The Detroit Tigers wrapped up a fourth straight AL Central division title on the last day of the season in 2014 then flamed out quickly to the Baltimore Orioles in the Divisional round of the playoffs. They then lost their best pitcher (statistically speaking) in free agency & their most durable pitcher via trade.
The Tigers had also previously traded away their starting Centerfielder, let their starting Rightfielder leave and traded the player that was the starting Shortstop down the stretch to fill one of the holes in the starting rotation.
The 2014 starting 3rd basemen was worse Miguel Cabrera defensively and not even close offensively. The same Miguel Cabrera that had been moved off of the position for not being good enough defensively.
The starting catcher is looking to be the same concussion riddled player that has missed significant time each of the past 3 years while not repeating career success.
Then the bullpen that was a mess. Big changes? Nope. It appears as if the worst bullpen in baseball in 2014 will remain largely intact for 2015.
The Tigers biggest spending during Free Agency in the offseason was resigning a 36 year old DH to a 4 year contract, who then immediately hurt himself and had to have knee surgery.
All of these facts should explain the pending demise of the 2015 Detroit Tigers, right? Definitely not. The 2015 Tigers will be the AL Central Champions for the fifth straight year.
Allow me to explain:
After letting Max Scherzer walk in free agency and trading away Rick Porcello to fill the hole left by not resigning Torii Hunter, the Tigers had to make a move to fill the now two openings in the starting rotation. They went and got Shane Greene from the Yankees, a pitcher that appears to be a back of the rotation starter at best for Robbie Ray, a former prospect that was being passed up by less heralded prospects in the Tigers dismal farm system.
They also moved former starting Shortstop Eugenio Suarez and prospect Jon Crawford for Alfredo Simon, another back of rotation at best starting pitcher to fill the other hole.
The net of these trades & transactions was that the Tigers have downgraded their rotation, but with David Price, Anibal Sanchez & Justin Verlander (who will absolutely rebound after the disappointing 2014) having those two pitchers on the back end with lefty Kyle Lobstein and Buck Farmer waiting in the wings to fill the gap in missing innings, the starting rotation is not as good, but still a top 5 rotation in the AL and enough to win a division with.
The other big moves for this team happened in the outfield. Torii Hutner had become a liability in the field & overmatched at the plate. Austin Jackson’s defense had started to decline (still great, but not as great as previous) and he appeared to have hit his ceiling in growth at the plate.
These players have been replaced with Yeonis Cespedes, a plus defender in either corner OF spot with a cannon for an arm:
Cespedes also will outperform Hunter at the plate. He may lack the patience for walks, but Cespedes is a 20 home run, 30 steal player, adding to the change in strategy from Leyland to Ausmus, where the Tigers are always a threat on the base paths.
In Centerfield Jackson will be replaced by a platoon of LH Anthony Gose and 2014 surprise Rajai Davis. Gose, a speedster, plus defender who is still only 24 years old and was once thought of as a high level prospect with a good bat will play against Right handed hitters and will be given the chance to play everyday with strong play. He is a player whom the Tigers still believe has the ability to be productive enough at the plate to contribute wRC (a way to measure a players offensivie ability by counting all the different ways they help a team score runs) between 60 and 65, which is below average to average but more than make up for it with incredible defense in Centerfield.
If the Tigers get that level of production out of a plus defensive CF, they have already improved the outfield over 2014 by leaps and bounds.
Continuing with wRC between 60 & 65, if Jose Iglesias provides the same level of production, his incredible defense up the middle provides the Tigers a completely different dynamic than they previously had. Improved defense over Jonnhy Peralta, Eugenio Suarez, Andrew Romine & Alex Gonzalez provides a huge boost to the starting pitching staff that they have previously not had and ANY offense from him is a huge bonus.
Looking at potential line up for the Tigers shows you why there is a lot of hope for another division title:
Rajai Davis/Anthony Gose CF
Ian Kinsler 2B
Miguel Cabrera 1B
Victor Martinez DH
Yoenis Cespedes RF
JD Martinez LF
Nick Castellanos 3B
Alex Avila C
Jose Iglesias SS
The speed mixed in with power through out this line up will provide enough punch to carry the team on most days and the defense (expect Castellanos to be much closer to league average at defense this year) this team can play will exceed what most Tigers fans have witnessed in the past 5 years.
The pitching staff we have touched on, but David Price is going to sign a contract larger than the one Max Scherzer just signed with the Washington Nationals and in order to make sure this happens, David Price will have a Cy Young year and the Tigers will win 25 games that he pitches this year.
This would mean that the Tigers need to only go .500 in the other 4 starters starts in order to reach 90 wins, which should win the AL Central once again. The Tigers will win more games than 50% of Anibal Sancez’s starts, same with Justin Verlander, who despite a historically awful season in 2014, should resemble his 2013 season that still provided the Tigers a top of the rotation value.
Alfredo Simon & Shane Greene are simply in the rotation to throw 6 innings every 5th day and to not be an absolute garbage fire. Which they will both be able to do; expect both of them to win 10+ games and be very average pitchers, the exact thing the Tigers want from them.
The bullpen was terrible last year and I may be making it sound better than it was.
Joe Nathan, the current Closer, is on such a short rope that its the middle of Spring Training and he may be already be losing his job. Waiting in the wings for attempts to close are Joakim Soria who has 178 career saves, Joba Chamberlain, Bruce Rondon (when fully healthy, about mid May) and Al Albuquerque (had a career low BB% in 2014).
The Tigers also quietly added Alex Wilson in the Rick Porcello/Yoenis Cespedes trade, a pitcher that should perform very well in the long relief role in the bullpen, bringing some consistency to it that has been missing in recent years. They also added Tom Gorzelanny, a veteran left hander to compete with Ian Krol, who after conditioning issues, fell apart in the second half in 2014, but is expected to bounce back and have similar success .
The lack of big name additions make many people apprehensive about the bullpen, but they added enough depth that most of the pitchers will not be counted on unless they are pitching well and they can be and will be replaced quickly in 2015.
Overall, according to Baseball Prospectus the Tigers are expected to finish in first, tied for first according to Fangraphs and (most importantly) according to MotorCitySportsTalk, THE TIGERS WILL WIN THE AL CENTRAL IN 2015!
Beyond winning the division, it is always up in the air, once the playoffs start, as the Tigers have learned, anything can happen. With a few years of being in the playoffs with the best starting rotation and no World Series, the Tigers are trying a bit different strategy, a strong starting rotation, good defense and a lot of speed and power.
If it works, we’ll only find out in October, but I’m certainly confident it will and looking forward to finding out.