The Detroit Tigers enter the 2014 season looking for their fourth consecutive American League Central Division title, but the focus in the clubhouse is on something more. In the three subsequent playoff appearances, the Tigers have fallen twice in the American League Championship Series and were swept in the World Series in 2012. A division title won’t be good enough in 2014.
Based on the numbers from the oddsmakers, a division title seems elementary at this point. The Tigers were 47-29 within the division last season, especially impressive when you consider that they went 15-4 against their biggest competition, the Cleveland Indians. The standings look closer than they actually were, as the Tigers won the division by just one game over the Indians, but they had clinched on September 25 and lost their final three games to narrow the gap. The Tigers began September with a 7.5-game lead in the division, but an injury that Miguel Cabrera powerless took its toll as the Tigers had their worst scoring month of the season by far.
The list of accomplishments from last season’s Tigers is impressive. They won 33 games by five or more runs. They had the second-best run differential in the league, trailing only the Boston Red Sox, the eventual World Series Champions. The Tigers pitching staff allowed the second-fewest runs in the American League, had 49 more strikeouts than any other AL team, and did not have a single losing month.
For the first time since 2005, the Tigers will not have Jim Leyland in the dugout. Former Major League catcher Brad Ausmus takes over for Leyland and inherits a pretty nice collection of talent. Ausmus is a rookie manager, having served in the San Diego Padres front office since his retirement. As a player, he was lauded as one of the smartest players in the game.
Expectations remain high for the Tigers. BetOnline opened the Tigers win total at 89.5, the highest in the American League. LVH Superbook opened at 89.5, while William Hill and Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV both opened at 91.5. There has been some turnover from last season’s team, but will it cause the Tigers to stumble?
Key additions: Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan, Rajai Davis, Joba Chamberlain, Steve Lombardozzi
Key losses: Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Ramon Santiago, Jose Veras
A revolving door of talent both entered and exited the building for the Tigers this offseason. The team freed up future finances likely to be used on Max Scherzer’s contract extension in the Prince Fielder trade with the Texas Rangers that returned Ian Kinsler. Kinsler will fill the second base hole left by Omar Infante’s departure. The more questionable trade of Doug Fister to Washington for infielder Steve Lombardozzi, bullpen left Ian Krol, and prospect Robbie Ray was a definite head scratcher and was recently listed by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs as the worst transaction to date this offseason.
Big payroll teams have the luxury to fill holes when they pop up and that’s what the Tigers did by signing Joe Nathan when Joaquin Benoit hit free agency. The Tigers also took a chance on Joba Chamberlain in hopes that he can assist in filling the holes left by Octavio Dotel and Jose Veras.
The aforementioned Lomardozzi will be used in the utility role vacated by Ramon Santiago. Rajai Davis fills a big need for the Tigers, who could use his element of speed and a platoon partner for Andy Dirks in left field.
Jhonny Peralta signed a free agent deal with the Cardinals after he lost his shortstop position to Jose Iglesias, who was acquired in a three-team trade deadline deal with the Red Sox and White Sox. Peralta had been used in the outfield after returning from his performance-enhancing drug suspension.
Why bet the over?
Oddsmakers seem to be overestimating the impact that the Tigers’ offseason will have. Starting with the everyday lineup, the loss of Prince Fielder may have an impact on Miguel Cabrera’s overall performance, but Cabrera remains an elite hitter and there is plenty of talent still surrounding him in the lineup. Furthermore, sabermetricians have found no evidence that lineup protection has any effect on a hitter, leading some to even dismiss the notion as being a myth.
What the Tigers lose in Fielder, they make up for in defensive prowess. Even with one of the game’s worst infield defenses behind them, the Tigers pitching staff was ninth in ERA, despite the fourth-highest batting average allowed on balls in play. Nick Castellanos, one of the team’s best prospects, is a question mark at third base, but Jose Iglesias is an outstanding fielder, Ian Kinsler has been very above average on the difficult, sun-baked infield in Arlington, and Cabrera is a much better first baseman than he is at third. The shift back to first base will also improve Cabrera’s health, as the wear and tear of playing third base clearly affected him.
Cabrera was seemingly injured the entire second half of the season. His first half was ludicrous. His .365/.458/.674/1.132 slash line was far and away the best overall offensive performance in baseball. In spite of the injury, he continued to rake until September when he finally succumbed to various leg and abdomen ailments. He batted just .278/.395/.333/.729 in 21 games. His .262/.311/.405/.716 pedestrian postseason performance definitely hurt the Tigers. A move back to first base is going to make Cabrera the same deadly hitter he has always been, but for the duration of the season.
About the only true weakness in the Tigers lineup was in left field and that’s where Rajai Davis comes in. Davis has stolen 216 bases over the last five seasons and the Tigers have the type of offense that can overcome any caught stealings they encounter. The risk-reward is much higher on stolen bases for a team like the Tigers, so Davis will have the ability to run. He’ll also be a tremendously valuable pinch runner late in games.
Why Davis holds so much value is because he is the ideal platoon partner for Andy Dirks. Dirks, a lefty with terrible splits against lefties, can platoon with Davis, a righty with far more success against lefties, will create an above average player in left field for the Tigers. It deepens the lineup even more and is one of the undervalued moves that the Tigers made this offseason. Dirks was worth 1.7 fWAR and a platoon situation could create a three-win player for the Tigers, which already adds another win to their team that the oddsmakers have not accounted for.
By percentage, Victor Martinez had the third-fewest swings and misses in baseball last season, even after missing the entire 2012 campaign. He’ll be in his age 35 season this year, so a drop in production does seem possible, but he’ll mostly serve as the designated hitter, which should keep him fresher throughout the season.
Kinsler’s acquisition also adds more speed to the lineup. Offensive expectations for second basemen are very low, so even in his 30s, with a change in park, Kinsler will still produce at a high level for his position. He puts the ball in play and works counts, which is going to be a benefit to a lineup like this. As mentioned above, Kinsler is part of a vastly-improved defensive infield to bolster the strength of the Tigers.
This rotation, even without Doug Fister, is one of the best in baseball. Sliding into Fister’s spot in the rotation is likely to be Drew Smyly, who was very effective as a short-inning reliever, but his value was certainly limited. The top of the rotation boasts workhorses Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez.
Verlander seemed to pace himself at times last season and didn’t have the type of year that people have come to expect from the Old Dominion alum. He had the lowest average fastball velocity of his career and saw the highest walk rate of the last five seasons. Much of this seems coincidental. Even though the Indians won 92 games and were far better than anybody anticipated, the Tigers were pretty much penciled in for the postseason. In 2011, Verlander struggled in the playoffs with a 5.31 ERA in four starts and shaky (for him) control. He seemed to start this trend of pacing himself in 2012, when his fastball velocity also dropped, but it paid off as he was great in the playoffs. In 2013, Verlander was absolutely dominant in September and October, allowing people to forget about the previous five months.
Don’t let the down year fool you. Verlander is a strikeout pitcher, but he does still allow a fair share of balls in play and the Tigers defense will be much improved. That will definitely help Verlander and give him the opportunity to return to form.
Max Scherzer was outstanding in 2012 with a 2.74 FIP and a Cy Young Award to add to his growing resume. He improved his home run and walk rates and threw more first-pitch strikes than ever before. Scherzer will turn 30 this season, but he didn’t make it to the Majors until he was 26, so there’s plenty of mileage left on that arm.
Overshadowed by Verlander and Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez quietly contributed 6.2 fWAR to the Tigers in 2013. Health was a minor factor, as Sanchez made just 29 starts, but a spike in strikeouts and velocity made his transition to a full-time AL starter much smoother than anyone expected. His 2.39 FIP tied with Clayton Kershaw for the second-best FIP in baseball. He forms the last piece of the Tigers triumvirate that has the potential to dominate hitters.
Behind the big three are Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. Porcello has been expected to have a breakout season for some time now and the improved infield defense may allow that to happen. For the first time in his career, Porcello boasted a strikeout rate above league average last season. Couple that with a ground ball rate above 55 percent and you have the makings of a starter ready to take the next step. Porcello’s HR/FB rate and bad luck from a subpar defense led to a 4.32 ERA, but his FIP was 3.53 and his xFIP was even better at 3.19. If Porcello can keep the ball in the park and let his defense work behind him, as he has in the past, this could be his year to shine. As for Smyly, he’ll be an above average fifth starter that gives teams a different look as a left-handed pitcher.
Depth is the only question for this rotation, as Jose Alvarez projects to be the sixth starter and there’s not a whole lot available after him.
The bullpen will be better this season with established, veteran closer Joe Nathan. Not only will Nathan’s performance be an asset, but he can help with the mentoring of fireballer Bruce Rondon. Nathan lost a couple ticks off his fastball last season, but it didn’t hurt his swinging strike numbers and his experience is more than enough to get him by. With Rondon, another year of pro ball experience and success at the Major League level give him the tools to be one of the game’s best setup men.
Behind Nathan and Rondon are a collection of guys with questionable control that miss bats. Guys like Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, and Jose Ortega will pitch in big spots with help from lefties Phil Coke and Ian Krol. It’s a boom or bust group that can look dominant or struggle on any given night. The luxury for the Tigers is that their starting pitching gives them tremendous length to help cover up one of the team’s only weaknesses.
Why bet the under?
Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera both won league Most Valuable Player awards while protected by Prince Fielder. Whether you subscribe to the theory of lineup protection or not, pitchers may choose to not face Cabrera and take their chances with somebody like Victor Martinez. That puts a lot of pressure on an aging player like Martinez and the Tigers offense could see a drop-off in that regard.
Speaking of aging players, Torii Hunter seems very unlikely to replicate his last two seasons. Hunter has been the benefactor of BABIPs of .389 and .344 over that span, outliers to his career .310 mark. Hunter doesn’t walk and he will turn 39 in July. Study of aging in baseball players would indicate that Hunter is about to hit a time where players really start to show their age. Hunter was a negative defensive player last season for the fifth time in six years. His value could drop precipitously.
The Tigers will rely on Nick Castellanos and his 18 Major League plate appearances at third base. Though drafted as a third baseman, the Tigers opted to move Castellanos away from that position and put him in the outfield, which is not a ringing endorsement of his prowess at third. The experiment may end quickly if Castellanos struggles. In a perfect world, he takes to the position and his offensive talents also shine. In the real world, Castellanos probably struggles and the Tigers are forced to switch gears.
As great as the Tigers rotation was in 2013, both Scherzer and Sanchez could be in line for a little bit of regression. Scherzer dramatically improved his splits against lefties in 2013 and benefited from a .259 BABIP, over 40 points above his career average, despite similar batted ball results. Both Scherzer and Sanchez saw low, possibly unsustainable home run per fly ball rates last season, with Sanchez’s below six percent. League average for pitchers is around 9.5 percent, so expect both guys to give up more long balls this season.
The Tigers were remarkably lucky on the injury front last season. The team only needed to use six starting pitchers, as three of their five starters made over 30 starts and Sanchez and Porcello made 29 each. Tigers starters threw 1,023 innings in the regular season and then added more in the playoffs. That’s a very heavy workload, especially when you consider that the four main guys in the Tigers rotation have combined for 504 starts over the last four seasons. Starting pitching depth is a concern and the Tigers will need those guys to stay healthy again.
Pick: Over 89.5 (BetOnline)
Because of the overreaction to the Fielder and Fister deals, this number looks a little light. The division will be better overall with the Indians and Royals likely taking another step forward and possibly contending for the division title, but this is the best rotation in the American League and possibly the best in all of baseball. While there are workload concerns, these guys have a track record of staying healthy. Consider how good the Tigers were last season. Their starting rotation amassed 9.3 more fWAR than any other. They led the league in K/9, FIP by 0.27, innings pitched by 19.1, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and SIERA by 0.26. Most of those are pitching-exclusive categories. An improved defense plus a pitching staff already that spectacular will mean even better results.
It will be a different Tigers team that maybe doesn’t win by bashing the ball around the yard and scoring five runs per game. The overall team is stronger with the defensive improvements and the bullpen stability of Nathan. There is more speed to add to the power. The Tigers are a legitimate World Series contender this season.
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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.