February 1, 2014 at 7:05 pm

Lynn Henning

This Tigers team sealed serious cracks that left last season's playoff run in crumbles

Shortstop Jose Iglesias, acquired late last season, provides the speed and defense in the middle of the infield lacking in the past. (Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News)

In eight days, a left turn will be made from Lakeland Hills Boulevard onto a forked driveway that runs past Marchant Stadium and ends in a parking lot facing north at the Tigers clubhouse. Tigertown’s palm trees and green grass will appear. Winter will have surrendered to Florida’s blessed ways. Spring training 2014 will officially have arrived at Lakeland.

There are questions about this particular Tigers team’s construction and potential. Always, there are questions. But this year’s mysteries are less threatening than if the Tigers had maintained their 2013 profile.

Will a rookie third baseman, Nick Castellanos, hit and field with enough aplomb to become the plus player a lineup requires? How might Drew Smyly fare as he moves from the bullpen to new manager Brad Ausmus’ starting rotation? Will two up-the-middle players who had a mixed year in 2013, Austin Jackson and Alex Avila, hit with persistent punch from April into October?

Can a young bullpen fire-thrower, Bruce Rondon, grow into the back-end blowtorch his team often lacked in 2013, a personnel meltdown that cost the Tigers Game 2 of the American League Championship Series when they were six outs from all but eviscerating the eventual world champion Red Sox?

Can the Tigers turn their left-field platoon plans into a net gain, offensively and defensively? Will they get sufficient energy from two men, Torii Hunter and Joe Nathan, who at different stages of the season will be 39 years old?

Finally, will they sidestep injuries that can sabotage a schedule, or a probable World Series triumph, the latter of which happened when Rondon and Miguel Cabrera were either lost or crippled ahead of the cruel ALCS death march against Boston?

Their chances are surprisingly good. Even with all their unsettled issues, the Tigers are strong and, because of their starting pitching, they’re a decent bet to win another American League Central Division flag.

Reasons for optimism

Here’s why one guy thinks they could be better in 2014.

No longer must they contend with Prince Fielder.

It’s a cruel indictment of a hefty left-handed hitter who drove in more than 100 runs in each of the past two seasons and who no doubt will get a truckload of big hits this year for the Rangers.

But as 2013 wore on, the Tigers more and more resembled a team that was bogging down in ways they could not sustain if they hoped to win again in 2014.

They were god-awful on the basepaths. And they allowed too many batted balls to either slither through their overly broad infield corridors, or fall onto Comerica Park’s tri-county-sized outfield turf.

They had minimal speed. They had too little defensive range. And at the heart of each void was a man named Fielder who had trouble with both skills, and whose nearly lifetime contract made it impossible for the Tigers to necessarily reconfigure their infield and, to some extent, their batting order.

How many people who watched the Tigers in 2013 came to realize an unsettling reality as the games and a multitude of dead-on-arrival scoring situations arose?

Cabrera, Fielder, or Victor Martinez would be standing at second base. So often, it would require two hits, or some combination of two advancements, to score one-third of a lineup’s baserunners.

The slow-footed script thickened when Brayan Pena was catching or when Matt Tuiasosopo was plugged into left field. In each of those cases, a team’s defense was further stressed.

No glove, no speed

A lot of baseball games were lost because of those two issues: inadequate speed and low-grade defense.

I can hear the counter argument: Fielder’s bat was worth a bundle to the Tigers in 2012 and ’13. Now he is gone and the better-running, better-defending Tigers still need to score runs that could come in a hurry when Fielder was lining pitches into the seats or up the gaps.

Absolutely true.

Baseball, though, is a three-legged stool of a game that gets its equilibrium from pitching, defense, and hitting. The Tigers had the pitching figured out (starters, anyway). Often, they hit with enough thunder to allow that day’s starter to all but nail down one of their 93 regular-season victories.

But even more than some bullpen gaffes, it was their bad ways on the basepaths and tracking down batted balls that kept a 2013 Tigers team from winning 100 games and finishing off a world championship that, Cabrera’s and Rondon’s plight notwithstanding, might still have gone their way had they been a tad better at creating and preventing runs.

This will be far from a perfect team, the 2014 Tigers cast. But given the imperfections all contenders display in a game as unbending as baseball, it was wise to have crafted more balance onto Detroit’s roster as the 2014 group packs for Lakeland.

I thought they were changes a team had to make. We’ll learn during a dress rehearsal in Florida and, more revealingly, during a six-month push for the playoffs, if one team’s makeover makes an ultimate difference in their World Series mission.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
twitter.com @Lynn_Henning