Offense: Rajai Davis - LF, Ian Kinsler - 2B, Miguel Cabrera - 1B, Victor Martinez - DH, Torii Hunter - RF, Austin Jackson - CF, Nick Castellanos - 3B, Alex Avila - C, Andrew Romine - SS,
The Tigers are currently enjoying the "honeymoon" period in their relationship with Rajai Davis. It's typical to have that great month of BABIP-fueled passion with a new flame before things start to get a bit too real and you have to figure out if you can make things work in the face of obvious flaws, like excessive swinging and a lack of power. Davis runs very well and will likely wind up among the American League leaders in steals, but plays uninspired defense for an outfielder with his wheels. Don't be fooled by his currently high OBP; Davis has been plunked 4 times already, which is out of line with the rest of his career and enough to make Carlos Quentin blush.
The Detroit lineup looks a heck of a lot less intimidating without Prince Fielder situated right in the middle of it, but they didn't give him up for nothing. Ian Kinsler was quite a nice return, as he's a good defensive second baseman that provides plenty of value at the plate. However, his power has been declining for a couple years now, as he hasn't topped 20 homers since 2011. Kinsler runs well, but is plenty prone to boneheaded baserunning mistakes.
Things Miguel Cabrera led the league in last year: batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. He is the best hitter in the world, and no one would raise an eyebrow at him winning back-to-back MVP awards if it wasn't for defense and baserunning. Alas, those things are not exactly Cabrera's calling cards. The scary thing about his 2013 is that his .348/.442/.636 line was dragged down by an injury-plagued September (.278/.395/.333). It was Miggy's best season ever, and it wasn't even the best he could possibly do.
Last year, Victor Martinez didn't hit his first homer until early May and was merely hitting .212/.274/.288 on May 12. Without a defensive position to call home, it looked for a time like the torn ACL that robbed him of his 2012 season had put a fork in his career. Not so. Martinez was hitting over .300 by the end of the year. He has great contact skills but only mid-teens home run power. The Tigers have already asked him to play catcher twice this season against National League teams. There's really no need for that.
Torii Hunter has an annual ritual of selling his soul to whatever supernatural deity controls BABIP in exchange for hitting .300 again. Most players rely more on walks and power and less on batting average as they age, but Hunter has been doing the reverse. He used to win Gold Gloves on an annual basis, but declining speed and fly ball judgment has made him a liability in right field.
Pop quiz. Did Austin Jackson have more steals or triples last season? The answer is steals, but only by one, and he only had 8 of them. For a guy with great speed and baserunning skills, it's very strange that someone who used to steal bases quite efficiently would see that piece of his game gradually erode, but here we are. Jackson strikes out a bit often, but is otherwise a very good all-around player with some power, a good line drive stroke, and the ability to play center field well.
Nick Castellanos is the top Tigers prospect that you've been hearing about for what feels like ages. He doesn't run very well and isn't sure-handed in the field, but he can do good things with a bat. His .276/.343/.450 line at AAA last year isn't exactly eye-popping for the relatively neutral International League, but the Toledo Mud Hens play in a very tough place to hit. Specifically, home runs are suppressed there, so Castellanos' 37 doubles and 18 homers stand out, because there's some hope that ratio will skew more towards the latter down the road. The kid's just 22 this year, after all.
Alex Avila's 2011 season likely created unrealistic expectations for his future. He gets injured far too often, will likely never hit close to .295 again, and hasn't been healthy enough to flash that same level of power. Nonetheless, he's not as poor a hitter as he showed last season and he provides good value with his framing ability. Avila is a nice asset that the Tigers were able to lock up with a surprisingly cheap ($5.4 million) team option for 2015, covering his third arbitration season.
Defensive wizard Jose Iglesias is out indefinitely, so the Tigers turned to the smoldering husk of Alex Gonzalez to start the season. After he hit .167/.219/.233 while playing disappointing defense, the Tigers released him. For the time being, Andrew Romine figures to get the majority of the starts at shortstop in his place. Romine is a capable defender that should represent an upgrade over Gonzalez with the glove. The switch-hitter is about 200 plate appearances into his major league career and is still looking for his first home run, so I'd recommend that our pitchers feed him a heavy diet of strikes.
Pitching: Starting Rotation: Justin Verlander - RHP, Max Scherzer - RHP, Anibal Sanchez - RHP, Rick Porcello - RHP, Drew Smyly - LHP; Closer: Joe Nathan - RHP
This rotation is just not fair. It's even more unfair considering that rainouts have scattered Tigers games, allowing ace Justin Verlander to make four starts while fifth starter Drew Smyly has made just one. Verlander is looking to rebound from a disastrous 2013 campaign in which he only threw 218 innings, saw his ERA balloon all the way to 3.46 and watched his strikeout rate plummet to 23.5 percent. He'll look to rebound from that abject failure this season with his excellent mid-90s fastball (that he can occasionally dial up to 100), good secondary pitches, and great command.
Max Scherzer went 21-3 last year en route to winning the American League Cy Young award. Last season, not even lefties did their usual damage off of Scherzer, and right-handed hitters had no chance, slashing a sub-Phegleyan .165/.219/.275. Scherzer packs a very good fastball and a slider that typically leaves hitters with a difficult decision between hitting it weakly and missing it entirely. He's finished first or second in strikeout rate each of last two seasons, so it seems hitters frequently opt for the latter.
Scherzer, despite the Cy Young, didn't even post the lowest ERA on the Tigers staff last season. That honor went to Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez finished third (just behind Scherzer) in strikeout rate and allowed home runs at the lowest rate in the American League. This rotation is really, really not fair. Sanchez has a low-90's fastball but his best pitch is probably his changeup. Perhaps in recognition of this, he started throwing it more frequently last season.
The perceived "weak point" in the Tigers rotation, Rick Porcello has quietly been getting better with each passing year and took a pretty significant step forward in 2013. He had been one of baseball's most strikeout-averse pitchers but last year his strikeout rate jumped up almost to league average. The extra whiffs are nice, but Porcello's calling cards are the ground ball and outstanding control. It may feel like he's been around forever, but he just turned 25 in December and still could get better.
Part of the reason that the Tigers felt they could get rid of Doug Fister was because Drew Smyly had a pretty convincing case to crack the rotation. Detroit's lone lefty starter had a good stint in the Tigers' rotation in 2012, but spent the entirety of 2013 in the bullpen due to Detroit having the best starting pitching in recent history. Smyly is hell on lefites and has shown an ability to miss bats as both a reliever and a starter. In the bullpen, Smyly scrapped his seldom-used changeup and mixed a fastball, cutter, and slider. Now that he's back in the rotation, it remains to be seen whether he'll bring back the change to keep hitters off-balance as they get a chance to face him multiple times in a game.
Longtime Twin Joe Nathan just put together one of the best seasons of his career at age 38. Last season he leaned heavily on his slider, throwing it 35 percent of the time, and this was likely a key to his success as it's his best pitch for missing bats. He probably won't be lucky enough to have a WHIP of 0.897 again this year, but he has room to take a step back from his great 2013 and remain a good closer.
Outlook & Prediction: The Tigers have the best starting rotation in baseball and still maintain a pretty good offense despite the departure of Prince Fielder. Anything could happen, but it's hard to imagine another team winning our division. Predicted record and finish: 93-69, first place, AL Central