In Case You Haven’t Noticed…The Tigers Are Playing Some Ball!
Jim Leyland retired. Prince Fielder and Doug Fister were traded away. Max Scherzer turned down ridiculous money heading into his contract season. Veteran players, whom many labeled as past their prime, were signed to affordable contracts to fill vital holes.
There were many questions surrounding the Detroit Tigers entering the 2014 season. And, all this team has done is compile the best record in Major League Baseball through the first quarter of the season. Granted, there are 123 games left in the season. And, it's hard to imagine this team maintaining their current hot streak all the way through September. But, new Tigers Manager Brad Ausmus has brought a new attitude and a new strategic system into the clubhouse. All of the national pundits wondered what might become of the Tigers if they somehow, kept the power bats they've been known for the last three seasons, but, somehow, got better defensively, and more athletic. Well, fans...you're seeing it now.
Currently, the Tigers lead the American League in stolen bases with 37...more than they had the entire 2013 season (a MLB low 35). One of those free agent additions, Rajai Davis, has been one of the biggest surprises this year. After a red hot April, Davis has cooled a bit. He's hitting .283 on the year, with 13 stolen bases. Not too bad of numbers for a guy signed for a platoon role...(meaning, he wasn't slated to play everyday.) With the injury to outfielder Andy Dirks, Davis has stepped in nicely, and has been a great addition to this squad, along with Don Kelly. And, then there's the productivity of Andrew Romine, the shortstop signed during Spring Training to help spell the indefinite loss of Jose Iglesias. Sure, Romine's numbers at the plate haven't been stellar, but sufficient given his play on the field. Add in the monster rookie campaign third baseman Nick Castellanos is turning in, both at the plate and in the field, this may be the single biggest change for the Tigers this season from last. With Ian Kinsler coming to camp 15 pounds lighter than his 2013 Spring Training campaign with the Texas Rangers, his offensive numbers have been impressive early on. His glove is an improvement over Omar Infante's. And, the energy and demeanor he brings to the field every game shows his comfort with Detroit.
Then, there's the power game. Victor Martinez has by far been the most valuable player on the roster so far this year. He leads the team in home runs. His clutch hitting is better than I've ever seen in his career, with Detroit, Boston, or Cleveland. (Oh, and by the way, it is a contract year for him, too...) Miguel Cabrera is the game's best hitter. There was a lot of concern about how the Tigers would protect his bat from the fourth batter's slot, formerly occupied by Prince Fielder. Martinez, so far, has demonstrated that he's more than capable of making teams pay for pitching around Cabrera.
And, of course, the Tigers pitching staff is red hot!! Fans have been waiting for the breakout season from Rick Porcello. And, boy, did the Tigers need him to step up this year after trading Fister. So far, he's delivered. In 8 starts, Porcello is 7-1 with a 2.91 ERA, and 1.01 WHIP. In my opinion, even more impressive is his total batters walked number...7. Then, there's reigning AL Cy Young winner Scherzer. He's 6-1 out of the gate with a 1.83 ERA. And, Justin Verlander, well, being Justin Verlander. But, the biggest treat for Tigers fans is the bullpen performance. Sure, Phil Coke continues to take heat from fans for his inconsistencies. But, Joba Chamberlain has come in and proved naysayers wrong as he has taken possession of the 8th inning set-up role, ahead of newly acquired closer Joe Nathan. Control issues are common among young bullpen relievers, and have been an issue for the Tigers in years past. Pitchers Robbie Ray and Ian Krol (acquired in the Fister trade with Washington) have been very solid when called upon thus far. And, the arms of Al Alburquerque and Evan Reed have really come into form during the first 7 weeks of the season. Kudos to Tigers Pitching Coach Jeff Jones, and the work his staff and players have put forth this year.
Speaking of Jones, he's one of two hold overs from Jim Leyland's staff, along with Bench Coach Gene Lamont. Brad Ausmus has assembled a great staff. And, the smart mind of Ausmus is fully displayed by his decision to keep both coaches on his staff this season. Arguably, these are the two most vital positions on a staff. And, what an advantage for a new manager, with no experience, to have these individuals to turn to. Two guys that know the lay of the land, and what makes the clubhouse tick. Ausmus brought in Wally Joyner as batting coach, assisted by former Tiger Darnell Coles. Omar Vizquel and Dave Clark as base coaches sure have done their part to make their presences known.
The team is having fun...that's evident in the dugout night in and night out. Their winning. Winning with small ball and run manufacturing; winning with power, or "Big Boy Ball," as TV Analyst Rod Allen says; and winning with pitching and defense. Things are good right now in Tigertown!! And, fans, you have Brad Ausmus to thank for it...so far!