April 5, 2012; Detroit, MI, USA; A general view of a flyover during the playing of the national anthem before the opening day game between the Detroit Tigers and the Boston Red Sox at Comerica Park. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Are The Detroit Tigers New And Improved? Or Just New?

Our commercial culture endlessly touts products which are not only “new”, but “improved”.

After a transaction-filled offseason and a spring where the team was riddled with major injuries, you can be assured the 2014 Detroit Tigers will look like a new team.

Whether they’ll be improved or not remains to be seen.

If your last contact with the team was last October when you fired your beer bottle through your big screen TV sometime during game six of the ALCS against Boston, take heart. The Motor City Bengals’ staff has been on the job all winter analyzing the various comings and goings of both new and old Tigers alike and is here to guide you through the upcoming season.

Following their inglorious dismissal from last year’s playoffs, the Tigers limped into the offseason determined to reshape their team.

They accomplished that and more with a flurry of high profile moves before Christmas, and entered spring training with what seemed to be a fairly set roster.

But the baseball gods always get the last word, and a serious spring training injury to shortstop Jose Iglesias triggered two more personnel moves. Left fielder Andy Dirks and reliever Bruce Rondon also suffered significant injuries in March, the net result of which is that the 2014 iteration of the Detroit Tigers has a vastly different cast of characters than the one that closed the 2013 season.

Let’s take a look.

Manager and Coaching Staff

Brad Ausmus takes over the helm from Jim Leyland. He is joined by new coaches Wally Joyner (hitting), Dave Clark (third base), Omar Vizquel (first base), and Matt Martin (defense coordinator).

Holdover coaches are Gene Lamont (bench) and Jeff Jones (pitching).

The style and decision-making of Ausmus will be as closely watched as any of the new player arrivals. He has no managerial experience whatsoever, though he should be well-served both by his intelligence and lengthy MLB career as a catcher.

His retention of Lamont and Jones should also ease his transition to field managing, as he inherits an accomplished team with very high expectations.

Starting Pitchers

Here you have familiar faces, though 2013 reliever Drew Smyly replaces Doug Fister, who left in a controversial trade.

Otherwise, last year’s principles are intact–right handers Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, and Rick Porcello.

Together this quintet forms the singular strength of this Tiger team, which to a great extent will determine the fate of this season.

Let’s hope they all stay healthy, though, because there’s very little immediate help behind them.

Relief Pitchers

While the starting pitching is an exclamation point, the relief corps is very much a question mark. If there is a trade and/or signing to be made, it is likely to occur in this area.

As of this writing (early Friday, March 28th), there are few certainties residing in the Tiger pen.

Joe Nathan is the 39 year-old closer upon whom much depends. Let’s hope Father Time doesn’t ambush him in Detroit.

The loss of expected set-up man Bruce Rondon for the year last week to Tommy John surgery is a devastating blow to the team, as it was last September when he went down.

Though ex-New York Yankee Joba Chamberlain was signed to a one-year deal in the offseason, he remains a $2.5 million coin flip.

Al Alburquerque reprises his high wire act again in short relief, which features both astronomically high strikeout and walk rates, often packaged in the same appearance.

Other right hand options include Luke Putkonen, who quietly had a nice 2013, and Evan Reed, who impressed in spring training.

On the other hand (no pun intended), the left handers vying for bullpen jobs have a way to go.

Holdover Phil Coke has had a bad run the past few years, and young Ian Krol (obtained in the Fister deal) has decent stuff but is largely untested.

Overall the bullpen is not solidified, which unfortunately continues the trend of the past few years. Aside from bringing re-inforcements in from other organizations–which is a clear possibility–expect to see young phenom Cory Knebel in Detroit soon.

Catcher

Left handed hitting Alex Avila returns and is a quiet key to the Tiger fortunes. With the loss of Prince Fielder and a subsequent line-up tilted toward right handed hitters, Avila will see a lot of right hand pitching. How he fares in the 5-6-7 spot in the batting order will have a lot to say about the team’s ability to score runs.

He is backed up by Bryan Holaday, a solid if unspectacular rookie who hits from the right side and will see significant action.

DH

Though he’ll get spot duty at catcher and first base, Victor Martinez will mostly DH for the 2014 Tigers.

Consider this a good thing.

He’ll hit behind Miguel Cabrera, offering “protection” to the best hitter in baseball, though not as much as Prince Fielder did. In last year’s second half, Martinez proved he’s still among the best hitters in baseball, and will be a welcome presence in the line-up as well as the locker room in the final year of his contract.

Infielders

If you’re working off last year’s scorecard, throw it away–it won’t do you any good.

Cabrera has taken over at first base, a more natural position for him at this stage of his career. This re-positioning should allow for less wear and tear on his body, which famously broke down late last year with ill consequences.

Offensively speaking, I cannot invent a superlative that’s not already been uttered to describe his performance, so let’s move on.

Ian Kinsler arrived in the Fielder trade and should handle second base with aplomb. He runs well, hits nicely, and fields his position adeptly. What else can you ask? He’ll probably spend a lot of his time at the top of the batting order.

Rookie Nick Castellanos inherits third-base. Only 22 years-old, there will be struggles both offensively and defensively. On some nights he’ll shine like an All-Star. On others he’ll be humbled.

Nonetheless he has a chance to be a legitimate home-grown star. Like Cabrera, he’s a right-hand power-hitter who’s comfortable driving the ball to right field–there’s a lot of doubles out there, and this represents a very mature approach to hitting by the young Castellanos. Defensively, he’s a work-in-progress.

The position of shortstop has become “Omar’s Oasis”, as new first-base and infield coach Omar Vizquel has recommended the two newly acquired individuals who will man the position, Alex Gonzalez and Andrew Romine. The two late spring roster moves effectively cashiered journeyman Danny Worth, who made a strong bid for the position this spring.

Gonzales and Romine are fringe players and will try and account for the loss of the stellar Jose Iglesias to injury. Neither can reasonably be expected to contribute much offensively, and while Romine projects to be a defensive asset, it’s hard to imagine the 37 year-old Gonzales covering much real estate at this point. Here’s hoping the future Hall of Famer Vizquel analyzes shortstop talent as well as he displayed it himself on the field throughout his glorious career.

Classic utility man Don Kelly will back up third as well as the outfield positions. Romine also plays second and third.

Outfielders

New left fielder Rajai Davis brings a new dimension to the Tiger line-up– a pure speedster capable of stealing 50 bases a year. Though he should be able to cover a lot of ground in left field, he is not known as a sterling glove man. A right-handed hitter, he has not hit righties well in his career and will probably be platooned to some degree.

With incumbent Andy Dirks felled in spring training, rookie Tyler Collins filled the void and appears ready to make the roster. The left-handed hitting Collins, who has not playing above the AA level, has some pop but is subject to streakiness with the bat. Expect him to provide adequate defense and even to back-up center and right field if necessary, according to a recent statement by Ausmus.

Center field remains in the competent hands of Austin Jackson, who has been moved out of the leadoff position and will hit lower in the lineup. Indications are Jackson is comfortable with the new arrangement and may flourish somewhere between the five and seven slot.

His ability to track down balls in center field remains exquisite and look for him to steal more bases this year as Ausmus cuts him loose.

Veteran Torii Hunter returns in right field. At 39, he’s no longer in his prime, but he had a strong regular season last year and the Tigers hope to coax one more good year out him. Though Hunter has lost a step or two, he still flashes strong defensive instincts as he capably patrols right field.

The Bottom Line

It’s not often a perennial contender undergoes a massive facelift, but that’s the case with the 2014 Detroit Tigers. From the manager and his coaches, right on down the player roster, there’s a bevy of new faces along with new philosophies on how to win baseball games.

Through all the changes, though, the team’s strengths and weaknesses have remained constant. The starting rotation sets this team apart from most others and will allow the Tigers to compete in most games. The position players, though a vastly different cast than last year, will play well enough on both sides of the ball to extend their season into October.

The bullpen though, as it always seems, is vulnerable. There’s no more deflating experience in baseball than to lose a well-pitched game by yielding a late lead.

As of this writing on Friday, March 28th, a snapshot of the Tiger bullpen suggests there may be more late game agony awaiting this team than can be tolerated. No doubt the front office is keenly aware of this as we speak and will pull whatever levers are necessary to remedy the situation.

And if they succeed in shoring up the bullpen as regular season play begins in 2014, they can confidently count themselves as not only a “new” team, but one that’s both “new” and “improved”.

At which point Tiger fans can stop hurling projectiles at the TV set and simply sit back and enjoy the show.

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