The Detroit Tigers took a long, hard fall in 2015 after a run of four consecutive AL Central division titles and deep postseason runs in three of the past four seasons. Despite the presence of Yoenis Cespedes and David Price, both of whom made significant impacts for the Mets and Blue Jays, respectively, after the trade deadline, Detroit couldn’t overcome an aging roster, too many injuries and yet another disastrous bullpen.
Tired of the status quo, owner Mike Ilitch made a controversial decision to dismiss team president and general manager Dave Dombrowski, replacing him with assistant GM Al Avila. The longtime understudy quickly implemented more of an analytics-driven philosophy (which likely factored into keeping manager Brad Ausmus) and renovated the roster, adding much-needed upgrades in the starting rotation and bullpen. Then the notoriously restless Ilitch also opened the checkbook and allowed Avila to sign another impact bat, inking Justin Upton to a six-year deal and definitively solving the team’s left-field issue (at least for the next two years, if Upton chooses to opt out).
The Tigers look like a team whose best days have passed, but in a tight AL Central, they could still contend for a postseason bid.
Depth Chart (As of 3/28)
C: James McCann
1B: Miguel Cabrera
2B: Ian Kinsler
3B: Nick Castellanos
SS: Jose Iglesias
LF: Justin Upton
CF: Anthony Gose
RF: J.D. Martinez
DH: Victor Martinez
SP: Justin Verlander
SP: Jordan Zimmermann
SP: Anibal Sanchez
SP: Mike Pelfrey
SP: Shane Greene
CL: Francisco Rodriguez
New Faces: Jordan Zimmermann, Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin, Mike Aviles, Mike Pelfrey, Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Departures: Alex Avila, Alfredo Simon, Joe Nathan, Rajai Davis, Randy Wolf, Al Alburquerque, Neftali Felix, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Krol
Position Battles: The fifth spot in the starting rotation looked to be the most intriguing competition this spring, with Daniel Norris the favorite for the job. But the centerpiece of the haul Detroit received in return for David Price last season didn’t pitch well in four spring appearances, compiling a 9.95 ERA with 12 hits allowed in 6.1 innings. Then Norris, 22, injured his back and will begin the season on the disabled list. That clears the way for Shane Greene, who has outpitched Matt Boyd (Michael Fulmer and Buck Farmer were also fringe candidates) with a 2.63 ERA and 14 strikeouts in 13.2 innings.
Center field was also up for grabs this spring, but Cameron Maybin’s broken wrist essentially gave Anthony Gose that job by default. That’s not great, since Gose has hit .190 this spring (following a .254 mark last season) and didn’t play very good defense last year (charged with -12 Defensive Runs Saved). Tyler Collins, Wynton Bernard and Andrew Romine are battling to win the backup job behind Gose and maybe the fifth outfielder gig after Maybin returns.
That leaves backup catcher as the one perhaps the most intriguing battle in the last days of spring training. Bryan Holaday has certainly hit well enough to earn the job, batting .438/.455/.969 this spring. But the Tigers need a left-handed bench bat, which means Jarrod Saltalamacchia will probably get the nod. The 30-year-old veteran is hitting .290/.353/.581 in Grapefruit League play.
Injury Concerns: Victor Martinez straining his left hamstring during spring training had the unfortunate sting of familiarity for the Tigers and their fans. The designated hitter is coming off the worst season of his career following surgery to repair a torn meniscus last spring and dealing with subsequent left knee issues. Martinez batted just .245 with a .667 OPS, 11 home runs and 64 RBI in 485 plate appearances, depriving Detroit not only of production from the DH spot, but a consistent left-handed hitting run producer.
The Tigers are expecting Martinez to be ready for opening day, which would be encouraging since he batted .321 with a .938 OPS. But at 37 years old, Ausmus will surely handle him with caution throughout the season and perhaps rotate some other players in the DH role. (This could bode well for Tyler Collins making the roster.)
Anibal Sanchez has also been injury-plagued throughout his Tigers career. Last season, the right-hander was limited to 25 starts and a career-high 4.99 ERA, while also serving up 29 home runs, tied for the AL lead. Sanchez has been dealing with triceps inflammation and just made his first start of the spring last week (March 21). The good news is that he pitched well, throwing four scoreless innings with three strikeouts and one walk. Expecting Sanchez to get through a full season healthy might be asking too much, considering he hasn’t done so in Detroit. But if he can make 20 to 30 starts and approach 200 innings, that would make a huge difference for a rotation that needs him to be a top-three starter.
Key Player: If Justin Verlander is no longer capable of being the Tigers’ No. 1 starter, the team is going to have major difficulties trying to stay competitive in the AL Central and wild-card races this season. After fighting a strained triceps during the first half of the season, Verlander looked more like the ace-level starter the Tigers need him to be during the second half. In 15 starts, he compiled a 2.80 ERA with 95 strikeouts in 103 innings.
That wasn’t quite vintage Verlander, but the hope is that getting through a full offseason and spring healthy will help him resemble something close to the dominant pitcher he was for a five-year span from 2009 to 2013. He’s certainly being paid like an ace, owed $112 million over the next four seasons. So if the Tigers can’t get adequate return on that investment, it will be a disastrous development for their team and future payroll. Even if Jordan Zimmermann is capable of being the No. 1 starter and Daniel Norris develops into a top-of-the-rotation arm, the Tigers aren’t going to contend if Verlander ends up being a fourth or fifth starter.
Underrated Asset: In his first full season as the starting catcher, James McCann showed the Tigers that they have nothing to worry about behind the plate for the next few seasons. With a .264/.297/.387 triple-slash average, the 25-year-old was one of the better hitting catchers in the AL and emerged as one of the team’s up-and-coming leaders. That didn’t just apply to calling a good game and earning the trust of the pitching staff. He blocked the plate well, allowing 35 wild pitches and three passed balls last season, and threw out 41 percent (28-of-69) of opposing basestealers.
But McCann raised eyebrows when he confronted Jose Iglesias last August for a lack of effort on fielding a ground ball, leading to a dugout spat, setting a tone in a Tigers clubhouse that hasn’t always had the most outspoken veteran leaders. His offensive numbers will likely improve now that he’s established himself as the starter and a young core piece for the Tigers’ future, providing production at a position that’s been problematic in recent seasons.
Burning Question: Will the overhauled bullpen be reliable, eliminating a persistent headache and question mark?
The Tigers’ bullpen couldn’t be much worse than it was in 2015. Only Oakland had a worse bullpen ERA among AL clubs last season, and Detroit relievers allowed the highest opponents’ batting average (.271) and second-worst OPS (.770) in MLB. Joakim Soria was dealt away at the trade deadline, leaving just a couple of pieces for the front office to retain. Alex Wilson (2.19 ERA) and left-hander Blaine Hardy (3.08 ERA) will return, but the rest of the relief corps will look significantly different.
The key piece is closer Francisco Rodriguez, who gives Detroit a reliable ninth-inning presence that can still strike out the opposition, though he’s far more dependent on his change-up now that his fastball has diminished. (His average was 89.7 mph last season, the lowest of his career.) But more importantly, new GM Avila built a strong set-up crew to bridge the gap from the starting pitchers to Rodriguez in the ninth inning. Mark Lowe was outstanding last season (more so with the Mariners before he was traded to the Blue Jays), posting a 1.96 ERA with 61 walks and 12 walks in 55 innings. Left-hander Justin Wilson was impressive for the Yankees, striking out 66 batters in 61 innings with a 3.10 ERA.
Getting reliable production from Bruce Rondon, who was once regarded as the closer of the future, would certainly help. Still just 25, the right-hander hasn’t pitched well in the majors and was sent home by the team last September because of his “effort level.” Contracting the Chikungunya virus affected his offseason preparation as well, and may have something to do with his 9.00 ERA this spring. [UPDATE: Rondon was assigned to Triple-A Toledo on Monday.] Some of the organization’s young pitching like Matt Boyd and Michael Fulmer could also provide depth later in the season, helping the team in the present while developing for the future.
Best Case Scenario: Verlander and Sanchez are productive and healthy, giving the Tigers a strong top-three to their starting rotation with Zimmermann that can compete with the Indians and the White Sox for the best in the AL Central. Norris recovers to add depth and create one of the deeper starting staffs in the league. Ausmus and Tigers fans don’t have to cover their eyes when bringing in a reliever, holding leads and winning games that have slipped away too many times during the past few seasons. (Additionally, Ausmus does a better job of managing his bullpen, not stubbornly sticking to assigned roles, but uses the best pitcher for the best situation.)
With the addition of Justin Upton, Detroit has a fearsome top half of the lineup and gets enough production from the bottom half to regain its place among the league leaders in runs scored and run differential. Victor Martinez stays healthy to provide his typical .300 average, .850 OPS and 20 home runs, and a left-handed bat between Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez for a balanced middle of the order.
Worst Case Scenario: The starting rotation besides Zimmermann struggles for the second consecutive season, with Verlander looking as if his best days are gone and Sanchez continuing to be hittable as he ends up back on the disabled list. Mark Lowe shows his age and looks more like the reliever who got knocked around with the Blue Jays, rather than the dominant reliever he was in Seattle. And Francisco Rodriguez’s diminishing velocity catches up with him as opposing batters learn to lay off his changeup.
Victor Martinez’s legs continue to fail him, robbing him of any extra-base power or ability to make hard contact. Justin Upton has difficulty getting on base in the No. 2 spot, preventing the Tigers from putting together big innings. And suddenly, the Tigers’ lineup looks like a two-man operation again, with Cabrera and J.D. Martinez carrying the heavy load.
Realistic Prediction: The Tigers look like an improved team with the roster renovation that Avila undertook in his first offseason as GM. The bullpen, especially, should be much improved, making Detroit more competitive in a greater number of games with fewer blown leads. But last year’s club had Yoenis Cespedes and David Price, who are arguably better than Zimmermann and Upton, so has the team truly improved or did Avila simply prevent it from getting worse?
The AL Central should be extremely competitive, arguably the toughest division to predict in MLB. The improvements that the Tigers made should help them avoid a second consecutive last-place finish, but are they good enough to hang with or even overtake the Royals and Indians, along with an improved White Sox team? Third place with an outside chance at the second wild-card spot might be the best Detroit can hope for in 2016.