Tigers change stripes, but will trades work?

This time of a year, being a baseball manager is like having a Rubik’s Cube in your head. You keep spinning the combinations until you’re dizzy.

“I was doing it before the trades were even made,” Brad Ausmus said Thursday after the Tigers’ very active day at the winter meetings. “The good news is, next season, the opposing pitcher is going to have to face, in some order, (Ian) Kinsler, (Yoenis) Cespedes, (Miguel) Cabrera, Victor (Martinez), J.D. (Martinez) and Nick (Castellanos). That’s actually a pretty tough group of hitters to go through.”

And we haven’t even mentioned the pitching staff.

Get out your scorecards — and your erasers. It’s the winter meetings and the Tigers are dealing. Gone are Rick Porcello, Robbie Ray and Eugenio Suarez. Pencil in Cespedes, Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene and relief pitcher Alex Wilson. We’ll save you the effort of including the prospects. That’s too much like forecasting next month’s weather.

Which, of course, is what these moves are all about. Forecasting. And backcasting. The Tigers looked back on 2014 and saw a team with great starting pitching that lost in the playoffs due to untimely hitting, tepid defense and relief meltdowns.

Shake it up. In Cespedes, the Tigers got a rocket arm in leftfield, speed on the basepaths and a solid bat that should more than make up for Torii Hunter’s departure. In Simon, they got a veteran coming off his best year, who they hope will make up for Porcello’s No. 4 spot in the rotation. In Greene, they got a No. 5 pitcher.

So are they better or worse than last year?

From where I’m sitting, that depends entirely on nothing that happened Thursday.

It depends on Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez.

Future free agents

Let’s face it. If Verlander is who he used to be, if David Price is who he has consistently been and if Sanchez has gotten the disaster year out of his system, the Tigers already are a top-flight pitching team, before you even concern yourself with what Simon or Greene can do. Last year at this time, with Max Scherzer in Price’s spot, we were throwing hosannas at the projected rotation. That was before people thought so much about Porcello.

“I’m going to miss Ricky,” Ausmus said in a phone interview. “He was arguably our most consistent starting pitcher and a really good guy.”

He was. He also was on the verge of free agency. And if Porcello was seeking a $100-million-plus payday, as is likely, the Tigers didn’t want to repeat the Scherzer escapade.

Of course, by acquiring Cespedes they jumped into the same frying pan. The 29-year-old Cuban outfielder also is in his last year of a contract that pays him not much less than what Porcello likely will make this season. After that, the Tigers will have to vie for his services like all other bidders.

So that part is a wash. Except the Tigers desperately needed outfield help. Hitting a ball deep against Detroit last year was almost assuredly a double. And the number of times the Tigers threw a key runner out at the plate from the outfield was …

Anyone?

Anyone?

Cespedes can do that. We remember him from the 2013 American League Division Series when he was almost unstoppable while playing for the Oakland Athletics.

True, he has now been traded twice in five months. But that doesn’t mean what it suggests. The trade with Boston was a huge one, sending much-needed pitching to Oakland. The Red Sox trading him to the Tigers on Thursday had more to do with Boston being overloaded with outfielders (and wanting to unload a potential free agent) than any knock on Cespedes or his character.

True, his work ethic has been questioned, but hopefully, hanging around a couple of hardworking Tigers (like Victor Martinez) can goose that.

Besides, his liability also can be his asset. He will be playing, at 29, for the biggest free-agent contract of his career.

“I always liked have a player when he was going into his free-agent year,” Ausmus said. “You know he’s going to be there every day, he’s gonna want to play, he’s trying to earn himself a contract for the next number of years. I’ve never minded playing with or managing a guy in contract year, because you know he’s gonna give the best he can give you.”

In that case, the Tigers can count on some big years from Cespedes — and Price. That alone gets you much of the way there.

Intriguing moves

But let’s be honest. This is all a crapshoot. Trading for a guy like Simon, for example, can be spun any way you want. Positively, you can say he’s coming off an All-Star year.

Negatively, you can say it was his first All-Star appearance, his second half was nowhere near as good as his first, and, at 33, he’s not likely to show a new upside.

Shane Greene can be similarly spun. Maybe we’ve seen his best. Maybe he’s on the cusp. The Tigers still haven’t seriously addressed the most infuriating part of their team — the bullpen.

But then, it’s still early.

We also haven’t spoken about the baggage Simon brings. In this day and age, a player with a sexual-assault issue still shadowing him (not to mention time in jail on an ultimately dropped involuntary manslaughter charge) is never good for business. But the Tigers aren’t stupid. I imagine they have looked deeply into these things and are, for whatever reasons, satisfied.

For now, for this day, I like the fact that the Tigers aren’t standing pat. And they’re not playing hostage to agent Scott Boras and his Max Scherzer golden chariot. The Tigers have so far just traded money essentially, they haven’t gone in too deep for new players, so in theory if they wanted to spend big on Scherzer they could do it. But they are hardly waiting for that. They have five starting pitchers now on paper, and a much improved outfield with Cespedes and Anthony Gose.

Better? Hard to say. Different? Definitely. Could it work? Of course. Could it backfire? It always can. The Rubik’s Cube spins, the possibilities continue.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.

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