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Pressing Questions: The Detroit Tigers

Upgrading the defense (USAT)

Jim Leyland finally called it quits, giving up the Detroit ghost in late October. Owner Mike Ilitch is going to take a few more shots.

Ilitch, 85, has made a ton of pizza and a ton of dough through the years. And he's lifted the Stanley Cup a few times, too. But the one thing the Motown sports czar desperately wants is a World Series title, and he's running out of chances. Last call on the baseball legacy.

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Ilitch bought the Tigers in 1992 and promptly watched 12 losing seasons in 13 years, including some comically-bad teams. The worm eventually turned in the mid-2000s. Detroit's made the playoffs four times in eight years, winning six playoff series along the way. The Tigers reached the World Series twice in that run, losing to the Cardinals in 2006 and the Giants two years ago.

Detroit probably should have made a World Series appearance last year, cruising in the first game of the ALCS at Boston and holding a near hammerlock on Game 2. Alas, Leyland and his band of right-handed relievers couldn't negotiate the eighth inning on that Sunday night, culminating in a David Ortiz grand slam and an improbable Red Sox comeback. (Why is Phil Coke even on the roster if . . . ahh, skip it.)

Maybe Pittsburgh's crushing 1992 loss in the NLCS was more painful for Leyland, but last year's collapse had to be close. Another Up in Smoke Tour.

Leyland's retirement was merely Stage 1 of Detroit's winter reinvention. The Tigers and Rangers served up a delicious late November deal, with Prince Fielder heading west and Ian Kinsler east. The swap enables Miguel Cabrera to play first base, and surely improves the defensive situation at third (even if they simply lay out some parking cones).

New manager Brad Ausmus inherits a loaded roster. Big names on offense? Check. A loaded starting rotation? Check. Even the bullpen received an off-season makeover, with a new closer coming to town. Put on your English D and let's figure this all out.

Q: Ian Kinsler in Comerica Park? How does this end well?

A: Everyone understands Kinsler will miss the friendly confines of Arlington, that's not for debate. His career slash is .304/.387/.511 at home, .242/.312/.399 on the road. The summer of keg tappers are a thing of the past, and for that we shed a (fake) tear.

That established, Comerica Park's personality has been misunderstood for a while. Consider the ballpark indices from the past three years (courtesy of the Bill James Handbook). The Black Math might surprise you:

-- Runs: +9 percent

-- Average: +5 percent

-- Home Runs: +2 percent

I'm presenting the note tied to Kinsler, but it obviously applies to all the Detroiters. There's a myth about Comerica Park being some graveyard for offense, and that's simply not true. The organization made a mistake in the early days of Comerica, setting up a ballpark with ridiculous pitching-friendly dimensions, but the changes made a decade ago accomplished their objectives. Hitters don't go berzerk here, but they're doing better than average.

Back to Kinsler, I'm not bullish on him for other reasons - his age, his injury history, his diminished skills on the bases. But the park is unlikely to submarine him.

Q: What's with the Doug Fister giveaway? Make me understand.

A: Don't shoot me, I'm only the Pianow. I don't get it, either.

Detroit apparently decided it would be a good thing to get Fister's contract off the books, no matter that he's in a reasonable pay bracket. In December the Tigers shipped Fister to Washington for three ordinary players (two unremarkable pitching prospects, plus utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi), and two months later Fister signed a one-year deal for $7.2 million (avoiding arbitration, where he would have earned something in the same neighborhood). Fister was never going to be the ace of Detroit's loaded staff, but he was a terrific support option.

Fister's probably going to be a super fake-baseball play in the NL, especially the cushy NL East. He's currently No. 33 on Yahoo's pitching board. It's a shame he didn't get a chance to work a full season in front of Detroit's new infield defense, where Jose Iglesias gobbles up everything at shortstop and third base isn't a toxic area.

Okay, this Fister talk is better suited to the Washington PQ, I hear you. But let's take the same pro-Fister theme and transition it to a pitcher who's still in The D.

Q: Is Rick Porcello ready for a breakthrough season?

A: The timing looks right for Porcello as we get ready for 2014. It feels like he's been around forever, but he's still just 25. There were sneaky signs of growth last year, if you look at the right areas.

Last year's 4.32 ERA tells a misleading story. Porcello was awful during his four April starts (8.84/1.71) but rallied nicely after that. Check the clipboard from May forward: 12-6 record, 134 strikeouts over 157.2 innings, 3.77 ERA, 1.23 WHIP.

Okay, maybe those post-May stats don't move the needle for you, but remember we're talking about a 25-year-old pitcher with a pedigree (first round pick in 2007). Porcello's strikeout rate jumped significantly last year (from 5.46/9 to 7.22/9) and he even trimmed his outstanding walk rate at the same time (2.14/9). Porcello is a ground-ball pitcher working in front of an improved infield defense, coming off a year of progress. Sounds like a perfect target for the later rounds of your mixed-league draft, or as a cheap stash-and-hope play. (Heck, he's only 17 percent owned in early Yahoo leagues to this point. Minimal risk here, amigos.)

Q: How about an offensive player to target?

A: If Austin Jackson isn't on a few of my teams by the time April rolls around, something's gone awry. Here's another case of the dots lining up well.

Jackson's already shown plenty of skills during his four-year MLB career. He's topped 100 runs on two different occasions. He's hit as many as 16 homers in a season, stolen as many as 27 bases, batted as high as .300. Mind you, I'm jumping around (mmm, cherries) to present those stats and he hasn't put everything together in the same season, but entering the Age-27 campaign, it's a good time to buy in.

Jackson's coming off a disappointing 2013 season; a hamstring problem limited him to eight steals (five in April, before the physical problems) and his swing was a mess in the playoffs (18 strikeouts in 11 games). Yahoo Nation isn't going after Jackson in early drafts; his current ADP is a modest 131.5, 37th among outfield eligibles.

Ausmus is a managerial unknown, but it's unlikely he'll eschew the running game to the extreme Leyland did. Jackson isn't going to lead the league in steals, but he could easily triple last year's total. A fresh and healthy start should do him a world of good. There's major profit potential here. Bet on a recovery.

Q: Trout or Miggy at No. 1?

A: Ah, cut it out, hoser. You should be auctioning. These silly drafts.

I currently have Trout at 1 and Cabrera at 2 on the Yahoo Big Board (we all do, actually), but my pick isn't carved in stone. Cabrera's ridiculous floor is a wonderful thing to acquire on draft day.

If you mix-and-match columns over the last five years and take the worst of Cabrera's stats, you still land on .324-96-30-103. Absurd. He's only missed 42 games during six Detroit seasons. Life's been good to Miggy so far. I won't scrap with the Trout believers, but I won't try to talk anyone out of Cabrera, either. There no wrong answer here.

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