In 2013, the Detroit Tigers entered the season as a heavy favorite, as heavy as Prince Fielder. With the 2011 Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, the 2012 MVP Miguel Cabrera and breakout pitchers Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, the Tigers had a strong offense backed by a deep rotation. After their trip to the World Series in 2012, it was championship or bust for the Tigers. They finished the regular season with a 93-69 record, but came up short despite shutting out the Red Sox for the first 14 innings of the ALCS.
The Tigers will be the favorites in the AL Central again this year, but will the big changes bring them back to the pack or run away from the crowd in 2014?
After the demise of Jose Valverde in late 2012 the Tigers have been looking for a consistent closer. Phil Coke and Joaquin Benoit were good hold-overs, but when a team has goals as high as the Tigers do, they needed a consistent performer at the back end.
They wasted no time filling that hole by signing Joe Nathan on December 4. The two-year deal brings one of the most consistent closers in the game to one of the best teams in the league. The 39-year old had an age defying season in 2013, posting an ERA of 1.39 and 42 saves. If he can keep those numbers up, Nathan could be closing out the final game of the World Series in the near future.
The other issue with the Tigers in 2013 was their defense. Cabrera showed good hands and an OK arm, but his lack of range cost his team. Because Cabrera is the MVP, he needed to be moves somewhere he could be more productive, so Fielder had to go.
In an old school one-for-one swap, the Tigers sent Fielder to the Rangers for Ian Kinsler. Kinsler has a career .349 OBP and a .454 slugging percentage. His defense is not better than what they had last year, but with Cabrera moving back to first and Nick Castellanos moving to third the Tigers solidified an infield defense anchored by Jose Iglesias.
Then, the Tigers added another bullpen arm. Joba Chamberlain has long been considered an overly babied bullpen disaster for the Yankees. After his 2011 Tommy John surgery Chamberlain never returned to form. The Tigers signed him to a one-year $2.5 million deal, and hope he can find his velocity for the Tigers’ bullpen.
They finished their offseason by adding Rajai Davis as a fourth outfielder. This move is smaller than the others, but he adds a wrinkle of speed to the heavy hitting AL Central champs.
The hole filled by Kinsler was left by Omar Infante. In his age 31 season, Infante was great. Despite suffering a nagging ankle sprain around the All-Star break, Infante hit .318 in 118 games. Infante, who signed with Kansas City, may have joined the strongest AL Central team outside of Detroit since the 2010 Twins.
One hole lead to another for the Tigers this offseason, as Benoit left for San Diego. Benoit became the closer in June and closed games throughout the postseason. Benoit inked a two-year $15.5 million dollar deal to set up for the Padres in 2014, leaving the hole to be filled by Nathan.
The Prince Fielder trade will leave a hole that is not so easily filled. It is no coincidence that Miggy took home his first two MVP awards while Prince was providing protection. Prince, who had a down year in 2013, doubled his trouble by taking some shots at the fans following their elimination from the playoffs. Victor Martinez and Nick Castellanos may be able to provide the protection necessary, but they had a sure thing with Fielder.
Jhonny Peralta took the money and ran as well, but he won’t leave nearly as big of a hole. Midway through the season Peralta was suspended and replaced by defensive wiz Jose Iglesias. Peralta was tried in left field and has played full seasons at third base, spots the Tigers had to fill, but the Cardinals blew them out of the water with a four-year $53 million deal.
The Tigers were able to deal part of their strength, starting pitching, to build their farm system. Doug Fister, a 14-game winner in 2013, was moved for Steve Lombardozzi, Ian Krol, and a Robbie Ray. Trading starting pitching is rarely a good idea, but Fister recently experienced elbow soreness, so maybe Detroit knew something we didn’t.
Finally, the Tigers lost their skipper. Jim Leyland took the Tigers to the World Series in his first year with the team and improved their record by 24 games. During his eight year term the Tigers had just one sub-.500 season, made four trips to the playoffs and never a division series. Brad Ausmus will be handed the keys to the car in 2014, and he has big shoes to fill.
The Tigers had the fifth-highest payroll last year at $148 million, but that number will go up this year. Dave Dombrowski has maxed out the payroll once again this year, upping the ante to a projected $157 million. They continue to draw so it may not be an issue, but Dombrowski is hungry for a championship.
Player to watch
When you have the back-to-back MVP, the reigning Cy Young award winner, and a guy who won both awards in 2011 the Tigers have a lot of players to watch. The one I chose, however, has more to play for than just awards and money.
In the beginning of the offseason, Max Scherzer was riding high, but after winning the Cy Young award Scherzer was being shopped. As a free agent in the upcoming off season, Scherzer was already going to be pitching for a new contract, but now he will be pitching for pride. If he really wants to stick it to the Tigers, Scherzer will go out in 2014, have a better season than 2013 and leave in free agency in the offseason. He may not be able to match last year’s performance, but it won’t be due to a lack of motivation.
With so many moving parts, the Tigers will be an interesting team to watch this year, and the man behind it all will be Brad Ausmus. Five years ago, the Ausmus hiring would have been weird, but Mike Matheny has paved the way for signings like this. Matheny replaced a veteran manager, took the reins of a World Series contender and didn’t skip a beat. Brad Ausmus will be expected to do the same, just don’t crash the supercar.
Player likely to regress
Let’s face it, Torii Hunter has to get old eventually. There is no better place to hit than right in front of Miguel Cabrera, but 38-year olds are not supposed to hit over .300 in the MLB anymore. Last year was just the second time in his career, and his 184 hits were second on the team. He has been moved from center field over the years, and eventually his bat has to slow down like his legs have.
Will this be the year Hunter falls off a bit? Who knows, but the Tigers certainly hope it isn’t.
The Tigers have been banging on the door of a championship for years. Last year, Miguel Cabrera’s late season injury derailed those hopes. With Cabrera moving to a less strenuous position, a revamped infield defense and the addition of a legitimate closer, this may be the year the Tigers finally win it all.