Last season, to preview the upcoming summer we ran through the “key” to each player’s season. Rather than the keys to game you might see on a network like Fox, these keys weren’t “play better than the other team,” but rather, what aspect of their individual game you should be tracking early on.
Over the next couple weeks, I’ll go through the roster by position covering the thing I’m most interested in watching about each player as the season gets under way and then we’ll tie things together by breaking down the division rivals and club as a whole. Today, we’ll talk infield. (Read about the outfield).
This couldn’t be an easier key to identify. Be healthy. Cabrera is an elite hitter, both with respect to his ability to reach base and his ability to hit for extra bases. There are only a handful of players who could possibly be considered for a ranking ahead of him in those departments. He doesn’t provide much, if anything, on the field or on the bases, but when you’re 50 to 60% better than the league average hitter, that doesn’t matter too much.
Cabrera ended 2010 with an injury. He ended 2013 with an injury. He ended 2014 with an injury. He’s starting 2015 with one, and while it looks like his season won’t be delayed too significantly, he’s about to turn 32 and wasn’t super athletic to begin with. Cabrera’s days as a top five or ten player are numbered, but if he can stay fully healthy, there’s no reason to think that day is coming right away.
Kinsler had a phenomenal debut season with the Tigers in 2014 due in large part to some great base running and defense. Kinsler’s now had three straight years of average offense, but average offense with a great defensive profile and the ability to take extra bases works just fine at second.
But the above average power that Kinsler displayed early in his career is fading and he had a career low walk rate by a large margin in 2014 as well. If he’s going to provide lots of value to the Tigers going forward, he needs to make sure he doesn’t run another .307 OBP. He’s probably not going to be quite the defense and base running star he was a year ago, and that’s to be expected, but he also needs to reach base a little more often. Moving from Texas to Detroit was going to slow his production, but if he’s going to be the table setter for the meat of this lineup, he needs to be on base more than 31% of the time.
Wrap legs in bubble wrap between innings and games.
I’m mostly serious. Who knows what Iglesias can do after a year away from the game with a pretty serious set of leg injuries? He was never destined to be a star with the bat, but his amazing glove work made that moot. Supposedly, he should be able to recover fully from the injury, but all of his value is tied up in his ability to turn batted balls into outs. If he can’t get to as many balls or throw with the same velocity and accuracy, he’s going to be much less valuable. I’ll be looking for how well Iglesias gets to tough grounders. We know his hands will be there, but can he maximize the range-hands-arm trifecta that makes him such a delight?
There’s a lot of work to be done after Castellanos’ 2014 season. It wasn’t pretty if you’re going by the results, but there were plenty of signs of what he could become.
There are two keys to Nick’s 2015 that are quick different. First, we need to see how much of his poor defensive play was rust and how much was his true ability. His position switching can be blamed for some of his faults, but after a year back at the position and a clear indication he was struggling, we need to see if he can handle it or not. Particularly, defense peaks early and while Castellanos is still young, it’s not like he’s going to naturally grow into a good defender with time. Right out of the gate, we need to see if he looks like a different fielder or not.
But the defense just makes it a question of where he winds up. The bat is what’s going to determine his trajectory and the story is going to be contact. When he connects with the ball, it jumps off his bat and he sprays the ball around the field with authority. It’s easy to imagine a .320 BABIP and 20-25 HR coming as he matures, but the walk rate and the swinging strikes are going to play a huge role. He doesn’t need to be the league’s most patient hitter to succeed, but he can’t have a 73% contact rate and a 6.2 BB%. League average is more like 80% and 8% respectively, and that’s for all players, not players who don’t have defensive support. If he’s going to be a really good player, or even a star, he’s got to find a way to be more selective. The balls in play look good, but there need to be more of them. If you see that from him early, it might be a big season.
Andrew Romine, Hernan Perez, Jordan Lennerton, etc
The Tigers are going to sink or swim based on the four guys above. Romine and Perez can both spell the regulars for short periods of time, but if they’re grabbing significant reps, the Tigers will be in trouble. The same is especially true for Lennerton. If the Tigers are counting on him to give them more than a few dozen PA in 2015, it’s bad news.
For each, the key is trickier. They need to be sharp as substitutes, not fill-ins. One of the Tigers’ great weakness is their lack of depth. They don’t have any meaningful offense off the bench and don’t have a strong 10th man who can plug a hole for a long stretch. That’s just the way it is. But given that, having some good pinch runners or defensive replacements never hurts. And having players who can at least take 5-10 pitches to make an out every once and a while would be a nice treat.
The key is simply to look like major leaguers and hope the stars don’t wind up on the DL. It’s not a sunny report, but the sun rises elsewhere on the roster.