February 27, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Lynn Henning

Tigers have better speed and defense, but will they go farther in playoffs?

Lakeland, Fla. -- Dave Dombrowski was striding toward his office, in that glass-enclosed, second-floor loft above the Tigers clubhouse at Marchant Stadium, when he was asked Thursday about the team he had retooled for 2014.

The Tigers have been in spring camp for two weeks. They have played all of two Grapefruit League games, winning both. It constitutes a small sampling, and yet anyone can see the blueprint for a faster, more broadly skilled big league team is taking shape on Florida’s practice fields and diamonds.

“I don’t want to ever get carried away with two games,” said Dombrowski, the Tigers front-office chief who never met a question he couldn’t soften. “I figured we’d be more athletic. I figured we’d see some more dimension with the speed.

“It’ll be fun to watch.”

The question is whether a better Tigers team — emphasis on team — necessarily will translate into the brand of division and playoff success Dombrowski’s clubs regularly have displayed.

The Tigers have been to three consecutive American League Championship Series. They got to the World Series in 2012 and very well might have won the 2013 championship had Miguel Cabrera not been all but crippled.

You could make a case Dombrowski should have left well enough alone. He could have girded his one weak spot, the bullpen, while pretty much leaving the rest of the construct in place.

But he did no such thing. He got rid of Prince Fielder and Fielder’s gargantuan contract. He traded a starting pitcher, Doug Fister. He pink-slipped a couple of relievers.

Off the risky road

Anyone who knows baseball understands the Tigers were living perilously. They were attempting to pitch and slug their way to a World Series triumph. It can be done, but it is a risky road, especially at playoff time, when teams also wielding good pitching have beaten the Tigers with generally more balanced clubs that feature more speed and better defense.

Adding fleet players, stronger defenders, as well as youth, all at more affordable prices for a team with a whopping $160 million payroll, were Dombrowski’s strategies during a combustible, controversial offseason for the Tigers.

The net effect appears — emphasis on appears — to have delivered a cast built to avoid bad matchups against teams that play more technically skilled baseball.

By no means is this a guarantee the Tigers are better equipped to win a fourth consecutive Central Division title. And even if they hold off the Indians, Royals, etc., they could stumble in the postseason. They have won all four of the scary five-game division series in which they have played since 2006, and someday that string will end.

But the evidence is on display. This is a different Tigers club. They stole four bases in Wednesday’s Grapefruit League opener against the Braves and ran from station to station in a fashion no Detroit team has been able to scoot since even the glory days of Sparky Anderson.

They scored five times in Thursday’s victory over the Braves, getting 13 hits, but only two for extra bases, both doubles. The Tigers, perhaps tellingly, have not hit a home run their first two games.

Other than some fluky plays Wednesday, they also have played crisp defense, particularly in the infield, where last season the Tigers were even worse than their bottom-scraping numbers implied.

Showing balance

Some will want to attribute this more versatile Tigers team to the new skipper, Brad Ausmus, and to his emphasis on “fundamentals.” Fans love fundamentals even when they’re fundamentally no different from what other teams are emphasizing during spring camp.

They will posit that Ausmus is more focused on running, and taking extra bases, and voila, this is why the Tigers needed a new manager.

In fact, they will have a point in the sense that baserunning has been an absolute Ausmus priority during his two weeks running spring camp. But he would be the first to say he has a different bunch than Jim Leyland ever greeted in Lakeland. He has Rajai Davis and Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias. No longer do the Tigers have Fielder hamstringing their infield options and suffocating the basepaths with yet another power-swinging plodder.

“I think previous rosters had a little more long-ball capacity,” Ausmus said Thursday after the Tigers won 5-2 with seven pitchers holding the Braves to four hits. “I love extra-base hits and homers as much as anyone. But this lineup is different, with a bit more balance, and you adjust to that.”

Adjusting to faster runners and better fielders will take the Tigers into October only if their basic skill, pitching, remains healthy and effective. That’s another issue waiting to play out during a season that reminds us each year how difficult, how very difficult, it is to win in this deliciously confounding game, baseball.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com
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Jordan Lennerton slides safely into third on a flyout by James McCann in the fifth inning Thursday. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News