The term "on paper" is a common phrase used by sports fanatics to describe their favorite players and teams. In essence, it describes how events or performances would transpire if everything went according to plan and no outside forces interfered with said plan. Yet as we know, especially within the game of baseball, "on paper" scenarios rarely ever play out as intended.
In recent memory, the Detroit Tigers have somewhat been an epitome of this phrase. "On paper", the Tigers have had one of, if not, the most complete groups of talent in the past few years. Despite this, they've yet to bring home a World Series trophy; their closest attempt was in 2012, yet were swept by San Francisco Giants. Alas, 2014 is a new year and once again, "on paper", the Tigers are a team to be reckoned with.
2013 Season In Review
Heading into the 2013 season, the Tigers once again were an easy preseason World Series favorite—there was little to not like. Their offense was highlighted by 2012 MVP Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez, and newly signed Torii Hunter. Their rotation was equally as formidable with four, 3+ fWAR potential starters, highlighted by 2011 Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander. The only weakness that you could point out was their bullpen. But even then with the presence of Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, and fireballer Bruce Rondon, there was hope it would be enough to hold it together.
Fast forward to the All Star break the Tigers had a 1.5 game lead over the Cleveland Indians and represented six All Stars. Miguel Cabrera was having a historic season and easily his career best. At the break his wRC was a whopping 206. There was plenty of controversy in 2012 of whom should have been MVP, but Miguel Cabrera was quieting his naysayers. At the trade deadline, Dave Dombrowski bought himself insurance in the form of Jose Iglesias, in a three way deal with the Boston Red Sox and Chicago White Sox.
By season's end, the Tigers had won the American League Central, 140 days of which (158 if you count off days) of which were spent in first place. They also had the reigning American League MVP Miguel Cabrera defend his title plus Max Scherzer runaway with the Cy Young. Unfortunately, when it came to the playoffs, they met their match and fell 4-2 to the Boston Red Sox in the ALCS.
Key Offseason Moves
Soon after the Tigers exit from the playoffs, Jim Leyland announced he would step down as manager. Despite not winning a World Series, under Leyland, the Tigers experienced one of the better stretches in their franchise. During his eight year tenure, the Tigers went 700-597, good for a .540 winning percentage, with two pennant titles to boot. To fill his shoes, the Tigers hired ex-Tiger and backstop, Brad Ausmus. Ausmus has no previous managerial experience, however as Mike Matheny and Robin Ventura have shown, this might be an overrated characteristic of managing a ballclub.
About a month after hiring Ausmus, Dave Dombrowski took baseball by storm by sending Prince Fielder to the Texas Rangers in exchange for Ian Kinsler. The move came as a surprise to many because despite having a "down" year by Fielder standards, he still mashed 25% above the league average. However, as Dave Cameron notes, this is potentially a great move for the Tigers because it clears a large contract, fills a hole at second base, and allows the Tigers to move Cabrera to a position that will make him less defensively liable.
However, in an equally stunning move, Dombrowski traded Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Steve Lombardozzi, Robbie Ray, and Ian Krol. The move is a head stretcher because Doug Fister is a good pitcher, at a reasonable cost, and provides the Tigers with an exceptionally deep rotation. Of all the players received, none validate reason for trading Fister for the aforementioned reasons. In the long run, Ray could end up being a better pitcher than Fister, however that's quite a risk to take, especially given the Tigers win now opportunity. If there was an argument for trading Fister, it would be that Fister is a high floor pitcher little room for improvement and the Tigers have an in house replacement in Drew Smyly that has a plausible chance of realizing that floor. Be that as it may, it's difficult to see the Tigers not being able to get a better deal than they got for Fister. But who knows? That's why Dombrowski is a General Manager and I'm left here to speculate.
Finally, the Tigers signed Joe Nathan to a two year, $20 million deal. Nathan, has a fair amount of risk associated with him due to his age, but given his track record and the departure of Benoit and Smyly from the bullpen, he adds some much needed stability to the Tigers bullpen.
Editor's Note: That massive Cabrera deal you're all talking about came in after our preview series started rolling out. Pretty big move, but not one that reshapes the 2014 roster!
One to Watch: Justin Verlander
While a 5.2 fWAR season is hard to argue with, it's not the Justin Verlander we've grown accustomed to over the past few years and there might be reason for concern. The first concern would be his health, as he's fresh off a core muscle surgery repair, which probably isn't terribly serious. However, he apparently hurt himself during a workout in the offseason, which could indicate his body might be starting to give. Being on the wrong side of 30 could also be another cause for concern. Normally pitchers at age 31 aren't to be too overly concerned with, but we're also talking about someone who has thrown over 3,500+ pitches the past six years, not to mention he has lost a full mile per hour on his average fastball velocity between 2012 and 2013.
This isn't to dismiss Verlander completely. He credits his "struggles" and velocity drop to a tweak in mechanics due to the injury he had fixed up this off-season. It's entirely possible 2013 was a blip of the radar, but most signs point in the other direction. I believe keeping an eye on his velocity will be key to determine which Verlander the Tigers are getting. If he can get back to 94+ MPH fastball average, it could entirely be possible Verlander has a lot more in the tank, but if not, his days of being elite are likely over. This isn't to say Justin Verlander is going fall off the map—it's still reasonable to see him be a 4-5+ fWAR pitcher—but the days of 6-7 fWAR might be behind him. However, if the Tigers are to contend deep into the postseason, an elite Verlander might be necessary.
Detroit Tigers: By The Numbers
4.1 fWAR combine fWAR among relievers, 13th in all of baseball
Despite a mediocre bullpen the Tigers were still able to keep afloat and win out the Central. However, with the departure of Joaquin Benoit to the San Diego Padres, Drew Smyly promoted to the rotation, and the loss of Bruce Rondon to Tommy John Surgery, the bullpen looks again to be thin. The addition of Joe Nathan will undoubtedly help, but they're going to need big seasons from the likes of Al Alburquerque & company and or external help to cover up their losses. Fortunately, the Tigers are top heavy and covering up some bullpen woes won't be impossible, nonetheless this remains an area of weakness.
2014 Team Outlook
Once again, "on paper" heading into the 2014 season, the Tigers are still one of the better teams in the American League. The departure of Doug Fister won't likely help their chances this year. Yet, the Tigers still remain a cream of the crop team even without Fister and it's unlikely any team in the AL Central can match them. The Indians and Royals might be able to give Detroit a run for their money, but at the end of the day, don't be surprised to see the Tigers running away with the central. "On paper", the Tigers are once again arguably the best team in the American League, only be truly rivaled by the Boston Red Sox. The question remains: will 2014 be their year?
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs
Anthony Joshi-Pawlowic is a contributing writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AJP13237.