HAPPY OPENING DAY, Tigers Fans!
Now that I have gotten that out of the way, I can get down to the nitty-gritty. I am torn on this season. Part of me sees a huge triumph, a successful season ahead for the Tigers, with two 20-game winners in Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. The other part of me sees an infield that has not worked together much and includes three new Tigers and one who moved across the infield, which makes me worry about disaster.
Spring Training was full of ups and downs for the Tigers. We saw Verlander and Miguel Cabrera return to their pre-core injury forms, but we also saw the loss of Andy Dirks to back surgery, Jose Iglesias to stress fractures in both shins, and Bruce Rondon, the Tigers setup man, require Tommy John surgery. With all three players on the DL for most, if not all of the season, the Tigers had to make some moves, and fast. Trades brought in Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez to fill in the shortstop spot. Losing Dirks means prospect Tyler Collins will finally see time with the Tigers. The loss of Rondon enabled Evan Reed to make the cut, though I was hoping Nate Robertson would make the cut, from a feel-good perspective.
The 25 man roster looks like this:
Tigers Bullpen Still an Issue
Even with the additions of Chamberlain, Krol, Nathan, and Reed, the Tigers bullpen looks shallow and untested. Sure, Nathan has had a successful career as a closer, but Chamberlain had his ups and downs in the Bronx, while Krol and Reed do not have too much experience at the top level. Meanwhile, Coke and Alburquerque have had reliability issues over the last two seasons. With Smyly making the move to the starting rotation after the Doug Fister trade, the Tigers bullpen looks weak, and could be a factor over the course of a full season. If injuries occur to members of the pen, which happens every year, there aren’t too many pitchers to rely on in Toledo to step up and perform. This season, the Tigers will need as many quality starts as they can get from the starting five of Verlander, Scherzer, Sanchez, Porcello, and Smyly.
Speed a Big Focus of New Manager Ausmus
When Brad Ausmus took over as manager for the retiring Jim Leyland, we all knew changes were coming to the Tigers style of play, but I don’t think anyone saw how drastic. After two years of power hitting, the Tigers have done a 180 to focus on baserunning. The acquisitions of Rajai David, who has stolen 91 bases over the last two seasons, Ian Kinsler, who has two 30-30 seasons under his belt, and the addition of Tyler Collins, who loves to run, along with the existing threats of Austin Jackson and Torii Hunter, make this Tigers lineup one that seeks to run for that extra base on a routine single to right. It also looks like one that will steal bases to setup the middle of the lineup. Cabrera is sure to get less pitches without the threat of Prince Fielder behind him, but if the bases are full, they cannot walk him. The guys who are fast are also patient players who will wait for a pitch, knowing that a walk is as good as a hit. Cabrera may not get the numbers he has the last two seasons for home runs, but his batting average and RBIs should remain up where they have been. If Castellanos lives up to his potential, expect to see him move into a position behind Cabrera and Martinez in the Tigers lineup to give Cabrera his protection back. With the new combination of speed and power, the Tigers lineup looks pretty solid.
At the end of 2013, the Tigers infield looked like this: Prince Fielder at first, Omar Infante at second, Jose Iglesias at short, and Cabrera at third. Infante left through free agency, and was replaced with Ian Kinsler in the Prince Fielder trade. With the loss of Prince, Cabrera moved back to first base, to be replaced by Castellanos, who was a top prospect, but was trying to learn the outfield. When Iglesias was diagnosed with stress fractures in his shins, that hole had to be filled, which Double-D Dombrowski and Ausmus thought a platoon was best for now. Now the Tigers infield has had almost a complete turnover, with only Cabrera remaining, and he moved across the diamond. This infield has not had enough time to work together in my opinion, and defensively may need a few more weeks to gel. The first month or so may seem like a trying time, and it is definitely different than it looked at the beginning of spring training, where it looked much better defensively than it did at the end of last season. The loss of Iglesias hurt the most, with a middle infield that has not had time to work out double play maneuvers and two shortstops as a platoon that were acquired within the last two weeks. Castellanos has become reacquainted with third base slowly, as has Cabrera with first base, and the extra speed at those positions helps.
Contract Woes with Scherzer
Max Scherzer and the Tigers could not reach an agreement during spring training, so all contract talks are waiting until after the season ends, meaning Scherzer and his agent Scott Boras want to test the free-agent waters. If there are bullpen issues, problems with the shortstop predicament, or a lack of run production, expect to see Scherzer traded at the trade deadline if he is not performing like last season to fix this issue. The Tigers may dump him for the final few months to try and win a title and resign him after free agency starts. I still expect to see him back next season, but he may not be a member of the Tigers come playoff time, and almost certainly won’t if the Tigers are having problems at the deadline.
Overall, the Tigers look like a contender for at least the AL Central crown, but that is because the division is weak. Every expert, including Buster Olney on ESPN, picks the Tigers to win 93-94 games this season, and hold the best record in the AL going into the playoffs. Can the Tigers win the World Series this year? Maybe, but I say that because we do not know how long Iglesias will be gone – reports say the All-Star break while others say the entire season – and the bullpen seems weak, as does the shortstop fix. I wouldn’t mind Omar Vizquel coming out of retirement to be a player-coach and play shortstop some days just to boost the choices. I fully expect to see the Tigers reach the ALCS again for the fourth straight year, and while this is a very hungry team, I don’t know if their hunger is enough this year to overcome the questions, Time will tell.
SWAMI’S 2014 PREDICTION: AL CENTRAL CHAMPIONS, WILL REACH ALCS, MAYBE WORLD SERIES.
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