The 2014 Detroit Tigers were supposed to be a conventional team, and for good reason: They had won three straight division titles thanks to a veteran starting rotation and the game’s premier power hitter, Miguel Cabrera.
Now they may attempt something no team has accomplished since the advent of the wild card two decades ago: reach the playoffs with rookies playing full time at both positions on the left side of the infield. And a postseason berth, by the way, is far from assured: The Tigers’ lead in the American League Central, once as large as seven games, is down to two.
Nick Castellanos arrived at spring training as the projected third baseman, so his workload (50 starts in the team’s 60 games) has been as expected. Shortstop Eugenio Suarez is the more recent revelation, beginning the season at Double-A but starting each of the Tigers’ past three games after Alex Gonzalez, Andrew Romine and Danny Worth disappointed offensively.
It’s far too early to say Suarez will be the Tigers’ starting shortstop for the rest of the season. But he’s given the team an offensive jolt — two home runs in his past three games — and should keep the job for the foreseeable future. With Jose Iglesias out for the season, Suarez is the best internal option for now.
Still, history suggests it will be difficult to reach the postseason while relying so heavily on youth. If Suarez and Castellanos make 80 percent of the remaining starts at their defensive positions, their combined total for the season will surpass 210 (of a possible 324).
According to STATS LLC, only five teams in the wild-card era (1995 to present) had rookies account for at least 210 combined starts at shortstop and third base: the 1999 Marlins, 2003 Mets, 2005 Rockies, 2010 Astros and 2013 Marlins.
None finished with a winning record.
And if Suarez and Castellanos combine for 210 or more starts, they will make history for the 114-year-old franchise. Also from STATS LLC, the Tigers’ record for combined rookie starts at shortstop and third base is 192, set in the 1922 season by shortstop Topper Rigney (155) and third baseman Fred Haney (37). (Ty Cobb managed that team to a 79-75 record . . . and also batted .401.)
A lot could change over the Tigers’ final 102 games. Suarez, after all, is a veteran of only 11 at-bats in the major leagues, and it won’t be a surprise if the Tigers add a shortstop at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But for the moment, first-year manager Brad Ausmus appears to be contemplating a reliance on rookie infielders that even Cobb wasn’t bold enough to try.