Miguel Cabrera showed what type of player he was in 2014. The two-time MVP has received criticism for a lack of dedication and laziness over the course of his career. What he did last year on basically one leg should put all of that to bed. Hampered by foot and ankle woes, for which he received offseason surgery for both, Cabrera still led the American League with 52 doubles and hit .313 with 25 home runs and 109 RBI. It was his 11th straight season driving in triple digits in runs. He's missed all of Spring Training but the slugger is good to go for Detroit's Opening Day. Ian Kinsler will once again man second base. Arriving last year in the Prince Fielder trade, Kinsler led the American League in plate appearances and at-bats. He hit .272/.307/.420 with 17 HR and 92 RBI in his first season at Comerica Park. He also provided the infield with one competent defender with the loss of shortstop Jose Iglesias for the entire season. Speaking of the slick fielding Cuban, he looks to return to form after shin issues put the kibosh on his first full year in Detroit. Iglesias has the defensive potential to be a Gold Glover each year. It remains to be seen though if at the plate he is more like his 2013 (.303/.349/.386) or his minor league career (.257/.307/.314). At third base, Nick Castellanos is looking to build off a solid rookie season. He hit .259 in 2014 with 31 doubles, 11 home runs, and 66 RBI. The knock on Castellanos is that he has frying pan hands at third base, which isn't exactly the place where you want that moniker. Normally I'd say that if Castellanos couldn't work it out, he'd be destined for DH-hood or the outfield. The thing is Detroit is pretty set in both areas. He's going to have to make due for the time being. At catcher, Alex Avila looks to regain his All-Star form after being plagued by concussions. Head injuries are nothing to rush back from, especially in a place like catcher where the potential to get rocked happens frequently. Coming off a career year at age 35 (MLB best .974 OPS, 2nd place in AL MVP voting), the Tigers would like to keep designated hitter Victor Martinez away from the catcher position as much as humanly possible. If Avila's head gets cloudy at any point in 2015, look for top catching prospect James McCann to step in.
The outfield got some new pieces for this season, but each came at a cost. Yoenis Cespedes will be the everyday left fielder after arriving from Boston. The Cuban basher adds more punch and depth to an already dangerous lineup. However, his addition cost Detroit Rick Porcello, their second best pitcher last year behind the departed Max Scherzer. GM Dave Dombrowski is banking on Yoenis Cespedes' impending free agency to provide an impetus to produce his best season yet. In center field, Anthony Gose arrives with substantially less fanfare than Cespedes. Acquired from the Blue Jays for Devon Travis, Gose will most likely platoon in center with speedster Rajai Davis. Gose is no slow poke himself (15 SB in 2014) but Davis can steal 30 bases (which he's done six years running) even in part time duty. Right field is where 2014 breakout star JD Martinez roams. Cut loose from the Astros at the end of last year's Spring Training, Martinez latched on in Detroit and flourished. Martinez hit .315/.358/.553 with 23 home runs and 76 RBI in 123 games. He also was one of the few Tigers with a pulse in their sweep loss to Baltimore in the playoffs, hitting two home runs and driving in five of the ten runs they scored in the three games. There was a reason Martinez was released by the lowly Astros though. Was 2014 an outlier or is he for real? If it was an anomaly, expect a knee jerk promotion of Steven Moya to the Majors.
The starting rotation took a massive hit when Max Scherzer departed for a 7 year deal with the Washington Nationals. Mad Max was the ace of aces on the 2014 Tigers and it won't be easy to replace the former Cy Young winner overnight. The first thing that could help ease the pain sooner would be a resurrection of Justin Verlander's career. My ill-advised pick to win last year's AL Cy Young, Verlander put not only some of the worst numbers of his career, but some of the worst in the American League. His 104 earned runs allowed led the circuit. His 1.40 WHIP was fourth worst among qualified starters. He'll need a massive turn around after he returns from the DL, plus some velocity back on a now very hittable fastball, or Detroit could be in trouble. While Verlander's away, David Price will start Opening Day. Price is in the last year of his current contract and will surely test free agency in the fall. Until then, the Tigers have at their disposal one of the American League's premier left handed pitchers. He led the Major Leagues last year in innings (248 1/3), starts (34), and strikeouts (271) between Tampa Bay and Detroit. Being younger than both Scherzer and Lester were this winter when they got their big deals, Price is going to get PAID when he hits the market. Truth be told, I don't think that money is going to come from Detroit. With Porcello gone, Anibal Sanchez slides up a spot to #3 in the rotation. Nobody has ever questioned the 31 year old's ability to pitch. What is constantly questioned about him is his ability to stay healthy for a full 162 games. Sanchez has never pitched 200 innings in his Major League career and could only get through 126 last year. That was his lowest total since 2009 when he was still a Marlin. He doesn't need to reach the 200 inning plateau this year to be useful to manager Brad Ausmus, but he'll need more than 21 starts to do so. Rounding out the rotation are two right handed winter pick-ups, Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene. Detroit is hoping Simon is more the All-Star starter of last year (15-10 w/ the Reds) than the on again, off again reliever he was the rest of his career. Greene comes over in a three way trade with Arizona and New York after a ho-hum rookie year. He could move to the pen when top pitching prospect Buck Farmer is ready.
The bullpen is a mess. Joe Nathan is still the closer at 40 despite blowing seven saves last year and rocking a grotesque 1.53 WHIP. This is primarily the case because every person tapped to take the job from him has been just as pitiful. Joakim Soria was really good as closer on a bad Texas team. Once he touched down in Detroit, it all fell apart and he recorded just one save before injuries and ineffectiveness struck. Joba Chamberlain, Al Alburquerque and Ian Krol looked ill-equipped to take the mantle either. They only have one left hander to speak of, Tom Gorzelanny. It is going to take some first class tinkering for this unit to get through 2015. I expect at least one or two pieces to be added to it before or on the trade deadline.
This is the Tigers' division to lose. When they finally forfeit the crown, it may be for a long time. They have burdened themselves with some meaty contracts guaranteed to players that will be collecting pensions by the end of them. Their farm system has very little depth and even less Major League ready talent. 2015 could be the end of an era in Detroit. How they end it will be entirely up to their pitching.
LAST YEAR'S RANKING: #1 (DOWN 4)
PREDICTED RECORD: 92-70
PREDICTED ALL-STAR REPS: Miguel Cabrera (first baseman), Ian Kinsler (second baseman), Victor Martinez (designated hitter), David Price (starting pitcher)
Trevor Utley is looking forward to the Dodgers eating the majority of that Miguel Cabrera albatross in three or so years.
Image Credit: Tigers logo (sportslogos.net)