It came as a surprise to many when the three-time defending American League Central Champions, a team coming off three consecutive ALCS appearances with an AL pennant raised in the middle, chose not to play it safe this offseason. It would have been easy for them to make a minor tweak here or there and enter 2014 expecting not just to make another playoff appearance, but to make good on the championship promise of the 2013 roster, because a healthy Miguel Cabrera and any semblance of an appearance by Prince Fielder would have put the Tigers back in the World Series. When the league's MVP is hobbled so badly it is painful to watch him run or even try to field at third base, it becomes that much harder for any team to win, and each ALCS game but the last came down to the thinnest of margins.
Everything changed shortly after the season when manager Jim Leyland retired after eight years with the club. Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski used the opportunity to hire a new manager, hot-commodity Brad Ausmus, whose natural inclination is to force a few issues rather than sit back. That, along with trading Prince Fielder to the Rangers, reconfigured the club in a big way. The Tigers will open the season with a complete turnover in the infield. Gone is Prince Fielder, second baseman Omar Infante and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, and now Cabrera has moved back to first base. Taking over their positions are Ian Kinsler (an above-average second baseman freshly arrived from the Rangers) and, well, we don't actually know who's going to play shortstop after Jose Iglesias was diagnosed with stress fractures in both his shins. We do know the Tigers are looking for a glove-first player, however. Rookie Nick Castellanos returns to third base from the outfield, where he was sequestered when it appeared the hot corner would be occupied by Cabrera for years to come.
With better defense up the middle and improved (though below-average) defense at the corners, Tigers pitchers should be expected to benefit the most from the team's offseason. The other key lineup change was bringing in the speedy Rajai Davis, who'll likely start in left field after Andy Dirks required surgery on his back. Dirks is out three months. In the meantime, Davis will enjoy Ausmus' intention to be aggressive on the base paths.
Of course, we'd be remiss if we didn't mention a glaring absence in the rotation and the one transaction that takes the shine off an otherwise successful offseason: right-handed pitcher Doug Fister. A step below the trio of Justin Verlander, reigning Cy Young Award-winner Max Scherzer, and fellow Cy Young hopeful Anibal Sanchez, Fister should never be dismissed as a mere fourth starter. He had the 19th-best Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) figure in the game in 2013 and was worth four Wins Above Replacement (WAR). On the surface, the idea of a team so close to a World Series ring trading a key starter appears to make no sense at all. Taken in context, however, you can begin to understand why the Tigers would make the move. Near the top of their payroll limits, the Tigers used the money freed up in by the deal to sign steadfast closer Joe Nathan, while acquiring Robbie Ray, a fireballing young left-handed starter whom they are high on, and a cost-controlled left-handed reliever, Ian Krol, to help in the bullpen.
Add to those incentives the belief that left-hander Drew Smyly, with a career 3.39 ERA, can step into Fister's spot, and you begin to see how the move was made with the future of the club in mind. Concerns about how many innings Smyly will be able to pitch after spending 2013 in the bullpen are, however, valid. The trade was loved by neither fans nor pundits, but it may prove to be for the best when discussing the long-term health of the organization. If Smyly throws enough innings, and if the Tigers are able to win both now and later -- the ultimate goal for any club that brings in more than 3 million fans and one of the largest television audiences in the sport -- Dombrowski's folly may be seen much the same as "Seward's Folly:" purchasing oil-rich Alaska.
Make no mistake, the Tigers can win now. Even after trading Fister, they return with the best rotation in the American League and perhaps baseball, and the bullpen is stocked with potential, though potential does not always translate to actual results. With three aces and starter Rick Porcello learning to pitch deeper into games, the bullpen will not often be asked to do much before turning the ball over to Nathan. With the lineup bringing more flexibility around Cabrera, the Tigers will again score with ease. Don't take our word for it either: The Tigers are a team the computers project to finish among the best in baseball in both runs scored and runs prevented. They're a team Clay Davenport's simulation gives the highest playoff chances in the AL. They're a team Vegas set for the highest wins over/under in the AL: 91.5. In other words: They're a really good, veteran team - again.
With the 30th anniversary of the Roar of ‘84 -- Bless you, boys! -- at hand, it's no leap to believe the Tigers are not just the favorite to win a pennant in 2014, but to finally bring that championship parade to a new generation of fans in Detroit.