"Billy is still trying to win the last game of the season."
These are the last words shown on screen in the movie Moneyball, the book-turned-movie documenting Oakland A's GM Billy Beane's use of advanced metrics in an attempt to compete with the bigger market clubs in baseball. Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers certainly don't have a small market payroll -- they are scratching the self-imposed ceiling of baseball's luxury tax as we speak -- but they too are still trying to win the final game of the season.
The Tigers have won four consecutive AL Central championships, one of five clubs in MLB history to dominate their division for this long. They have had three MVPs, two Cy Youngs, and a Triple Crown winner during this stretch. They won an AL Pennant and played in three straight AL Championship Series from 2011 to 2013. However, their formula for winning in the regular season hasn't translated to enough postseason success to quench the fanbase's thirst for its first title in 30 years.
Does this mean that "Dave Dombrowski's sh*t doesn't work in the playoffs" (as Beane famously said about his brand of baseball)? There is no proof of that -- anecdotal evidence of the past four years aside -- but Dombrowski's reshaping of the club suggests that he's trying a different formula. Gone are slow-footed, ham-handed sluggers like Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, and Torii Hunter. In their place are more well-rounded players like Ian Kinsler and Yoenis Cespedes, and a defensive wunderkind in Jose Iglesias. Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose bring an element of speed this team hasn't had in a decade, and they are much more adept in other aspects of the game than the Nook Logans and Alex Sanchezes of yesteryear.
This has come at a cost, though. The rotation, once so stacked that Drew Smyly had to spend a season in the bullpen, is a shadow of its former self. Sure, it can still be formidable -- especially if Alfredo Simon discovers the BABIP magic that made him an All-Star in 2014 -- but the Tigers need more from other areas of the club. The lineup should still be potent, as it still features Kinsler, Cespedes, J.D. Martinez, and the two-headed run-producing monster of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. The bullpen will have to be better, especially after last season's spectacular flameout in the ALDS.
After a long offseason of handwringing about Max Scherzer, the bullpen, and Miguel Cabrera's ankle, the Tigers are still the class of the AL Central. While the gap between them and the other four clubs in the division is closing quickly, the Tigers are hoping that Beane's "the playoffs are a crapshoot" mantra holds true. If they can get back to the postseason, 2015 may be the year that Dombrowski and the Tigers win that final game.
Manager: Brad Ausmus (2nd season)
2014 record: 90-72
Key additions: LF Yoenis Cespedes, CF Anthony Gose, RHP Alfredo Simon, RHP Shane Greene, LHP Tom Gorzelanny
Key departures: RF Torii Hunter, SS Eugenio Suarez, RHP Max Scherzer, RHP Rick Porcello, LHP Phil Coke
The Tigers' pitching staff might not be as strong as it was in 2014, but the offense has the potential to be even better. Miguel Cabrera is still arguably the best hitter in baseball even though he finally relinquished his AL MVP crown to Angels center fielder Mike Trout last season. Cabrera hit .313/.371/.524 with 25 home runs and 109 RBI, yet he's so good that his 5.4 WAR production was seen as a disappointment. Hampered by the after effects of core muscle repair surgery early and a stress fracture in his foot later on, Cabrera was never healthy yet still put up a 147 wRC+ in 685 plate appearances. Tag teaming with Cabrera at first base and the DH slot will be Victor Martinez, who earned himself one final payday after a 4.4 WAR year as the Tigers' primary DH in 2014. He likely won't hit 32 home runs again, but another .300+ batting average and 30 doubles is all but guaranteed as long as he stays healthy. He is currently rehabbing from meniscus surgery, but could make his spring training debut as early as this week.
Second baseman Ian Kinsler continued his trend of even year All-Star appearances in 2014, hitting .303/.337/.470 with 11 home runs and 10 stolen bases in the first half. His numbers fell off in the second half partially thanks to a career-low walk rate, but stellar work with the glove helped him accumulate 5.4 WAR, best among Tigers position players. Shortstop Jose Iglesias is back after missing the entire 2014 season with stress fractures in both of his shins. While he likely won't replicate the .303 batting average or .349 on-base percentage he had in 2013, he should be able to top the .579 OPS that Tigers shortstops had in 2014. His incredible glove could also be worth another couple wins. Third baseman Nick Castellanos showed flashes of potential at the plate last season, but ended up hitting .259/.306/.394 in 579 plate appearances. Still only 23, Castellanos has room to grow both offensively and defensively, where he rated as the worst third baseman in baseball in 2014.
How good will the Tigers offense be in 2015?
The Tigers ranked second in the American league in runs scored in 2014, and they could be even better in 2015.
Alex Avila should get the lion's share of duty behind the plate again in 2015, but the Tigers are doing everything they can to protect their often-battered catcher. Avila has switched to a hockey-style catcher's mask after multiple concussions in 2014, and the club is hoping that James McCann will hit enough to give Avila more rest than Bryan Holaday was able to provide last year. McCann hit .295/.343/.427 at Triple A last season, which included a robust .336/.396/.469 line against left-handed pitching. Avila had some significant platoon splits of his own, but got on base at a 34 percent clip against right-handed pitching. Both catchers are solid defenders as well, and Brad Ausmus has hinted at an increased emphasis on pitch framing from his catchers this year.
After two years of watching Torii Hunter flounder in right field, the Tigers' revamped outfield is a cause for unbridled optimism throughout the fanbase. Center field is the biggest wild card, and will likely consist of some sort of platoon between Anthony Gose and Rajai Davis. Davis hits lefties extremely well, while Gose is the superior defender and gets on base at a respectable clip against right-handers. Brad Ausmus wasn't too strict about platooning Davis at times last season, but he didn't have many other options either.
J.D. Martinez will move from left field to right field, but his value resides in his bat. A minor league signing at this time last year, Martinez forced his way into the Tigers' lineup and hit .315/.358/.553 with 23 home runs in 480 plate appearances. His bat will likely take a step back in 2015, but most projection systems still think he is capable of putting up an .800 OPS. Yoenis Cespedes has his flaws -- a declining walk rate the most glaring of all -- but is a plus defender in left field and should be a lock for 20-25 home runs. He is currently day-to-day with a quad injury. Outfielder Tyler Collins is currently vying for a roster spot, but he has minor league options remaining and may be sent down in lieu of infielders Andrew Romine and Hernan Perez, both of whom have seen time in the outfield this spring.
The Tigers' rotation set records for WAR and strikeout rate in 2013, but their starting five were unable to repeat the feat in 2014 despite returning four starters. They still led the American League in WAR and innings pitched, but their 3.89 ERA was 10th in the league. Justin Verlander was a prime reason for the decline, as his ERA rose by over a full run from 2013. He still topped the 200-inning barrier, but allowed his worst ERA, WHIP, FIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and swinging strike rate since 2008. Despite the rapid decline -- his ERA has risen by almost two full runs in two years -- there is plenty of optimism surrounding the Tigers' $202 million pitcher. Verlander added 20 pounds of muscle this offseason, and his curveball has been sharp enough to earn its own "best shape of his life" story. Brad Ausmus has not announced his pitching rotation yet, but we expect Verlander to make his eighth consecutive Opening Day start, the longest franchise streak since Jack Morris toed the rubber every Opening Day from 1980 to 1990.
Standing in Verlander's way of that Opening Day start is David Price, who was acquired at the trade deadline last year. Price struggled at times with the Tigers, including a two-inning, eight-run meltdown against the New York Yankees in August. However, he helped carry the team to the playoffs with a solid September and seems to be happy in Detroit. Right-hander Anibal Sanchez is probably the best third starter in baseball when healthy, but he struggled to do that for large stretches of 2014. Sanchez allowed a 3.43 ERA and 2.71 FIP in 126 innings last year, but a pec injury pushed him into the bullpen down the stretch.
In previous years, this is where we would talk about why this season will be Rick Porcello's breakout year. Porcello finally answered our prayers with a 3.43 ERA in 204 2/3 innings in 2014, but he is now plying his trade in Boston. In his place is Alfredo Simon, a groundball artist who spent the last three years with the Cincinnati Reds. Simon made his first All-Star appearance after winning 12 games with a 2.70 ERA in the first half, but the BABIP luck that got him there ran out over the break. He went 3-7 with a 4.52 ERA in the second half. Tigers fans are hoping that his 3.17 road ERA and their solid infield defense help bring back some of that first half magic in 2015. Shane Greene is facing a similar amount of skepticism from Tigers fans after significantly outperforming his minor league numbers in a brief big league stint with the Yankees last year. Scouting reports -- including those from former teammates -- hint that what we saw in 2014 could be the real deal.
Then there's the bullpen, which has received varying amounts of blame for each of the Tigers' last five playoff exits dating back to 2006. Joe Nathan is still the team's closer, and he has done nothing to wipe away the doubts his horrible 2014 season planted in everyone's heads. Joakim Soria struggled on either side of a DL stint for an oblique injury after arriving in Detroit last season, but his track record has many asking when he will get the ball in the ninth inning. The club is relying heavily on Bruce Rondon to bounce back quickly from the Tommy John surgery that claimed his 2014 season, and the big right-hander has already touched triple digits on the radar gun this spring. Joba Chamberlain and Al Alburquerque are both back from last year's bullpen, but their roles have yet to be determined. Left-hander Tom Gorzelanny will likely be joined by one of Blaine Hardy, Ian Krol, or dark horse Kyle Ryan to round out the Opening Day roster, but there are several others who will get innings in Detroit this season.
Down on the farm
The Tigers have the worst farm system baseball according to anyone with an organizational rankings list, but they have consistently been able to trade whatever prospects they dig up for bonafide major league talent. They unearthed Willy Adames last year and used him to pry David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays, then sent Eugenio Suarez and former first round pick Jonathon Crawford to Cincinnati for Alfredo Simon. Outfielders Derek Hill and Steven Moya are the two prizes left remaining in the system, but there are major questions about both. Hill, a 2014 first round pick, still has yet to play full season ball. Moya, the 2014 Eastern League MVP, has major difficulties with pitch recognition, but a tantalizing combination of size, athleticism, and raw power has some hopeful that he could be a mainstay in the Tigers outfield with a little more minor league seasoning.
Player to watch: Justin Verlander
No one knows what to make of Verlander this spring, and Tigers fans are being extra cautious about reading into any spring training numbers after he tossed 20 scoreless innings last year. A decent April notwithstanding, Verlander flopped in 2014, allowing a 4.54 ERA and 1.40 WHIP in 206 innings. There are plenty of theories about Verlander's off year, but the more optimistic segment of the fanbase believes that Verlander's core muscle repair surgery from January of 2014 affected him longer than he let on. His declining fastball velocity has been well documented, but his inability to locate the fastball caused him more problems than the velocity itself. A return to his pre-2014 form would go a long way in offsetting the loss of Scherzer and Porcello in the rotation, putting the Tigers that much closer to a fifth consecutive division title.
This Tigers roster is not as impervious as the ones we have seen in the past few years, but the hope around Tigertown is that a slightly improved offense, deeper bench, and significantly improved defense can help make up for the loss of Scherzer and Porcello in the rotation. They still have the deepest and most talented roster in the AL Central, one that is capable of withstanding a hard charge from the Indians, White Sox, or Royals. However, the improvements on the periphery of the roster won't mean a thing if they don't get the production they expect from their stars. If the Tigers win another AL Central title and, God help us, the World Series, it will be on the backs of Cabrera, Martinez, Verlander, Price, and the other big names on their roster.