Wednesday, April 9, 2014

2014 MLB Preview: AL Central

It has puzzled me for the last few years as to why Detroit hasn't won this division by 20 games every year. They have far and away the most talent in the AL Central, with two of the three best pitchers, the best hitter on the planet, and a solid supporting cast. I guess it just goes to show how difficult it is to truly stand out in baseball over a 162-game season. The Twins are rebuilding and waiting for a pair of phenoms (Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano) to arrive, hopefully next year. The White Sox should bounce back from a dismal 2013. Cleveland has some talent and one of the best managers in the business, but also sustained a couple of key losses. The Royals are all in for a playoff push this year. As for those Tigers? They had better watch out, because a couple of their rivals have made major strides over the past couple winters, and even the bottom-feeders are starting to build strong foundations.

Previous previews: AL West, NL West

Glossary of stats: .275/.350/.475 = batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage, HR = home runs, SB = stolen bases, wOBA = weighted on-base average, WAR = wins above replacement, IP = innings pitched, K/BB = strikeouts/walks, ERA = earned run average, FIP = fielding independent pitching.*

*All 2014 statistical projections are courtesy of Fangraphs, along with my bet whether the player in question will exceed or fall short of that projection. When WAR is mentioned in a written paragraph, it typically refers to the Baseball-Reference version.


5) Minnesota Twins

Lineup
CF   Aaron Hicks (age 24, .247/.317/.391, 10 HR, .312 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - over
2B   Brian Dozier (age 27, .258/.327/.411, 15 HR, .325 wOBA, 3.0 WAR) - under
1B   Joe Mauer (age 31, .322/.411/.481, 15 HR, .388 wOBA, 5.4 WAR) - over
LF   Josh Willingham (age 35, .251/.356/.462, 24 HR, .358 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - under
RF   Oswaldo Arcia (age 23, .270/.334/.454, 21 HR, .344 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - over
DH  Jason Kubel (age 32, .227/.304/.393, 20 HR, .304 wOBA, -0.2 WAR) - over
C     Josmil Pinto (age 25, .271/.332/.431, 14 HR, .335 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - over
3B   Trevor Plouffe (age 28, .247/.316/.423, 18 HR, .325 wOBA, 1.7 WAR) - under
SS   Pedro Florimon (age 27, .233/.294/.317, 5 HR, .274 wOBA, 1.1 WAR) - over

Rotation
RHP Phil Hughes (age 28, 173 IP, 147/50 K/BB, 4.25 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 2.4 WAR) - over
RHP Ricky Nolasco (age 31, 198 IP, 156/47 K/BB, 3.96 ERA, 3.51 FIP, 3.5 WAR) - under
RHP Kevin Correia (age 33, 183 IP, 98/45 K/BB, 4.42 ERA, 4.41 FIP, 1.3 WAR) - under
RHP Mike Pelfrey (age 30, 156 IP, 98/48 K/BB, 4.42 ERA, 4.06 FIP, 2.1 WAR) - under
RHP Kyle Gibson (age 26, 105 IP, 73/35 K/BB, 4.46 ERA, 4.38 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
OF Alex Presley, C Kurt Suzuki, OF Chris Parmelee, IF Jason Bartlett, IF Eduardo Escobar, LHP Glen Perkins, RHP Matt Guerrier, RHP Deolis Guerra, RHP Anthony Swarzak, LHP Brian Duensing, RHP Samuel Deduno

Best Offseason Move - Few free agents needed a change of scenery more than Hughes this past winter; he needed to escape both the back pages of the New York Post and, more importantly, the Yankee Stadium short porch that was responsible for almost two thirds of his career gopher balls. Hughes is a natural fly ball pitcher who should be much better suited to homer-suppressing Target Field, in addition to having at least one elite outfielder (Hicks) in the gardens behind him. He's not an ace, but he should be a very capable pitcher for this team, which after he and Nolasco starts to look really thin.

Worst Offseason Move - In lieu of any putrid moves, let's focus on the worst news instead, which came a few weeks ago in the form of Miguel Sano, the Twins' second-best prospect and one of the top ten in baseball, injuring his elbow and requiring Tommy John surgery. There existed a not insignificant chance that Sano would have cracked the majors this summer thanks to his 80-grade power and the fact that he is only blocked by Plouffe and Kubel, both of whom are average players at best. As long as he recovers fully, we should see Sano (and phenom Byron Buxton, the best prospect in the game) sometime in 2015.

Key Player - After a concussion prematurely ended his season last year, the Twins finally bit the bullet and made the necessary move, taking Mauer from behind the plate and putting him at first base. Instead of being the best or second-best offensive catcher in the game, Mauer will be a very good first baseman, sacrificing some of the power typically expected from the position but making up for a lot of that with his outstanding on-base skills. What remains to be seen is how good he is at actually playing the position on a regular basis. I think Mauer will be just fine, as he is an outstanding athlete and first base is as easy as it gets. But if he struggles to adjust at all, an already weak Twins team could fall even further.

Most Exciting Player - Yikes. Minnesota's most exciting player is Buxton, who has yet to play a game at the AA level, let alone the majors, and after him is Sano, shelved for the year. Apart from Mauer, I guess I'll go with Hicks, a fleet-footed center fielder with a cannon arm, but as in 2013 he may not hit enough to keep the full-time job.

Possible Breakout Star - One of the reasons that the Twins were comfortable with moving Mauer from behind the dish was the presence of Pinto as a ready-made replacement (although they also went and signed Suzuki, who is more than a backup catcher). Pinto is an above-average receiver who should be able to hit as well as your average catcher or better, and if winds up being better than the team will have another interesting piece of a young core to pair with Mauer in a couple of years.

Potential Achilles Heel - There isn't a pitcher on this roster, with the possible exception of Perkins the closer who strikes fear into opposing lineups. Hughes, as discussed earlier, suffers from gopheritis. Nolasco is a capable innings-eater who shouldn't be your second-best pitcher if you plan on finishing above .500. Pelfrey and Correia are close to replacement level, and Gibson is unproven. Even at pitcher-friendly Target Field, opponents should feast on this staff.

Hidden Strength - Minnesota has one of the best farm systems in baseball, and it should begin paying dividends as early as this year, although the cream of the crop (Buxton, Sano, and pitcher Alex Meyer) won't arrive until 2015 at the earliest. That is, unless Buxton goes on an unholy tear through the minor leagues and earns a September call-up. Regardless, this system, which has long been known for producing competent but not exciting prospects, is more loaded than it has been in decades, and there are multiple players capable of becoming the first true stars to come out of the Minnesota development system since Mauer (drafted in 2001) and Justin Morneau (1999).

4) Chicago White Sox

Lineup
CF   Adam Eaton (age 25, .274/.366/.407, 11 HR, .345 wOBA, 3.6 WAR) - under
LF   Alejandro De Aza (age 30, .270/.341/.406, 11 HR, .330 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - over
1B   Jose Abreu (age 27, .273/.338/.475, 26 HR, .356 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - over
DH  Adam Dunn (age 34, .219/.333/.441, 30 HR, .340 wOBA, 0.8 WAR) - under
RF   Avisail Garcia (age 23, .291/.335/.464, 19 HR, .347 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - over
SS   Alexei Ramirez (age 32, .272/.309/.382, 10 HR, .303 wOBA, 2.9 WAR) - over
2B   Gordon Beckham (age 27, .267/.327/.394, 13 HR, .319 wOBA, 2.4 WAR) - under
3B   Matt Davidson (age 23, .251/.334/.416, 15 HR, .330 wOBA, 1.9 WAR) - over
C     Josh Phegley (age 26, .250/.292/.415, 21 HR, .309 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - under

Rotation
LHP Chris Sale (age 25, 212 IP, 220/51 K/BB, 3.14 ERA, 3.05 FIP, 5.4 WAR) - over
RHP Jose Quintana (age 25, 206 IP, 166/59 K/BB, 3.69 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 3.8 WAR) - over
LHP John Danks (age 29, 174 IP, 126/41 K/BB, 4.45 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 1.8 WAR) - under
RHP Erik Johnson (age 24, 161 IP, 124/53 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.96 FIP, 2.1 WAR) - under
RHP Felipe Paulino (age 30, 142 IP, 112/80 K/BB, 4.58 ERA, 4.53 FIP, 0.9 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
OF Dayan Viciedo, IF Jeff Keppinger, 1B Paul Konerko, IF Connor Gillaspie, C Tyler Flowers, RHP Nate Jones, RHP Matt Lindstrom, LHP Donnie Veal, RHP Mitchell Boggs, LHP Scott Downs, RHP Ronald Belisario

Best Offseason Move - This aging franchise, with little in the way of immediate help in the farm system, was staring down the barrel of a bad situation in which both of the primary candidates for first base and designated hitter (Dunn and Konerko) would be over the hill with fading bats and atrocious defense. So the Pale Hose went out and spent a ton of money to sign Abreu, who should instantly be the best hitter in the lineup, not to mention a better gloveman than Konerko. By all accounts Abreu is a diligent worker, and that work ethic plus his considerable power should translate into 30-40 homers at the Comiskey bandbox.

Worst Offseason Move - Take a look at that rotation again. After Sale and maybe Quintana, there's absolutely nothing to get excited about. It's not like the White Sox don't have the monetary resources to go out and sign an Ervin Santana or a Matt Garza or an Ubaldo Jimenez; they're in Chicago, for crying out loud, with a loyal fan base and a huge natural market (although not as huge as their crosstown rivals). But I suppose Jerry Reinsdorf was only willing to sign off on one big expenditure this winter.

Key Player - Abreu probably means the biggest difference to this team being semi-competitive with a chance to move forward in another year or two, or a repeat of last year's 99-loss disaster. Outside of Detroit (which still has some weaknesses), the AL Central is bereft of dangerous teams, and it's not inconceivable to think that the White Sox could catch a few breaks around the emergence of Abreu and sneak into wild card contention.

Most Exciting Player - Sale is one of the more unorthodox pitchers in baseball, a string bean of a southpaw who appears to be flying in six different directions through his delivery (something which had scouts concerned that he would blow out his arm quickly). But he's effective, and has gotten noticeably better in each of his four big league seasons. In 2013 Sale may have been the best pitcher in the American League at the age of 24, especially when you factor in his small home park and indifferent to bad defense. Now that the Sox have upgraded some of the pieces around him, don't be surprised if the Condor brings home his first Cy Young in 2014.

Possible Breakout Star - General manager Rick Hahn bought low on Eaton, who was supposed to be one of the top rookies in the National League a year ago for Arizona until injuries limited him to just 66 games. Getting hurt is practically a capital offense in the desert, so Kevin Towers shipped him to the South Side as part of the Mark Trumbo-Tyler Skaggs trade. If healthy, Eaton should provide good OBP and excellent speed at the top of the order, in addition to fine glovework in center.

Potential Achilles Heel - It says something about the state of the White Sox organization that they're going to run Beckham out there as the everyday second baseman for the sixth (!) season, even though he hasn't been so much as league-average with the stick since he was a rookie in 2009, with a putrid OPS+ of 80 in the four years since. Once the eighth pick in the draft, Beckham is now 27 and likely on his last major league contract if he can't deliver at least an average performance at the plate.

Hidden Strength - Some of those names in the bullpen might look familiar, and that's because they should. Lindstrom, Downs, Belisario, and Boggs all have experience with good teams in pressure situations, and Jones is a pretty good closer. Factor in that the organization makes competent pitchers out of no-names on a regular basis thanks to the instruction that begins with pitching coach Don Cooper, and the South Siders might just have enough arms to surprise some people this year.

3) Cleveland Indians

Lineup
CF   Michael Bourn (age 31, .274/.332/.380, 7 HR, 34 SB, .315 wOBA, 3.7 WAR) - over
1B   Nick Swisher (age 33, .247/.342/.410, 18 HR, .332 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
2B   Jason Kipnis (age 27, .278/.360/.459, 19 HR, 32 SB, .357 wOBA, 5.5 WAR) - over
DH  Carlos Santana (age 28, .268/.370/.459, 22 HR, .362 wOBA, 4.1 WAR) - under
LF   Michael Brantley (age 28, .288/.343/.408, 10 HR, .328 wOBA, 2.5 WAR) - over
C     Yan Gomes (age 26, .269/.319/.424, 14 HR, .326 wOBA, 3.7 WAR) - over
SS   Asdrubal Cabrera (age 28, .266/.324/.419, 15 HR, .325 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - over
RF   David Murphy (age 32, .245/.309/.389, 15 HR, .307 wOBA, 1.7 WAR) - under
3B   Lonnie Chisenhall (age 25, .247/.295/.395, 12 HR, .303 wOBA, 1.0 WAR) - under

Rotation
RHP Justin Masterson (age 29, 199 IP, 181/77 K/BB, 3.50 ERA, 3.49 FIP, 3.2 WAR) - over
RHP Corey Kluber (age 28, 178 IP, 165/51 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.60 FIP, 2.8 WAR) - over
RHP Zach McAllister (age 26, 162 IP, 122/50 K/BB, 4.12 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 2.0 WAR) - under
RHP Danny Salazar (age 24, 155 IP, 174/49 K/BB, 3.33 ERA, 3.36 FIP, 3.1 WAR) - over
RHP Carlos Carrasco (age 27, 146 IP, 112/47 K/BB, 4.25 ERA, 3.83 FIP, 1.7 WAR) - under

Bench/Bullpen
OF Nyjer Morgan, IF Mike Aviles, IF Ryan Raburn, IF Eliot Johnson, RHP John Axford, LHP Marc Rzepczynski, RHP Vinnie Pestano, RHP Blake Wood, RHP Cody Allen, RHP Scott Atchison, LHP Josh Outman

Best Offseason Move - Moving Santana from behind the plate is a move that should pay pretty immediate dividends, in that it both ensures that the Indians have a good designated hitter and gives them a vast upgrade at catcher. Santana was one of the worst framers and receivers in the game, but he could hit; Gomes is at least competent with the bat, and definitely superior with the glove; in just 88 games last year he amassed 3.7 fWAR. A full season of Gomes behind the plate will help this developing pitching staff immensely.

Worst Offseason Move - There's not a southpaw starter to be found in that rotation, and in fact there is just one on the entire 40-man roster at present (T.J. House), yet the Tribe let Scott Kazmir walk after he gave them a very solid performance last year. The Indians made the decision to ride their young rotation this year, but they may regret not having some balance later in the year (particularly if any of their pitchers take a step back).

Key Player - Kipnis has probably reached the point where baseball people in general (and Indians fans in particular) appreciate him for what he is, which is the best second baseman in the American League apart from Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia. There is no aspect of the game in which Kipnis does not perform well; he hits for good power, carries a slick glove, gets on base, and is a quality base runner once he gets there. He has also improved significantly in each of his three big league seasons to date, so there is reason to expect that 2014 might be the best year yet (he just turned 27). Don't be shocked to see another All-Star appearance and some serious MVP consideration, particularly if the Tribe make a repeat run to the playoffs.

Most Exciting Player - Salazar made his debut last year and was electric in his 52 innings, striking out well north of a batter an inning and earning the confidence of manager Terry Francona enough to start a playoff game. Salazar can dial the heat up to triple digits, and possesses a wipeout slider as well that's just not fair. He will be on an innings limit in 2014, but he very well could be Cleveland's best pitcher by the end of the season.

Possible Breakout Star - Salazar - see above.

Potential Achilles Heel - Cabrera is still just 28 years old but has been regressing over the past couple of seasons, which is of concern when he plays such a vital position. At his best, he's a top-notch defensive shortstop who hits in the upper quartile of guys who play there, making him incredibly valuable. But the bat skills have disappeared since 2011, and with top prospect Francisco Lindor probably still a few months away from cracking the majors, the Indians need Cabrera to at least hold serve so that he can keep some value as a trade chip.

Hidden Strength - This is a team that can win a lot of games with its legs. Bourn, Kipnis, Brantley, and Cabrera are all plus base runners with speed, and along with Gomes they form a strong up-the-middle defensive core (Brantley can handle center if needed). Those young legs will be of benefit in close games and will help their pitching staff develop more confidence by taking hits away, and could help the Indians play baseball in October again.

2) Kansas City Royals

Lineup
RF   Norichika Aoki (age 32, .290/.355/.386, 8 HR, 22 SB, .330 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - under
LF   Alex Gordon (age 30, .288/.359/.458, 18 HR, .357 wOBA, 4.8 WAR) - over
1B   Eric Hosmer (age 24, .296/.355/.471, 22 HR, .358 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - over
DH  Billy Butler (age 28, .297/.370/.465, 20 HR, .360 wOBA, 2.7 WAR) - under
C     Salvador Perez (age 24, .300/.338/.453, 15 HR, .344 wOBA, 4.7 WAR) - over
2B   Omar Infante (age 32, .281/.310/.399, 9 HR, .310 wOBA, 2.1 WAR) - over
3B   Mike Moustakas (age 25, .257/.313/.415, 16 HR, .319 wOBA, 2.6 WAR) - over
CF   Lorenzo Cain (age 28, .268/.327/.390, 8 HR, .317 wOBA, 3.3 WAR) - under
SS   Alcides Escobar (age 27, .256/.293/.352, 5 HR, 26 SB, .284 wOBA, 2.3 WAR) - under

Rotation
RHP James Shields (age 32, 223 IP, 195/62 K/BB, 3.39 ERA, 3.61 FIP, 4.0 WAR) - over
LHP Jason Vargas (age 31, 188 IP, 132/56 K/BB, 4.25 ERA, 4.22 FIP, 2.2 WAR) - under
RHP Yordano Ventura (age 23, 139 IP, 141/56 K/BB, 3.84 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 1.8 WAR) - over
RHP Jeremy Guthrie (age 35, 201 IP, 108/58 K/BB, 4.52 ERA, 4.80 FIP, 0.9 WAR) - over
LHP Bruce Chen (age 37, 155 IP, 102/44 K/BB, 4.31 ERA, 4.63 FIP, 0.8 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
OF Justin Maxwell, IF Danny Valencia, C Brett Hayes, OF Jarrod Dyson, IF Pedro Ciriaco, RHP Greg Holland, LHP Tim Collins, RHP Aaron Crow, LHP Francisley Bueno, RHP Kelvin Herrera, RHP Wade Davis

Best Offseason Move - Apart from forty-two games of Emilio Bonifacio, who was only a little worse than league average, second base was an outright disaster for the Royals last year, as the rest of the time they employed either Chris Getz (55 OPS+) or Eliot Johnson (an unbelievably bad 26 OPS+ in 79 games). When combined with other black holes in the lineup such as Escobar (53 OPS+ but a slick glove), Cain (80, ditto), and Moustakas (77), it's kind of a wonder that the Royals finished ten games above .500. To shore up the batting order as well as keep a good glove at the keystone corner, the Royals turned to Infante, who is at worst competent with the bat and at best an asset with lumber in his hands; he hit .318/.345/.450 a year ago for Detroit. Kansas City can easily live with the lack of offense from Escobar and Cain if Infante hits anything close to that line again.

Worst Offseason Move - It seems like year after year the Royals hope for substantial contributions from a never-ending crop of pitching prospects, and year after year the best ones keep getting injured. Given that pattern, why didn't the Royals re-sign Ervin Santana (who at least has the capability to be good) instead of rolling the dice with THREE guys in the rotation (Vargas, Guthrie, and Chen) who could at best be described as "innings eaters?" Top prospect Kyle Zimmer is supposedly close to breaking through, and would be a welcome sight over the likes of Chen, but his season was ended prematurely each of the past two years, and it's hard to tell when he'll be ready. For a team that is hell-bent on ending the longest playoff drought in American major sports (29 years and counting), it seems like they should have gotten one more above-average starter to carry the load.

Key Player - There are two of note. As mentioned above, the weaknesses in the starting rotation mean that the Royals have to hope that Shields keeps churning out quality starts and giving them well over 200 innings a year. That shouldn't be a problem, as Shields has comfortably exceeded that mark in each of the past seven seasons (every year except his rookie campaign of 2006, in fact), but pitchers get hurt, and he does have almost 1700 major league innings on the odometer, nineteenth among all active pitchers. The key cog among the position players is Hosmer, who looked like a new man after the Royals made George Brett the interim hitting coach early last season. If he can replicate last year's .302/.353/.448 line, or better yer improve upon it, he can give a major boost to the offense and help propel Kansas City to the playoffs.

Most Exciting Player - It's really fun watching small men throw 95-mph heat past hitters, and the Royals happen to have two of those guys in Holland (5'10") and Collins (5'7"). If you're only a casual baseball fan, you may not have heard of these guys, but they are two of the top relievers in baseball, and it's easy to conjure up memories of prime Billy Wagner when watching them pump gas, especially the diminutive Collins, like Wagner a southpaw.

Possible Breakout Star - Oh man, there are so many to choose from. Even if you eliminate Hosmer, whose 2012 and early 2013 struggles were thoroughly dissected before last year's coaching change caused everyone to remember why he was once the third pick in the draft, you can still make a case for several guys, particularly Perez, Moustakas, and Ventura. I think this is the year when people start to realize that Perez is primed to be the next Yadier Molina, only he's far more advanced as a hitter at the same age than Molina was. Moustakas is another high draft pick (2nd overall in 2007) who has struggled to hit for long stretches since his 2011 call-up and owns a career 85 OPS+, but had a monster spring (.429/.522/.768). Granted, you never want to read too much into spring training stats, but those numbers suggest that he may finally be figuring it out as he enters his age-25 season. Ventura, meanwhile, possesses the most electric fastball on the roster (no small feat), topping out at a sizzling 102 miles per hour, and also has a nasty breaking ball. He pitched 150 innings across three levels a year ago, so he should be able to handle somewhere in the neighborhood of 170-180 in 2014 without wearing out, which would be huge for the rest of the staff.

Potential Achilles Heel - Once again, the Royals are starting two offensive minuses in the everyday lineup (Escobar and Cain), and if Moustakas reverts back to previous form this team might struggle to score runs. That would be less of a concern if they had a dynamite pitching staff, but beyond Shields and possibly Ventura and Zimmer it's a group that won't miss a lot of bats. You probably won't see the Royals win a lot of 7-6 games without consistent offense from Moustakas, and ideally a step forward from the weak links as well.

Hidden Strength - By now most of the baseball world is aware of the strength and depth of the Royals' bullpen, but this team has an impressive defense that prevents a lot of runs. The Royals boast elite or very good defenders everywhere except right field (Aoki), with particularly strong gloves at shortstop, center field, third, and behind the plate. The Royals may be the best all-around fielding team in the division, which will surely help them achieve their goal of playing in October.

1) Detroit Tigers

Lineup
CF   Austin Jackson (age 27, .280/.352/.452, 15 HR, .351 wOBA, 4.5 WAR) - over
2B   Ian Kinsler (age 32, .270/.339/.411, 15 HR, 20 SB, .331 wOBA, 3.5 WAR) - over
1B   Miguel Cabrera (age 31, .330/.421/.601, 40 HR, .432 wOBA, 6.8 WAR) - over
DH  Victor Martinez (age 35, .303/.356/.434, 13 HR, .342 wOBA, 1.4 WAR) - under
RF   Torii Hunter (age 38, .290/.334/.426, 14 HR, .333 wOBA, 2.0 WAR) - over
3B   Nick Castellanos (age 22, .269/.324/.411, 12 HR, .322 wOBA, 1.8 WAR) - over
C     Alex Avila (age 27, .254/.357/.409, 13 HR, .333 wOBA, 2.9 WAR) - under
SS   Alex Gonzalez (age 37, .228/.267/.349, 13 HR, .270 wOBA, -0.3 WAR) - over
LF   Rajai Davis (age 33, .254/.300/.348, 5 HR, 37 SB, .287 wOBA, 0.3 WAR) - under


Rotation
RHP Justin Verlander (age 31, 226 IP, 220/64 K/BB, 3.05 ERA, 3.24 FIP, 5.5 WAR) - over
RHP Max Scherzer (age 29, 210 IP, 238/58 K/BB, 3.22 ERA, 3.12 FIP, 5.2 WAR) - over
RHP Anibal Sanchez (age 30, 195 IP, 192/55 K/BB, 3.19 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 4.6 WAR) - over
RHP Rick Porcello (age 25, 191 IP, 152/46 K/BB, 3.84 ERA, 3.48 FIP, 3.6 WAR) - over
LHP Drew Smyly (age 25, 161 IP, 147/46 K/BB, 3.75 ERA, 3.46 FIP, 3.2 WAR) - over

Bench/Bullpen
IF Andrew Romine, OF Don Kelly, OF Rajai Davis, C Bryan Holaday, OF Tyler Collins, RHP Joe Nathan, LHP Phil Coke, RHP Al Albuquerque, LHP Ian Krol, RHP Luke Putkonen, RHP Evan Reed, RHP Joba Chamberland

Best Offseason Move - Acquiring Kinsler from Texas for Prince Fielder was a great trade in that it upgraded two positions offensively and two positions defensively at a single stroke. No more will Tigers fans (and pitchers!) have to suffer through the statuesque, butchering defense of Fielder at first and Cabrera at third; with the trade, Cabrera moves back to first base where he belongs, and Castellanos will slide into the vacated hot corner spot. Kinsler and Omar Infante are probably a wash defensively, but Kinsler is a better, more consistent hitter, and what's more is highly motivated after the trade. Cabrera, being the best hitter on Earth and all, will also be an upgrade over Prince at the plate.

Worst Offseason Move - Does general manager Dave Dombrowski know something that the rest of us don't? This winter he shipped away criminally underrated fourth starter Doug Fister, a groundball specialist whose talents were somewhat wasted in front of Fielder, Cabrera, and Jhonny Peralta, to the Nationals for a LOOGY (Krol), a utility player since sent to Baltimore (Steve Lombardozzi), and an A-ball lottery ticket, plus a couple of half-smoke sausages. Granted, Smyly needs to be in the rotation rather than in the bullpen as the world's most over-qualified LOOGY, but Dombrowski had to have been able to get a better return for one of the ten best pitchers in the league over the last three years.

Key Player - Kinsler lashed out at Rangers GM Jon Daniels and the rest of Texas management after the big trade, saying (among other things) that he hopes Texas goes 0-162. Obviously, that won't happen, but it shows how motivated Kinsler is to prove his value to his new employer. The Tigers would like to see something closer to the player who hit .255/.355/.477 with 32 homers and 30 stolen bases three years ago than the league-average .266/.334/.418 version with 32 homers and 36 steals combined in the two seasons since. Kinsler has made a career of being overlooked (he played at three different colleges and was drafted in the seventeenth round), and if he gets back to an All-Star level of play, the Tigers may finally approach 100 wins.

Most Exciting Player - I may have railed against him winning the MVP multiple times, but I will readily admit that Cabrera is the best hitter in baseball, and every time he steps to the dish it is an event. Quite simply, you're not going to beat him with a strike; he made contact on 100% of the pitches he swung at in the strike zone a year ago, and 80% overall. That is just insane, and it results in a heat map that's basically a giant blob of red. In addition, he hits equally well to all fields (and with power!), so there's practically no way you can beat him. The Tigers also possess two of the most electric pitchers in the game in Verlander and Scherzer, both of whom strike out more than a batter an inning and who own two of the last three AL Cy Young Awards. Verlander is the rare pitcher who can maintain and indeed even increase his velocity for a full nine innings, able to reach back for triple-digit heat after 110 or more pitches. He also has two no-hitters in his career.

Possible Breakout Star - Porcello was a top talent who fell to the Tigers late in the first round of the 2007 draft because of his bonus demands and wound up being one of the first players from that class to reach the majors. He generates a ton of grounders, and thanks to Detroit's rather porous infield defense of the past few seasons he has been no better than an average pitcher. Now that that problem has been fixed, however, don't be surprised to see him have a career year, even with defensive whiz Jose Iglesias (shortstop) out for the season with stress fractures in both legs.

Potential Achilles Heel - New manager Brad Ausmus may be a very smart guy (he's a Dartmouth alum) and a former catcher (the position that seems to produce more managers than any other), but he has never managed before at any level (he was a special assistant in the San Diego organization for the past couple years), and so he may have some growing pains. Fortunately he has one of the two or three most talented teams in the American League to work with and a roster full of veterans who shouldn't need any micro-managing. Still, it will be interesting to see how he handles his pitching staff, in particular the bullpen.

Hidden Strength - Even after the Fister trade, the Tigers still possess what very well may be the best rotation in baseball, with two elite guys at the top in Verlander and Scherzer, and three guys who are all capable of being a #2 or #3 on a lot of teams in Sanchez, Porcello, and Smyly. Sanchez, for what it's worth, produced more than six wins above replacement last year and finished fourth in the Cy Young voting. With an improved defense behind them, we may just see how dangerous this staff is.

Coming next: the NL Central.