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December 3, 2013

Fantasy Team Preview

Detroit Tigers

by Paul Sporer

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It’s hard to label the 2013 season a disappointment for a team that sat just two wins away from the World Series, but when you enter the season as an odds-on favorite to at least make it, if not win it, then anything short of that has at least a tinge of disappointment. The star power helped carry the Tigers to another AL Central Division title and they were once again a big part of awards season, netting another MVP and Cy Young.

It wasn’t a team without flaws, though. A severe lack of flexibility with their offensive pieces was on display throughout the final month and into the playoffs, as Miguel Cabrera seemed to be playing at around 70 percent health, but had to continue manning third base since they were locked in with a full-time DH who was among their best hitters throughout the summer. Any amount of shifting to get Cabrera in at DH or even first base would’ve led to multiple players being out of position.

The Tigers, as has been their MO in recent offseasons, have been quick to address their problem areas and the biggest trade of the Hot Stove so far goes a long way toward fixing the flexibility problem with Prince Fielder headed to Texas for second baseman Ian Kinsler. This puts Cabrera back at first and now he and Victor Martinez can share duties there to give Cabrera a little breather every now and then. Everyone knew the team wasn’t done with a bullpen that needs work and a surplus of starters, but their latest move was a shocker on the other end of the spectrum.

Projected Lineup

  1. 2B Ian Kinsler
  2. RF Torii Hunter
  3. 1B Miguel Cabrera
  4. DH Victor Martinez
  5. CF Austin Jackson
  6. C Alex Avila
  7. 3B Nick Castellanos
  8. LF Andy Dirks
  9. SS Jose Iglesias

This is what the Tigers have right now, but it is unlikely to be what they enter spring training with as Castellanos is an untested rookie and Dirks doesn’t appear ready for a full-time role. There are a number of ways they could address these positions. Castellanos spent all of 2013 in left field since he was blocked by Cabrera so he could wind up with that role and a third baseman could be brought in via other means. They could also dive into the free agent market for a left fielder, either on the high end, like Shin-Soo Choo, or something much smaller, like a Rajai Davis, who could then platoon with Dirks.

Kinsler to Fielder is an offensive downgrade even accounting for Fielder’s dip in production last year, but the defensive upgrade is even more stark, as Kinsler capably fills an up-the-middle position while Fielder was among baseball’s worst defenders, which is painful even though it came at the least-important spot on the diamond. The deal also seems to spell the end of Jackson as the team’s leadoff hitter. He and Kinsler were virtually equal in 2013 with the primary difference being the strikeout rate. Tigers fans will likely be more pleased by the aesthetics of not seeing the leadoff man fan at a 21 percent clip.

Projected Bench

The bench is presently the biggest weakness for the Tigers, even with the bullpen unsettled at the back end. You’ll notice Lombardozzi included here as the Tigers completed a trade on Monday night that will discussed in depth when we get to the rotation. Lombardozzi and Kelly aren’t terribly different, which doesn’t say much for either. Lombo is a switch-hitter while Kelly is a lefty, but both are light-hitting utility men who will likely pull more PA than their true talent deserves.

Projected Rotation

Even with the trade of Doug Fister on Monday night, this remains the overwhelming strength of the Tigers. They had a surplus with Smyly ready to join the rotation, so it seemed obvious that Fister or Porcello would be dealt this offseason. There was some talk of Scherzer being the odd man out, but the Fielder trade seemed to free up enough money to make a Scherzer extension more tenable. While the Tigers were set up to deal an arm, they didn’t have to and they certainly didn’t have to without filling one or more their biggest holes: late-inning relief, third base, and left field.

This fact makes the Fister trade all the more bizarre, as it doesn’t outwardly plug any of the holes. The primary piece is prospect Robbie Ray, a left-handed starter who rebounded from an ugly 2012 with strong efforts at High-A and Double-A. He would definitely have rated highly in the Tigers system had the trade been announced before Monday morning’s release of the team’s top 10. In fact, Jason Parks noted on Twitter than Ray would slot second behind Castellanos. A big part of that is the dearth of talent in the system, but Ray isn’t chopped liver, either.

Fister is a big loss, but this is a rotation still rolling out two of the last three Cy Young winners (Verlander and Scherzer), the AL’s 2013 ERA leader (Sanchez), and a pair of 25-year old burgeoning studs. Neither Smyly nor Porcello profiles as an ace, but both have mid-rotation potential on a team that will have them in the four and five slots. Porcello was likely the only one happier than Fister about the Kinsler deal, as his elite ground-ball rate is going to play much better with the remade infield defense.

Those of you who speculated on Smyly in early drafts are thrilled by this news, while those of you with Fister already on your rosters shouldn’t be upset by this trade. The Nats offense wasn’t great last year, but the pieces are there for a successful lineup, and going to the NL can only help.

Projected Bullpen

I’d bet just about anything that this isn’t the Opening Day bullpen for the Tigers. The lineup is more likely to stay intact than the bullpen as they will almost certainly sign at least one big name reliever to fill the closer’s role and bump everyone down. Krol is the final piece of the Fister trade and definitely the most helpful immediately as he essentially replaces Smyly as the big lefty in the pen.

Smyly could get righties and lefties out, but late in the season he was miscast as a LOOGY, whereas Krol should be thrust into that role immediately. He threw 93-95 MPH from the left side in 32 appearances late last season with the Nats, but righties weren’t fooled by the gas or the curveball, so he needs work before he can be trusted with full innings.

Even with a Joe Nathan or Brian Wilson added to the team, the Tigers need both Rondon and Alburquerque to emerge as reliable late-inning options if they expect to reach and then go deep into October. They can both be useful AL-only league options as $1-2 guys piling up strikeouts. I would certainly prefer them over the Kevin Correias and Joe Saunderses of the world. Rondon is the pick if you’re speculating for the closer-in-waiting behind whomever they bring in for the job.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Fister deal is the fact that none of Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard, or Drew Storen was involved. Storen was the obvious candidate, as he could’ve been added to the trio that came over and it still would’ve made sense for Washington, whereas Clippard was probably too much for the Nats, and Soriano not enough for the Tigers, since they probably prefer the free agent options anyway.

Position Battles

3B/LF Nick Castellanos vs. Players Not Yet on the Roster
The team’s prized prospect isn’t penciled into the lineup as of now with two spots for him to possibly land, but this is a team expected to contend for the World Series and they may not be eager to hand the reins for either position over to a player with all of 18 PA under his belt. There isn’t much on the market at third base, with Juan Uribe standing out above the rest, which tells you all need to know about the pool.

But even if they sign someone like Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran, or Curtis Granderson for the outfield, it doesn’t guarantee a spot for Castellanos, as they could still go outside the org to acquire a third baseman and give the 22-year-old some more work at Triple-A with the intention of bringing him up during the summer. After a modest finish to his 2012 season in Double-A, Castellanos rebounded for a solid Triple-A debut last year, but his .276/.343/.450 line doesn’t exactly force the door down and demand that he be a full-timer in the majors.

Player to Target: Rick Porcello
A cursory glance at his 2013 line shows but a modest improvement for Porcello. He shaved 0.27 off of his ERA, 0.25 off of his WHIP, and added just two-thirds of an inning to his total. He was still below average with a 97 ERA+, but he deserved a much better fate. We might have seen the full gains of his improvement had he avoided the Los Angeles Angels. Removing his two disasters against them puts him at a 3.61 ERA in 172 innings as he allowed 16 runs to them in just five innings.

Of course we can’t just remove the games we don’t like from someone’s line. Even without removing those duds, we can still see that Porcello was markedly improved skill-wise with a career-best 19.3 percent strikeout rate—a 41 percent improvement. He did this while maintaining his walk rate 5.7 percent (it was 5.6 in 2012) and setting a new career-high on his already-elite ground-ball rate at 55.3 percent. He has been at 50.3 percent or better in each of his five seasons.

The rebuilt infield defense will benefit him most with a full season of Iglesias, the addition of Kinsler, and the shift of Cabrera back to first all being better than anything he has had behind him in his first five years. Third base isn’t set in stone yet, but it can’t be worse than Cabrera. I’ve been on the “Porcello is Actually a Stud” train for several years even in the face of four years of below average ERAs and uninspiring strikeout rates, but the diligence will finally start paying fantasy dividends in 2014.

Player to Avoid: Ian Kinsler
I’m cheating here as I already wrote Kinsler up as the player to avoid in the Rangers preview. I won’t just rehash everything I said three weeks ago, but I will say that I have softened some on my anti-Kinsler stance. For one, now that he is officially out of Texas, his price will drop at the draft table. His road numbers aren’t a hidden factor, anyone paying attention knows he leveraged Arlington brilliantly and has been essentially mediocre-at-best on the road.

How much the price drops will be the determining factor on whether or not you should fully avoid him or seek better options while keeping him on deck as a fallback that you don’t love but can live with given the fact that he will still be atop a very good lineup. Not knowing the running tendencies of manager Brad Ausmus is a strike against Kinsler. His running was already an issue as I noted in Rangers preview and now he could see his opportunities to fix it dry up.

The key with Kinsler is to readjust expectations. If visions of 30-30 or even 20-20 are still bouncing about in your head, then you’re destined to desperately overpay, but if you are interested in a 13-13 guy who could score upwards of 110 runs, then you could end up surprised. In fact, he could even push for .300 again for the first time since 2008 if he redesigns his approach to fit the yard (stop selling out for power and hitting fly balls and pop ups, instead focusing on line drives and gap shots).

Deep Sleeper: Francisco Martinez
Martinez was an important piece of the first Fister trade back when the Tigers got him from Seattle in the summer of 2011. He was good in 137 PA at Double-A for them to close out that season, but then fell off entirely with a .576 OPS in 538 more PA at Double-A with the Mariners org. He was cut and then reacquired by the Tigers this past summer and rebounded a bit, but it came at High-A where he posted a .295/.347/.378 line.

The 23-year-old now has 1,047 of his 2232 pro PA at Double-A, so a positive start there in 2014 could get him an early promotion to Triple-A, where he’d just a step away from the bigs. He has played predominantly at third base, though he has dabbled in the outfield a bit meaning he could be on track to fill one of the big holes in the Tigers lineup should the options they settle on this winter not pan out as planned.

He doesn’t appear to be a special player for fantasy purposes, but if he were to hit well enough to get the Triple-A promotion and then knock on the door of the majors, he would likely be excelling with batting average and speed plus some occasional pop. They are deep sleepers for a reason and the dry Detroit system makes the longshot pick even longer.

Paul Sporer is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Paul's other articles. You can contact Paul by clicking here

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