The Detroit Tigers claimed the AL Central title for the third straight season, went to their third consecutve ALCS, and are just one year removed from a World Series appearance. But that didn't stop them from making two major offseason trades, signing a new closer, and hiring a new manager this offseason.
In November, the team traded first baseman Prince Fielder -- who hit .295 with 55 total home runs and 214 RBI over his two seasons with Detroit -- to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler (who has already said he plans to steal more bases). The move allows two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera to go back to first base, opening up a starting role at third base for top prospect Nick Castellanos.
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Two weeks after the Fielder trade, the Tigers sent starter Doug Fister to the Nationals for pitching prospect Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol, and utility man Stephen Lombardozzi. Ray may see a handful of starts early in the season as the team waits for ace Justin Verlander to recover from January core muscle repair surgery, while Krol should slot nicely into the bullpen. Lombardozzi bounces between spot duty in the infield and outfield. Fister's spot in the rotation will likely be taken by Drew Smyly, who went 6-0 with a 2.37 ERA and 1.04 WHIP in 76 innings out of the bullpen in 2013. Smyly carried a 2.57 ERA and 1.18 WHIP over 143 2/3 minor league innings (in 2011 and 2012), with all but one appearance coming as a starter.
The Tigers made one major free agent move, signing closer Joe Nathan to a two-year, $20 million deal. Nathan should solidify a bullpen that spent a good part of 2013 grasping for a solid closer. Joaquin Benoit finished the season as the leader in saves (with 24), but not before the team tried out a hard-throwing rookie (Bruce Rondon), swallowed their pride and brought back their 2012 closer (Jose Valverde, who saved nine games), and even gave a couple tries to Smyly (two saves), whose value was ultimately in long relief. Despite the tumult, the Tigers blew just 16 saves as a team, the sixth-fewest in the majors.
Detroit also made a couple quiet additions that could have an impact in 2014, signing speedy outfielder Rajai Davis to a two-year deal, and bringing on reclamation project Joba Chamberlain (3.70 ERA and 9.1 K/9 over his first five pre-Tommy John seasons, while bouncing between the rotation and bullpen) on a one-year deal.
If all the player movement wasn't enough, the Tigers replaced the retired Jim Leyland with 44-year-old Brad Ausmus, who has never managed in the major or minor leagues (but whose hiring, which Tony LaRussa consulted on, was met with near-universal praise). Essentially an unknown quantity as a manager (Will the Tigers run? Will he platoon players?), Ausmus brings a nice X-factor into what is a very similar -- yet very different -- Tigers team.
As for the holdovers, the Tigers boast the 2013 AL MVP and Cy Young Award winners in Miguel Cabrera and Max Scherzer. They have a young, talented outfielder in Austin Jackson and a solid corner option in Torii Hunter. Alex Avila failed to bounceback in 2013, but that great 2011 season gives owners a glimmer of hope, even though it looks more like an anomaly with every passing year. Anibal Sanchez, Drew Smyly, and Rick Porcello make for an exciting (and Fantasy-relevant) trio at the back-end of the rotation, and Justin Verlander enters this season looking to prove something after a disappointing 2013. Verlander may be delayed, however, after that surprise surgery. And even before the surgery, there were concerns about Verlander's drop in production last season, which featured a significant spike in ERA and WHIP. The silver lining? Worry over Verlander's 2013, coupled with worry over his surgery, may push his Average Draft Position to the point where he becomes an enticing Draft Day gamble with tremendous upside.
Sleeper ... Rick Porcello, starting pitcher
Porcello put together the second-best season of his career in 2013, with a 4.32 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. His 142 strikeouts were a career-best, and his 2.1 BB/9 tied a career low. Just 25 years old, Porcello -- who already has 868 2/3 innings pitched in his career -- is just now coming into his prime pitching years. But what really makes Porcello an attractive sleeper in 2014 has very little to do with any of these factors. With the Tigers infield now featuring Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias (and Cabrera moving to first), Porcello will have a far better defense behind him. In 2013, Porcello had the second-highest groundball percentage in the majors (55.5 percent) and sported an xFIP of 3.19 (with a FIP of 3.53). In short, his strength -- inducing ground balls -- was essentially wasted by a poor defense behind him. With a new-look infield, many of those balls that got through (or were mishandled) will now be turned into outs, lowering Porcello's ERA and WHIP (while alleviating his pitch count). The downside here is that Porcello's strikeout rate may dip, as he gains confidence in his defense and relies more on groundball outs. But that should be more than equalized by an improvement in ratios, making Porcello a nice sleeper for 2014.
Rotisserie gem ... Rajai Davis, outfield
Right now, there doesn't appear to be a starting spot for Davis, who spent the last three seasons with the Blue Jays. But that's a familiar refrain for the 33-year-old, who seems to enter every season without a starting role, yet manages to steal 40-50 bases. Davis has reached the 40-steal mark four times in the last five seasons, and has 216 total steals in that span. Yet he's only seen 400 at-bats twice since 2009. Davis may see some spot starts as the right-handed half of a platoon with Andy Dirks, and could spell 38-year-old Torii Hunter from time to time. Davis will almost certainly be the next man up if any of the outfielders are injured. But this is what he does -- steal a ton of bases, even when the odds are stacked against him.
Impact prospect ... Nick Castellanos, third base
Castellanos is going to play third but won't gain eligibility there in Fantasy until he plays five games (in most standard formats). The organization's top prospect, Castellanos was a first-round pick in the 2010 draft, hitting .333 in seven games for the Rookie League affiliate that season. Over the next four years, Castellanos gradually worked his way up the farm system, hitting .303 over 1,601 at-bats, with three seasons of 32 or more doubles and an average of 14 home runs over the last two seasons (he played in 134 games each season). Castellanos is a natural third baseman who was shifted to the outfield for half of 2012 and all of 2013, which may have accounted for a dip in batting average (.264 in 2012 and .276 in 2013) as he learned the new position. The move, intended to accelerate Castellanos' ascent to the majors, was scrapped after the Tigers traded Prince Fielder, which shifted Miguel Cabrera back to first and opened up third base for Castellanos. The 21-year-old righty played in 11 games with the Tigers last season, hitting .278 over 18 at-bats. While nothing is guaranteed (a rough spring training, for instance, could cause the Tigers to shift players around and give Castellanos some more minor league seasoning), it's a safe bet that he will open the season as the team's third baseman, and should contribute with a nice average, double-digit home runs, and a handful of steals.
With Joe Nathan signed for two years, Bruce Rondon is back to being the closer of the future (as opposed to the closer of 2014). For all the high-profile imploding we saw in 2013, Rondon still finished the season with a 3.45 ERA and 1.36 WHIP (with a 1.23 ERA over his last 15 games). He should contribute out of the bullpen with a high strikeout rate and low ratios -- and is probably the backup closer -- giving him value in AL-only Roto formats ... Robbie Ray could see some early-season action if Justin Verlander isn't fully rehabbed from January surgery. The 22-year-old struck out 160 batters in 142 innings last season over two minor league levels (High-A and Double-A), sporting a 3.36 ERA ... Jose Alvarez made six starts for the Tigers in 2013 (to varying degrees of success), and put together a solid campaign in Triple-A (2.80 ERA and 1.08 WHIP over 128 2/3 innings). There's no room for him in the rotation, especially if Ray leapfrogs him for early-season starts, but Alvarez does have one distinct advantage over Ray: he's already on the 40-man roster. Baseball America says Alvarez has the best control of all Detroit's minor-league pitchers ... James McCann probably isn't ready for the majors, but if the 23-year-old gets off to a nice start, and Avila struggles again, he could force his way to the majors.