Hungry Tigers have changed their stripes
Pursuit of title features new manager, and new reliance on speed and defense
LAKELAND, Fla. -- In one pivotally important sense, nothing has changed at Tigers camp.
"Another year," said designated hitter Victor Martinez, "another run at it."
But in another, undeniably accurate sense, the run at "it" -- and "it," of course, is a World Series ring now 30 years in the making for Motown -- is being conducted in a dramatically different way.
It's not just that the Tigers have changed managers (though the difference there was certainly striking when Brad Ausmus conducted a full media session Tuesday morning without lighting up a single Marlboro); it's that they've reinvented themselves -- perhaps drastically -- as a team more reliant and reliable on speed and defense than any time in recent memory.
The Prince Fielder trade set into motion a makeover that will certainly affect the future financials (no small point with Max Scherzer a free agent at season's end and Miguel Cabrera right behind him). More immediately, it continued a roster revamp that essentially began with last summer's swap for Jose Iglesias. Miggy is moving back to first base where he belongs, the agile Ian Kinsler takes over at second, rookie Nick Castellanos is at third, and president and general manager Dave Dombrowski doubled-down on a more fleet-of-foot mindset when he added Rajai Davis to potentially platoon with Andy Dirks in left.
Those changes will be coupled with a literal shift in strategy.
Ausmus added Matt Martin to his staff as a "defensive coordinator," among other responsibilities, and the Tigers figure to be more analytical and tactical in their approach to defensive positioning. Nor does it hurt to have a third-base coach with 11 Gold Gloves and more than 400 steals under his belt (and Omar Vizquel's baserunning instruction at Tuesday's first full-squad workout was particularly well-received).
"I don't know that we'll be shifting to the extent that Tampa Bay does and Houston does," Ausmus said of the defensive strategy. "I know we will do it at times. The game will dictate it and starting pitchers have to be comfortable with it, too. If your pitchers aren't comfortable with it, you might have to make an adjustment.
"But if I feel strongly about it, it's ultimately my choice."
Dombrowski didn't necessarily feel strongly about changing the tenor of the Tigers. Until somehow afforded -- both by science and financial surplus -- a team of nine Mike Trouts with five tools apiece, he knows Major League teams will always have to give up something to get something. And so ranking at or near the bottom in baseball in defensive runs saved and stolen bases, as the Tigers did in 2013, didn't necessarily bother him, given the accompanying production that came from having Cabrera, Fielder, Martinez and Jhonny Peralta in the middle of the order.
Yet offseason strategies are a product of opportunity, and it was no secret the Tigers did not intend for Cabrera to remain at third for the rest of his career. Something had to give eventually, if not immediately, and talks with the Rangers progressed to a point of risk-tolerance that Dombrowski, who has always had a quick trigger finger, was quite comfortable with.
On measure, it's hard to blame him, because -- on paper, at least -- this does appear to be a team more properly suited for October, particularly in the era of offensive suppression in which we currently reside.
"Philosophically, yes," Dombrowski said. "I guess you would say that. But you never know. In the 2011 World Series between St. Louis and Texas, I don't think anybody anticipated it would be a Series in which bullpens were more important than the starting pitchers. Also, last year, we lost the ALCS due to some big home runs -- David Ortiz in Game 2, Mike Napoli in Game 3, Shane Victorino, even though he's not known as a home run guy, in Game 6. But normally, runs are harder to come by. Defense and speed are more important."
Starting pitching is pretty important, too, and the Tigers' tinkering with the rotation -- essentially replacing Doug Fister with Drew Smyly -- is no small plot point.
Dombrowski is the first to acknowledge that he's been "lambasted" in the court of public opinion for that trade, which netted lefty reliever Ian Krol, utility man Steve Lombardozzi and, most importantly, left-handed prospect Robbie Ray, who has made a good first impression in these nascent days of camp.
To Dombrowski, though, the trade fits the formula of a Tigers team taking on a younger look, contending in the present but not forgetting what's at stake in the future. And this is easier said than done in today's marketplace. The markets for Cy Young winners Scherzer and Tampa Bay's David Price, pursued with varying degrees of diligence, simply never materialized because of the premium placed on contractual control.
"Young pitching is a guarded area," Dombrowski said. "They're not moving. People wouldn't even give up their No. 1 Draft choices for some guys. So that just shows you that it's not easy to accomplish. If we were going to trade Doug, we were going to have to get a young starting pitcher close to the big leagues, not somebody sitting there in A-ball and going to Double-A this year. We had about 15 guys identified, and other people wouldn't trade them."
The net result of hawking Fister and Fielder is a Tigers team that's gotten younger at third base and in the fifth starting slot, to say nothing of the youth at shortstop (Iglesias), the setup bridge to Joe Nathan (Bruce Rondon and Krol) and the backup catcher spot (Bryan Holaday).
"You don't want to wake up one day and realize what an old club you've become," Dombrowski said. "We're trying to blend young guys in with that."
So while the basic idea of trying to win a World Series on a club built around three aces in Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez and a lethal bat in Cabrera remains the same, there is a fundamental difference on the fringes, from the forward-thinking skipper to a more dependable defense to the stents installed to help unclog the basepaths.
The Tigers are still going for "it." They're just taking a different route.