Tigers' outlook remains the same despite changes
Series of offseason moves solve issues, continue push for championship
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- While other clubs will spend much of the winter frantically looking for pitching, in mid-December the Detroit Tigers can happily check off every item on their offseason shopping list.
In the process, the Tigers have become a somewhat different ballclub. They will have less power, but more speed than they have had in the recent past. They should be better defensively.
Whether different turns into better or worse is merely a matter of speculation at this point. What is readily known is this: The Tigers start from a base of strength. They have won three straight American League Central titles. They don't require a major makeover.
What the Tigers have done in a relatively short period of time this offseason is to not simply address their issues, but to solve them. For instance:
The big trade with the Rangers cost them Prince Fielder, but it gained a great deal of payroll flexibility. This is precisely the kind of thing that will help them when it comes time to re-sign MVP Miguel Cabrera and Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer.
Plus, the Tigers came out of that trade with second baseman Ian Kinsler. He has demonstrated both power and speed during his career. He's a useful player, who was a clubhouse leader with the Rangers.
The Tigers gave up a quality starter in Doug Fister in a trade with Washington, but got immediate bullpen help in the deal with Ian Krol, a left-hander who worked well in his first Major League season. Krol can fill the bullpen role that will be open with lefty Drew Smyly moving into the rotation.
There isn't any doubt about Smyly's ability. Detroit, even with the departure of Fister, will still have one of baseball's best rotations, a rotation led by two Cy Young winners, Justin Verlander and Scherzer. Anibal Sanchez may be a No. 3 starter here, but his 2.57 ERA in 2013 was far better than that.
The Tigers also landed the leading closer available in the current market. Joe Nathan may be 39, but he is coming off one of the best seasons of a stellar career. He has lost some velocity, but he has compensated with movement, a larger variety of pitches and even better command. Nathan leads all pitchers with 200 or more saves in career save percentage.
The Tigers also bolstered their outfield with the signing of speedy Rajai Davis. He and Andy Dirks could be a productive platoon in left. Last year, the right-handed-hitting Davis hit .310 against lefties with a .383 on-base percentage.
The Tigers, like almost every other team, could probably use increased depth in their bullpen. The healthy return of flame-throwing Bruce Rondon, the presumed closer of the future, will help.
So the 2014 Detroit team will have a top-shelf rotation and an exceptionally reliable closer. With Fielder's departure, the lineup will be less powerful, but it will certainly be more diverse.
There is one more important transitional aspect to the Tigers and that is in the manager's office. One of the most established managers of this era, Jim Leyland, will be replaced by Brad Ausmus, who will be in his first managerial job.
But this doesn't have to be a diminished situation, either. First-time managers have recently been doing well in their posts. Doing a Winter Meetings media session on Wednesday, Ausmus said he thought those performances helped his cause, "especially Mike Matheny."
That was a good call. Matheny, without previous managerial experience, took the Cardinals to within one victory of the World Series in 2012, and then to the World Series in 2013. Like Ausmus, Matheny was a catcher, and widely respected throughout baseball for this knowledge, his intelligence and his leadership abilities.
Most often, teams in trouble are the ones that change managers. And most often, inexperienced managers get jobs with teams that are a considerable distance from contention. But, in this case, a managerial vacancy on one of baseball's best teams was created by the retirement of one of baseball's best managers.
Ausmus noted that Matt Williams, with the Nationals, and Bryan Price, with the Reds, were also managers who, without previous experience, had won jobs with good teams.
"I don't want to speak for Matt or Bryan," Ausmus said, "but I'm guessing they feel fortunate like I do.
"I'm fortunate to call myself a Major League manager, not having managed before, and even more fortunate to be doing that in a city and for a team that has been a darned good team."
Ausmus fully grasps Leyland's stature within the organization, the city and the game. He won't try to be anything other than himself. He regards Leyland primarily with gratitude, for the help Leyland has given him and will continue to give him.
"Jim has been fantastic with me, starting with the organizational meetings we had the day after I was announced as manager," Ausmus said. "He's been great in two ways: one, he'll give me any information I ask for or any information that he thinks I might need. And [he] also makes it clear, 'I'm not the manager, you are. You need to do this. Just because I'm telling you I did it this way or I like this, doesn't mean you have to say that.' He's been fantastic."
Yes, for a first-place club, the Tigers have undergone some significant changes. They will be different in 2014, but that doesn't mean they'll stop being winners.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.