For the last month, we’ve pieced together all of the relevant information you’ll need for the 2014 season. The theme of this coverage has largely been that the team got worse, but not to the point at which they’ve fallen below other division rivals. The 2013 incarnation of the team was excellent. They won’t be that good, but they don’t have to be that good in order to still do very well. Not every pitching staff can be like the 2013 Tigers. Not every hitter can be Miguel Cabrera. Imperfect things are still perfectly acceptable.
It’s okay that the Tigers aren’t as good as they were at this point last season. The goal isn’t to be better, the goal is to win a championship in whatever way you can. This team is still capable of that, I’m just less confident about it than I was twelve months ago or six months ago, even. The offseason started with the Fielder/Kinsler swap, which made so much sense. You risk a little short term value for a lot of long term value. It was a challenge trade, but one that worked for the Tigers.
But the Fister trade is when things started to unravel in a very strange way. Dave Dombrowski has done excellent work in his time with the Tigers but that was the all-time headscratcher. I’m not going to keep talking about why it was a mistake. You’ve heard me say it a million times. It only made sense in the context of a rebuild (and even then it didn’t, really) but the Tigers went out and signed Nathan and Davis right after. Then Joba. They traded away one of their very best players, who was also affordable, and then used the money to sign lesser players for 2014.
They weren’t in great shape relative to last year and then the injuries came. Dirks. Iglesias. Rondon. (Verlander gave us a scare, too!). A team with a shrinking margin of error started to get hit with the kinds of rocks that topple a giant. Bit by bit. A little each day.
Instead of responding with force and signing Stephen Drew or pushing in the chips for someone on the trade market, the plan seems to be Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez. Neither of which is anything close to a real, MLB shortstop.
On the plus side, Brad Ausmus seems like a great hire based on the little we know about him. He kept the irreplaceable Jeff Jones and brought in a defensive coordinator to work on positioning and shifts. The team also didn’t overpay to extend Max Scherzer and appear content to let him reach the open market. I think that’s wise.
The organization didn’t do everything wrong that they could have this winter, but there were a lot of moves that made little sense and look even worse in the context of the broader plan. It’s not just that I disagree with what the Tigers are doing, it’s that I can’t really even figure out what the plan is. It’s one thing to have a different opinion than those calling the shots, it’s another to be unclear on what those people are trying to do.
Are the Tigers rebuilding? They signed a 39 year old closer, so probably not. Are they loading up for 2014? Well they traded one of the best pitchers in baseball for a guy who might be mid-rotation starter in the next few years, so probably not. Are they looking for value? They picked up two replacement level shortstops in trades and got less than they could have in the Fister deal, so also probably not. Are they cutting payroll because ownership is putting the screws to the front office? No, because they’re still spending at the same level, just on different players. And they offered Schrezer $144 million.
People have asked me multiple times what I think the plan is. My answer is that I honestly don’t know. I can’t string together a logical chain of events that would lead Dombrowski to make these moves and because of the nature of the business, he isn’t offering one. Maybe there is a method that is yet to be revealed. I’m always open to being wrong, but I don’t see it right now.
Despite all of the gloom, the Tigers are still fronted by one of the best two or three rotations in the sport. They still have Cabrera, Jackson, Martinez, Avila, and company. They’re weaker, but they are not weak. Their rivals are coming, but they aren’t coming with the kind of abandon you might see from the Dodgers or Yankees. A bad offseason doesn’t mean they’ll have a bad season, it just doesn’t make you as optimistic as you might otherwise have been.
You can’t protect Iglesias, Dirks, or Rondon from the injuries. That’s the cost of doing business at the big league level. You can’t protect yourself from Scherzer and Sanchez regressing to the mean simply because you can hardly improve upon what they did last year. All of that was unavoidable.
What was avoidable was building a roster with no depth to absorb the blow and trading away the one area of surplus for pennies on the dollar before the market even developed for starting pitching. You know who signed for $3 million this offseason? Nick Punto. Even if you didn’t want Stephen Drew and his draft pick baggage, there were other options once upon a time. The depth was always going to be the weak spot and firing the only real bullet before you knew what you were going to need was the wrong way to address it.
The Tigers are probably going to win the division. I’d put them right around 89-73 for the season. That should be enough to hold off the Indians and Royals, but it doesn’t give you a ton of faith in their ability to stare down the best teams in the American League come October.
I think it’ll be a fun team to watch and it should be a great season. This isn’t really a complaint about what the Tigers will be, it’s a complaint about what they could have been. The window is slowly closing on the Tigers and rather than trying to find a way to prop it up with toothpicks, they should have tried to dive through wide reckless abandon and they should have done it with Doug Fister. I’m disappointed, but I’m excited at the same time. Watching a slightly frustrating team play baseball is still better than doing just about anything else. And after a long, bloody offseason, that time is almost here.