The Tigers have experienced a time of prosperity as good as any in the history of the franchise the last few years. World Series appearances, division championships, MVPs, and Cy Young Awards have all been brought to Detroit, but the thing that has unfortunately alluded the team is baseball’s most prized possession: A World Series trophy. Now with their best players exiting their prime, many believe that the window has closed on this unbelievable run. But do the Tigers have one more run in them?
Depth Chart (As of 3/19):
C: Alex Avila
1B: Miguel Cabrera
2B: Ian Kinsler
SS: Jose Iglesias
3B: Nick Castellanos
LF: Yoenis Cespedes
CF: Anthony Gose/Rajai Davis
RF: J.D. Martinez
DH: Victor Martinez
SP: David Price
SP: Justin Verlander
SP: Anibal Sanchez
SP: Alfredo Simon
SP: Shane Greene/Kyle Lobstein
CL: Joe Nathan
New Faces: Yoenis Cespedes, Alfredo Simon, Anthony Gose, Shane Green, Tom Gorzelanny
Departures: Devon Travis, Rick Porcello, Eugenio Suarez, Robbie Ray, Joel Hanrahan, Phil Coke, Jim Johnson, Torii Hunter, Max Scherzer
Impact Rookies: The Tigers haven’t had much in the way of rookies the last few years, but Kyle Lobstein looks like he’s gonna have a shot at the Big Leagues in 2015 if Shane Greene struggles. He got a shot at the end of last season and held his own somewhat, but Greene was acquired mainly because Lobstein wasn’t ready right out the gate in 2015. If he can refine his stuff, he’ll do just fine. In Spring so far, he’s looked better than Greene has, but if that doesn’t get him the job, he’ll have an opportunity to try and take it if Greene falters.
James McCann isn’t to be confused with Brian, but he’s someone the Tigers really like behind the dish, and might be the guy to finally take over for Alex Avila as soon as this season. There isn’t much for him to do down in the minors and he got his opportunity to show up in the Majors last for nine games, but he’ll get his chance at some point in 2015 as well. A very good receiver behind the plate, McCann is another in a long-line of catchers that are becoming more and more refined thanks to the technological advances with Pitch F/X and the like. With a good arm and a solid hit tool, he has a chance to really make some things happen for the Tigers in the future, and it should start this year.
Position Battles: Center field is looking more and more like a platoon than it is a position battle, but if Anthony Gose struggles, Rajai Davis has proven that he can handle the full load out in Detroit’s very big center field. The two might as well be mirror images of each other when it comes to skill, but Gose’s little-used pop hasn’t shown up like Davis’ has. In the Spring, Gose has been tearing it up with the bat, including six extra-base hits, so the job is his to lose.
There’s also the rotating carousel for the team’s closer role. Joe Nathan has the grip on the role for now, but at 39, there’s many who feel the wheels are falling off for him. Joakim Soria took over for Nathan in Texas after he signed with Detroit, but he’s here now as the guy who is gonna challenge Nathan for his spot. Also waiting in the wings is the hard-throwing Bruce Rondon, who is coming off Tommy John surgery and was the talk of camp last year as the heir apparent before going down to injury. There’s normally a musical chairs game with closers on most teams, but Detroit’s might have the most intrigue.
Injury Concerns: Where do you start? Miguel Cabrera’s core issues have become issues for the last couple of years and there’s a lot of people who think he’s going to struggle to play a full season for the rest of his giant contract (9 years and only $262 million to go, Tigers fans!). He still hasn’t played in a Spring Training game yet this season, and is only now starting to take batting practice and grounders at first base. Not the best start for him.
You also have Victor Martinez, who tore his meniscus in the offseason and started running drills last week. He won’t be ready for Opening Day, and there’s a good chance the 3/4 middle of the order that is supposed to be such a terror for the team won’t be the same in 2015. That’s not a good thing.
You also have Jose Iglesias’s legs that caused him to miss the entire 2014 season and Alex Avila’s concussion issues, but Justin Verlander’s apparent shoulder issues that caused him to perform pretty regularly last season raises a red flag perhaps more than any other player with injury issues on the team. If he can’t be anywhere near the guy who was a Cy Young Candidate on the regular for most of his career, then the Tigers are going to be in more trouble with him than they would be with Cabrera. Which means a segue to…
Most Important Player: Justin Verlander is the guy to watch this year. The Tigers are considered one of the favorites to win the AL Central in 2015, but the pitching has to step up. David Price is in a contract year, Anibal Sanchez only had 21 starts last year but should be good for his normal 30 this year. But Verlander has to make a minor comeback in 2015 to solidify the bridge between the ace and one of the top mid-rotation arms in the game. Since his incredible 2011 season, his stats have gone up in ERA, hits allowed, and runs allowed. And all the while, his velocity and strikeout numbers have gone down. He hasn’t looked great in the Spring so far. If he can’t figure it out in 2015, with Price about to leave in free agency, the Tigers are going to be in big-time trouble. Even more than that, if Verlander can’t pitch up to par, it might even cost the team a shot at the division title the way Cleveland is poised to take it.
X-Factor: J.D. Martinez had an unbelievable year in 2014, and the first guy I thought of when he was having the year he was was Jose Bautista. Both guys had the power, both guys had the skill, but it was a matter of being in a position to tap into both areas in the right environment. That’s what happened with Martinez, who was able to just “let ‘er rip,” so to speak, and with it, came a breakout year in his Age-27 season. While Verlander’s 2015 hinges on his ability to change how he pitches, Martinez’s success hinges on him being able to keep this up. He slid a bit in the second half of the season and his walk rate was pretty low (6.3% compared to a 26% strikeout rate), but he only needs to normal minor adjustments necessary to stay ahead of the pitchers. If he can show 2014 wasn’t a fluke, the Tigers should be in really good shape.
Key Question: Can the team’s best players stay on the field?
As talked about above, injuries are threatening the playing time of the team’s best players, including two of the biggest contracts in baseball. The team is low on depth across the board and they already know Martinez won’t be ready by Opening Day, and now there’s a question of whether Cabrera will be, as well. The Tigers success in 2015 is dependent on those players stepping up and becoming the focal point of the team, but it’s a huge drop off to their backups when time is missed. With really no back-up plan for Verlander, VMart as Cabrera’s backup plan at 1B (and look where that’s gotten them) and no shortstop to fill in with Iglesias should he go down, the Tigers are a couple bad breaks away from looking more like a team that will finish under .500 than a division title contender. The variance on this team’s success is incredibly high.
Best Case Scenario: The injury bug doesn’t hit the team, Castellanos breaks out a bit, J.D. Martinez stays the same as he did in 2014 and Iglesias is back to his normal wizardry at short. Verlander is able to have a sub-3.50 ERA and 200 Ks. Their fifth consecutive AL Central title is in the bag.
Worst Case Scenario: The injury bug kills this team dead in its tracks. J.D. Martinez turns back into a pumpkin. Verlander’s shoulder woes continue. The team finishes under .500 and misses everything, including their window to be a World Series contender.
Realistic Prediction: Unfortunately, it’s a little bit of Column A and a bit of Column B for this team. The injuries are going to come, as they always do (and already have). The problem is that they’re going to affect the Tigers probably more than any other contending team. I’m optimistic about VMart playing well, but Cabrera’s has nagging injuries for a few years now, and nobody knows if he’ll ever be the same guy again because of it. Even Cabrera at 75% is a great player, but him being closer to 100% is what the team wants most of all. I think the high 80’s for win total is within reason, but with Cleveland still there and the Royals technically still there, I can’t predict an easy fifth straight division title. And in that division, a win total in the high 80’s most likely won’t get you into the wild card if the A’s, Angels and Blue Jays have anything to say about it. It’s going to be a tough season for the Tigers in 2015, but they’ll most likely go all out knowing this might be their last best chance at a ring with this core group.