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2017 Preview: Detroit Tigers

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2017 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

I feel like every year, for the past several years, our Tigers preview has been some variation of “do the Tigers still have a run left in them with the Cabrera-Verlander core?”

If you’re tired of reading that one I have some bad news for you: it’s the same dang story this year as it has been every year. A great pitcher and a great hitter, a very solid supporting cast, a handful of holes that could be critical weaknesses and enough to make them look strong enough to contend but not enough to contend strongly, if that makes any sense.

Let’s start with the pitching. Justin Verlander returned to Cy Young-caliber form in 2016, thanks mostly to health and a big, big leap in his strikeout rate, suggesting that it was health and not an overall decline which harmed him in 2014 and 2015. He’ll lead the way again, followed by Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who was a wonderful surprise last season. The back end of the rotation is problematic, however, with Jordan Zimmermann and Anibal Sanchez stinking up the joint for most of last year and young Daniel Norris suffering through injuries. For the Tigers to contend, they’ll need at least one of those veterans to return to their old form — or someone like Matt Boyd or Mike Pelfrey to, well, not be Matt Boyd and Mike Pelfrey– and for Norris to be healthy.

Fine, let’s say Verlander and Fulmer repeat their 2016 success and say that Norris is a strong, healthy and effective number three. Who then does Brad Ausmus turn the ball over to in the late innings? If you think the overall take on the Tigers is rehashed from year to year, well, the same goes for the pen. It, as always, is a liability in Detroit. And it’s not going to be terribly different than it was last year. Francisco Rodriguez will close. A couple of Wilsons in Alex and Justin. Shane Greene. Maybe one of the veteran starters who doesn’t make the rotation. The always interesting Bruce Rondon. It’s not terrible but it’s not the strongest bunch in the world and it’s being handled by a guy in Ausmus who has yet to show that he can get the most out of a less-than-steller relief corps. You can Google the phrase “Tigers bullpen woes” and find results from every season for most of the past decade. You’ll probably be able to do it again this year.

The offense, of course, is fantastic, at least at the top end. Miguel Cabrera is still an MVP-caliber player and even when his decline begins he’ll be better than almost any hitter in the game. Ian Kinsler is still low-key excellent. Nick Castellanos took a big leap forward last year. J.D. Martinez is going to miss the first month or so of the season with a sprained ligament in his foot, but he’s in his walk year and will likely be fine once he returns. Justin Upton has always been super uneven and has always failed to meet the insane expectations he set early in his career, but as he showed late last season, he’s capable of carrying a team for a stretch. I’ve been saying it for a pushing a decade, but one of these years he’s going to put it all together.

The big question is going to be the bottom third of the lineup where catcher James McCann, shortstop Jose Iglesias and center fielder Tyler Collins all look to be offensive liabilities at the moment. A bigger than usual year from any of them could help matters greatly.

Of course all of this — the strong lineup with critical holes, the rotation that starts well but has question marks and the spotty bullpen — has been the Tigers story for years. It’s a story that could end happily with 85-90 wins, a playoff spot and a bunch of seasoned veterans getting hot at the right time and riding it to glory. It could just as easily get sprinkled with a slow start or a few injuries and result in a 75-80 win season like they had back in 2015.

In the past, that would lead to yet another “wait until next year.” This year, however, you get the strong sense that there is no next year if this year is disappointing. There was talk that the Tigers could sell off veteran parts this past winter, but they didn’t. Then longtime owner Mike Ilitch, who was seen as a man who pushed to win now despite the costs, passed away in February. It’s not hard to imagine his son giving different instructions to GM Al Avila if the Tigers don’t get off to a fast start this year. It’s not hard to imagine the great unwinding of the core that has kept this Tigers team in contention for so long if 2017 is a disappointment.

I’m still optimistic, though. The Indians are the class of the division but the Royals are likely taking a step back and the Twins and White Sox are not yet a threat. I won’t predict October glory for them, but I think, barring major injuries to key players, the Tigers will be playing meaningful baseball in September.

Prediction: Second place, American League Central

Crowd honors Jose Bautista in his last Blue Jays home game

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Jose Bautista ran onto the field on Sunday afternoon, alone, in what was likely his last hurrah as a Blue Jays player. The 36-year-old outfielder signed a one-year, $18 million contract with the club prior to the 2017 season and is not expected to get his $17 million option picked up for 2018. During Sunday’s series finale, he got a fond farewell befitting a decade-long career as one of Toronto’s most prolific hitters, drawing standing ovations every time he stepped up to the plate.

The Blue Jays came out swinging against the Yankees, building an eight-run lead on Teoscar Hernandez’s first-inning home run and a smattering of hits and productive outs from Darwin Barney, Russell Martin, Josh Donaldson and Kendrys Morales. Bautista supplemented the drive with his own RBI single in the fourth inning, plating Hernandez on an 0-2 fastball from reliever Bryan Mitchell.

Later in the inning, he nearly scored a second run on a Kendrys Morales two-RBI single, but was caught at the plate on the relay by Starlin Castro.

It’s an encouraging end to what has overwhelmingly been a disappointing season for the Toronto slugger. Entering Sunday’s finale, he slashed .201/.309/.365 with a franchise single-season record 161 strikeouts in 658 plate appearances, numbers that somewhat obscure the six straight All-Star nominations, four MVP bids and 54-homer campaign he once enjoyed with the team. Even a bounce-back performance in 2018 likely wouldn’t command a $17 million salary, but there’s no denying his impact on the Blue Jays’ last 10 years, from his signature bat flip to his tie-breaking home run in the 2015 ALDS.

The Blue Jays currently lead the Yankees 9-2 in the top of the sixth inning. Expect a few more standing O’s before the end of the game.

Why more baseball players don’t kneel

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Bruce Maxwell was the first baseball player to kneel for the National Anthem. There may be others who do so, but I don’t suspect many will. Indeed, I’m pretty confident that the protests we’re seeing in the NFL today, and will see more of once basketball season begins, will not become a major thing in baseball.

Some will say it’s because baseball or baseball players are more patriotic or something, but I don’t think that’s it. Yes, baseball is a lot whiter and has a lot of conservative players who would never think to protest during the National Anthem or, for that matter, protest anything at all, but I suspect there are many who saw what Colin Kaepernick and other football players have done — or who have listened to what Steph Curry and LeBron James have said — and agreed with it. Yet I do not think many, if any of them will themselves protest.

Why? I think it mostly comes down to baseball’s culture of conformity.

Almost everyone in baseball comes through a hierarchy. Even the big names. Even if you are the consensus number one pick, you do your time in the minors. Once there, conformity and humility is drilled into you. This happens both affirmatively, in the form of coaches telling you to act in a certain way and passively, by virtue of all players being in similar, humbling circumstances. Bus rides, cheap hotels, etc. In that world, even if you are ten times better and ten times richer than your teammates, you fall in with the crowd because doing otherwise would be socially disruptive.

The very socialization of a baseball player is dependent upon them learning to talk, walk and carry themselves like all those who came before. No one is given special treatment. In the rare cases they are, it’s head-turning. Bryce Harper was a more or less normal minor leaguer, but since he got their earlier by bypassing his final years of high school, he was thrown at and challenged in ways no other minor league stars are. It does not take much for a guy to be singled out for punishment or mockery and even the superstars like Harper are not on solid professional ground as long as they’re still in the minors. Indeed, between a player’s education, as it were, in the minors and their pre-free agency residency in the majors, it can be a decade or more before a unique personality or a true showman is able to shine through, and by then few are willing. They’ve been conditioned by that point.

Even budding superstars can be roundly criticized for the tiniest of perceived transgressions or the most modest displays of individuality. Think about all of the “controversies” we have about the proper way to celebrate a home run or run the bases. If that’s a cause for singling out and, potentially, benching or being traded or being given a shorter leash, imagine the guts a baseball player has to have in order to do something like take a knee during the National Anthem. A guy with multiple MVP Awards would likely be in an uncomfortable spotlight over such a thing, so imagine how brave someone like Bruce Maxwell, who has barely 100 games under his belt, has to be to have done it.

CC Sabathia, a 17-year veteran, spoke out yesterday, but I suspect he won’t kneel for the National Anthem when he lines up with his teammates before the Wild Card game next week. Other ballplayers will likely wade into the fray in the coming days. But I suspect baseball’s very nature — it’s very culture — will keep ballplayers from following in the footsteps of the many NFL players who took a knee today.