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American League Two-a-Days: Detroit Tigers

LiveBall Sports previews the American League this week.

Team Synopsis: Detroit Tigers

2013 record: 93-69
2013 runs scored: 796
2013 runs against: 624
2013 pythag. record: 99-63

The Detroit Tigers shot themselves in the foot so many times last season that they ended up with a one game margin of victory in the AL Central.  It should never have been that close.  The Tigers were the best team in baseball from April 1 through the ALCS.  They were the best run scoring offense in baseball, and the best pitching team in the American League.  Only the Kansas City Royals gave up fewer runs.  Even their maligned bullpen was a team strength by the end of the season.

So why and how did the Tigers lose helplessly to the Red Sox in the ALCS?  The answer will foreshadow a weakness of the 2014 team: the lineup wasn’t that good in the playoffs.  So did they cramp up in the clutch?  Hardly.  The Tigers lineup was unproductive in September and late August as well.  All of the run scoring the Tigers did was concentrated in the first five months of the season.  That’s when Miguel Cabrera got hurt, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson started to really struggle, and Torii Hunter cooled off.  Without the benefit of a great lineup, the Tigers weren’t a true talent 99 win team in the playoffs.  They very nearly got caught in the division race by the Cleveland Indians.

And then they dealt Prince Fielder in the offseason to Texas for Ian Kinsler, which is going to to little to help the offensive problem.  Luckily, Detroit returns 4/5 of their rotation from last year.

Who is having a good spring?

3B Nick Castellanos, with a spot to win in spring training, has an 1.158 OPS in 33 spring PAs.  CF Austin Jackson has laced 10 hits.  Something named Miguel Cabrera has a .455/.571/.773 spring line.  Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer has picked up right where he left off.

Reasons to be optimistic about the 2014 Tigers

That rotation, man.  Scherzer.  Verlander.  Sanchez.  Even if Sanchez regresses of his career year, he’s still a nice no. 3 pitcher.  And with Scherzer and Verlander at the top of any rotation, it’s going to be hard to score on the Tigers.  Are they an all-time great rotation?  No.  Scherzer doesn’t make it deep into games consistently, and Verlander has undergone some level of skill decline recently.  But it’s the best rotation in baseball, even after selling high-ish on Doug Fister in a trade to the Nationals.

Defensively, the Tigers are much, much improved.  This is at least an average defensive unit, and a plus unit in the infield.  Alex Avila leaves something to be desired as a defensive catcher, and the outfield is Austin Jackson (above average) and not a lot of help from Torii Hunter and Andy Dirks.  The bullpen isn’t really a weakness anymore, even if the Tigers are overpaying Joe Nathan.  The Tigers have to be the favorite to prevent the most runs in the AL in 2014.

Rick Porcello, the fourth man in the rotation for the Tigers, would be the top pitcher on many staffs.

Reasons to be realistic about the 2014 Tigers

Offensively, this is going to be more than just a problem for the Tigers.  This is a poor offensive team.  Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez are top five hitters on this team, but both have reached the end of the road career-wise.  If they have anything left to give this team, it’s a plus.  And with 2B Omar Infante departed for the main competition in the division, this offense is really just three guys: Cabrera, Kinsler, and Jackson.

That’s probably selling Alex Avila a bit short.  Avila is a nice player, but he’s a lot nicer as an 8 hitter in a power hitting lineup who ambushes pitchers not wanting to put someone on base for the top of the order.  It might be selling Castellanos a but short, as he’s off to a nice start to his spring.  But since he’s been in Detroit, Miguel Cabrera has always been a challenge to work around because he’s an aggressive hitter and you want to make sure you’re not falling too far behind in the count.  This year, there’s not a whole lot in the Tigers lineup beyond him to be concerned about.  In terms of extra base hits, Cabrera has a slugging projection from Fangraphs of .584.  Second on the team is…Torii Hunter at .431.  It’s not even close.

The Tigers don’t run the bases particularly well either.  Kinsler instead of Fielder improves that a bit, but this is a station to station ballclub with no real patience or power.  Basically, if Miguel Cabrera isn’t getting pitched around, it’s because something is wrong with Cabrera.

The Projections

The Fangraphs projected team WAR for the 2014 Tigers is 46.1, best in the American League.  Their 23.8 Batters WAR projection is 4th in the AL. Their 22.3 Pitchers WAR projection is best in the AL.  Cool Standings projects the 2014 Tigers to win 90 games, a 3 win decline over last season.  Miguel Cabrera is the Tiger with the best 2014 projection with an average WAR projection of 5.9.  Justin Verlander is the pitcher with the best average projection at 5.2 WAR.

The Tigers vs the rest of the AL Central

The AL Central is an above average division this year.  The Tigers enter the season with one of the best statistical profiles of any team.  The Royals and Indians are above average opponents with some downside potential.  The Twins should be improved, and have the consensus best farm system, which should help avoid a repeat of the end of last year when they were running a sub-MLB lineup out.  The White Sox are more volatile this year than last, and will have some upside to go with the worst downside in MLB.

LiveBall Sports Projection for the 2014 Detroit Tigers

Because of their relatively easy strength of schedule, it’s a good bet that the Tigers will win another 90 games this year.  There’s not a lot of collapse risk with this team.  I do think. however, the Cabrera and Verlander projections are a bit high.  It’s not hard to see Cabrera spending some time on the DL this season with one of the many ailments he has as his body wears down.  Verlander has been nothing if not durable, but it’s hard not to remember how hard he got hit at times last season.  This team is great, but it’s best players do seem to be somewhat overprojected.

I’ll flatly side with the numbers here and predict the Tigers to finish 90-72.  That will not be the best figure in the American League this year.  It could be enough to win the AL Central for the fourth consecutive season but that’s not certain either.  At 90 wins, Cool Standings playoff odds give the Tigers a roughly 70% chance of winning the AL Central.  Two-thirds sounds about right to me.  90 wins in almost all likelyhood will get the Tigers into the postseason: it’s hard to see three wild card teams win 91+ games like last year.

Any postseason trip should seal GM Dave Dombroski’s position as one of (if not the) best executives in Tigers history.

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