January 8, 2014 at 1:00 am

Lynn Henning

A winter of change leaves the Tigers ... still at the top

Nick Castellanos' return to third base marks one of the biggest changes as the Tigers head into 2014. (Robin Buckson / Detroit News)

Finding the equivalent of wind chills of 30 below is difficult science this month, unless you poll various Tigers fans who are Arctic-cool about Dave Dombrowski’s offseason.

First on their list of complaints was the Doug Fister trade, which did not bring the showcase players some envisioned and/or demanded.

The long-awaited upgrade in left field amounted to adding a platoon player, Rajai Davis, who is seen as a right-handed alternate to left-handed hitting Andy Dirks. Various ticket-buyers aren’t thrilled with this arrangement, especially after Dirks hit .256 in 2013.

The bullpen is no doubt better because Joe Nathan has pledged with the Tigers. But a relief corps that still could use a few good men has added Joba Chamberlain and Ian Krol, which isn’t exactly what the Comerica Park crowd had in mind when it comes to lights-out relievers.

Throw in the loss of a hefty hitter, Prince Fielder, not to mention Ian Kinsler replacing Omar Infante, and you hear a good bit of squawking and rumbling from Tigers Nation.

And yet, here was ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of the game’s better national observers, writing last week in detail about why the Tigers were the best among baseball’s 30 clubs.

“Some of the teams that employ advanced metrics,” Olney wrote, “determined at the end of the last regular season that the Tigers were the best team in the American League — by far. This, in spite of a bullpen that repeatedly went through changes at closer, and in spite of what was widely regarded as the worst defense in the majors.”

Olney’s premise was that Detroit’s starting pitching remains the deepest bedrock in baseball. He went on to say that adding Nathan, moving Miguel Cabrera to first base as Fielder’s replacement, incorporating speed and defense offered by Kinsler and Davis, and pumping up the bullpen with added bodies, could be enough to win a World Series in 2014.

Subtler qualities

Pleasant insight there for uneasy fans who in earlier years were far happier with Dombrowski’s and owner Mike Ilitch’s autumn/winter moves: The trade for Cabrera, the signing of Victor Martinez, the stunning bid for Fielder, etc.

Simply explained, any distress has to do with the crowd’s fancy for hitters. The Tigers now have fewer guaranteed big bats in their lineup. The team’s new profile has taken on deeper attention to speed and defense. And those qualities aren’t always as dramatic or as tangible as a ball hit into the right-field bleachers.

“What’s a perfect club?” Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office commander, asked whimsically a few weeks back. “And a perfect club doesn’t exist.”

He spoke of a “tradeoff where you have power and where you have speed,” and believes the Tigers have a better balance with fleet feet also boosting the defense.

But will it make for a better team? And if it does not lead to more victories, will fans now howling at a less dynamic batting order be screaming for Dombrowski’s hide?

Rookie promise

What’s missing from the debate are plus-side projections that can probably be made without giving the Tigers too much credit.

Begin with the new third baseman, who almost certainly will be rookie Nick Castellanos. Fans who want to see for themselves why the kid hitter has been so ballyhooed will refrain from drooling until they’re convinced he is the real deal.

But he is. And it would raise not one eyebrow here if Castellanos hit somewhere in the .270 range, with 30 doubles, 12 or more home runs, and 80-plus RBIs. Those numbers are good enough to win a rookie of the year trophy, which is hardware Castellanos could take home next autumn.

Move next to the always-entertaining ways of Austin Jackson and Alex Avila. Each needs to rebound. Jackson tends to hit in alternate years and should have a strong season ahead. Avila had an .865 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) during the 2013 season’s second half, which was more on the level of his 2011 All-Star season. His health is problematic, perhaps, but a man who this month turns 27 should be in for a big 2014.

The platoon partnership between Davis and Dirks looms as a net gain in left field. Which means it comes down to pitching: How healthy will be new manager Brad Ausmus’ rotation, how effectively will Drew Smyly replace Fister, and, of course, will the bullpen hold up, even with Nathan and the return of a healthy Bruce Rondon?

For the record, I still don’t understand the Chamberlain signing. It was a puzzler in terms of his performance track record and his interesting personal makeup.

But I did believe at the end of last season the Tigers needed to get faster and better with the leather. Which is why, with the rotation they feature and the healthy bodies returning, Olney’s assessment could be dead-accurate.


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