The 2013 Detroit Tigers starting rotation has a strong argument as the best rotation of all time–or at least on par with the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies rotation (which had Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Cole Hamels putting up video game numbers) or the Hall-of-Fame laden 1996-1998 Atlanta Braves.

The 2013 Tigers and 2011 Phillies put up a FIP- of 77, or 23% better than the league-average rotation, while the Braves checked in at a mere 78 FIP- in 1996-97.  The Tigers rotation featured 4 starters in the top 15 in FIP-, and #5 starter Rick Porcello checking in at #29 with a sterling FIP- of 88.  But with Max Scherzer jumping to the Washington Nationals, 3/5ths of that super-rotation is gone.  Scherzer joins Doug Fister, traded to Washington in 2014 for a bag of magic beans, in another rotation possibly destined for all-time greatness.  But while the decline of the aging Tigers is inevitable, it is not here yet.

 1.  The rotation is still pretty good

Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The Tigers still bring back two of the better starters in the American League, in David Price and Anibal Sanchez.   Price was MLB.com’s #1 prospect going into the 2009 season, and turned in a good but not great rookie campaign (4.42 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 1.3 fWAR, 7.71 K/9 in 23 starts).  He took a huge step forward in 2010, turning in a 3.9 fWAR and starting a 4 year run of being a 4-5 win pitcher.  He saw his K/9 go from 7.71 to 8.75 over the next two seasons, while his walks fell by 1.22 per 9 innings.  Price’s control took another big step forward in 2013, going from 2.52 BB/9 to a sterling 1.30 BB/9.  While his K rate fell a bit in 2013, he remained a significantly above average starter.  He put it all together in 2014, launching himself into the top-tier of starters in the American League.  Price turned in a 6.1 fWAR performance, highlighted by the same pin-point control he displayed in 2013 (3.7% and 3.8% BB% respectively) and a career-best 9.82 K/9.  Likewise, he turned in a career-best 76 FIP-.

Sanchez, when healthy, has also established himself as one of the better starters in the American League.  Sanchez had a Price-like emergence during the 2013 season, thanks to a 9.99 K/9 rate that was 3rd best in MLB, behind Yu Darvish and Scherzer.  Injuries limited Sanchez to just 21 starts in 2014, and his K/9 rate of 7.29 was his worst since his 2006 rookie year.  But he was still quite effective, turning in a 3.4 WAR with a 2.71 FIP, and should again be solid (if healthy) for the Tigers in 2015.

The big question mark, of course, is Justin Verlander.  The Tigers erstwhile ace has seen his fastball velocity tumble from a high of 96.23 mph in 2012 to a relatively pedestrian 93.33 mph at the end of 2014 (according to www.brooksbaseball.net).  His fastball had gone as low as 92.52 mph in August, but bounced back at the end of the year.  Verlander turned in a K/9 rate of 6.95, his worst strikeout rate since his 2006 rookie year.  At the same time, Verlander’s control issues that popped up in 2013 (3.09 BB/9, 8.1% BB%) continued to plague him in 2014 (2.84 BB/9, 7.3% BB%).  Even with his struggles, Verlander turned in a deceptively decent FIP- of 97.  That clearly isn’t great for a guy set to make $28MM, but isn’t the end of the world for a #3 starter.

Shane Greene, acquired in the off-season from the New York Yankees, turned in a solid 78.2 MLB innings as a rookie in 2014.  Greene was neither a highly touted prospect nor a strikeout artist in the minor leagues.  His stuff is decent (sinker/slider, with a pretty good cutter, and some velocity (94.83 mph), but nothing to write home about.  Still, even with a somewhat high walk rate (3.32, 8.4% BB%), he parlayed an excellent 9.27 K/9 rate in 14 starts for the Yankees into a good year. However, this K rate was over 1 strikeout per nine better than his best performance in a full season above A ball, and so his ability to repeat 2014 over 180 innings is questionable at best.  All things considered, his stuff is probably good enough to give the Tigers 1-2 wins at the #4 or #5 slot, and there is the tantalizing possibility that Greene can repeat his 2014 K rate over a full season, which would give the Tigers a “diet”  Doug Fister, with 6 years of team control.

The best thing about Alfredo Simon rounding out the rotation is that “Big Pasta” is a cool nickname.  As I wrote [in December], he isn’t very good and his All-Star appearance in 2014 was driven by an unsustainable .234 BABIP.  While his ERA looked good at 3.44, his FIP told another story (4.33 FIP, 116 FIP-).  As far as bottom of the rotation guys go, you could do worse.  But not by much.

 2.  The Tigers may be 60+ runs better on defense

Source: Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America

For the past two seasons, the Tigers have been one of the three worst defensive teams in baseball with a DRS of -65 in 2014.  As a frame of reference, the Tigers were 105 runs(!) worse than the American League Champion Kansas City Royals.  This could be cut in half in 2015, as the Tigers have substantially improved their putrid outfield defense and slick fielding SS Jose Iglesias should be back to full strength after missing 2014 due to injury.

  • Catcher – Alex Avila is generally regarded as a solid defensive catcher, but he was in the lower third of catchers in framing rate in 2014, costing the Tigers 7.0 runs in the process.  This was a deviation from the rest of his career, in which Avila has been average to slightly-above average at framing pitching (+4.7 runs in 2013, 5.2 in 2012, 2.2 in 2011, 0.6 in 2010 — see http://www.statcorner.com/CatcherReport.php).  It is reasonable that Avila’s framing will bounce back to a level closer to his career norm in 2015.
  • Shortstop – The Tigers spent much of 2014 trying to fill the hole as SS caused by the Spring injury to Iglesias.  The fossilized remains of Alex Gonzalez lasted only 9 games, in which he not only couldn’t hit, but was also worth -4 DRS.  The duo of Andrew Romine and Eugenio Suarez were better, but not by much, coming in at a combined -9 DRS.  Iglesias is generally regarded as a well above-average shortstop, and over 3 partial seasons has a DRS of +7 in 784 total innings.  It is not unreasonable for Tigers fans to expect Iglesias to turn in a performance in the +10 DRS territory–a significant improvement from 2014.
  • Third Base – Nobody expected a great glove from Nick Castellanos.  But his -30 DRS was simply dreadful, highlighted by the fact that, according to Inside Edge, he wasn’t just the league’s worst 3B at turning routine plays into outs,  he was the worst non-catcher at converting the routine plays.  Indeed, Castellanos wasn’t just worse at 3B than Miguel Cabrera, he was 10 runs worse!  Interestingly, Castellanos was actually league-average at turning more difficult plays (60-90%) into outs, just behind the vastly superior Josh Donaldson.  While one season’s worth of fielding statistics don’t tell you much, I think it is reasonable to expect Castellanos’ numbers to bounce back a bit this year.  At least, they can’t get worse.
  • Left Field – The Tigers were vaguely around average in 2014, with JD Martinez (-1 DRS) and the adventurous Rajai Davis (-8 DRS) patrolling left field.  Now the Tigers go into 2015 with one of the best corner outfielders in baseball, Yoenis Cespedes (+12 DRS).
  • Right Field – Another huge advantage of the Cespedes trade is that the Tigers replace the other bottom-5 worst fielder in baseball (Torii Hunter, -18 DRS) with the much closer-to-average Martinez.
  • Center Field – Center field is a key position in spacious Comerica Park, and for the better part of 5 seasons was ably patrolled by Austin Jackson (career DRS of 50).  When Jackson was traded to Seattle in the David Price deal, he was replaced by a surprisingly not-terrible Rajai Davis (-3 DRS in 374 innings).  Davis figures to start primarily against LHP pitching in 2015, leaving center field in the capable hands of Anthony Gose, who was worth +1 DRS in about the same number of innings as Davis.  Gose, like Iglesias, has an excellent defensive reputation but not enough innings played to project.  Assuming he is a +5 DRS player in CF, it is still a significant upgrade over Davis and probably at minimum a wash at CF over Jackson.

3.  The Tigers can still hit.

PHOTO: Carlos Osorio/AP Photo

Even with the expected regression by JD and Victor Martinez, the Tigers should still be a very good run producing team in 2015.  Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projects the Tigers to have 4 players with an OPS+ at 116 or higher–Miguel Cabrera (149), Victor Martinez (125), JD Martinez (118), Yoenis Cespedes (116).  Nick Castellanos (108) and Ian Kinsler (101) also figure to be productive hitters.  The Tigers should also take advantage of platoon splits at two positions.  At Catcher, Alex Avila has struggled against lefties, to the tune of a .226/.287/.302 split in 2014 (sOPS+ [Baseball Reference’s player’s split relative to the League’s Split OPS] 68).  He should split time with 24-year-old rookie James McCann, who hit .295/.343/.427 in his first full season with AAA Toledo.  McCann feasted on AAA lefties, with a split of .336/.396/.469.  In center, Rajai Davis’s struggles against right-handed pitching are well documented.  While nobody will mistake Anthony Gose for Mike Trout, his .238/.329/.312, sOPS+ of 86 is a significant upgrade over Davis against right-handed pitching.

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