The Detroit Tigers are a great baseball team. They were last year, they were in 2012, and they were in 2011. The Tigers reached the American League championship series in each of these years, advancing to the World Series in 2012 only to be swept by the San Francisco Giants.
The Tigers have been a great team over the last few years because they have great players – lots of them. Their best player emerged from an infamous battle with alcoholism and their best pitcher hit his peak with gusto. The team did a great job supporting Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander with more talent, taking on salary and acquiring the likes of Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, Doug Fister, Anibal Sanchez, and Torii Hunter, to name a few.
The Tigers begin their 2014 campaign with a slightly different look. Gone is Jim Leyland, the grizzled face of the team who also oversaw three 90 wins seasons in his 8 year tenure. Former player Brad Ausmus is the new bench boss and he inherits a job that is both incredibly difficult and easy at the same time.
Managing the 2014 Detroit Tigers should be easy because this is such a talented group. The Tigers might have dumped Prince Fielder’s salary on the Texas Rangers, filling their second base hole by taking back the lower ceiling but lower cost Ian Kinsler in return. The traded (gave away?) Doug Fister to the Nationals but Drew Smyly is ready to step in and fill that void as best he can.
They are a talented group with a relatively easy path to the post-season. According to CoolStandings.com and Fangraphs, the Tigers have the highest odds of winning their division in baseball. Cleveland and Kansas City made some gains last year but neither side is a sure shot to build on or even sustain their performance year over year.
This is an ideal situation for a manager to inherit. Waltz into a great team, spend the season getting comfortable with the players and surroundings then batten down the hatches come playoff time.
But, of course, it isn’t so simple. Just qualifying for post-season play is not the goal in Detroit. They spend too much money and have been close too many times to accept another early round disappointment. There will be no moral victories.
How can you create a blueprint, in February, for playoff success? Can a team as talented as the Tigers afford to overlook the regular season? Is there some combination of buttons the new boss can push that his predecessor, one of the most respected men in the game, did not see?
One big step is a rite of Spring Training passage – fiddling with the batting order. In Austin Jackson and Ian Kinsler, the Tigers have two viable leadoff candidates. Similar profiles at the plate, though Kinsler makes more contact and doesn’t strike out nearly as much. Flipping the two hitters at the top of lineup is a nice problem to have, but after these two the challenge begins.
The challenge for the Tigers is what do with with Miguel Cabrera. Without Prince Fielder, the reigning MVP is the only power threat in the Tigers lineup. Hitting him fourth — the ideal spot for the best hitter in any order according to modern orthodoxy — makes the most sense, though Cabrera almost exclusively hits in the three hole.
Hitting Cabrera gives him the chance to hit with more runners on base and also (slightly) decreases the number of times the on base machine will bat with two outs. Which is to say nothing of the much-maligned idea of lineup protection.
Victor Martinez is a thoroughly professional hitter with an exemplary resume but he is also a player in decline. Now 35, Martinez battled through an incredibly difficult first half in 2013, returning to action after missing 2012 with a knee injury. Martinez looked dead for the first two months of the year but from June 1st through the end of the season, Martinez hit .336/.394/.490 with more walks than strikeouts. The power isn’t what once was but that is an incredibly valuable hitter.
Batting order is mostly just deck chair rearrangement. The Tigers under Brad Ausmus features a rebuilt bullpen that make their staff dominant from top to bottom (so dominant they can just give Doug Fister away for basically nothing!) but the team isn’t perfect. For all their skill, they are a little too close to a “stars and scrubs” arrangement for comfort.
If age isn’t kind to Martinez and Hunter or if the left side of their infield, featuring unproven Nick Castellanos and hitless wonder Jose Iglesias, offers only frustration, the Tigers might be in trouble. To say nothing of Alex Avila behind the plate (question mark), the Don Kelly/Rajai Davis/Andy Dirks platoon in left field (yikes) and their overall lack of home run punch.
Big “ifs” but penciling the Tigers into October baseball is reckless. Just getting through the regular season is the first challenge for Ausmus. A great team with huge expectations isn’t a bad place to start your big league career but operating with a net has its downsides, too.