Detroit Tigers: three ‘x-factors’ for 2014

In baseball, most teams enter the season with known quantities, unproven youngsters, and some guys who need to step up, and the Detroit Tigers are no different. Detroit’s mix of lethal starting pitching and legitimate star power on offense is a given, and should be enough to put them in the pennant chase. But if a few key players are able to step and produce above their recent track record then this team could be in store for something special.

In this article I’ll look at one x-factor each from the position players, starting pitching, and the bullpen. If these three guys can get it going then it’s going to be an awfully fun summer in the Motor City.

Alex Avila, Detroit Tigers

Enough now

Alex Avila

It’s easy to pick on the oft-injured Avila who spends more time hunched over in pain behind the plate than he does ripping doubles to the gap. But the reason why we care so much as to get irritated with his performance is because we know there’s more to Avila than what he has shown in three of his four big league seasons.

Only once has he hit above .243 and that was in his dynamic 2011 season when he hit .295 with 19 homers, 33 doubles, and 82 RBI’s.

After taking repeated shots behind the plate last year, which eventually withered his offensive game down to a nub, the now 27-year old catcher finally reconfigured his catching gear, going with heavier equipment. He appeared to get healthier in the final month of the season and the results were in tune with that assessment as he hit .343 with a .430 on-base % in September before struggling again during the playoffs.

The point is this: Avila will bat in the bottom half of the order all year long, and despite his recent play, is the one guy down there who has legitimate 20-home run potential. Keeping company with Andy Dirks, Jose Iglesias, and Nick Castellanos in the bottom four of the order means that the Tigers will need Avila to produce at the plate with extra-base punch.

Detroit doesn’t need an All-Star season like 2011 out of their catcher. But a season in which he hits .270 with a strong on-base % and middle-to-upper teens home run power would be a substantial boon to the offense.

Rick Porcello

Some might say that Justin Verlander’s return to excellence would be the key here. However, I am anointing Porcello as the x-factor of this rotation for a few reasons:

  1. The 25-year old is fresh off of his best season since his rookie year, finally showing the ability to strike hitters out by logging a career-high 142 K’s and not losing any control along the way as he walked just 42 batters in 177 innings. He was a handful of shaky starts away from a truly dominant season. There is no reason to expect the growth curve to stop now as he is still a few years short of his expected prime.
  2. With Doug Fister gone, and assuming the Tigers make the playoffs again, they’ll need a new 4th starter in October. As much as drawing a lefty like Drew Smyly into that mix makes sense, expect Porcello to get the nod. He’s been waiting for this moment for a few years now, working out of the bullpen in a minimal capacity during the postseason. If Porcello can prove reliable in big moments during the regular season then he’ll make this an easy decision for Brad Ausmus.
  3. And finally, if Porcello does put up a big year, improving upon last year’s numbers across the board, it makes it that much easier to let Max Scherzer yank $200M or more from another team’s pocketbook next offseason. A 1-2-3 of Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and Porcello (if he continues his progression) is very strong and would allow the Tigers to spend some money on fixing the vacancies in their offense that will be left by Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez’s expected departures.
Bruce Rondon

Bruce Rondon

Bruce Rondon

The problem isn’t the talent. He has all of it and then some. The problem isn’t so much the comfort level anymore as he had really settled into his role prior to being derailed last September and October by an arm injury. The concern is quite simply the workload in relation to what the Tigers need out of him.

The Tigers are expecting big things from Rondon, just like they were last offseason. This time though it’ll be in an 8th inning role. With a bullpen consisting of Joe Nathan and a band of unknowns Ausmus is going to need Rondon, who can be a legitimate difference-maker, to give him 70+ innings of great baseball.

The most Rondon has ever thrown was last year’s 58.1 innings between AAA Toledo and Detroit. He barely made it into September before being shut down. This simply can’t happen again with the degree of doubt that shrouds this pen.

As good as Detroit’s rotation is, and as deep into games as they tend to pitch, the front-end of the Tigers pen is rarely called upon, but the back-end must be stout. A healthy and dominant Rondon coupled with Nathan would put minds at ease.

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  • burrwick

    Once again Joe, excellent observations. I think you nailed it on the key players in each phase of the game. If those three roll, could lead to upper 90′s in the win department and maybe the best record in the AL. Always enjoy you’re writing.

    • http://isportsweb.com/ Joe White

      Thanks for reading, Doug. Much appreciated.

  • Vince in MN

    With all three of them coming to camp in the best shape of their career, what could go wrong?

    • http://isportsweb.com/ Joe White

      haha

  • ScottPeceny

    I am so, so worried about this team. I would not be surprised to see them win 85 or fewer games. Just image what this team would look like with an injured Rondon, a shaky Porcello and an Avila batting .187. Not good right? Yeah, throw in a completely bat-less Iglesias and a rookie in Castellanos and this team is trouble.

    • http://isportsweb.com/ Joe White

      They’re almost certainly a playoff team even if those 3 things happened. Scherzer, Verlander, Anibal, Cabrera, VMart, Torii, Kinsler, Nathan. The cupboard is hardly bare.

  • rayder409

    While it will be huge if Rondon makes the leap to the next level…. I’m hoping Joba helps in this regard…. getting the team to the 9th and Nathan… But it will be huge if Bruce does in fact rise to the occasion now.. Same with Nick Castelonos… I think he and Alex are the two biggest “X Factors”… Imagine our lineup if Alex can hit above .275 with some dingers and doubles for say 75-85 ribbies… and Nick shows us all that he does know how to hit any pitching… It will go a long way to helping us forget about losing Prince’s bat… I could see a starting lineup like this: 1) I. Kinsler, 2) N. Castelonos, 3) M. Cabrera, 4) V. Martinez, 5) T. Hunter, 6) A. Avila, 7) A. Jackson, 8) A. Dirks/R. Davis, 9) J. Igesias… Keep up the great blogs, Joe!

  • http://isportsweb.com/ Joe White

    Thanks Rayder. I think Castellanos will be lower in the lineup to ease his transition. Bottom 5 will be interesting.

    • rayder409

      Hey Joe.. Ya I agree that Castellonos will be hitting lower to start the season for sure (assuming he comes north with the big club at the end of March)… But what if he’s hitting .300 or above by the end of May? Would he make for a good #2 hitter? I’d love to see Torii hitting 5th behind Victor now that we lost Prince… Dirks needs to kick it up a notch which is why it was great that DD didn’t just let him think LF was his… when he got Davis… Ajax seemed to respond (positively) to hitting down in the lineup…

  • Tony Martin

    I feel Rondon has no business being even in the 8th inning. That fastball has ZERO movement. Its sitting on a tee at times and you can see it in the eyes of the batters. Obviously the sky is the limit for him with the kind of stuff he features, but I don’t like him as he sits right now.
    Avila has consistency issues, and I would like to start seeing him swinging on the first-second pitch, instead of digging a 2-2 hole. But other than that he calls a great game and smuffs dirt pitches with the best of them. I’m not worried there.
    My three X factors are A-Jax, Verlander, and Miguel (will groin surgery sap his easy all-field power for ’14)