When the 2013 season ended in Boston, it did not appear as if the Tigers were entering an off-season with major changes coming. After all, their star players were under contract for the foreseeable future, the team had just won 93 games, won its third straight AL Central division crown, made it to the ALCS, and was a healthy Miguel Cabrera groin and Octavio Dotel and/or Bruce Rondon’s elbow away from looking like a surefire threat to win the World Series.
There were some key areas to address, specifically the middle infielders that were free agents and the bullpen that couldn’t hold late leads twice in the ALCS. In addition, the organization needed to find a new manager, once Jim Leyland decided to hang it up.
But that didn’t mean wholesale change, did it? It didn’t mean hiring an inexperienced first-time manager. It didn’t mean trading one of the middle of the order hitters. It didn’t mean trading one of the top starters of the best rotation in baseball.
Apparently it did, as that’s exactly what general manager Dave Dombrowski did, along with a myriad of other moves.
The result is a team that has improved its infield defense and speed on the base paths dramatically and found pitchers to fit their roles, but didn’t necessarily boost the bottom line when it comes to scoring and preventing runs, at least as far as those who embrace WAR and other advanced analytics measures are concerned.
Gone are base-cloggers like Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, and in their place are youngsters Jose Iglesias and Nick Castellanos, who won’t swipe many bases, but also won’t struggle to score from second base on a single. In addition, the team has added speedster Rajai Davis to its outfield mix, who swiped 40 bases each of the last two seasons, and Ian Kinsler who can still be a threat to take 15-20 bases. That should be a dramatic difference from last season, when the team’s leading base stealer was Austin Jackson, with all of eight bags swiped.
The infield defense will make strides as well. Fans already got a chance to see Iglesias work his magic, and Kinsler has been positive in defensive runs saved each of the last five years, though his UZR/150 has trended toward even after being very high earlier in his career. In addition, shaking up the corners should be a net benefit, by removing Fielder, flipping Cabrera across the diamond and inserting Castellanos. Cabrera and Fielder combined to lose the club 31 runs last year via DRS, and the hope is that Cabrera can return to even (which he was prior to his shift to third) and Castellanos can provide similar.
Those are some significant run savings, but they have to counteract the dramatic power losses the team will suffer at the plate. Castellanos won’t be able to come close to matching Fielder (if by chance he does, he becomes a lock for Rookie of the Year), and Iglesias can’t produce like Peralta did. Kinsler is an obvious wild card, as he’s been a highly productive player in the past, but also has struggled mightily on the road, posting a .710 OPS for his career away from Rangers Ballpark.
The Tigers will hope for better years out of Alex Avila, Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks, but those are far from a guarantee, and would have happened regardless of the other moves made elsewhere on the team.
The end result among the position players is a team that will provide better defense and plenty more speed for a team that suddenly might only have one player (Cabrera) hit 20 home runs or more. Earlier this week, the analysis indicated the Tigers would lose around 75 runs from the drop in production at the plate, so can they make that up with defense and speed? Maybe, but it’s asking for an awful lot and is probably unlikely.
Meanwhile, on the mound, curiosity roams as the Tigers shipped out Doug Fister and got what most observers regarded as a paltry return package, featuring a quality minor league pitching prospect in Robbie Ray, along with left-handed reliever Ian Krol and utility man Steve Lombardozzi.
Are the Tigers a better team with Krol as a late-inning left-handed reliever and sliding Drew Smyly into the rotation, as opposed to Fister starting and Smyly in the pen? They obviously didn’t think that was Smyly’s ideal fit, but it’s hard to see the Tigers getting more than six wins out of the Smyly/Krol combo, which is what they got out of Fister and Smyly last season.
The Tigers added closer Joe Nathan, which was a widely-praised move, but really, the addition of Nathan simply off-sets the loss of Joaquin Benoit, the club’s closer for the final four months of 2013, who excelled in the role. The signing of Joba Chamberlain wrapped up the bullpen plans, but the hard-thrower struggled each of the last two seasons with injuries and control, and could end up being a lost cause just as easily as he could be a valuable member of the bullpen. So, the bullpen issues may be different ones around different players, but they’re issues nonetheless.
It all comes together to produce a team with questions. The defense and speed are better, but can they off-set the losses at the plate? It’s hard to see. The pitchers will be more aligned to their roles from the start – but does that make up for losing a very effective pitcher like Fister? Also another one that is hard to believe.
There were obviously other motivations involved in the decisions of the last month, including providing more financial flexibility in the future. But financial flexibility doesn’t mean the product on the field is better in 2014. Can it be? Absolutely, but skeptics have certainly have plenty to wonder about.