The 2014 offseason was a challenging one for the Detroit Tigers. While other teams in the division pursued new free agent talent or reaped the benefits of years of high draft picks, the Tigers were in a position where simply keeping the remaining talent present on the 2014 roster was the highest priority. After re-signing Victor Martinez to a four-year, $68 million contract and picking up Joakim Soria's $7 million option, there was little loose capital left to be invested. Detroit Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski had to take a different tack in fine-tuning his roster, and in doing so, completed a necessary shift in the organization's overall strategy in the process.
Speed and defense are much less expensive commodities on the baseball market than high-strikeout power pitchers or elite sluggers. They are also attributes that play up in the spacious power alleys of Comerica Park. The Tigers began a shift toward a stronger defensive unit and better team speed with the acquisition of Jose Iglesias in 2013, and then Ian Kinsler that offseason. For a team whose payroll had seemingly reached its ceiling, the timing and need finally coalesced this winter to complete the Tigers' transition to a more balanced and versatile roster.
In trading for both Anthony Gose and Yoenis Cespedes, Dombrowski provided an enormous upgrade in defensive skill in the Tigers' outfield compared to the 2014 model. In doing so, he sacrificed little at the plate while gaining quite a bit of speed on the basepaths. It also allowed the Tigers that rarest of commodities in recent years, a quality bat and base-stealer on the bench every day.
Those defensive upgrades combined with the brilliant middle infield play of Iglesias and Kinsler and a solid pair of defensive catchers in Alex Avila and James McCann allowed the second part of Dombrowski's plan to come to fruition. A much more athletic defensive unit would not only support the Tigers' "big three" starters of David Price, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. It also allowed for the back end of the rotation to be manned by two inexpensive pitchers not known for elite strikeout ability. Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon could be expected to simply keep the ball in the park and hopefully on the ground, and still suppress runs. So far, they have lived up to that billing pretty well. The strong showing of Kyle Lobstein in place of Justin Verlander would not be possible without the improved defense behind him.
Fangraphs currently has the Tigers ranked 8th defensively in its aggregate of defensive stats. Baseball Info Solutions ranks the Tigers third in the game in defensive runs saved above average. However you cook it, this is a tremendous improvement so far, as the Tigers have consistently languished in the bottom third of league defensively for the last several seasons.
Some of this is certainly due to Iglesias' return. The double-play combo of Iglesias and Kinsler looks to be one of the best in the game. A healthy Miguel Cabrera has appeared to have regained some of his range at first base. Likewise, some credit must be given to Nick Castellanos at third base, who has played much better defense than in his rookie campaign.
The new additions have done their part as well. Yoenis Cespedes currently ranks above average in stats such as UZR and DRS, and the eye test has matched that analysis. In particular, his excellent throwing arm is a new commodity for the Tigers. In the last week, we have seen several outfield assists from Cespedes that we're not accustomed to getting from a Tigers' outfielder. Even the mere threat of his arm has provided benefits that we can't measure in terms of snuffing opponents' aggressiveness on the basepaths.
Anthony Gose has not performed as well as was hoped in center field. He has botched several routes so far this year and while his arm strength is clearly as advertised, he has not been very accurate in the early season. Some of Gose's relative difficulties may stem from a distinct change in environment for him. Playing indoors on an artificial surface in the climate controlled and windless Rogers' Centre is a far cry from patrolling the vast lawns of Comerica Park and other AL Central stadiums in the frigid winds of April. I expect we will see some improvement from him as he gets acclimated.
Very few people were talking about the Tigers' defensive improvements in the run up to the 2015 season. Often, quality defense seems like a trait no one pays attention to until long after it has paid dividends (or, in the Tigers' case previously, when it's sorely lacking). Dominant starting pitching and power hitting are flashier and draw the eyes. Those are more expensive attributes, and the Tigers are still well stocked in those departments.
So far this season, Dombrowski's recently renewed emphasis on defense has been the key to the Tigers' success. Defense helps keep teams in close games, a prerequisite particularly in the postseason when the weather and consistently great starting pitching helps suppress offense even more than usual. Defense can make the average, inexpensive ground ball pitcher with good command more successful. It can also make decent relief pitchers look much better than they are. It allows for payroll flexibility that a team of Cy Young winners and Silver Sluggers does not. If this emphasis is maintained, it may well be the path to more than a successful season, but instead a continued period of dominance for the Tigers' organization.