Stage Set for First Indians-Tigers Showdown of the Season
There’s a great Jonah Keri article over on rival (as in, rival of the ant and the elephant) website Grantland about Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski. It chronicles the team builder’s uncanny ability to see something in players others don’t, whether it’s burgeoning talent that’s about to blow everyone away or else the beginning of a descent into garbageness before others recognize it. It happened with Doug Fister twice, it happened with both of those Marlins teams he built, Placido Polanco, Magglio Ordonez, Anibal Sanchez, Kevin Brown, Al Leiter, the list goes on.
While Dombrowski doesn’t get mentioned with the other rock star GMs out there, he’s done as good as or better than the Epsteins or Beanes of the world, his fingerprints on one of the best teams of the 90’s in that strike-killed Expos team, the two Marlins title winners and the pair of pennants he’s won in Detroit. The 2014 Tigers are just the latest hopeful masterpiece in a brilliant front office career.
Despite where the Tigers reached in the playoffs last year and all the talent coming back, from the Best Hitter in the Game™ to a group some considered the best rotation of all time and a middle of the order that makes pitchers cry, Dombrowski was not one to stand pat and hope for better luck in 2014.
The two biggest surprises, besides that bonkers Miguel Cabrera deal, were moving Prince Fielder and Doug Fister. Fielder had a down season in 2014, an .819 OPS nearly 100 points lower than his career mark along with a career low 25 homers that were only made worse because his presence and the return of Victor Martinez meant Miggy had to play third. This hurts the defense. Maybe he was hurt, maybe that rumor of something involving his wife and since-traded Avisail Garcia was true and Prince couldn’t deal with it, who knows. Whatever it was, Dombrowski didn’t like what he saw from Fielder or from the relative beating third base had on Cabrera’s much more important offensive output, so he pulled the trigger on a one for one swap, so rare in baseball, and grabbed Ian Kinsler from the Texas Rangers.
Kinsler, at least it seems to me, flew under the radar down in Arlington relative to what else was going on with that team the last few years. It makes sense, Josh Hamilton was a lightning bolt, Elvis Andrus’ defensive prowess is quite dazzling and Adrian Beltre hits home runs from his knees. Even Nelson Cruz hit like 35 home runs one postseason.
Meanwhile Kinsler plugged away, a strong glove worth 8 dWAR according to B-Ref over his career and the potential for a 30/30 season ever lurking. He’s about as five tool as you can get, only derailed by occasional hammy issues and other tweaks and dings. Plus he looks suspiciously like James Franco. I know Franco is a freak when it comes to work, but to think he’s also playing All Star level second base is borderline impossible with all the movie making and degree learning and arm cutting off. While the Tigers might miss Prince’s pop, if last year was any indication it will be safely replaced by Kinsler (career .803 OPS and the aforementioned power along with speed Prince don’t have) and he plays a premium defensive position very well.
The Fister deal was a bit more strange – he was brilliant for the Tigers in his time, and in particular he just destroyed the Indians. He’s one of those guys Dombrowski saw something special in when others saw just a control pitcher with middling stuff that enjoyed the spacious confines of Safeco Field. When I saw he was coming to the Tigers in July 2011, just after the Indians had traded for Ubaldo Jimenez (and for much cheaper, in prospect terms) I had an inkling the Tribe made the wrong deal. I was right, Fister had a 3.29 ERA for the Tigers, striking out an extra two batters per nine, and was pretty much the scariest third or fourth starter you could imagine.
So naturally, he was shipped to Washington for Steve “Hall of Fame” Lombardozzi and other bits for the bullpen, and everyone in baseball laughed. Then Fister got hurt, and he is just now getting back into playing shape with a flat ground throwing program kicking off this week. He’ll be fine, I’m glad he’s gone because of the havoc he caused in Cleveland, but I have a sinking feeling Ian Krol or Lombardozzi or Robbie Ray, one of these guys, is going to come up big for the Motor City. At this point I just can’t trust Dave to make a bad move.
With Cabrera moving to first base again, there’s finally room for Nick Castellanos to slide into his natural position at third. The Tigers’ uber-prospect has been talked about for years – huge bat, good glove, Baseball America had him as the 21st best prospect before 2013 as did MLB.com, and he’s getting his shot. At 22 there’s still room to grow both physically and mentally, but he mashed in the spring for what that’s worth and in the early goings he’s got a .269/.345/.462 slash line and even if he’s only decent defensively, he’s a big upgrade for the Tigers. It would have been great for him if shortstop Jose Iglesias weren’t out for the year, that guy covers a lot of ground and makes the guys next to him look great, but it shouldn’t be a disaster. Teams like the Tigers, so stacked, don’t need rookies to break out to succeed but Castellanos may just be about to do that.
Another big change will be the lack of a strong tobacco odor lingering over the Tigers dugout all season. Yes, Jim Leyland is gone, though he can never die as he’s been preserved inside by what I expect is a hefty regimen of bourbon and cigarettes, and Brad Ausmus, the pride of Southington, Connecticut, has taken his place.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has a bit of animosity towards Ausmus being hired, because this is a guy I remember debuting in the league a player, and now he’s managing. Mike Matheny is one thing, but I actually paid attention to Brad’s career. Quite rude of him to bring up mortality, if you ask me. He seems like a smart guy though, doesn’t come across quite as crotchety as Leyland (who does) so you’d expect he embraces the new world of baseball thinking a bit more. Managers being what they are, of limited impact and all, it wouldn’t totally blow me away if they won a title or at least made it to the Series with Ausmus at the helm. Shoot, look at Matheny. As far as he’s concerned, the season doesn’t end before about October 20th.
The best news for Indians fans when they look at what is still a tremendous Tigers team is that the bullpen might be worse this year. That’s not saying a lot, Detroit had some problems in the later innings last year, from Bruce Rondon collapsing in the closer role, another go round with the Big Potato Jose Valverde, Al Alburquerque and Phil Coke being pretty bad, and taking a few months before Joaquin Benoit (THEIR BEST PEN ARM) finding his way into the highest leverage situations. This year doesn’t look pretty – Rondon blew his elbow out, Benoit left, Alburquerque and Coke are still themselves, Krol is an unknown, and as a piece de resistance, Joe Nathan is their closer.
The Tigers have lucked out this year because there’s an unlikely chance they’ll see the Yankees when they make the playoffs (yes, it’s pretty much a guarantee unless something catastrophic happens) and Nathan has a mini career of coughing it up for New York when he was in Minnesota. But that doesn’t mean he’s that good otherwise. He’s already given up five runs in 4.2 innings this year, and while he was pretty darn good last year (269 ERA+, 43 saves, dude had the numbers) something about a 40-year-old closer who has just collapsed in big situations doesn’t lend much faith.
The stats in baseball are understandably huge, but that mental game needs some attention too. He’ll probably have big numbers all year, but once the games tighten up, Nathan has in the past too. Plus, the Indians have done alright against him, he’s got a 110 tOPS+ against them. That means they’ve done 10% better than average against Nathan, and a lot of that was during his heyday in Minny. So hopefully Ausmus believes in him and the Indians break some hearts.
In short, they’re still real good, a bit more athletic than last year, pitching looks to be a bit worse but the defense looks a bit better now that Rajai Davis and Andy Dirks are platooning instead of Delmon Young, along with Castellanos, and with a new manager, we don’t know what their moves will look like. Cabrera’s still there though, and that’s terrifying.
And Alex Gonzalez is playing shortstop for them. I thought he ascended to a higher plane, but whatever.