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Detroit Tigers answering early concerns about 2015 season

The Detroit Tigers entered the 2015 season with several areas of concern. Some questions have been answered, while others have arisen.

Duane Burleson/Getty Images

As the Detroit Tigers embarked on their quest for a fifth consecutive division title in 2015, they carried a number of concerns with them into the baseball season. Could the pitching rotation survive the losses of Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello? Is the bullpen doomed to fail with Joe Nathan as the closer? Do they have a qualified leadoff hitter?

Just 12 games into the season, the Detroit Tigers hold a 10-2 record and appear to be clicking on all cylinders. There is a lot to like and very little to not like about this year’s team, so far. Based on early impressions, the biggest concerns are being addressed.

The Tigers' team defense was expected to be much better, and they have not disappointed. Jose Iglesias, now installed full time at shortstop, is already routinely making highlight reel plays. Anthony Gose is chasing down every ball hit within 50 yards of him, and even Nick Castellanos has made several key plays that he would not likely have made last season.

This is a big key going forward for the Tigers, as their team defense ranked 13th of 15 teams in the American League in 2014. They rated 105 runs behind the Kansas City Royals, according to the Fielding Bible's defensive runs saved (DRS). The Tigers' fielding independent pitching (FIP) ratio suggests that subpar defense cost the team between 0.4 and 0.5 runs per game compared to a team with league average defense.

The Tigers had just one position player who posted above average numbers at his position in 2014, second baseman Ian Kinsler. They had two players who ranked dead last, in Castellanos and Torii Hunter. In 2015, the team could have several defensive standouts, with Iglesias, Gose, and Yoenis Cespedes providing substantial upgrades over their predecessors. Notably, the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox were the two other clubs at the bottom of the defensive rankings last season, and they have done little to improve in that area.

The Tigers were also expected to be much better on the basepaths, and early indications are that this is coming to fruition. Rajai Davis gave the club some much needed speed on the bases in 2014, stealing more bases than the entire team had swiped a year earlier. Davis now platoons with Gose, and one of the two speedsters should be in the lineup every day, leaving one to use in a key situation when a run is needed.

Early numbers have the Tigers ranked third in the American league in base running, according to Fangraphs' baserunning runs metric, which accounts for more than just stealing bases. Other factors involved in the calculation include taking the extra base and making the most of runners on base.

Year Baserunning Runs (BsR)
2013 -21.4
2014 -8.6
2015 (12 games) 1.0

The Tigers’ lineup has been productive, ranking second in the league in runs scored, behind the Toronto Blue Jays. In 2014, the Tigers were second only to the Los Angeles Angels. Detroit is among the leaders in most major offensive categories, and the lineup is one that no opponent looks forward to facing.

Yoenis Cespedes is replacing the production of Torii Hunter, and J.D. Martinez is showing that last year’s breakout season was no fluke. Iglesias is hitting at a torrid pace, which is unsustainable, but he is showing the ability to make contact at a very high rate. Anthony Gose has also gotten off to a blazing start, capably filling the leadoff role and scoring six runs in his six starts.

The starting pitching has been a pleasant surprise, or at least a big relief, to those who were concerned about losing Scherzer and Porcello. Shane Greene has allowed just one earned run in three starts, and Alfredo Simon has allowed just three runs in his two starts. David Price has been a dominant force, giving up a single run in his two starts and there is reason to believe that he is capable of replacing Scherzer. Detroit's rotation leads the league in ERA, FIP, and WAR.

As some questions have been answered, others have arisen. The Tigers are without former Cy Young winner and MVP Justin Verlander, who remains on the disabled list with a strained right triceps muscle. The club has largely avoided using a spot starter due to off days on the schedule. That is about to change, however, as Kyle Lobstein is scheduled to make his second start of the season on Tuesday. If the problem persists, there is not much depth in the minor leagues.

Anibal Sanchez has the lowest home run rate among qualified MLB starters over the past two seasons. He gave up just four long balls during the entire 2014 season, but has already given up five home runs in his last two starts. Not coincidentally, these starts are the team's two losses. Hopefully, this was just an aberration. The Tigers are counting on Sanchez to give them a full season as the No. 2 starter, especially with so much uncertainty surrounding Verlander.

The Tigers’ bullpen has been very effective, with Joakim Soria filling in for the injured Joe Nathan as the closer. Some might say that the bullpen has been effective because Soria has replaced Nathan. Other than Soria, who has been lights out in the ninth inning, the Tigers have not needed their bullpen very much this season.

As a unit, the bullpen has a combined ERA of 3.00, holding opponents to a .206 batting average, walking just seven hitters in 27 innings, and have yet to allow a home run this season. They are largely untested this season, but they have gotten the job done when called upon thus far.

It is way too early to draw any conclusions, just 12 games into the season, but early indications are that this year’s Tigers are at least capable of providing positive answers to the questions that surrounded them entering the season.