February 12, 2014 at 4:42 pm

Tigers spring training

What to watch: 10 big issues facing the new-look Tigers

Lakeland, Fla. ó Some believe a fanís or followerís appetite for a particular team is tied exclusively to that clubís ability to win.

Others might suggest a team is interesting if it arrives at spring camp with the potential to succeed, even if questions abound about the gangís makeup and role-players.

Weíll go with the latter in looking at the very interesting 2014 Tigers.

They have the platform to win their fourth consecutive American League Central Division title in 2014. They also have enough lineup and roster changes, replete with rookie gambles, to make 2014 a particularly gutsy game-of-chance for Tigers front-office chief Dave Dombrowski and his new manager, Brad Ausmus.

A look at 10 issues that will follow the Tigers into spring camp when it opens Friday (pitchers and catchers) in advance of Opening Day, March 31, at Comerica Park:

1. New third baseman Nick Castellanos

This could prove to be the least stressful rookie installation in recent Tigers history. Or, should a player who next month turns 22 behave like your typical rookie, third base could become, at least for a while, a spiderís web for the Tigers.

In the teamís and Castellanosí favor is the simple fact he is a talented hitter. He might not bat .300 as a rookie, but the Tigers probably would live with anything north of .250, and that is within reach for a 6-foot-4, 220-pound, right-handed batter who has been sound at every level of the minor leagues.

Defensively, it hasnít helped Castellanos is re-familiarizing himself with his old position, third base, after nearly a two-year layoff. But he has the skill set to play third, he is comfortable there, and the Tigers are likely to see a plus-player develop, month by month, during his 2014 baptism.

2. Brad Ausmus' initiation as Tigers manager

Think about it. The last time the Tigers were managed by someone other than Jim Leyland was nine years ago, when Alan Trammell was wrapping up an unfortunate (for him as much as for the Tigers) stint as Detroitís baseball skipper.

Apart from the sad-sack team he supervised during that mostly feeble time, Trammell was an on-the-job learner whose lack of experience made a daunting job even harsher.

The experience went down as something of a bad gamble and underscores how thoroughly another managerial newborn, Ausmus, impressed his boss, Dave Dombrowski, ahead of the Tigers picking Ausmus as Leylandís successor. No one knows how this will play out with respect to Ausmusí presence and influence. But he is widely considered one of the brightest young baseball minds in the game. The national consensus is Dombrowski made a shrewd call in grabbing Ausmus.

3. Who will bat fifth in the Tigers' lineup?

By all means, inform Ausmus of any empirical evidence that clears up this mystery.

The Tigers and Ausmus know Miguel Cabrera will bat third. They have implied switch-hitting maestro Victor Martinez will bat fourth as Prince Fielderís replacement.

The orderís No. 5 spot is as critical as the third and fourth slots, all because Cabrera and Martinez are expected to maintain their .800-plus OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) habits. It means the No. 5 slugger will be in lovely position to amass bushels of RBIs, providing he hits with any regularity.

Torii Hunter (16 home runs in 2013) could easily find himself at No. 5. But you get bonus points for believing Alex Avila will have a heftier OPS in 2014 and that Avila, after a hot second half in 2013, finally is ready to settle into the bases-clearing bat he should become in 2014.

4. Austin Jackson's bounce-back necessity

In the same manner as Avila, Jackson should be in for a crackerjack season. He has been an every-other-year hitter for the Tigers and, after a lukewarm 2013 that ended with him being dropped in the batting order, Jackson figures itís his time to glitter.

Age is important. He turned 27 in recent days, as did Avila, and itís 27 that begins to herald a hitterís prime. Simply, Jackson is too talented not to tame his problem-child front foot and settle into a more stable swing that enables him to slash the ball with the brand of panache Jackson earlier showed.

Remember, also, that Jackson is 20 months from becoming a potentially wealthy man. In the autumn of 2015, he greets free agency. That kind of timetable tends to incentivize any businessman ó or athlete. Jackson happens to be both.

5. Can a left-field platoon pay off for the Tigers?

The easy answer is yes. Statistics suggest as much.

Begin with the left-handed batting half of this Tigers tag team: Andy Dirks. He has almost always hit, as a minor-leaguer and as a big-leaguer. Except, of course, for last season, when his career Tigers average of .293 dipped to .256.

It never made any sense. Not, anyway, until Dirks revealed in September the knee he hurt during spring camp never really healed. It absolutely affected his swing and led to a falloff that should revert to old ways in 2014.

His platoon partner is newcomer Rajai Davis, who is a career .294 batter against left-handed pitching, which is what he is scheduled to see almost each and every start of 2014. Davis also can run, and his defense, paired with Dirksí capable style, should significantly upgrade a position that in 2013 was a deployment dead-spot.

6. Bruce Rondon's back-end bullpen role

It doesnít matter if a 23-year-old relief pitcher of Rondonís high-caliber ways pitches in the sixth, seventh, eighth, or even ninth inning. But it no doubt would make Ausmusí rookie season less stressed if Rondon could bring his 100-mph fastball to the eighth and become a burn-íem-to-bits set-up man ahead of Joe Nathanís arrival in the ninth.

Rondon remains etched in the Tigersí fantasy replay of Game 2, against the Red Sox, in last Octoberís ALCS. In the Tigersí minds, he arrives in the eighth inning as his team holds a dreamy 5-1 lead. The Tigers are six outs from putting the Red Sox into a two-game hole from which recovery is going to be miserable against a Tigers team with Detroitís starting pitching.

Rondon, though, who made ashes of the Red Sox during a one-inning incineration a month earlier, was on the bench in October with a strained flexor muscle. The shutdown reliever was himself shut down. The Red Sox rallied, split their first two games, and went on to win the ALCS and, later, a World Series the Tigers still believe could have, and should have, been theirs.

A healthy Rondon could be the most important weapon the Tigers bring to their 2014 bullpen. For now, he is 100-percent healed, and his 100-mph heater is ready to be unleashed.

7. Joba Chamberlain's quest to regain some old fire

Of all the surprising moves Dombrowski made during the past, headline-grabbing offseason, none was quite as out-of-character as signing Chamberlain to a one-year contract. At least, on the surface it seemed unusual. Chamberlainís power-pitching past definitely is in step with Dombrowski and the Tigersí ways. But he has had a choppy return from Tommy John surgery in 2011, which was pretty much confirmed by last seasonís numbers with the Yankees.

Of particular scorn were the 26 walks he allowed in 42 innings of otherwise nondescript relief work that saw Chamberlain, 28, finish the season with a 4.93 ERA.

The Tigers, though, believe Chamberlainís formerly bold strikeout numbers (better than one per inning in four of his past seven seasons) will return, as will his control, now that surgery is well in his past, and especially now that he and the Tigers have teamed on a rigorous conditioning program.

Chamberlain has dropped 20 pounds and looks like a new man. The Tigers, who believe New York wasnít the best place for man of Chamberlainís Great Plains makeup, also are banking Detroit will help him in his mission to pitch like that former first-round draft pick who, early on, had big seasons for the Yankees.

8. The starting rotation's fragility

Some might have noticed the Tigers and their good fortune in 2013. Although they had to deal with Cabreraís bad groin, and Rondonís disability, they not only had one of the best rotations in all of baseball, they had one of the healthiest. The Tigers used six starting pitchers the entire season when most teams normally are obliged to showcase as many as 10.

Their rotation is their core strength, their primary ticket to having won those three consecutive division titles. And they will need the entire crew ó Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly ó to pitch with something close to the same frequency the Tigers got from their 2013 rotation.

Verlander should be fine, even if he is healing from a sports hernia. Scherzer, Porcello and Sanchez also are obliged to be available, regularly, especially as Smyly adjusts from the bullpen and to a work load that probably canít exceed 150 innings.

If there are any problems with the above group, any prolonged trips to the DL, the Tigers will be looking at a couple of less-than-ideal replacements. Jose Alvarez, who figures to pitch at Triple-A Toledo, is not a shutdown pitcher. Robbie Ray, the main ingredient in Dombrowskiís less-than-popular trade of Doug Fister, is 22 and is projected to need sustained time at Triple A.

Is hoping for the gods to smile two consecutive years asking for too much? The Tigers will know soon enough.

9. Age hasn't yet been a Tigers hang-up, but it could emerge in 2014

There are reasons baseball players tend to retire in their mid-to-late 30s. Their bodies canít sustain big-league baseball demands. They lose speed, reaction time, precision, judgment ó all the high-gear skills baseball uniquely requires. The Tigers are betting against age marring two players who are either 39 or will have turned 39 during the season: Joe Nathan and Torii Hunter.

Neither man has shown any noticeable negative effects from working past baseballís traditional deadline. Nathan, in fact, had one of his best-ever seasons in 2013, closing for the Rangers. He turns 40 in November and his age so bothered the Tigers they signed him to a two-year, $20 million deal.

Hunter might be the one to most closely follow. He did not finish 2013 particularly well. He also plays right field on a mostly everyday basis. And yet in his favor he is in great shape and might well be one of those stars who plays into his 40s.

But the human body and baseball ultimately confront realities. In the case of Nathan and Hunter, the Tigers are praying for a further postponement.

10. What rookies might help, and how quickly?

For a minor-league system that takes as many hits as the Tigers annually absorb, they get their share of help, both on the field and on the trade mart.

Itís a good bet 2014 will be no different. Among those who could crash Comerica Park is the Tigersí best bullpen prospect, Corey Knebel, a high-90-mph, right-handed craftsman who was a closer for the University of Texas ahead of the Tigers taking him early in last Juneís draft.

Ray, a left-hander who was part of Dombrowskiís most fan-rejected trade since he sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees, also is a fair bet to pitch in 2014, particularly if the Tigers lose one of their starters to the disabled list.

Hernan Perez could return to Detroitís infield from his likely season-starting perch at Triple A Toledo. Melvin Mercedes, a Rondon lookalike, might get a call-up. Daniel Fields, also set to understudy at Toledo, might become an outfield replacement, just as catcher James McCann figures to make his Detroit debut no later than September.

It isnít a cast the Tigers can yet count on. But particularly in the case of Knebel, the Tigers will be open to help from some fast-emerging, and potentially helpful, young players.

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

Nick Castellanos' debut as the every-day third baseman will be one of the big issues of spring training for the Tigers. / Elizabeth Conley / Detroit News