That's not exactly breaking news. This club however seems to be so reliant on their rotation being the primary driver of the club's success that even a slightly beyond modest deviation from the plan in March may keep them from experiencing October baseball. The depth on hand doesn't seem like it could cover 30 or more starts effectively if the need arises.
I feel if you can tell me right now the Tigers will get 146+ starts (which would be 90% minimum) from their preferred 5-man rotation once again, that should be enough to win the AL Central. They have the horses with the track record to do it besides Smyly. But if the number of starts tumbles into the 130's or less, the depth on hand will be stretched and that might bring other clubs in the AL Central into play.
Where is it going?
I see this Tigers edition (barring a Spring Training acquisition) as a mid-to-upper 80's win ballclub. Call it 86-76 right now with a final set-in-stone prediction pending just before Opening Day.
The Tigers have the star power in their rotation, a transcendent figure at first-base, a new manager, a new offensive approach, and several new faces on the roster. It's always fun to see how a season evolves. This one should be no different. I don't see a powerhouse without plenty of things breaking right. This could be a rather ordinary offense with a club that needs near-perfect health from it's rotation. That's a tightrope walk. An improved defense should be a solid boost. Overall, I see a club that should be firmly in the mix for a 4th straight division crown that will have some bumps in the road along the way. "Bumps in the road" and how the club reacts to them should make it a fun ride.