February 10, 2014 at 1:15 pm

Kurt Mensching

This year's Tigers are fundamentally different

Brad Ausmus will have one of baseball's best lineups in his first year as Tigers manager. (David Coates / Detroit News)

The Tigers certainly are different. That’s the one statement we can make with confidence as the team prepares to open camp in Lakeland at the end of this week.

Different good? Maybe. Different bad? Maybe.

Different? Yes.

When last we saw them, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to say the team had a bit of a softball feel to it. All sluggers and starting pitchers.

Some would argue that isn’t the best way to put together a team. You can’t sit around waiting for the three-run home run, they’d point out. You’ve got to be able to execute some of the fundamentals, to run the bases, to make a few plays in the field.

The Tigers lacked in those fundamentals, a fact that drove many fans mad and caused others to constantly call for the firing of then-manager Jim Leyland. But those were the charges he was given.

It would be hard to call that roster a failure. The core won three American League Central titles in a row, played in three consecutive AL Championship Series and even made a World Series appearance. They scored the second-most runs per game in baseball in 2013 and allowed the second-fewest runs per game in the AL.

Without a World Series title, that wasn’t enough.

So Tigers president and general manager Dave Dombrowski didn’t exactly blow it up. But when the team takes the field this spring, it’s certainly different.

Different good? Different bad? Remains to be seen. But you’ve got to hand it to Dombrowski: He didn’t sit on his hands when he had a roster good enough to make another deep playoff run. And the changes weren’t of the incremental variety.

Room to maneuver

Gone are Prince Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, statuesque sluggers. Now the Opening Day infield projects to have a different player at every position than in 2013.

Miguel Cabrera has moved across the field to first, where he belongs, Ian Kinsler as arrived from Texas to play second, and the left side of the infield consists of the historically light-hitting-yet-immaculate-fielding Jose Iglesias at shortstop and complete unknown Nick Castellanos at third.

Speedy Rajai Davis has been added to the mix in the outfield to give the Tigers an additional thread on the bases.

First-year manager Brad Ausmus has a lineup that may not slug, but should certainly be able to do everything else.

He has a rotation that still projects to be among the top in the game, and a bullpen that at least has potential.

It all sounds pretty good. On paper, it’s actually pretty great if you like a flexible roster, but pretty scary to people who wonder where the runs are going to come from.

Clay Davenport of Baseball Prospectus fame projects the Tigers will go 90-72, scoring 710 runs while allowing 633. That would give Detroit another division title and also the second-best record in the AL. The team is also projected to have the best chance of making the playoffs in the AL, at a bit better than 65 percent.

Fangraphs.com, too, likes the Tigers’ chances. Its system places the Tigers in a tie for the best record in the AL, this time with the Red Sox.

No one hangs a banner for the computers liking them the most in February, but it’s a positive sign for a team that has gone through so many changes in the past few months.

Still have to play the games

It’s OK to take a “show me” attitude, but should the Tigers again be spraying bubbly in September, you probably shouldn’t be too surprised.

But will the changes be enough to find that elusive success in October, with starting pitcher Doug Fister traded to the Nationals and Drew Smyly being asked to pitch more innings than he has in his life?

Can the Tigers find a bullpen that gets the game safely from the middle innings to steadfast closer Joe Nathan?

Different good? Different bad?

We’ll see.

Kurt Mensching is the editor of Bless You Boys, a Tigers blog (www.blessyouboys.com). He can be reached at bybtigers@gmail.com

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