By Brandon Karsten
Shane Victorino of the Boston Red Sox was staring down at Detroit Tigers relief pitcher Jose Veras. It was in the seventh inning of Game Six of the American League Championship Series with the score 2-1 in favor of the Tigers. On a 1-2 count, Victorino ripped into Veras’ hanging curveball for a grand slam and the lead. In the top of the ninth, with Boston up 5-2, BoSox closer Koji Uehara struck out Jose Iglesias as Boston won the pennant four games to two. It was back to the drawing board for Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski to try to bring that long awaited World Series Championship back to the Motor City.
The winter of 2013-14 was a busy one for the Tigers. One of the first things the Tigers had to do was look for a new manager. After the ALCS loss, Jim Leyland announced his retirement as the Tigers’ skipper and took a job as a special assistant to Dombrowski. The Tigers named former big league catcher Brad Ausmus as the new skipper. Ausmus played from 1993 to 2010 with Houston, San Diego, Detroit and the Los Angeles Dodgers. He has had managerial experience with Team Israel in the 2013 World Baseball Classic qualifying pool in Jupiter, Fla. Israel came up short of moving on to the March tournament after losing in the pool final to Spain 9-7.
Once the calendar flipped to November, the Tigers started a series of moves to help shore up their inconsistent bullpen. The Tigers let Joaquin Benoit and Jose Veras leave via free agency. Veras signed with the Chicago Cubs and Benoit went west to San Diego. The Tigers lost another arm when the Houston Astros claimed lefty Darin Downs off waivers.
On Dec. 4, Detroit finished their two years search to replace ineffective closer Jose Valverde when they signed veteran Joe Nathan. Playing for the Texas Rangers last season, Nathan nailed down 43 saves. It was the fourth time in his 13-year career he surpassed the 40 save mark in a season. Then after the winter meetings, the Tigers announced the signing of former New York Yankees reliever Joba Chamberlain for one year and $2.5 million.
The Tigers also made some changes to their starting rotation. Detroit traded Doug Fister to the Washington Nationals in exchange for infielder Steve Lombardozzi, pitchers Ian Krol and Robbie Ray. The Fister trade did open a door for lefty Drew Smyly to go from the bullpen to the starting rotation for the upcoming season.1 The Tigers could also lose AL CY Young Award winner Max Scherzer after the coming season. He and the Tigers agreed to a one-year, $15.5 million contract to avoid arbitration, but Scherzer may test the free agent market after 2014.
A key to the season will be the performance, of course, of their number one starter, Justin Verlander. The former AL CY Young and MVP winner is coming off a rough season in which he posted his highest ERA since 2009 and finished 2013. He also didn’t lead the league in any major pitching category.
Detroit also shook up the lineup during the offseason. The Tigers swapped first baseman Prince Fielder for Texas second baseman Ian Kinsler and let second baseman Omar Infante sign with Kansas City.
Shortstop Jose Iglesias came over to the Tigers last year in a mid-season trade from Boston and made an immediate impact at the plate and on defense while Jhonny Peralta was serving a 50-game suspension for his part in the Biogenesis scandal. The Tigers put Peralta in the outfield in the postseason to allow Iglesias, the stronger defender, to remain at shortstop. Shortly after the World Series, Peralta signed a long term deal with the St. Louis Cardinals. Iglesias will stay with Detroit after putting his signature on a one-year, $1.65 million deal Jan. 8. 2
Also acquired via free agency was outfielder Rajai Davis, who throughout his career has been a base stealing threat. Davis played three years in Toronto, and though he averaged a below .700 OPS, he stole 32 bags as a season.
There are a number of prospects in the Tigers’ organization that are looking forward to getting called up sometime during the 2014 campaign. After coming up to the big club as a September call-up, Tigers top prospect Nick Castellanos, who came up as an outfielder, may get a chance to play third base as Miguel Cabrera will back across the diamond to first base to replace Fielder. Castellanos was named the 15th best prospect for 2014 by MLB.com.1
Last year, Right-handed relief pitcher Bruce Rondon found himself splitting time between Detroit and AAA Toledo, but Dombrowski has high expectations for the young Venezuelan hurler for 2014.1
All early indications point to the Tigers remaining as contenders in the American League Central. However, the four other teams in the division are looking to make it a very competitive divisional race. Minnesota added free agent starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes and the Chicago White Sox signed Cuban defector Jose Abreu.
2014 should be an interesting and exciting year as the Tigers look to defend their AL Central division title.
2 – mlive.com