The Detroit Tigers finished the 2013 season 93-69, one game ahead of the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, although it wasn’t really that close as the Tigers packed it in during the season’s final weekend. They turned their 3rd straight AL Central crown into an ALCS battle with the Red Sox that they ultimately lost.
Another year of regular season accomplishment was followed by a hollow postseason exit. The front office, fearing a ballooning payroll and an unappealing station-to-station offense, went into the lab and retooled. Gone are Doug Fister, Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, and others. In are the more athletic Ian Kinsler, Rajai Davis, Steve Lombardozzi and the venerable Joe Nathan as the new 9th inning man.
If nothing else, it’s different. One thing that remains constant, however, are the expectations. Win or else.
The Tigers will roll out their highest Opening Day payroll to date, hovering around $160M. Some of the faces may have changed but this team is on a title quest that better happen soon before their overly generous owner’s wallet dries up or his attention turns elsewhere. The burden will fall on new manager Brad Ausmus whose learning curve needs to be brief.
Best Case Scenario for 2014
As has been the case for several years now, the Tigers want to hang a World Series banner in the worst way. 1984 has officially become the distant past. 30 years is a substantial drought in a city who adores their baseball team as much as Detroit does. Three consecutive deep runs into the playoffs have been met with dismissal and watching others celebrate right under their nose. It has to hurt. If the remodeled 2014 Tigers can pull it off, then GM Dave Dombrowski will be hailed as an all-time legend in the state of Michigan.
Most Important Tigers
Miguel Cabrera is the best hitter on the planet and one of the greatest of all-time. He played through injury much of 2013 but really wore down in September and October. Had he been healthy, the general consensus is the Tigers would be your defending World Series champions. He’ll be chasing his 4th straight batting crown and 3rd straight AL MVP award. He has the kind of talent that is elite enough to put a team on his back and carry them through the playoffs, but he has to be healthy. Moving back to 1st base in the wake of Prince Fielder’s departure should keep him spry and dangerous. With Ian Kinsler and Torii Hunter getting on base in front of him, don’t be surprised if he threatens 160 RBI’s.
On the hill, a massive burden will be placed on 2nd year man Bruce Rondon. Assuming he’s healthy, we know Joe Nathan will be a rock solid closer, but the rest of the bullpen is a mystery. If Rondon is on point, he will be able to single-handedly erase much of the doubt that surrounds this group. Detroit’s starters, with the possible exception of Drew Smyly, can all go 7+ innings with regularity. The bullpen can be shallow as a result, but the 7th-9th innings need to be secure. Rondon holds the keys.
Potential Breakout Players
In recent memory it is impossible to think of a hitter that has come up through the Tigers system with as much fanfare as Nick Castellanos. Some within the organization claim he’s the best hitting prospect they’ve ever seen rise through the Tigers’ minor league ranks. Fans must temper their expectations though as Castellanos is an average 3rd baseman with the glove but his bat has the potential to be a difference-maker. My feeling is that he hits around .265 with 12 homers, 30 doubles, and 65 RBI’s with the potential for more. Detroit will need some thunder in the bottom half of their order and Castellanos could be their guy.
After debuting as a starter in 2012 but ending up in the bullpen later in the year and for all of 2013, Drew Smyly will finally get his chance as a full-time starter. Smyly was a dynamic reliever for Jim Leyland in ’13 and has averaged a strikeout/inning since joining professional baseball. He gives the Tigers a much-needed lefty in their rotation and shouldn’t be overlooked. If he can handle the workload, which the Tigers will monitor closely, he has the potential for 12+ wins, 150 K’s, and a sub-4 ERA.
Worst Case Scenario
Cleveland has lost some talent in their starting rotation but has a prolific offense and Kansas City has quietly improved their team this offseason. If Detroit slips for any significant period of time they could find themselves playing catch-up against two young and hungry teams, which could spell trouble. Worst-case scenario is the injury bug bites, Brad Ausmus’ style isn’t jiving in the clubhouse, and they look up on October 1st and find themselves in 3rd place.
Areas of Concern
The Tigers lack significant depth in their organization, especially when it comes to starting pitching and position players. Should any number of the Tigers’ top-shelf players hit the disabled list then things could unravel in a hurry. With a veteran-laden team such as Detroit’s, a new manager could find it tough to get his message through although I don’t expect that to be the case here.
The Tigers have a potential crisis brewing in the bullpen with unreliable components such as Joba Chamberlain, Phil Coke, and Al Alburquerque slated to earn spots in the pen. If youngsters Rondon and Ian Krol aren’t as advertised, and the above mentioned trio fails to elevate their play, then it will be a season long merry-go-round in the bullpen.
On top of the depth and bullpen dilemmas, the bottom half of Detroit’s batting order could be trouble. Alex Avila and Austin Jackson will need to perform at a high level for this group to be effective.
Who Needs to Bounce Back From a Down 2013
As just mentioned, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson have to be better than they were a year ago. Jackson looks like an All-Star one week and little more than a Triple-A player the next. To take the next step in his career progression he needs to become reliable. If he can hit .285+ and get back to stealing 20 bases then all will be well.
As for Avila, he has now turned in two consecutive train wreck seasons at the plate. The talent is still there but he has been beaten and battered behind the plate and his performance has reflected that. Detroit could desperately use a .270 season with 15 homers and 30 doubles out of Avila.
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