Fielder trade could mean power shortage in Detroit

Station-to-station baseball might have been swept out of the Detroit Tigers door when Prince Fielder was broomed to the Texas Rangers this offseason, but some fans who caught balls hit over the fence the past few seasons can now expect them to settle softly in opposing outfielder gloves.

The Tigers' regulars combined for 153 of the team's 176 home runs a year ago, totals that figure to drop by 20 or more barring a change in Detroit's expected starting nine entering Spring Training.

Fielder was traded to Texas for new second baseman Ian Kinsler, but the big bat removed from Detroit's lineup was not replaced. Fielder hit 25 home runs and drove in 106 runs to rank second to two-time American League MVP Miguel Cabrera in both departments on the team.

Now the Tigers do not have another player who figures to breach 20 home runs and only Victor Martinez seems likely to join Cabrera in driving in at least 100 runs.

Cabrera reached the mid-40s in home runs two years in a row with Fielder hitting behind him, but who will pitch to him now in game-deciding situations? His total will almost surely decline.

Martinez prospered hitting behind Cabrera in 2011, driving in more than 100 runs while batting fifth to Cabrera's cleanup, but with no power threat to hit behind him, the Detroit DH may lose some RBIs in 2014 as well.

Cabrera's stomach/groin muscle injury late last season intensified Detroit's struggle to score runs with less than four hits when the ball did not go over the fence.

Trading Fielder and the remaining seven years of his contract let the Tigers shift Cabrera back to first base, where he is a defensive asset, and also let the club get rookie Nick Castellanos back from left field to his more nature position at third base.

Castellanos can hit a fastball and most scouts feel he'll eventually be a star regular but that time is not likely to be 2014. Pitchers will test him with breaking balls away and off-speed stuff until he shows he can hit a pitch that isn't in the mid- to upper-90s.

Detroit feels an improved defense led by highlight-reel shortstop Jose Iglesias, obtained from Boston in a trade-deadline deal, and better speed on the bases will offset some or all of the drop in power.

That will play itself out, but the Tigers lost to the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs because without Cabrera's mashing, it let Boston pitch outside Fielder's power zones.

There's no question Detroit will not get the same offensive production at shortstop from Iglesias it got from the departed Jhonny Peralta, who hit 11 home runs and drove in 55 runs despite a 50-game suspension.

Castellanos isn't a burner on the bases but he'll add more speed than Fielder. Iglesias is faster than Peralta and will help the pitching staff with his defense. Kinsler is supposedly a better defender than the man he replaces, Omar Infante, but he won't significantly impact Detroit's home run total and probably only drive in 20-some more runs than the 51 RBI Infante had last year.

The Tigers will have more speed on the bench, though, with Rajai Davis signed to a two-year deal as a free agent. He'll platoon in left with Andy Dirks, who admitted after the season he played with a sore knee all year.

Brad Ausmus was brought in to replace the retired Jim Leyland as manager. He has zero managerial experience outside of skippering Israel in last spring's World Baseball Classic, but Ausmus does have the veteran brain of bench coach and long-time Leyland confident Gene Lamont to help keep the rookie mistakes at a minimum.

Ausmus played against some of Detroit's roster members and has tried to meet or talk with as many as he could during the winter, but Spring Training will be his time to observe how they perform on the field.

One of the things he will be looking at is whether to keep hot-and-cold center fielder Austin Jackson as the team leadoff hitter -- he did not hit well against Boston in the playoffs until being dropped to sixth in the order -- or replace him with Kinsler, who had some success leading off for Texas.

Right fielder Torii Hunter had a big year hitting second for the Tigers, but Ausmus may decide to put his veteran bat at fifth or sixth and go with a Jackson/Kinsler combo at the top.

The Tigers traded starter Doug Fister to Washington so the club could get lefty Drew Smyly back in the rotation after a one-year stint in the bullpen. Detroit needed to trade either Fister or right-hander Rick Porcello this year to avoid the possibility of losing both at the same time to free agency -- and maybe right-hander Max Scherzer too.

The club wants to keep Scherzer but if he doesn't agree to a long-term deal by the end of Spring Training there will be no talks until after this season ends.

Detroit revamped its bullpen, signing veteran free agent right-hander Joe Nathan to close. Nathan relies more on his slider than his fastball to get hitters out now but one hidden drawback: he's got a 9.00 postseason ERA.

Right-hander Bruce Rondon failed to win the closer's job out of Spring Training a year ago, but pitched well when brought up a second time -- until a sore elbow shut him down after one September outing. If healthy, Rondon provides solid back-end depth.

Shifting Smyly back to the rotation created a hole in the bullpen that Detroit hopes gets filled by lefty Ian Krol, part of the deal with Washington for Fister. Krol finished weakly, however, and returning veteran left-hander Phil Coke had a bad 2013.

The Tigers have a lot of power arms to choose from (free agent Joba Chamberlain, returning Al Alburquerque, experienced Luke Putkonen) and by midseason a couple more might be ready for promotion from the minors.

Cabrera says he's fully healed from his offseason stomach/groin muscle surgery, an injury that also afflicted ace righty Justin Verlander during the winter. Verlander returned to throwing and is hoping to get five spring starts that will have him ready to open the season.

The Tigers have a lot of questions, but they have a lot of answers, too.

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