The Tigers are the Team to Beat

The 2014 Detroit Tigers aren’t going to look much like the the last few Tigers teams. Despite making it to the ALCS in each of the last two years, the Tigers spent the off-season overhauling their roster, and they lost some pretty good players in their makeover. Gone are Prince Fielder, Jhonny Peralta, Omar Infante, Doug Fister, and Joaquin Benoit, a group that combined for +16.1 WAR a year ago. No team in baseball saw a larger exodus of talent over the off-season than Detroit, and it might be easy to think that the Tigers took a step back this winter.

Don’t believe it, though. According to our calculations, they very well may head into Opening Day as the favorites to Win the World Series.

The FanGraphs Playoff Odds are based on several factors, including the forecast performances from Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS and Jared Cross’ Steamer projections. You can see these hybrid forecasts for every position on our Tigers Depth Chart page , which helps explain why Detroit might not miss those big names as much as you might think.

Let’s start with Fielder. Despite being a big name and owning a big contract, he wasn’t especially valuable last year, racking up +2.2 WAR due to declines in both his strikeout rate and his ability to hit for power. Fielder is actually perhaps the easiest player for the Tigers to replace, as moving Miguel Cabrera across the diamond will improve their defense at both corner positions, and rookie Nick Castellanos is actually forecast to be nearly as good in 2014 (+1.9 WAR) as Fielder was last year. While Castellanos won’t provide the same name value, swapping out Fielder for the rookie third baseman won’t actually hurt the Tigers all that much, and moving Cabrera back to first base should increase his own value and perhaps keep him healthier.

And in the process of dumping Fielder, the Rangers actually got a better player in return, and a guy who can more than adequately fill Infante’s shoes. ZIPS/Steamer think Kinsler is in for a +3.6 WAR season, which would make him a borderline all-star and an upgrade over what the Tigers got at second base last year. While his power has been trending downwards and he will be moving out of a good place to hit, Kinsler’s overall play — he’s still a solid second baseman and an above average baserunner — make him an underrated player. The Tigers should be quite happy with Kinsler’s performance this year.

Fister, Peralta, and Benoit aren’t quite as easy to replace, but in all three instances, the Tigers have alternatives in line for 2014. Drew Smyly probably won’t be as good as Fister was a year ago, but with +1.9 projected WAR in just 121 innings — he could easily beat both marks, as the forecasts are being conservative due to his conversion back from the bullpen — he’s not going to be a drag on the rotation. Joe Nathan should be able to give the Tigers a similar back-end relief option to Benoit, and Jose Iglesias is a quality shortstop who will make pitchers like Rick Porcello better due to his defensive abilities.

The Tigers lost a lot of good players, but in every scenario, they’re replacing them with quality players as well. You can’t simply look at the departed talent and project a big decline for the team, because in several of the moves, the Tigers actually got better. Toss in a projection for a big rebound from Alex Avila and sustained excellence from the Tigers big stars, and the Tigers project as an 88 win team just based on their own players.

But that’s not the end of the forecast. Our Playoff Odds don’t just look at the team’s own rosters, but also their expected strength of schedule and their path to the postseason. Because the AL Central is home to a pair of rebuilding clubs in the Twins and White Sox and no other top tier team besides Detroit, the Tigers have the easiest projected schedule of any American League team. Getting 19 games against both Minnesota and Chicago is a big boon, and a benefit that the AL East clubs just don’t get to enjoy. When you add in strength of schedule, the Tigers 88 win forecast becomes a 90 win expectation, which is the highest of any American League club.

Finally, there’s the path to the postseason. Not only do the Twins and White Sox give the Tigers some extra wins, the fact that neither the Royals nor the Indians are high caliber contenders gives the Tigers the easiest path to October of any team in baseball. Our forecasts have the Tigers with nearly an eight win lead over Cleveland and almost 10 wins over Kansas City, double or even triple the cushion that other contenders have over their closest division rival. For instance, the Red Sox (89 projected wins) have to deal with the Rays (85 projected wins), Yankees (83 projected wins), and Blue Jays (82 projected wins), so even if they’re on par with Detroit in talent, their path to the postseason is simply more difficult.

No team in baseball is more likely to make the playoffs in 2014 than the Detroit Tigers, both because of their strong base of talent and weak crop of competition. Even with all their off-season changes, they remain a very strong contender for the World Series crown, and their path to the playoffs should make them the odds-on favorites.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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