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Tigers not as good on paper, but should survive the AL Central

The 2014 Tigers are a weaker team, on paper, in the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen. But they still should have enough to win their fourth straight division title.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The 2014 edition of the Detroit Tigers look weaker in the rotation without Doug Fister, not as good in the lineup without Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, and even Andy Dirks, and weaker in the bullpen without their three best relief pitchers from 2013. Yet, being led by what still looks like the best starting rotation in the league, the Tigers should be strong enough to win the American League's Central division for the fourth consecutive season.

It's been a busy off season for the Tigers and President/ General Manager Dave Dombrowski. As soon as the World Series was over, and memories of Joaquin Benoit's vulcan change up being hammered over the right field wall in Fenway Park by David Ortiz, over the backward stretching glove of Torii Hunter still haunting them, the Tigers immediately had to deal with eight free agent players. They did that by allowing all of them to walk away, without making a qualifying offer to any of them.

The biggest loss among the free agents was shortstop Jhonny Peralta, who had been replaced by Jose Iglesias at the end of July as his 50 game suspension was about to be handed down. With the loss of Iglesias for most of the season, Peralta has not been replaced despite the recent patch work trades by Dombrowski.

Also gone were closer Benoit, and set up man Jose Veras, whose fairly reasonable option was declined. A below average bullpen had at least temporarily gotten worse.

Next, Dombrowski traded slugger Prince Fielder, who played every game and was the second most productive hitter on the team behind the MVP Miguel Cabrera. The deal is lauded by Tiger fans and national pundits alike. Not for it's impact on the team on the field, but it's impact on the payroll over the last seven years of Fielder's contract. Trading Prince, it was reasoned, and also stated by Dombrowski, would make it more likely that they could keep Cabrera and Cy Young winner Max Scherzer on the team.

The trade at least plugged one of the large holes that had been created by free agency as Omar Infatne was replaced by Ian Kinsler, the one time All Star second baseman who is expected to bring better defense and base running to Detroit, and the transformation to a leaner, faster Tiger team continued. It also would allow Cabrera to move badk to first base and allow top prospect Nick Castellanos to go back to his more natural position at the hot corner.

Baseball's best rotation, which set the all time record for most strikeouts in a season in 2013, was made weaker when Doug Fister was traded for a pitching prospect in Robbie Ray, a uttility playe not good enough to start even part time in the infield or the outfield, and a left handed specialist for the bullpen. Fister's loss will be at least partially offset by moving Smyly from the bullpen to the rotation, but the full impact of the trade won't be known until Ray's future is known.

The domino effect of Fister's loss is most likely to be felt in the rotation if there is an injury to any of the starting pitchers, but will be felt in the bullpen regardless. Fister was one of the ten most valuable starting pitchers in the league in 2013, while Smyly was one of the top five relief pitchers, notwithstanding his uncertain role in the second half of the season after Veras came to the team.

A lot has to go right for the Tigers to not feel the impact of Fister's loss in 2014. The team was very fortunate in the health department a year ago, losing only six starts in the rotation, where Jose Alvarez got hammered and the team lost five of six games. Fister's 200 innings n the rotation and Smyly's 71 frames in the bullpen will not b easy to replace.

Dombrowski made a couple of free agent signings to plug some of the holes and to continue changing the type of lineup that the Tigers would put on the field. Speedster Rajai Davis, was signed to platoon with Andy Dirks in left field. His 45 stolen bases a year ago is more than the entire Detroit team stole in 2013.

The most important free agent signing of the winter saw Detroit adding Joe Nathan, who has been one of the best closers in the game for many years. Nathan replaces Benoit, who did an admirable job of shutting down opponents in the ninth inning once they figured things out in that role.

In theory, the better base running and defense that Kinsler and Iglesias brought to the lineup would mostly offset the power lost by the departure of Peralta and Fielder. Davis brought not only speed, but has murdered left handed pitching in his career.

Despite the quantity of players lost through free agency and trades, the Tigers return the core of a lineup that was second only to Boston in the run scoring department last season. Cabrera is back, Victor Martinez is back and expected to be healthy for a full season, Torii Hunter returns in the outfield, while Dirks, Austin Jackson, and Alex Avila are prime candidates to return to form and provide an offensive boost.

Castellanos is a wild card who comes with great expectations, especially at the plate. The Tigers' top prospect is talked about as a potential rookie of the year candidate, although caution should be urged if those expectations are that he can replace Fielder in the lineup. That's not going to happen. But perhaps, despite all the emphasis on Kinsler and Iglesias improving the infield defense, Cabrera gives the team it's biggest defensive upgrade over Fielder at first base.

After all the roster shuffling, when the dust had settled and the team headed into spring training, there were few who would have picked another club to over take the Tigers in their division. Then, the injury bug bit- and bit them hard. Iglesias out five months, Dirks out two months or more, and Bruce Rondon, who was poised to fill the set up role vacated by Smyly and Veras, was lost for the season.

The team will attempt to fill the vacancies created by injuries internally in the cases of the bullpen and the outfield. Rookie Tyler Collins, who hit .241 with 21 home runs last year in Double-A ball, has been called up to take Dirks' spot on the roster. How much he plays remains to be seen. Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez, a pair of no hit shortstops will replace Iglesias, who replaced Peralta, sticking with the theme of defense at the position.

The big ugly elephant in the room remains the bullpen. While Nathan, the best available relief pitcher on the market, fills a big hole in the ninth inning, pitchers such as Al Alburquerque and Joba Chamberlan, who ranked 1- 2 in the league in the walks department a year ago, are penciled in for set up roles. There are some good arms in the bullpen, but other than Chamberlain's 2011 season in New York, there hasn't been a decent full season by any of the supporting cast in the major leagues. It's more likely that Luke Putkonen and others will be called upon to step up and play a larger role, just as Smyly did a year ago.

So where does that leave the Tigers in 2014? Weaker, at least on paper. But their competition isn't exactly fearsome. While the Tigers played well enough judging by their pythagorean formula projecting wins based on runs scored and allowed, should have won six more games a year ago.

The one run margin of victory a year ago is deceiving. The Cleveland Indians had incredibly good fortune in one run games, going 30 - 17 and 10- 2 in extra innings. Pythag shows that the one game margin could have been nine games. The Indians have lost Ubaldo Jiminez and James Kazmir from their rotation, plus Chris Perez, Matt Albers, and Joe Smith from the bullpen. They've added outfielder David Murphy and replaced Perez with John Axford as their closer.

If Tribe fans are waiting for their team to bring in an impact player (and they're not) don't hold your breath. Talks have broken off between the club and ACE pitcher Justin Masterson, when the team reportedly first sat on an offer from the pitcher's agent for a two or three year extension, then countered with a couple years at $ 14 million. Masterson is no Scherzer, but the dollars being discussed might be an indication of the gap between the two rotations, and the ability of the two clubs to compete on the field.

The Kansas City Royals may have moved up to be the Tigers' primary challenger in 2014. James Shields is in the last year of his contract, and figures to join Masterson and Scherzer on the free agent market next fall. After being dealt for the wunderkid, Wil Myers, it's do or die time for that deal to pay dividends in Kansas City.

The Royals have added Norichi Aoki to their outfield, an on base machine who will be a big help. Another fine addition is former Tiger Omar Infante, who scored a four year, $30 million contract. Still, their offense scored just 648 runs a year ago, by comparison with Detroit's 796 and Cleveland's 745. League average was 702 runs scored. They've probably closed that gap some, but not likely enough.

The Royals have lost Ervin Santana, who had a great season for them last year, and replaced him with lefty Jason Vargas. Reliever Will Smith was traded for Aoki, and Luke Hochevar, who led the KC bullpen with 70.1 innings is lost for the season. Greg Holland returns as one of the best closers in the game. They'll be trying to fill in the gaps in set up roles internally. Seeing any similarities?

The Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins figure to be duking it out for a top draft pick once again. So, when you look at the American League, the Tigers appear to be the one team that has a clear lead in their division, at least on paper. But baseball is a funny game. Anything can and will happen over the course of a 162 game marathon. And that, as they say is why they play the games.