For the past four seasons, the Detroit Tigers have ruled the American League’s Central division. In 2011, the Tigers won the division by 15 games. A year later, they won by three games. In each of the past two seasons, they won the division by just one game.
If you read the preseason predictions, the Tigers have been heavy favorites to win their division each of the past four years, but it hasn’t been easy by any means. One of the factors that has worked in Detroit’s favor has been their ability to beat their division rivals when they play them head-to-head.
Last season they won 13 of 19 games against the second-place Kansas City Royals. In 2013, they went 15-4 against the runner-up Cleveland Indians. Prior to that, they were 12-6 against the second place Chicago White Sox in 2012. In 2011, they obliterated the field by a comfortable margin over all of their division rivals. It’s not difficult to imagine losing just one more key game to a division rival in either of the past two seasons and letting the division crown slip away.
One advantage that the Tigers have had over the past several years has been a dominant starting rotation. As the seasons change, so has the rotation that has kept Detroit on top of the pack in their division. Gone now are Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, Drew Smyly, and Max Scherzer. Still in town are Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and the recently acquired David Price. Those are three elite starting pitchers, provided that Verlander finds his way back from a rocky season in 2014.
The 2013 Tigers’ rotation was not just good, it was historically good. As a group, they shattered the record for most strikeouts by a pitching staff while the starting rotation posted 25.2 wins above replacement, blowing away every other team in the league. In 2014, the Tigers still led the league with 19.6 WAR, but the strikeouts were down by almost a full strikeout per nine innings. That is 2.6 wins better than the Indians, who ranked second, but it is not nearly as dominant as the Tigers were a year earlier.
The Indians’ rotation even posted a slightly better fielding independent pitching (FIP) ratio than the Tigers, although their starters worked some 50 fewer innings. Poor defense added a full half run per nine innings to Detroit’s rotation ERA. Contrast that with the Royals, who saved 0.3 runs per game due to their defense.
In 2015, the Tigers will be relying on two starting pitchers, Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, who have had limited success as starters in the major leagues. Greene worked just 78 2/3 innings as a rookie in 2014, while Simon had two half-seasons that were so different you have to wonder which version will show up when the team heads north for the spring. Will it be the All-Star from the first half of the season, or the pitcher who struggled mightily after the All-Star break?
It is reasonable to expect that Price can replace Scherzer, which is something that very few pitchers are capable of doing. But Simon and Greene could hardly be expected to replace Porcello and Smyly, who combined for 5.4 WAR last season.
Detroit is not used to having questions about their starting rotation prior to the start of the baseball season. They have had more than enough starting pitching, even a surplus of very good starters at times, as they did in 2013. But now, the rotation is probably the biggest concern for the four-time division champions.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, the White Sox have added Jeff Samardzija to a rotation that includes perennial Cy Young candidate Chris Sale and a vastly improved Jose Quintana. This gives them three pitchers who ranked among the top starters in the major leagues in WAR last season. The Tigers have two, in Price and Sanchez (in only 125 innings, which is impressive). Verlander, Fister, Scherzer, and Porcello all occupied a lofty position in the rankings in WAR (and in many other statistical categories) but three of them are gone and Verlander remains the big 'if' around Tigertown.
The Tigers’ starting rotation would have been able to match up with anyone with Scherzer, but now the edge arguably goes to Chicago. Detroit will be relying on Simon and Greene to make up the difference. Without Scherzer and Porcello, the Indians also could easily have a better starting five than Detroit with a rotation led by current Cy Young winner, Corey Kluber.
The Royals, who finished just a game behind Detroit and then made a run all the way to the World Series, will not be closing the gap on the Tigers in their starting rotation. James Shields, the staff ace, is a free agent and is not expected back. In his place, they have added Edinson Volquez and Kris Medlen. They return with a bullpen that is as good as any in the game.
Offensively, the Tigers look to be about as strong, at least on paper. Yoenis Cespedes should equal or better than the offense lost in Torii Hunter. Rajai Davis should be moving into a platoon role with Anthony Gose. Jose Iglesias should be able to replace what little offense was lost at shortstop, and James McCann could hardly be any worse than Alex Avila or Bryan Holaday, working mostly against left-handed pitchers. The lineup that ranked second in the AL in run production is still in very good shape, as long as they remain healthy.
Other teams in the division have added some punch to their lineups as well. The White Sox have added a lot of power with Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera, and they expect to have Avisail Garcia back full-time. The Royals added Alex Rios in place of Nori Aoki, and Kendrys Morales takes over for Billy Butler as the designated hitter, much to Verlander's delight. The Indians picked up Brandon Moss, and otherwise return much of the same lineup. The three clubs each totaled 85 to 105 fewer runs than Detroit last season, with Chicago probably doing the most to narrow that gap.
Where the Tigers really hope to make up for lost pitching is in the field. Iglesias at shortstop and Gose in center field are two elite defenders, stationed in key defensive positions on the field. Cespedes is a plus defender, replacing Hunter's league-worst fielding numbers from last season. If the Tigers can play average defense, that will go a long way toward compensating for the losses sustained by the pitching rotation.
Not only have the Tigers improved themselves defensively, but the Indians and White Sox have done little to improve themselves defensively — and they were just about as bad as Detroit in the field last season, depending which metrics you prefer to use. The Royals held a significant edge over the other teams in the division on defense, to the tune of about an 80 to 90 run differential against Detroit in the outfield alone.
If the Tigers are going to stay on top and win their fifth consecutive division title, they will need the two new starters in their rotation to be strong enough to give them a chance to win on a regular basis. They will also need to continue the pattern of beating their division rivals when they meet them head-on.