Mensching: Tigers defense really will be better

Kurt Mensching
Special to The Detroit News

We've been through all of this before, at this same time a year ago. You could be forgiven if you don't quite believe it this year, either. The Tigers actually will be able to field the ball when it is put into play. Really.

The problem with last year is that nobody could foresee the Tigers losing their shortstop before Grapefruit League play even had a chance to begin in earnest. The turnaround was predicated on the fact Jose Iglesias was among the finest defensive shortstops of his generation, despite the fact he had just a year of major league experience to his name entering 2014.

Iglesias is the kind of player you stop and marvel at. He's got instincts. He's got smarts. He's got athletic ability far beyond that bestowed to other ballplayers, let alone mere mortals. On top of it all, he's got style. Iglesias is the player you watch taking fielding practice — or for that matter, watch playing catch — just for the aesthetics he brings to the game.

Yet early in spring training, just that happened. Iglesias was diagnosed with stress fractures in both shins, and he was lost for the year.

Detroit cobbled together a combination that included Andrew Romine, Eugenio Suarez, Danny Worth and Alex Gonzalez receiving most of the innings for the year. But while Iglesias saved seven runs in 784 innings playing shortstop in his career, per Baseball Information Solutions' Defensive Runs Saved stat, the Tigers managed to be 10 runs worse than average across more than 1,450 innings at shortstop in 2014. At just those rates, that's a difference of nearly 25 runs. And those runs translate to higher ERAs for pitchers and higher figures in the loss column.

Iglesias is back, and if he is in fact healthy he's going to anchor the infield well and take pressure off third baseman Nick Castellanos.

Torii-ble in outfield

Then we have the question of Torii Hunter. Sure, few could have expected him to look like the Gold-Glove-caliber outfielder he was years earlier with the Angels or Twins. But who would have thought he'd go from saving 15 runs in 2012 with the Angels to being 18 runs worse than average in 2014 with the Tigers? Relatively speaking that made him one of the worst position players in the field anywhere in the game.

When it goes, it goes, and for Hunter it certainly went.

J.D. Martinez hasn't played a lot of right field in his career, but it's not hard to imagine he'll be a good sight better there than Hunter was even if he rates below average.

Meanwhile outfielder Yoenis Cespedes will hold down the other corner. By defensive runs saved, he's been 17 runs better than an average left fielder during the 2,360 innings he's played there in his career.

And then we have the upgrade in center field. It seems weird to think about Austin Jackson as he was in 2014 rather than the image of a player we'd formed in our heads years prior thanks to his propensity for highlight-reel plays. It's not that he turned into a bad center fielder, but he was no longer the player who'd won a Fielding Bible award for his play in 2011. By DRS, Jackson was four runs worse than average before he was traded from the Tigers to the Mariners last year at the trade deadline.

Anthony Gose, who figures to get a fair amount of playing time in center field for the Tigers in 2015, has been above average in center field so far in his career and will soon put together his own highlight reel, complete with corny catchphrase.

All that remains to be seen is what kind of growth Castellanos can demonstrate at third base. With Iglesias next to him and a year of experience under his belt, a -27 DRS could be a thing of the past. But if it's not, the Tigers might not find it hard to make an upgrade at the position.

Far from the strength defense had the potential to be in 2014, the Tigers were way below average in the field — 64 runs worse.

A handful of players may not turn that ship around entirely. But a huge weakness of the past year has been fixed entering the new season. And it didn't take a major overhaul to do it.

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