The Yankees head to Detroit for a four-game series against the Detroit Tigers after coming off a three-game sweep of the Rays this weekend. I asked Rob Rogacki, managing editor of Bless You Boys, a few questions to find out a little more about the Tigers team they'll be up against for most of this week. I also answered some questions for Rob that you can check out by clicking here and heading over to Bless You Boys.
1. The Tigers have gone from a pretty poor defensive team in 2014 to looking like they could be among the strongest defensive teams in 2015 to this point. What has been the key to that turnaround?
The Tigers' roster has seen a lot of turnover in the past couple seasons, and the vast majority of those moves have focused on improving the team's defense and speed. What was once a slow, plodding roster that many dubbed a "beer league softball team" is now a more balanced unit that can beat you in multiple ways. Jose Iglesias, Ian Kinsler, Anthony Gose, and Yoenis Cespedes are all plus defenders at their respective positions, and only Kinsler was around in 2014. Cespedes and Iglesias could be two-win upgrades over their predecessors on defense alone, and the Gose/Rajai Davis platoon in center field should at least match the Davis/Austin Jackson/Ezequiel Carrera triumvirate that the Tigers had in 2014.
The defensive improvements extend beyond the new blood, though. Miguel Cabrera isn't an elite defender at first base, but he's far better than Prince Fielder and much better than people give him credit for. Nick Castellanos was the worst defensive third baseman in baseball last season, but has made a surprising leap early on in year two. Alex Avila has always been a strong defender behind the plate, but platoon mate James McCann is a big upgrade over 2014 backup Bryan Holaday. And J.D. Martinez isn't actively hurting the team in right field like Torii Hunter did in the previous two seasons. They may not be the best defensive team in baseball, but getting anywhere above league average in 2015 represents a massive improvement over the past few years.
2. Some Yankees fans are missing Shane Greene pretty terribly right now. What do you think his ceiling is as a starter after what you've seen so far?
I liked the move to acquire Greene from the start, and his first three outings have only made me more excited about what he's capable of. That said, he's not the Cy Young contender that he has looked like so far. Initial scouting reports pegged him as a back-end starter, but he looks to have the raw stuff to be a decent No. 3, especially now that he's out of the AL East.
Greene's cutter and changeup are even better than I expected, and pitching coach Jeff Jones has really emphasized those two offerings with Greene so far. He may not strike out a batter per inning like he did in 2014, but he should see an uptick in whiffs as the season wears on. It's early, but Greene's 2014 breakout appears to be legitimate.
3. The Tigers wanted to extend David Price before the season started, which hasn't happened to this point. Do you think the two sides work something out before the left-hander reaches free agency? Do you want them to pay the price of keeping him in Detroit?
From everything I have heard, the Tigers and Price do not appear to be anywhere close to negotiating an extension. The process is similar to how their negotiations with Max Scherzer went prior to the 2014 season, except without the bizarre "Welp, we tried" press release towards the end of spring training. If I had to guess, I would wager that the Tigers do not extend Price, but instead look to sign a cheaper free agent starter this offseason. The potential emergence of Greene as a mid-rotation starter certainly makes that hit easier to take, while the questions surrounding Justin Verlander make re-signing Price more of a priority.
I don't like the idea of paying any 30-year-old pitcher upwards of $200 million, but if you're going to pony up that kind of money, Price is the guy you want. He works deep into games, has a smooth delivery and no history of arm issues, and relies on plus command to get hitters out. He has been working on developing a curveball, and while he doesn't seem too comfortable with it yet, it should turn into another weapon for him when his fastball velocity inevitably declines. Price has the kind of game that should age well, and that's all you can ask for if you give out a long-term contract.
4. What do you make of the Tigers' bullpen so far this season? It has obviously been a bit of an adventure in recent memory. Do you think there's reason to believe it will be better this year?
The best thing about the bullpen is that we Tigers fans haven't seen too much of it so far in 2015. Excellent performances up and down the rotation have limited the number of innings that the pen is getting, and the few high leverage situations that have come along have almost exclusively belong to Joakim Soria. We're not accustomed to stress-free ninth innings in Detroit, but Soria has yet to allow a baserunner in a save situation this year. His performance is quickly creating a closer controversy, so it will be interesting to see what the team does when Joe Nathan returns from an elbow injury.
Overall, I have to think that the bullpen will be better than it has been in years past. Joakim Soria might be the best reliever the Tigers have had on their roster in the past 20 years, and Al Alburquerque seems to have finally conquered his walk demons (for the most part). The Tigers are finally getting some contribution from their farm system with Angel Nesbitt, who has impressed so far. Tom Gorzelanny is the best left-hander the Tigers have had in years, and Ian Krol has exceeded expectations so far as well. This is far from the best unit in the league, but even a league average pen is a huge upgrade from the past few years.
5. Which aspect of the Tigers are you most concerned about in 2015? Which aspect are you the most comfortable with?
Despite my optimistic take above, the bullpen is still a big concern. Joe Nathan looked awful during spring training, and it would not surprise me one bit if they stick him back into the closer role when he comes off the disabled list. The early returns are nice, but the Tigers' bullpen has been among the worst in baseball for years, and aside from Bruce Rondon -- who is coming off of Tommy John surgery -- there is no impact talent in the pipeline. We will see what this unit is made of when the starters stop working 7-8 innings in every game.
The starting pitching has been excellent so far, but I'm very bullish on what this offense is capable of. They possess arguably the best one-two punch in baseball in Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez is no fluke either. Yoenis Cespedes and Ian Kinsler are solid contributors, and Nick Castellanos is hitting a quiet .286/.354/.476 so far this season. Anthony Gose, Rajai Davis, and Jose Iglesias add an element of speed that this team hasn't had in several years, which puts more pressure on teams when the middle of the order comes up. It's a deep lineup with few holes, and they should put up plenty of runs in 2015.
Here's tonight's Yankees lineup. Carlos Beltran returns after battling an illness, but Alex Rodriguez takes his spot in the lineup batting third. Everything else is pretty much the same.
Tonight's lineup: Ellsbury 8 Gardner 7 ARod DH Teixeira 3 Beltran 9 McCann 2 Headley 5 Drew 4 Gregorius 6 Sabathia 1— Erik Boland (@eboland11) April 20, 2015
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