By Ashley Dunkak
COMERICA PARK (CBS DETROIT) – Overhauling an already solid team is always risky. The changes could result in more success, or the product could fail to meet expectations and provoke a whole new set of complaints.
As much as some Detroit Tigers fans may have taken a “World Series or bust” mentality in recent years, it is fair to assume everyone would be happier with a team that often goes to the American League Championship Series than a team that is merely mediocre.
Many called for change after the Tigers whiffed in the ALCS for the third straight year in 2013, but missing the playoffs or flaming out faster would surely elicit longing for those days of simply reaching the ALCS.
The “boom or bust” nature of the Tigers, largely relying on the big bats of perennial all-star sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, frustrated many the last few seasons, but they did a solid job of propelling the Tigers.
“Solid,” though, is not the standard on which owner Mike Ilitch, general manager Dave Dombrowski and the rest of the Detroit front office are setting their sights.
That approach, refusing to settle even though they could have settled and still been pretty darn good, is part of what attracted one of Detroit’s most high-profile acquisitions of the off-season, closer Joe Nathan.
“That’s what’s cool is they’re not just sitting on it and going, ‘All right, let’s see if they can do it again,’” Nathan said. “You see a club that is just evolving and trying to figure out what can get them over that hump and get them to that next level.
“Speed doesn’t slump,” Nathan added. “That’s one thing that I think [new manager] Brad [Ausmus]’s going to implement is we’re not going to hit a single and wait for a guy to hit it over the wall. We’re going to have guys moving, we’re going to be hitting and running, we’re going to play some small ball as well as trying to hit that three-run home run.”
As much of a topic as offense has been this off-season, Nathan believes the defense will make the difference, and indeed, the infield in 2014 will hardly resemble the infield of 2013.
Last season the group consisted of Fielder at first, Omar Infante at second, Jhonny Peralta (until suspended) at shortstop and Cabrera at third. With the trade of Fielder, pieces started shifting.
Cabrera returned to first, where he played before Fielder came to Detroit. Nick Castellanos, a top prospect who got called up in September, returned to third, where he played until Cabrera’s move to third necessitated Castellanos learn another position. Jose Iglesias, the dynamic rookie who had taken over for Peralta, will continue to dazzle at shortstop, and quick new acquisition Ian Kinsler will play second.
With added youth and added speed, the defense could take a big step forward in 2014.
“I think that’s going to be the biggest difference on this club is how much they improved the defense, and I think guys like a [25-year-old starting pitcher] Rick Porcello are going to benefit the most,” Nathan said. “I think he could actually see the biggest improvement in what he’s already done, and he’s already done a ton for where he is age-wise and experience-wise, but I think he may benefit and see the most, confidence-wise too.
“When you go out as a pitcher and know your defense is busting their butt as much as you are, it gives you such a confidence boost,” Nathan said. “I saw it with Texas. Their defense improved greatly from where they were to now, and the years I played there the defense was outstanding, and I think that was the biggest difference for a staff that you saw – Texas, Texas used to be strictly offensive club. Pitchers just didn’t want to be there. Now, pitchers are going there, ERAs are down, and the biggest difference is confidence in guys to throw the baseball, allow them to hit it, and guys will make plays behind them.”
With as many changes as Detroit made to an already good team this off-season, the Tigers can only hope the gamble pays off. Nathan, for one, seems confident it will.