2015 Preview: The Tigers’ infield has questions on the left side

Det IFPitchers and catchers report today for spring training in Lakeland as they begin the preparation for the start of the 2015 season.

How far will the Tigers go in ’15? Can they win a fifth consecutive division title? How will several kep players bounce back from injury?

This is the first in a series in which I look at the 2015 Detroit Tigers.

MIGUEL CABRERA. Well known by the moniker “the best hitter on the planet,” Miguel Cabrera has struggled through much of the last two seasons trying to play on gimpy legs and feet. Of course, a “struggle” for Miggy would be a career year for almost anyone else in baseball—so he has remained the linchpin of the Detroit lineup despite his nagging injuries and diminished mobility. If off-season surgery for bone spurs and a stress fracture has been successful (and the Tigers announced it was on Wednesday), expect Miggy’s power bat to return after last season’s total of “only” 25 home runs, the least in any of his 11 full seasons. Even though he is on the wrong side of thirty, when most ordinary players start to decline, Cabrera is far from an ordinary player. Don’t bet against a complete return to form—though it’s crucial that Victor Martinez returns from a knee injury to hit behind him, so teams don’t try to pitch around Miggy. In the field, Cabrera is not as much a liability as you might think; he can make all the routine plays around first base, his range is mediocre (not awful), and he can dig bad throws out of the dirt.

IAN KINSLER. In his first year in Detroit, Kinsler immediately became a key player in the top part of the lineup and in the field. Steady and reliable, Kinsler does nothing spectacular but is a bit above average in most aspects of the game—he has some power, steals bases from time to time, hits for a decent average, and knows how to get on base. Offensively, Kinsler has declined fairly steadily from his career year at age twenty-six, when he posted an .892 OPS; last year, he was all the way down to .727, not much about league average. Amazingly, though, during his age-thirty-one season, he had his best defensive year ever, showing great range and committing just nine errors—while playing next to a parade of mediocre shortstops. With Jose Iglesias penciled in as his new double-play partner, Kinsler might do even better in the field in 2015. He played a career-high 161 games in 2014, and the Tigers dearly hope he can repeat this feat of endurance.

JOSE IGLESIAS. Acquired for the stretch drive in 2013, Iglesias showed so much flash in the field in his few weeks with the Tigers that jaws dropped all over Comerica. When has Detroit ever seen such a shortstop? In a word: never. His return after a year off for surgical repairs is the equivalent of the club signing a top free agent. The big question is whether his injuries—stress fractures in both shins, a very worrisome condition—will have any lingering effects. If not, Iglesias is the key Tiger for 2015. His spectacular defense can be absolutely transformative for the Detroit pitching staff, leading to an incalculable number of runs saved. In today’s low-scoring environment, the value of his defense is magnified. Iglesias is very unlikely to hit .300 as he did in Boston in 2013, but anything he provides on offense will be icing on the cake. He’s in the Wizard of Oz category—he doesn’t need to hit to stay in the lineup every day. But, who knows, he just might do that, too—certainly he’ll be way more productive than Andrew Romine.

NICK CASTELLANOS. At the plate, the long-heralded prospect had a decent rookie season, with occasional flashes of power and very close to a league-average 700 OPS. In the field, by almost any measure available, he was one of the worst third basemen in the game. Castellanos should continue to improve at the plate as he settles into the lineup in the sixth or seventh spot—at least he gives the Tigers a power threat lower in the order. There is no guarantee, however, that he’s going to improve much in the field, and it’s an open question whether the Tigers can afford to keep him at third for the long term. No doubt switching him to left field for a year during the Tigers’ 2013 experiment with Cabrera at third hurt his development as a fielder. He has lots of time to learn the position; he’s still very young. But right now Castellanos looks like a DH of the future, awaiting the eventual retirement of Victor Martinez. He is, however, the only soft spot in what is otherwise one of the best infields in baseball, measured by both offensive production and defensive reliability.