Detroit Tigers Try To Keep Championship Flame Burning

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You only get so many shots at glory before the lights go out.

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In the case of the Detroit Tigers, the sandman may already be reaching for the dimmer switch.

After the Tigers were edged by Boston in a tight ALCS series in 2013, they were a consensus choice to represent the American League in the World Series last year. But they struggled to win their division and then ran into a hot Baltimore team in the first round of the playoffs, and were swept unceremoniously out of MLB’s postseason tournament.

This off season, with the Tigers in a state of flux and a number of teams opening up their purse strings to pursue top talent, Detroit is attracting significantly less national attention and is generally absent from the short list of World Series contenders.

Now that may or may not be a good thing, and it’s still early January.

But it’s an open question whether this long-of-tooth Tiger team is still capable of pouncing on its prey, or if it will instead surrender to the ennui that inexorably undermines aging teams.

What we do know is the roster has been transformed and if this team does turn out to be one of destiny, there’ll be some new faces popping up in the world championship photo in late October.

So let’s take a brief look at how the team is shaping up at this stage, with the understanding general manager Dave Dombrowski has probably not yet completed his off season talent hunt.

Starting Pitching

With the trade of Rick Porcello, the team weakened itself in this all-important department. Returnees David Price, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez still make this a team strength, but the four and five slots have been allotted to candidates with vaporous resumes (Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon).

Of course the return of Max Scherzer would change the equation, and baseball cognescenti now consider that a genuine possibility.

Relief Pitching

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Dombrowski must have read a lot of Mad magazine as a child, because in regards to the bullpen, he has adopted the credo of Alfred E. Neuman–“What, me worry?”.

He has added no one new of note, though it could be argued picking up Joakim Soria‘s option and the prospective return of Bruce Rondon will help. Of course 40 year-old  closer Joe Nathan will return, along with Al Alburquerque.

In addition, newcomers Alex Wilson and Josh Zeid might contribute, and the injured Joel Hanrahan and Luke Putkonen may return to form. So at least the right side of the pen has strength in numbers, if nothing else.

But Blaine Hardy and Ian Krol from the left side?

Really?

Designated Hitter

Signing 36 year-old Victor Martinez to a four-year contract in November was a risky move for the franchise, but one that had to be taken.

Coming off a career season, the switch-hitter adds stellar offense to the line-up, protects Miguel Cabrera, and lends a veteran leadership to the locker room.

Had he not signed, he would have been irreplaceable.

Catching

Incumbent Alex Avila returns from a concussion-filled year, and anemic offense has placed his starting position in jeopardy. Promising James McCann appears ready for the bigs, and if he hits will relegate Avila to a lesser role.

Both are strong defenders, so at least the team will be well-served in that capacity.

Last year’s back-up Bryan Holaday appears to be the odd man out.

Infield

Miguel Cabrera returns at first base, so it’s safe to say if he’s healthy, the team is in good shape.

DH Victor Martinez will spell the big man on occasion, with newly dubbed “super sub” Hernan Perez perhaps getting some play there as well.

Ian Kinsler will be back in the saddle at second base and although his offense dropped off precipitously in the second half, his defense was impeccable throughout the year.

Perez should catch some back-up duty at this position as well.

For a player who spent just a few months with the Tigers in 2013, Jose Iglesias‘s return to shortstop has been anxiously anticipated.

He of the wondrous glove is expected to be fully recovered from shin splints in both legs, and if that’s the case, greatly improves the defense.

The extent to which he pitches in on offense, though, will also be closely followed. Any surprise on the upside (it’s expected his batting average will settle in around .250 or so) will be more than welcome for a team that will probably get on base less frequently this year.

Either holdover Andrew Romine or Perez will fill in as necessary for Iglesias.

Sophomore Nick Castellanos will handle the hot corner again, though the team brass hopes his defense will improve from 2014. He hit about as expected last year (.259), and the hope is the 22 year-old will take another step forward in 2015. If he continues to struggle with the leather, though, he might be re-issued an outfielder’s glove in 2016.

Utility men Perez or Romine will likely provide the back-up at this position.

Outfield

Two off season trades have assured the Tigers will have a “Punch and Judy” outfield in 2015. Of course that would be “Punch” at each of the corners, with “Judy” setting up camp in center field.

Newly acquired Yoenis Cespedes is slated to handle left field, and is coming off a 100 RBI season with Oakland and Boston. He also represents a defensive upgrade over J.D. Martinez, who is moving to right field.

Martinez was a serendipitous find off the Houston Astro ash heap last year, and tore up the league (.315 BA/.912 OPS) shortly after his arrival in the Motor City. One of the key questions facing the team is to what extent his 2014 production was an anomaly.

“Judy” is the moniker for center fielder Anthony Gose, late of the Toronto Blue Jays. There are no doubts about his defense, as he can track it with the elite outfielders and carries a Howitzer. The 24 year-old has yet to prove he can hit major league pitching (career .234), though, and will likely share time with Rajai Davis  if his offense continues to sputter. Like Davis, Gose can scamper and is a genuine base stealing threat.

The fifth outfielder is likely to be Tyler Collins, who adds much needed left-handed power off the bench and plays adequate defense across all outfield positions.

Although the Tigers have high hopes for 23 year-old super prospect Steven Moya, he’ll need to make more contact at the plate before he’s major league certified. He’ll probably spend most of the year at AAA Toledo honing his pitch recognition skills before making the trip north to Detroit.

The Bottom Line

Although the Detroit Tigers have contended regularly in recent years, their window of opportunity will not remain open forever.

2015 may well be a watershed year for the franchise, as elderly owner Mike Ilitch once again underwrites a spiraling payroll in an effort to finally hoist a World Series flag over Comerica Park.

Though the offensive and defensive elements of the calculus appear to be in place, both the front and back end pitching will be closely scrutinized.

With the departure of erstwhile stalwart Rick Porcello and the potential loss of Max Scherzer, the rotation suddenly looks vulnerable.

Most puzzling, though, is Dombrowski’s continued laissez faire approach to the bullpen’s recurring troubles.

Does the general manager know something that virtually the entire baseball world has missed regarding the perennial inadequacy of the Tiger relief corps?

If the answer to that question is no, it will be almost impossible to keep the championship flame lit in 2015.

Next: Links: Steven Moya Mud Hen, Youth Movement

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