By: Jamie Samuelsen
We already know the x-factors for the Tigers – Nick Castellanos, Ian Kinsler and Drew Smyly. If those guys come through, the Tigers will be in very good shape.
And we're well aware of the knowns – Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez will all put up very good numbers. That's the luxury of having a payroll of about 158 million.
But what about the under the radar guys?
These are the four guys who aren't getting a lot of press this spring who might hold the key to the entire Tigers season. And why did I pick four? Why not! Everyone does lists of three. This list goes to four!
1) Bruce Rondon – A year ago, Rondon was on the top of every Tiger list of x-factor guys. Then again, a year ago, Rondon had been handed the closer's job on a team that was primed for a World Series run. Rondon wasn't ready, and the Tigers panicked and brought back Jose Valverde. But down the stretch, Rondon became a reliable set-up man (His second half ERA was 2.22 and he fanned 22 batters in 19 2/3rds innings of work). This season, he has some mighty big shoes to fill in taking over for the departed Joaquin Benoit as the set-up man for Joe Nathan. If Rondon can handle the eighth inning, it will make Brad Ausmus' job a lot easier and the season a lot smoother.
2) Alex Avila – Avila is under a lot of pressure this year. His contract holds a team option for 2015. He's supposedly full healthy for the first time in years (although his back has acted up during the spring.) But he's under the most pressure to provide a little pop in the lower part of the lineup. Avila hit a career best 19 homers in his All-Star/Silver Slugger season of 2011. He's hit a combined 20 since. Avila will have to show that power stroke again not just to justify an extension, but also to provide some extra bases to this lineup. With Prince Fielder gone, Avila may just be the second biggest power threat on this team. That's a little scary.
3) Torii Hunter – I'll admit up front that Hunter stunned me last year. I thought the Tigers were getting a player who was on his last legs and whose 2012 production was inflated by hitting between Mike Trout and Albert Pujols on the Angels. I was very wrong. Hunter was an All-Star. He hit .304, slugged .465 and drove in 84 runs. Will the drop off start this year as Hunter starts the season at age 38? Then there's the question of where he's going to bat in the order when the season begins. If he has that prime spot ahead of Cabrera again, he'll have to have another good season otherwise opposing pitchers will be walking Cabrera consistently.
4) Austin Jackson – His name makes it on these lists every year because we're never quite sure which Austin Jackson is going to show up. The playoffs last season were a microcosm of just what a frustrating player he can be. He was awful against Boston until Jim Leyland dropped him down to eighth in the order. He responded in that crucial Game 4 by getting on base in all four plate appearances, driving in two runs and scoring. Where will Jackson hit? What kind of a season will he have? Will he be a threat on the bases as the Tigers look to be more aggressive? The answers to these questions will have a significant impact on how the Tigers season unfolds.
We know the storylines. We know the keys. And we know that plenty of baseball experts are sounding the alarm that the Royals will challenge the Tigers this year for the AL Central. Each player will play a role. The stars will be the stars. The question marks will have to be answered. But if these four players can play at the top of their games, it should be a rather smooth ride back into the postseason.
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