2014 Tigers preview: Roster tweaked for World Series run
Offense: Detroit now has a lineup more conducive to the spacious constraints of Comerica Park. Gone is Fielder, who had great power but still possibly lost 10 homers per season to the right-center field Death Valley. Jhonny Peralta’s big bat is gone, too. Enter Davis and Kinsler, who take the extra base and steal, too. And, of course, two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera still provides as much production as anybody in the game. Victor Martinez and Torii Hunter will be important, too. Martinez, the club’s new cleanup hitter, must continue his second-half hitting burst to protect Cabrera. And can Ausmus afford to keep Hunter at the No. 2 spot – where he hit .300-plus for the second consecutive season – or will the manager drop Hunter back to the No. 5 spot? Detroit, for all its riches, doesn’t have a true No. 5 hitter otherwise. Longtime leadoff hitter and center fielder Austin Jackson batted fifth in the first exhibition game.
Rotation: There are definite parallels between Detroit’s “Big Three” of Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez in their first full season together and Atlanta’s Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz in their first year as a trio in 1993. Both had the Cy Young winner (Scherzer, Maddux). Those three Braves combined for a 3.04 ERA, 57-27 record (.679) and 525 strikeouts. These three Tigers posted a 3.00 ERA, 48-23 record (.676) and 659 strikeouts. Fourth starter Rick Porcello could have a break-out year, and lefty Drew Smyly returns to the rotation after a year in the bullpen. Smyly showed promise as a starter in 2012, and gives Detroit the southpaw it coveted in what had been an entirely right-handed rotation.
Bullpen: Nathan was 36-for-36 in save opportunities against Detroit, but now provides the Tigers closer reliability unlike anything they’ve had since 1984 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner Guillermo “Willie” Hernandez. Nathan has 341 saves with a dazzling 90-percent success rate in closing situations. But can Chamberlain return to the top of his game, and can Bruce Rondon (elbow) remain healthy? Can Al Alburquerque and/or Phil Coke finally be reliable? If two of those four step up, watch out. Chamberlain has dropped 15 pounds and looks reborn. Ausmus is counting on Chamberlain or Rondon, who lost 30 pounds, to pitch the eighth. Both have been impressive in spring training.
Player to watch: Porcello’s velocity continues rising along with his strikeouts – with 84 in 2010 and 142 in 2013. Now the sinker-baller has an improved defensive infield – particularly with a full season of shortstop Jose Iglesias – behind him. The right-hander already has 61 wins at 25 … and could be ready to go from good to great. His makeup is off the charts – he’s learned much from Verlander and pitching coach Jeff Jones.
Why they will win: Cabrera, now healthy, finally reaches the 50-homer and 150-RBI plateaus. Kinsler becomes a formidable igniter in the leadoff spot. Hunter and Martinez continue coming up big with their bats and leadership. The starting rotation produces a third Cy Young Award winner in Sanchez, and Nathan excels at getting the last three outs game after game.
Why they will lose: Ausmus struggles to punch the right buttons out of the chute. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos gets sent back to Toledo, and neither Davis nor Andy Dirks steps up in left field. Catcher Alex Avila, who has struggled with injuries, can’t stay healthy and the pitching staff suffers from his absence and the lack of a veteran backup catcher.
Jon Paul Morosi’s outlook: The Tigers have reached the ALCS in each of the last three seasons and are the class of the AL Central until proven otherwise, but there are genuine causes for concern in Detroit. Will the Tigers miss the power of Fielder and the consistency of Fister? How productive will Hunter, 38, and Martinez, 35, be in the final year of their contracts? Starters Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez had heavy workloads in each of the last two seasons. The bullpen isn’t especially deep. Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball and should help the Tigers win a fourth straight division title, but this could be their last, best chance to win a World Series with the current core.