For the past six months, the Tigers organization has weathered a storm of criticism; from player translations to injuries, it’s been anything but a smooth off-season in Detroit. With the additions of Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan, Rajai Davis, Joba Chamberlain Ian Krol, Andrew Romine and Alex Gonzalez to the 25 man roster this season, coupled with the loss of Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Jose Iglesias (injury) and Bruce Rondon (injury) – many fans feel underwhelmed heading into the 2014 season.
Fielding one of the most competitive teams for nearly a decade, the Tigers have yet to accomplish the ultimate goal. Despite a pair of World Series births in 2006 and 2012, the Tigers have come up empty, and with each passing year, the window of opportunity shuts a little bit more.
The Tigers have an owner who is thirsty for his first baseball championship. Despite the Tigers outward appearance of cost-cutting for the 2014 season, the Illitch family may have quieted their critics temporarily after signing Miguel Cabrera to an eight year extension (with two years remaining on his current deal) that in total, will pay him $292 million until 2023.
With a one-two punch of Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, along with a lineup that includes Kinsler, Cabrera, Martinez, Jackson and Hunter, the Tigers still remain the slight favorite to win the American League Central in 2014.
Despite this slight edge, the Tigers success hinges on the performance several key players. Although there’s quite a few question marks heading into the season, there are four players specifically to keep an eye on in 2014.
1.) Drew Smyly (Starting Pitcher)
This may be one of the biggest questions in the starting rotation for the Tigers in 2014. A career starter turned reliever in 2013, Smyly returns to the rotation, adding a much needed left-handed arm in a rotation full of righties. During the 2013 season, Smyly appeared in 63 regular season games, sporting a 2.37 ERA and 1.04 WHIP; the Tigers rock out of the bullpen. Smyly has four pitches (fastball, curve, slider and change-up) to choose from and good command on the mound. There’s a lot of pressure on Smyly to fill the shoes of the departed Doug Fister, but if he’s able to show the flashes of brilliance from last season, every fifth start, the Tigers rotation will be in good shape.
2.) Joba Chamberlain (Relief Pitcher)
After seven seasons with the New York Yankees, the Tigers signed Chamberlain to a one year deal, hoping the veteran reliever could provide some depth in a relatively young bullpen. In three of his seven seasons, Chamberlain’s ERA has been a respectable 0.38 (2007), 2.60 (2008) and 2.83 (2011). When healthy, Chamberlain has a lot of upside, but staying healthy has been an issue most of his career. In four of the last five seasons, Chamberlain’s ERA has been a bloated 4.74 (2009), 4.40 (2010), 4.35 (2012) and 4.93 (2013). Depending which version of Chamberlain the Tigers get this season could play a huge part in how successful the Tigers are after the 6th inning in 2014.
3.) Nick Castellanos (Third Baseman)
Regarded as the Tigers top prospect for the last three season, Nick Castellanos finally has a major league roster spot after the departure of Prince Fielder this offseason. With Miguel Cabrera moving back to first, Castellanos breaks into the majors as the Tigers everyday third baseman. In 2013, he hit 18 home runs, 78 RBI, while batting a respectable .278 with AAA Toledo, and many experts believe Castellanos can replicate those numbers at the major league level. No one is expecting him to replace the bat of Prince Fielder this season, but with better range and speed, Castellanos’ ability to manufacture runs could help offset the loss of Fielder’s power.
4.) Rajai Davis (Outfielder)
After being signed as a platoon outfielder to Andy Dirks this offseason, Davis’ role has changed before the 2014 season began. With Dirks sidelined for at least three months with a back injury, the Tigers will rely on Davis (along with Tyler Collins and Don Kelly) to shore up left field. At age 33, Davis still has above-average speed in the outfield and on the base paths. The biggest criticism he faces is his struggles against right-handed pitching. In 2013, Davis batted just .228 against righties, compared to his robust .319 vs. lefties. If he’s able to figure out right-handed pitchers this season, Davis could prove to be one of the Tigers most valuable additions from this offseason.