Opinion: Grading the Tiger Rookies

After winning streaks, losing streaks, trades, injuries and ejections, we have nearly reached the conclusion of the first trimester for this lovely 2014 season.

The headline for our loveable Woodward Wildcats was a new and improved Tigers roster on offense and defense. Young and fresh in some aspects, old and experienced in others. Dave Dombrowski took risks in the offseason adding nearly 10 new faces to Detroit’s roster. While not all have made the cut, there are some that have earned their keep.

 

The Lead: Ian Kinsler

2014 Avg: .318

OBP / RBI / HR: .384 / 23 / 4

 

The Fielder/Kinsler trade in the offseason did not happen quietly. Neither did the players’ reactions to the trade. Both players had on-field and off-field issues, and both Fielder and Kinsler did not seem too disappointed after hearing about the trade. Fans in Detroit were all too happy to get rid of the $250 million dollar man in Fielder, and Texas faithful were thrilled to hear that their “pop-up machine” in Kinsler was moving north. Kinsler was quite outspoken after the trade, saying (in jest) that “he hoped the Rangers would go 0-162 next season.” His prediction, sadly, did not come true.

Since donning the English D, Kinsler’s been an absolute machine. A change of scenery for the leadoff man did absolute wonders. Kinsler is batting .348 in the month of May, and moved his average for the season up to .318. He is on pace to have the second best average of his career. Predominantly a .250-.260 hitter at the leadoff spot, Kinsler has turned his game around since leaving Texas. In the very early all-star ballot voting, Kinsler finds himself first for the second basemen position.

He has fit in perfectly for Detroit. In years past, second base was a problem for the Tigers, rotating men day-to-day without a real fit. Ramon Santiago was the only real option prior to 2014, which mean a hole in the batting order to compensate for defensive ability. Kinsler fills that hole and adds defensive presence with good legs beneath him. Although he may cool off to .300 before the all-star break, the Texas righty seems to be content and comfy with man like Hunter, Cabrera, and Martinez following him, and with a .348 on base percentage, I think he has earned it.

 

The Legs: Rajai Davis

2014 Avg: .295

OBP / RBI / SB / CS:  .340 / 16 / 16 / 3

 

Whether Davis was meant be a fill-in man for DL-ridden Andy Dirks remains a mystery. After Davis’s performance in the early stages of the season, it is hard to imagine a situation where Detroit lets him go. Rajai usually finds himself in the last spot on the lineup card, a position he fills nicely. For years, Detroit was lauded as being too slow, too static on the basepaths. Davis was the answer to those critics.

I will predict Davis will be high on Detroit fans’ favorite player list in a couple years. The man is so much fun to watch. He can take credit for a Tigers win on Tuesday against a pesky Oakland A’s team. Davis, due to his ridiculous speed, has the green light from manager Brad Ausmus. Davis took advantage of an unassuming pitcher, stealing third as catcher John Jaso threw the ball back to Fernando Abad. One batter later, Jackson beat out the throw and Davis used those legs to take a Tigers win.

I think any team would be proud of their ninth hitter batting .295 with 16 steals. Davis, Dirks, and Ausmus may need to sit down and chat about the left field position in June. But if Davis continues to play the baseball he’s shows he is capable of, Ausmus has an easy decision. Davis adds speed in the field and out of the batter’s box. Dirks may have more power, but hitters can slump. Legs never do.

 

The Replacement: Andrew Romine

2014 Avg: .202

OBP / RBI / HR: .259 / 4 / 1

 

Romine should be counting his lucky stars that there is a man named Phil Coke still on the Tigers roster. Fans in this city have never been shy about their feelings towards a player. Lovingly coined the “Inge Effect,” the rule states there needs to be at least one player on a Detroit team that fans will scream for his demotion. Inge, Raburn, and Valverde all got the treatment along with many other Tigers who stepped their performance up after being in the all-too-bright limelight. Romine is currently in the large shadow of Phil Coke, but many are not pleased with his performance even now.

The free pass Romine currently has is due, at least in part, to Detroit fans knowing Jose Iglesias will make his return sometime during 2014. When that will be is still unclear, as those pesky shins of Iglesias are not quick to heal. Romine has and always will be a replacement on the team so long as Iglesias still has a contract in Detroit. Batting has never been a weak point for a Detroit lineup, but any player flirting with the Mendoza line deserves a little pressure put on him. Combine sub-par hitting with six errors in the field through 32 starts, and Romine should think about bringing a good book to the dugout once Iglesias is able to pull his socks up to his knees.

 

The Talent: Nick Castellanos

2014 Avg: .241

OBP / RBI / HR: .285 / 20 / 4

 

“That Castellanos kid” has been a term wafting around Comerica park for quite some time. The home-grown talent straight from the Tigers minor-league organization has proved that, yes, Detroit does indeed have a farm system. Yes, he did play in a limited number of games in 2013 at left field, but the rookie is primarily a third basemen. His real potential and ability show up this year.

Castellanos’ average is, in my opinion, deceptive. He has ranged from .220-.280 throughout the season, and always seems like he can deliver a big hit when he needs to. During the nine-game winning streak in early May, Castellanos was batting an impressive .276. The newbie smacked an astonishing 16 RBI’s in April batting in the seven-spot, and had many shouting ‘prodigy’ before opening day tickets were sold out. Since, Castellanos has cooled off with the bat, showing inexperience mixed with the occasional blast. There is no doubt Castellanos can hit for power, but time and training will dictate his ability in the MLB.

Any defensive third basemen is a plus over the hefty/injured/sprained/limping Cabrera. Castellanos just showing up at the hot corner may have added an extra year to the MVP’s career. Castellanos has range with a great arm to compliment, allowing an average of ~.250 to fly for the time being. He is less than a MLB diamond away from one of the best hitters of all time. A couple lessons from the big man may serve to help Castellanos for a long time.

Plus, how could you dislike that smile?

 

The Beard: Joba Chamberlain

ERA: 2.82

IP / HLD / WHIP: 22 ⅓ / 11 / 1.25

 

Chamberlain was picked up, like so many others on the roster, as a replacement for an injured Tiger. Bruce Rondon and Tommy John met during the offseason, and Rondon needed someone to fill his shoes as the set-up man. Once a man destined to be Mariano Rivera’s successor, Chamberlain struggled in New York to find a role in his five seasons as a Yankee.

Fresh out of the Bronx, he grew a beard and was priority shipped to Detroit.

Relief pitching has been responsible for the sudden spike in stroke victims in the Detroit Metro area over the past five years. It can also be attributed to two huge losses, and therefore season-ending losses, against Boston in 2013. It has been the thorn in the Tigers’ paw for ages, if that Tiger is Dave Dombrowski. Todd Jones, Joel Zumaya and Jose Valverde are all names Detroit fans would love to forget. Chamberlain’s job is no easy one, but he seems fit to the task.  His 25 strikeouts to six walks in 2014 is a pretty ratio for his set-up role, with a 2.82 ERA being the lowest of his career.

One reason that may be overlooked is Chamberlain’s ability to utilize his curveball into his pitch types more often. From 2008-2013, Joba threw his curve for about 10 percent of his pitches. In 2014, Chamberlain has upped its use to over 18 percent. Combined with his slider and an 85 miles per hour changeup, and the relief pitcher has retooled his approach on the mound. The domination of the off-speed pitches is in part to a declining velocity on his fastball over the years. But with a 100+ fastball in Bruce Rondon, Chamberlain can master the breaks and leave the heat to his cohorts.

 

The Flip-Flop: Ian Krol

ERA: 2.45

IP / HLD / WHIP: 18 ⅓ / 9 / 1.20

 

‘April’ Ian Krol and ‘May’ Ian Krol have been two completely different pitchers. Thus being a perfect representation of Detroit’s bullpen (but we won’t revisit that). A 3.38 ERA at the end of the opening month was nothing pretty.

Krol is hard to analyze. He has not pitched more than one inning during any appearance this season. He is the technician, usually signaled for by Ausmus when they need one batter out in a close game. At that point, the reaction to his pitching is simple: did he get the job done? Depending on the month, that question is answered very differently.

The second-year man from Washington has not found anything in his arsenal to wow fans or coaches. But a 1.74 ERA in May is a starting point. Getting called in for one out with the bases loaded against the AL-leading Athletics is no easy task, but Krol was up to it, and found the out. He may be used sparingly, but has found success in his rare important roles.

 

The Closer(?): Joe Nathan

ERA: 5.23

SV / BS : 13 / 4

 

Nathan has been a solid closer throughout his entire career. 2014 may be the start of that decline. The tumultuous closer spot for Detroit was filled by Nathan this year after Valverde’s offseason release. Nathan historically has been one of the game’s best closers, but his stats in the infancy of the 2014 season have been troubling.

From 2004 to 2013 (excluding ‘11), Nathan has had at least 40 save opportunities in his 10 years as a closer. In those 10 years, he has never blown more than six games in a season. From 2011-2013, he only blew nine games. In his 17 save appearances for Detroit in 2014, he has blown four games in two months. His save percentage is 76.5 percent, the third worst in the majors.

However, it is not just bad luck. Nathan’s numbers against batters correlates to his problems. Opponents batting average and OBP in 2014 tallies in at .234 and.310, respectively, the highest of his closing career. ERA for a closer means little, except when the ERA hovers around five.

The five-time all star is approaching 40 years old, and the decisions at the plate have cost starting pitchers a win on more than one occasion. The closing position is a thankless job; do it right and nobody says a word. Do it wrong and you have the words of millions on your back. Nathan’s ability may be dwindling, but he has shown glimpses of his ability this year. The only questions remains if he can keep it for one more season.

This list exludes Robbie Ray, J.D. Martinez and Corey Knebal due to lack of extended playing time.


Richie Cozzolino is a multimedia journalist for Impact Sports.


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