I feel like I’m knocking on heaven’s door: The Tigers might start 2014 with a completely new left side of the infield, which should please a pitching staff that watched last year’s primary left side of the infield, third baseman Miguel Cabrera and shortstop Jhonny Peralta, treat ground balls the way road workers do drivers: they waved them through. Cabrera is moving across the diamond for Nick Castellanos, 22, who has a .919 minor-league fielding percentage at third; Eugenio Suarez, 22, is only at shortstop until Jose Iglesias’ shins heal. But the real star to be in the Tigers’ infield is second baseman Devon Travis. If Ian Kinsler felt threatened by Jurickson Profar in Texas, he might soon feel like Ukraine to Travis’ Russia. Travis, drafted in the 13th round out of Florida State, has 597 at-bats over the last two seasons, and is batting .340, including .351 in 2013. He played his last 55 games in the Florida State League, where the bigger parks tend to reduce offense. It did. He fell two points, from .352 in the Midwest League to .350. Travis has power (16 homers and 28 doubles last year), strike zone judgment (61 walks to 74 strikeouts) and speed (22-for-26 stealing, four triples). His career OPS is .914, with a 340/406/508 triple slash. And his range factor is more than 5 in the field. None of that may make Kinsler happy, or secure. Someday he may wish for the Tigers to go 1-161.
Trivia: Miguel Cabrera won the second of back-to-back MVPs in 2013. Who was the last Tiger to win consecutive MVPs? And nine Tigers have won MVPs. Name them (hint: four were pitchers). Answers below.
What he said: Former Tigers manager Jim Leyland on once giving an errant steal sign: “People make mistakes. I see a misspelled word in the paper once in a while.” What he meant: “If the state of newspapers was a baseball team, it would be the Astros. With apologies to the Astros.”
Outlook: The Tigers are the only American League team to reach the division series in each of the last three seasons, and they’ve disappointed in all of them (the Cardinals have made three straight division series in the NL; the Rangers would have done so had they won the wild-card game in 2012).
The Tigers replaced Jose Valverde in the bullpen with Joaquin Benoit in 2013, and still lost two late-inning leads in the ALCS. Wherever Senor Smoke was, he was no doubt fired up when David Ortiz’s home run took the ball and Torii Hunter into the bullpen.
The Tigers have a new closer, a new infield and a new manager for 2014, and no Prince Fielder. It’s doubtful any team so good — 93 wins, plus 172 in run differential, second in the AL in runs scored, third in team ERA — had so much change. The Tigers have three new starters in the infield and switched positions on the fourth, a new outfielder, a new starting pitcher, a new closer and a new left-handed reliever, though Phil Coke is still around and Andy Dirks will be when his back heals.
They’re better defensively, more fleet on the bases, but less brawny. Doug Fister, a pitcher who would have benefited from the better-fielding infield, won’t because he’s in Washington.
There was a Buffalo Bills quality to all four of the Tigers’ postseason appearances under retired manager Jim Leyland: a series victory spoiled by the stench of the follow-up.
Great triumph, then greater disappointment marked the Leyland Tigers. Brad Ausmus, a graduate of Dartmouth, takes over for Leyland, and an Ivy Leaguer should be able to better identify some of what ails the Tigers: little depth, little left-handed relief and Rick Porcello in the rotation.
The Tigers need another big bat in the outfield and on the bench. When Don Kelly and Steve Lombardozzi are your top backups at six positions, you’re probably planning to carry too many pitchers.
And maybe Ausmus will identify those players on the roster who don’t help the Tigers win: Andy Dirks has produced 24 homers and a .745 OPS in 1,063 plate appearances; Porcello has a 4.51 ERA in 149 career starts, none lower than his 3.96 as a rookie; Phil Coke has a 4.34 ERA in 265 innings in four seasons, mostly out of the bullpen.
The Tigers have some of the best talent in baseball. They’ve won the last three MVPs and two of the last three Cy Youngs. But rosters are 25 players deep, and sometimes the 25th can undo what the first has done.
Trivia answer: The last Tiger to win back-to-back MVPs was Hall of Fame pitcher Hal Newhouser, who won 54 of his 207 career games in 1944-45 (29-9, 2.22 in ’44, 25-9, AL-best 1.81 ERA in ’45). Newhouser almost made it three in a row, leading the AL in wins (26), ERA (1.94) and ERA+ (190) in ’46, but Ted Williams (.342, .497 on-base, 38 homers, .667 slugging percentage) beat him by 27 votes. Williams had a 10.9 WAR to Newhouser’s 9.3. The nine Tigers MVPs: Cabrera (2012-2013), Verlander (2011), Willie Hernandez (1984), Denny McLain (1968), Newhouser (’44-45), Hank Greenberg (1935 and 1940), Charlie Gehringer (1937), Mickey Cochrane (1934) and Ty Cobb (1911).
Team song David Bowie: Panic in Detroit