By Ashley Dunkak
CBS DETROIT – Debate has simmered for months about the Tigers’ offseason moves, and Monday the team finally begins the long process of answering all the questions –with actions instead of words.
Instead of veteran manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers this season take their lead from recently retired former catcher Brad Ausmus, who has never before managed. Detroit shipped away the solid starting arm of Doug Fister and the 100-plus-RBI bat of Prince Fielder, and it set the stage to lose another key player soon by releasing a subtly-but-sharply-worded statement about soon-to-be-free-agent Max Scherzer, who won 21 games and the Cy Young Award in 2013.
To go along with all that, injuries have ravaged Detroit, robbing the team of left fielder Andy Dirks for eight weeks, shortstop Jose Iglesias for four to six months, and expected setup man Bruce Rondon for the entire season.
Stay tuned. This year for Detroit figures to be one intriguing ride.
The following are just a few of the Tigers subplots to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.
The Tigers clearly felt insulted when Scherzer and his agent Scott Boras turned down their latest contract extension offer, a deal reported to be worth $144 million over six years. The team’s statement basically made Scherzer look like a bad guy for rejecting its offer and suspending negotiations. Are there hard feelings between the two sides? Will we see any indication of any tension if in fact it exists? More importantly, how will Scherzer follow up his career year of 2013? If Scherzer falters, his value could drop, as the 2013 season is the only great one on his record.
Scherzer could remain with the Tigers throughout the season only to leave for the highest bidder after the season, or Detroit could try to trade him. The least likely possibility seems to be that he will remain with the Tigers long-term. The pressure is on for Scherzer like never before. He needs to prove himself worthy of a bank-breaking free agent deal, and with the Tigers need his best because Drew Smyly’s ascent to the starting rotation has weakened the bullpen (and possibly the rotation as well, with the departure of Fister).
The inconsistent bunch of relievers from 2013 returns almost completely, save for its two best arms. Smyly proved to be the most reliable of the group, but he is now a starter. Joaquin Benoit, whom the team scooted from setup man to closer, also pitched well, but the team did not re-sign him. From all the other relievers, 2013 was a box of chocolates.
The Tigers did sign heralded veteran Joe Nathan as closer, but the signings of Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol hardly assuage the fears that the bullpen will again be a trouble spot for Detroit in 2014. Those worries multiplied when the team announced that expected setup man Rondon needs Tommy John surgery and will miss the entire season.
Leyland had steered the loaded Tigers to three straight American League Championship Series appearances, and after last season he retired following Detroit’s loss to the eventual champion Boston Red Sox. One of the most veteran managers in major league baseball at age 68, Leyland will be replaced by one of the youngest, 44-year-old Ausmus.
A longtime big-league catcher, Ausmus has never manged before, and he has been handed the keys to a Tigers team whose fan base currently has high, high, high expectations based on the performance of the last several years.
Detroit general manager Dave Dombrowski has long stated that the Tigers envision Smyly as a starter rather than a reliever, and Smyly certainly proved his mettle when called upon in 2013, recording a 2.37 ERA in 63 appearances. Moving to a rotation already jam-packed with big-money talent in Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez, Smyly will have little pressure in terms of carrying the team but also a high standard to meet.
If Smyly withers rather than thrives as a starter, the Fister trade so many have decried will look even worse than it does now, when the Tigers could really use Smyly in the bullpen since Rondon is lost for the season to injury and the other injuries have forced Dombrowski to deal for position players rather than potentially beefing up the bullpen.
After winning the Triple Crown in 2012, superstar Miguel Cabrera put up even better numbers in 2013 and was named MVP of the American League for the second straight season. The streak would likely include three seasons had not a pitcher (and conveniently a teammate, Verlander) won MVP in 2011. Cabrera struggled toward the end of the 2013 season because of abdominal injuries, but now he is reported to be healthy. CBSSports.com predicts that young and powerful Mike Trout will surpass the older Cabrera in 2014. Can Cabrera keep up his historic pace?
If he can, it bodes well for the Tigers, who need all the power they can get after offloading Fielder. If he cannot, Detroit might suffer in terms of offense.