Henning: Tigers relying more on bats, less on rotation

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Starting pitching was the trademark and tool by which the Tigers won their past four division championships. It was the drive-train for a near-decade of playoff contention designed by a man, Dave Dombrowski, who believes starting pitching is to a big-league team what a 6-cylinder engine has been to Detroit's manufacturing history.

Now, after Rick Porcello was traded Thursday to the Boston Red Sox, and with Max Scherzer's seeming move to a mammoth free-agent contract elsewhere, the Tigers will lean less on their rotation in 2015 and more on balance, with new outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who was part of Thursday's Porcello trade, the new man in manager Brad Ausmus' lineup.

The Tigers made back-to-back deals on the final morning of the 2014 Winter Meetings when they shipped Porcello to the Red Sox in a swap that brought Cespedes, 29, to Detroit as a new Tigers corner outfielder.

The Tigers later replaced Porcello's rotation hole by getting Reds right-hander Alfredo Simon in an exchange that sent shortstop Eugenio Suarez and pitching prospect Jonathon Crawford to Cincinnati.

Should the Tigers lose Scherzer, as will likely happen if he and agent Scott Boras adhere to their $200-million demand, the Tigers have protected themselves for 2015 with a new five-man rotation: David Price, Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, Simon, and last week's trade acquisition, Shane Greene, whom Detroit got from the Yankees.

It does not mean Scherzer has been abandoned by Detroit. But with his price tag remaining high — perhaps prohibitively high even for beneficent Tigers owner Mike Ilitch — the Tigers moved in the past week to at least put together a mathematically defensible rotation for 2015.

The question is how much capital they will have forfeited. The replacement parts for Scherzer-Porcello had these numbers in 2014:

Greene: 5-4 record, 3.78 ERA in 15 games, 14 starts.

Simon: 15-10, 3.44 ERA, 32 games, 32 starts.

Not exactly a match for Scherzer-Porcello, but, Dombrowski, the Tigers' front-office chief, is betting that capable starters in Greene and Simon can give Detroit appreciable starting pitching at the same time he is gaining perhaps a significant edge in Cespedes, who becomes the corner-outfield replacement for Torii Hunter.

Cespedes was in the same situation as Porcello as the Tigers and Red Sox hashed out Thursday's deal. Cespedes is headed for free agency next autumn. So is Porcello. The combination of a heavy payroll boost, necessary for keeping Porcello in Detroit past 2015, coupled with a powerful outfield prospect, Steven Moya, who is slated to be ready for daily work in right field in 2016, was motivation for Thursday's swap.

The Tigers got potential surplus help from the Red Sox in right-handed reliever, Alex Wilson, and 19-year-old left-hander Gabe Speier.

Cespedes will likely play left field for the Tigers, Ausmus said in a Thursday text. He has speed, a powerful arm, and would figure on most days to be a hefty defensive upgrade over J.D. Martinez, and even Rajai Davis, either of whom would likely move to right field in the majority of Ausmus' designs.

Cespedes hit 22 homers for the A's and Red Sox in 2014 and batted in 100 runs, all while putting together a .260 batting average and .751 OPS.

He can be erratic; he probably takes more walks in the park than he takes walks in a game (35 in 2014, part of a .301 OBP), but he has the ability with his power and speed to break up a game. And given the falloff, defensively, Hunter experienced on defense in 2014, Cespedes has the capacity to be a heavy two-way gain for the Tigers in 2015.

That's the tradeoff, in a nutshell. The Tigers no longer frighten you with their starting arsenal as was the case during the height of the Scherzer-Verlander days when Detroit's rotation carried it alongside the bats of Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez.

Now, though, the Tigers are willing to bet that a little less pitching and a tad more offense, as well as defense in the outfield, will combine with a yet-to-be-polished bullpen in Dombrowski's and Ilitch's bid to craft another contender in 2015.