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Will Tigers turn it around on defense?

1/15/2014

Is any team under more pressure than the Detroit Tigers in 2014? As much as a team can feel pressure. Loaded with as much frontline talent as any club in baseball, the Tigers have won three straight AL Central titles, winning 95, 88 and 93 games, but have yet to win a World Series. The fear is they'll go the way of the late '90s Mariners, a team that featured Ken Griffey Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Randy Johnson, but never won the big trophy that matters.

The Tigers have revamped their roster this offseason, mostly in the charge of improving the team's defense. (Well, that and unloading Prince Fielder's contract to shore up future dollars for Max Scherzer and Miguel Cabrera.) Fielder was traded to Texas, so Cabrera slides back over to first from third base. Rookie Nick Castellanos will be given the opportunity to win the third-base job, and while he's not regarded as a great defender, he should be better than Cabrera. Ian Kinsler has a good defensive reputation and he replaces Omar Infante at second base. Shortstop Jose Iglesias, acquired late last season, will have a full season to show off his wizardry up the middle. Speedster Rajai Davis was signed to platoon in left field with Andy Dirks.

All changes look like significant upgrades. According to Defensive Runs Saved, the metric created by Baseball Info Solutions that we use here at ESPN, the Tigers were minus-66 runs below average on defense in 2013, 28th in the majors (ahead of only the Mariners and Phillies). In 2012, they ranked 25th at minus-32 DRS. In 2011 -- before Fielder -- they ranked 10th with 14 DRS. So they had transitioned from a decent team on defense to a terrible one.

The defensive shortcomings showed up in some of the pitching numbers. Among qualified starters, Doug Fister (.332), Justin Verlander (.316) and Rick Porcello (.315) had the third-, sixth- and seventh-highest BABIP (batting average on balls in play) allowed.

The biggest culprits in 2013 according to DRS were Cabrera (minus-18), Fielder (minus-13) and right fielder Torii Hunter (minus-10). Hunter has a reputation, but at 37, it appears his defense did slip. After averaging 2.05 plays per nine innings in 2012, that figure fell to 1.69 in 2013. Kinsler has had a positive DRS each of the past five seasons, including a plus-11 in 2013 (Infante was minus-5). While most may expect the biggest upgrade to be Iglesias over Jhonny Peralta, it remains to be seen if Iglesias is more a guy with great hands who makes the acrobatic play or a guy with great range. BIS scored him with 0 DRS in 2013 between the Red Sox and Tigers. Cabrera, a liability at third, is a little less so at first, where he rated at minus-8 in 2011.

It's easy to envision the Tigers improving by 50 runs on defense -- 10 to 12 runs at each infield position, plus a few runs in left field and maybe a bounce-back season from Hunter or a better year from Austin Jackson. Since BIS began tracking DRS in 2003, 37 teams have improved at least 50 runs defensively in one season. The top 10:

1. 2005 to 2006 Royals: -112 to +26 (plus-138)

2. 2010 to 2011 Royals: -95 to + 25 (plus-120)

3. 2009 to 2010 Athletics: -32 to +76 (plus-108)

4. 2007 to 2008 Rays: -81 to +14 (plus-95)

5. 2009 to 2010 Padres: -12 to +81 (plus-93)

5. 2012 to 2013 Pirates: -25 to +68 (plus-93)

7. 2011 to 2012 Twins: -61 to +29 (plus-90)

8. 2004 to 2005 Phillies: -47 to +38 (plus-85)

8. 2003 to 2004 Blue Jays: -47 to +38 (plus-85)

10. 2005 to 2006 Padres: -51 to +32 (plus-83)

10. 2012 to 2013 Rockies: -88 to -5 (plus-83)

What's it take to improve as much as these teams did? Well, first, keep in mind that defensive numbers can still be subject to one-year fluctuations. But most of these teams did make roster changes. Interestingly, the one team that didn't make many moves were those 2006 Royals. Shortstop Angel Berroa, third basemen Mark Teahen and right fielder Emil Brown had combined for minus-65 DRS in 2005. All three were regulars in 2006 (although Brown shifted to left field), but weren't as awful. Mark Grudzielanek was a big upgrade at second base over Ruben Gotay.

The 2010-2011 Royals were easier to understand. They actually had new regulars at all eight positions. Most notably, Eric Hosmer replaced Billy Butler at first base, Alcides Escobar replaced Yuniesky Betancourt at shortstop, Mike Moustakas got time at third base and Gold Glover Alex Gordon took over in left field. The Pirates improved dramatically last year for three major reasons: (1) More shifts; (2) Starling Marte in left field; (3) Russell Martin at catcher (Pirates catchers had been horrid throwing out runners in 2012). The Rockies improved with the addition of Nolan Arenado at third base (at plus-30 DRS, he not only rated as one of the best defensive players in the majors, but 61 runs better than the Chris Nelson-Jordan Pacheco third-base disaster of 2012).

For the Tigers, I don't envision a leap as big as the teams above. They didn't have one position as dreadful as the Rockies' third-base situation or one defender as bad as Betancourt. They had some holes throughout the defense; combined with the lack of one outstanding defender, it led to a poor defense. Unless Iglesias proves to be that guy, they probably still lack a Gold Glover -- in 2011, Jackson rated at plus-29 in center field, but he's slipped to plus-5 and plus-3 the past two years.

But with Verlander, Scherzer, Porcello and Anibal Sanchez leading the rotation, the Tigers don't need a great defense. Even an average defense will be a big plus. Fifty runs saved on defense is worth about an additional five wins. Assuming the pitching staff holds up its end of the bargain, the Tigers should allow the fewest runs in the league in 2014 after finishing second to the Royals last season. And that makes them the big favorite once again in the AL Central.