Detroit Tigers 2014 infield preview

A hot and heavy start to the offseason for the Detroit Tigers has been followed up with radio silence. Barring something unforeseen developing, which Justin Verlander’s injury and subsequent surgery nearly became, then the roster appears to be set in stone.

In this 4-part series I will examine the infield, outfield, starting pitching, and finally the bullpen ahead of the 2014 season.

Consider that leading into the 2013 season, the infield was Alex Avila, Brayan Pena, Prince Fielder, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta, Miguel Cabrera, and Ramon Santiago. Only two faces return for 2014.

Newcomers Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, and Nick Castellanos will greatly shape the course that this version of the Detroit Tigers takes. And when the roster as a whole is examined it becomes readily apparent that the infield may indeed be the greatest variable in determining the ultimate success in Brad Ausmus’ first season as manager.

What then can be expected from this unit over the course of 162 games? Let’s take a look.

Catcher – Alex Avila/Bryan Holaday

Does anyone remember when Avila hit .295 with 33 doubles and 19 bombs in 2011? In case you are still clinging to that season, consider that in his 3 other full seasons he has hit .228, .243, and a career-worst .227 just last year. In those three seasons he has hit just 27 homers combined. So is Avila the mirage we witnessed in ’11 or the guy the other three samplings have shown us?

It’s hard to believe that in two weeks he’ll only be turning 27 years old, arguably just now entering his prime years. But his body tells another story. Avila has an incredible knack for getting dinged up behind the plate and it is clearly affecting not only his offensive production but his approach at the plate.

Alex Avila's partial 2013 season spray chart

Alex Avila’s partial 2013 season spray chart

The thing that has always puffed up Avila’s value were his on-base skills as he has a history of drawing a lot of walks. Even when he struggled in 2012 he walked in 14.1% of his plate appearances, which is outstanding. He struck out 24% of the time in ’12. In 2013 those numbers worsened to an 11.6% walk rate and a 29% strike out rate. Throw in his propensity to ground out to the right side (see spray chart) and he simply isn’t productive at the dish anymore.

Avila is at his best when he is driving the ball the opposite way and almost overly patient at the plate. If he’s not healthy, which he rarely is, then expectations must remain low. But, if he can somehow revert back to his blossoming form of 2011 then he could single-handedly provide the Tigers with a lift at the bottom of their order that few other players on the roster are capable of.

Backup Bryan Holaday will get his first steady taste as a big leaguer and projects as a good defender and mediocre hitter. He hit .260 for the Mud Hens in 2013. He will not have the offensive impact that Brayan Pena did but will be a solid defensive-minded backup.

First Base – Miguel Cabrera

When MVP’s start becoming the norm for a player, then there is really only one concern: health. Cabrera played in pain much of the 2nd half of last year, had surgery shortly after the team’s exit from the playoffs, and should be 100% by the opening of spring training. If he is, then he should resume business as the best hitter in baseball. In Cabrera, the Tigers have the most reliable combination of average and power in the game. Nobody does it better and a stunning 4th consecutive batting crown should be in the making in 2014.

Second Base – Ian Kinsler

As with Avila and Cabrera, the x-factor for Kinsler throughout his career has often times been health. He has missed significant chunks of time due to injury in five of his eight big league seasons. And when you start questioning the ability of this many players to stay on the field, there is a potential problem.

When he’s playing, Kinsler is a fiery performer on both sides of the ball. Gone are the days of his 30-30 ability in terms of steals and homers but he remains a threat in both departments. Kinsler could very well become the leadoff hitter for Ausmus as he rarely strikes out (only 59 K’s in 2013). Playing half of his games in Comerica Park will affect his offensive production. I would expect a season somewhere around a .280 batting average, 35 doubles, 12 homers, and 15 steals.

Jose Iglesias, Detroit Tigers

Jose Iglesias

Shortstop – Jose Iglesias

Not to be a broken record, but with the reckless abandon that Iglesias brings to the diamond, I also worry about his injury potential. The Tigers have brought legendary shortstop Omar Vizquel in as 1st base coach as well as the infield and base-running instructor. This is a brilliant move by the organization as he will no doubt be able to tutor Iglesias in all facets of the game, turning his natural gifts into a steady and reliable major leaguer.

Iglesias’ glove is a given as he is a ‘diamond gem’ waiting to happen at all times but his bat will remain a question mark until he proves he can hit with consistency.

After hitting .330 in 63 games with the Red Sox they shipped him to Detroit where he managed a .259 average and a mere eight extra-base hits over the season’s final 46 games. If he can hit somewhere near his career minor league totals of .257 then the Tigers would be thrilled. He’ll bat in the 9-hole all year and will be flashy, but will he be consistent?

Third Base – Nick Castellanos

In recent memory, the Tigers rarely hand a ton of at-bats to a rookie. Avila, Andy Dirks, and Brennan Boesch come to mind but none of them had the pedigree of Castellanos. He is an offensive force but remains a defensive work in progress, even at his more natural 3rd base position.

Despite moving up the minor league ranks at a rapid rate since being drafted in the 1st round of the 2010 amateur draft, Castellanos has improved his walk rate, strikeout rate, and his power has grown with his maturity. He posted career highs in doubles with 37 and homers with 18 while cutting his teeth at AAA Toledo in 2013. Some within the organization hail him as the best offensive prospect they’ve ever seen.

With that endorsement it will be hard to temper expectations. The Tigers could desperately use Castellanos to have an impact in the bottom half of the order, and I think he will, but don’t expect the moon and the stars just yet. I see a .265 average, 12 homers, and a bunch of doubles. Solid for a rookie.

Victor Martinez, Detroit Tigers

Victor Martinez

DH – Victor Martinez

VMart will graduate to the 4th slot in the batting order and shouldn’t miss a beat. He smashed the ball around the yard all year in 2013 despite a long string of tough luck early in the season. Once the ball started to find the gaps his average climbed and his end of the season stats (.301 avg., 14 HR, 83 RBI’s) were very VMart-like.

In the final year of his 4-year deal expect to see a little more of Martinez in the field. He will spell Cabrera at times at 1st base in order to keep the big fella fresh for the long haul. Martinez’s protection will be a different form than what his predecessor Prince Fielder offered, but he will be just as productive.

Reserve – Steve Lombardozzi

One of the pieces in the Doug Fister trade was Lombo. He can hit, a little. He can run, a little. And he can play some defense. He projects as the kind of player Tigers fans will embrace for no apparent reason. His career on-base % is just .297 as he has almost zero ability to take a walk. He’ll have his moments but they will be few and far between. That said, he is a younger and cheaper version of Ramon Santiago, which are two positive attributes.

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  • Lucas Rains

    I think there are a lot of fans that are expecting too much out of Castellanos at this point in his career. Your projections are about what I would expect, which is more than acceptable for a rookie. Out of all these guys, I think Avila is going to play a big role in how the Tigers do this year. He’s really the only left-handed power threat on the team. Replicating 2011 is a bit of a stretch, but any sort of improvement over the last two years will be a huge lift. The middle infield is going to be fun to watch as well. Good stuff.

    • Joe White

      Thanks Lucas.

  • burrwick

    I really worry about Nick C’s glove being major league ready. The minor league fielding numbers were woeful at third. Hopefully the coaching and repetition at the major league level will produce positive results. Another informative article. Thanks Joe.

    • Joe White

      Thanks Doug. I’m worried too but I think bringing Vizquel in will not only help Iglesias but also Castellanos. That’s the hope anyhow.

  • Vince in MN

    IMO your assessment is right on the money Joe. The questions about Avila and Castellanos will only be answered when the games that count start adding up. At the moment I can think of only two questions concerning the IF group (9 guys): 1. Can Ausmus have a positive influence on Avila beyond that of the new batting coach and trainer? 2. What’s it like to have a decent bench?