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Tigers deals bring new wheels to Detroit

The SportsXchange

DETROIT -- Station-to-station baseball was phased out in Detroit like gas-guzzling muscle cars as the Tigers revamped their team to emphasize speed and defense as a complement to their traditionally strong starting pitching.

A corollary to that is a reduction in the number of three-run home runs, the roadmap to winning retired manager Jim Leyland so fondly depended upon.

"We're going to miss the RBIs out of that left-hand bat sometimes," general manager Dave Dombrowski said at the Winter Meetings. "You're always weighing these things. And so, you become a different ball club."

Detroit will have a completely different infield look, one that should be stronger defensively. Miguel Cabrera goes back to first, where he is a defensive upgrade on the traded Prince Fielder. Fielder, who was dealt to the Texas Rangers, won't be easily replaced in the lineup. His power and protection of Cabrera in the lineup will be sorely missed.

Rookie Nick Castellanos gets first crack at third, a position he played during his early minor league time, with Ian Kinsler taking over from free agent Omar Infante at second and defensive whiz Jose Iglesias back for a full season at shortstop.

The run production from Fielder and Jhonny Peralta, gone to St. Louis as a free agent, won't be duplicated but the Tigers are a faster, more athletic team that is better defensively.

Whether Kinsler supplants the streaky Austin Jackson in the leadoff spot will be determined in spring training. It come down to how rookie manager Brad Ausmus wants to string hitters behind new cleanup man Victor Martinez.

Rajai Davis, a right-handed hitter, was brought in to platoon with left-handed Andy Dirks in left field and will also add to the speed on the bases. Switch-hitting Steve Lombardozzi, acquired from Washington as part of the deal that sent Doug Fister to the Nationals, won't hurt in the speed department and will give Ausmus some lineup flexibility as a multi-position player.

The departure of Fister opens up a rotation spot for Drew Smyly, whose spot in the bullpen will tentatively be filled by Ian Krol, another part of the Fister package. Smyly started for the Tigers two years ago but was moved to the bullpen for 2013.

"He has started in the past, we built him up pretty good," Dombrowski said. "He's not a young kid anymore, he's 24. He's not a baby, baby. Usually at 25, you're fully developed. How do you want to work those things? I don't really have a set answer on that at this point."

Signing Joe Nathan to close fills one area of need but banking on Bruce Rondon, who ended the season injured, to be a late-inning force is a risk. The Tigers have two late-inning relievers in the minors (Melvin Mercedes, Corey Knebel) who could force themselves onto the Detroit roster by mid-season.

"I think our club has a chance to win the championship. Sure," Dombrowski said. "We have a dominant closer. We have three of the best starting pitchers in baseball with a couple of other solid guys behind them. We like some other arms in our bullpen. We've got a good offensive ballclub.

"We're a little bit different, because we're a little bit more athletic than we used to be. We're going to play a little bit better defense. We may not score quite as many runs."

There is a notable lack of Major League-ready pitching in the organization but Detroit hopes one or two candidates emerge to be called upon if necessary by midseason. Among those is lefty Robbie Ray, the third player from the Fister deal who likely would begin the season pitching for Triple-A Toledo.

NOTES: LHP Ian Krol tentatively replaces LHP Drew Smyly in Detroit's bullpen after coming over from Washington in the deal that sent RHP Doug Fister to the Nationals. Smyly will become a starter. Krol throws in the mid-90s and had a 2-1 record and 3.95 ERA for Washington in 32 games his rookie season. But he allowed a run in seven of his last 11 outings with an 8.59 ERA over that time and is not a lock to make the team. ... 1B Miguel Cabrera was consulted before the Tigers made the decision to move him from third base. Cabrera said his surgically repaired core muscle "feels great" and he expects to be ready for full participation in spring training. ... 3B Nick Castellanos played the position in the minors before the Tigers signed Prince Fielder two winters ago. Castellanos said he began taking ground balls at third the day Fielder was shipped to the Texas Rangers and Detroit has assigned new first base/infield coach Omar Vizquel to tutor him beginning in January. ... 2B Ian Kinsler may lead off or he may hit down in the Tigers' batting order. Kinsler has been a proficient power producer as the top man in the Texas batting order but his power and the presence of CF Austin Jackson as a leadoff hitter may prompt Detroit to hit Kinsler beneath the power spots. Jackson's streakiness as a leadoff hitter may induce the Tigers to hit him lower in the batting order.
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