DETROIT -- The Tigers have no shortage of questions entering 2014. After all, no matter what else happens this offseason, Detroit looks like a team in transition after trading All-Star slugger Prince Fielder and rotation stalwart Doug Fister and replacing the retired Jim Leyland with first-time manager Brad Ausmus.
For all the questions, however, the real quandary comes down to one root issue: After all the moves, are the Tigers a better team now than last season, when they fell to the Red Sox in a closely played American League Championship Series.
With a newfound emphasis on defense, especially in the infield, and a major infusion of speed with free-agent signing Rajai Davis, there's an argument to be made that these Tigers are better prepared to win in the postseason. For all the impressive numbers Detroit's offense posted in 2013, it still suffered a dozen regular-season shutouts, two more in the postseason, and seven 1-0 losses in total. By all appearances, there's more potential for manufacturing offense with this team than the last one.
The question before the Tigers can worry again about the postseason is whether the task has become tougher to get back to the playoffs. Over a 162-game schedule, the gap between Detroit and the rest of the AL Central might well be smaller.
Mathematically, Detroit didn't feel comfortable with its third consecutive division crown until late this past season, even after opening an eight-game lead in August. In the end, the gap with second-place Cleveland fell to a single game, thanks in no small part to the Marlins sweeping the Tigers in Miami to end the regular season and the Indians going on a late charge.
Cleveland lost some talent as well, but also retooled. So did third-place Kansas City, which bolstered its rotation before adding former Tiger Omar Infante to fill its long-running void at second base.
For all the talent on the Tigers' roster, there was always an expectation that they would run away with the division at some point in 2013. It was a close race for much of the year until the Tigers swept four games in Cleveland in August, but it was never as vast as some expected. That expectation arguably shouldn't be as big in 2014.
Here's a look at some of the Tigers' most important issues heading into the campaign:
1. Is Ausmus ready to manage a World Series contender?
Out of the handful of teams that changed managers at season's end, the Tigers offered the best contending team, and as such had the best choice of candidates. Ausmus wasn't hired for a long-term project; the urgency to win is virtually as strong for him as it was for Leyland. With no managerial experience at any level, however, Ausmus is still a relative unknown. He has talked about goals and style, but there's no history to demonstrate it. No matter the expectations and impressions, this is still an untested hire, and it might go down as the biggest gamble of a hire in team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski's career.
2. Will the Tigers re-sign Max Scherzer?
Dombrowski has said he wants to keep Scherzer in a Tigers uniform, and Scherzer has said he wants to stay in Detroit. In between those common sentiments, however, are two major factors: Scherzer is just a year away from becoming potentially the headline free agent on next winter's market, and agent Scott Boras has a history of preferring clients test free agency before entertaining contract extensions. Though Scherzer has put everything together to realize his potential for a mere season and a half, the results from that stretch demand a good amount of attention. Expect the issue to follow the Tigers through Spring Training, unless and until a deal is reached or one of the two sides makes a statement. The chances of an early deal seem long, but the Tigers are used to defying expectations on contracts. If it doesn't happen in Spring Training, however, history suggests it won't happen.
3. Who will protect Miguel Cabrera in the lineup now that Fielder has been traded?
Most likely, Victor Martinez will reprise his 2011 role as Cabrera's protection in the lineup. It won't be enough to keep opponents from walking Cabrera with regularity -- not even Fielder could do that -- but Martinez's .394 average and 87 RBIs with runners in scoring position in 2011 suggest he's capable, though his .264 average in those situations this past season didn't reinforce it. Unless one of Detroit's youngsters enjoys a breakout season, or Torii Hunter goes back to a middle-of-the-order role, Martinez is the best option.
4. Is Nick Castellanos ready to play every day in the Majors?
Offensively, the Tigers' top prospect enjoyed a good but not great 2013 season at Triple-A Toledo with a .276 average, 37 doubles, 18 doubles, 76 RBIs and a .793 OPS. Buried within those numbers, however, were two big adjustment periods. Castellanos recovered from a .259 average in April to put up back-to-back good months, then rebounded again from a rough July to enjoy a solid stretch run. There's a decent chance he'll struggle out of Opening Day, but also a good chance he'll learn from it, which is what the Tigers want to see whenever the struggles arrive. If he can do that, he'll be better for it by the stretch run. Defensively, Castellanos has to adjust back to third base after a year and a half in the outfield, but he should eventually settle in.
5. Is Bruce Rondon ready this time around for a major role in the bullpen?
The fact that Detroit's big middle reliever signing was Joba Chamberlain, attempting to rebound from a tough close to his Yankees tenure, says plenty about the Tigers' faith in Rondon as their setup man. Of course, they had similar belief in Rondon as a closer last winter, leaving them to improvise once command struggles in Spring Training scuttled Rondon's timetable. The Tigers saw what Rondon can do to big league hitters in overpowering performances in August and September. The challenge for Rondon is to put those types of outings together for an extended stretch.
6. Can Ian Krol and Phil Coke handle the left-handed sluggers in the American League Central?
Drew Smyly steadily progressed in 2013 from sixth starter and long reliever on Opening Day to a primary lefty reliever by the home stretch. With Fister in Washington, however, Smyly is back in a starting role, and Coke -- whose season-long struggles created the opportunity for Smyly in the first place -- has an opportunity to regain his old job under a new manager. He'll need both his health and his breaking ball to do so. Similarly, the Tigers hope Krol can take his encouraging stretches in Washington's bullpen and put together a strong full season. If he does, the Fister trade to Washington takes on a somewhat different look.
7. Which is the real Andy Dirks, 2013 or 2012?
Dombrowski said at the Winter Meetings that Dirks battled knee issues for most of the 2013 season, the product of a Spring Training collision with the left-field fence. He's healthy now, but unlike 2011 and '12, he won't have winter ball as a momentum builder for him to enter Spring Training with his timing at the plate already set. While Dirks' walk ratio was as good or better than his previous seasons, his strikeout rate jumped and his slugging percentage plummeted. Realistically, Dirks should fall somewhere in between the year-to-year numbers. With Davis on board to start in left field against left-handers and potentially take time against righties if and when he finds his hot streaks at the plate, Dirks will be pressed to produce in what Ausmus warns will not necessarily be a simple lefty-righty platoon.
8. How good of a starter can Smyly become?
With Smyly having to fill Fister's shoes, it's easy to forget that the lefty had his stretches of stinginess in Detroit's rotation in 2012 before the Anibal Sanchez trade took away his starting job. Even in short relief stints, Smyly never totally got away from the mix of fastball, cutter and breaking ball that made him so effective as a starter, so he won't have to dust off old pitches. The key will be to pace himself and mix his approach to hitters the second and third times through the opposing lineup. He won't be mentioned alongside the trio of Verlander, Scherzer and Sanchez, but Smyly has the potential to become a very good middle-of-the-rotation starter.
9. Is Robbie Ray as good of a prospect as the Tigers seem to believe?
Though Krol and Steve Lombardozzi have the chance to make immediate contributions in Detroit, Ray's success will almost surely be the key on which the Fister trade will be judged. The 22-year-old had outstanding numbers between high Class A and Double-A ball in 2013, going 11-5 with a 3.36 ERA and 160 strikeouts over 142 innings. Before that, however, he had followed up a nice 2011 stint with a miserable 2012 in A-ball. The Tigers talked about other prospects in the Nationals' system, but they saw recent upside in Ray, who will make the jump to Triple-A Toledo after just 11 Double-A starts last year. He's on a fast track, for better or worse, one that could have him take a rotation spot in 2015 if the Tigers can't re-sign Scherzer.
10. Can Austin Jackson rebound once again?
At least Jackson has done it before. In even-numbered seasons, he has been an offensive catalyst, including an AL Rookie of the Year candidacy in 2010 and a borderline All-Star case in 2012. The odd-numbered seasons afterwards have seen batting averages plummet, on-base percentages drop and deep slumps leave Jackson and team officials searching for answers. He'll have a new hitting coach in Wally Joyner, whose positive reinforcement and philosophies as an assistant hitting coach in Philadelphia reportedly worked wonders with young Domonic Brown. With free agency looming after the 2015 season, Jackson has plenty to gain from another bounceback campaign.