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 2016 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.
The Miguel Cabrera–Justin Verlander Tigers era is not yet over. Not necessarily. Cabrera, though he missed a huge chunk of the middle of the year due to injury, was still one of the game’s best hitters when healthy. Verlander, despite himself missing a lot of time to start the year and despite hitting a lot of bumps in the road early after he returned, settled down nicely and improved as the year progressed. He has looked sharp this spring and seems to be poised for a new phase of his career in which he truly commits to getting hitters out without thinking that he can simply throw the ball by everyone. It’s a nice adjustment to see and it suggests that he can age more like wine and less like, well, a normal pitcher.
It’s entirely possible that this Tigers team, which had seen so much success before last year’s injury-fueled collapse, has another run left in them. If they make that run, however, it will be based more on just their Big Two. There were a lot of offseason additions made to the Detroit roster, and they’re going to need to pan out for the Tigers to get back into the thick of things in the Central.
Jordan Zimmermann was brought in on a five-year $110 million deal to help to fortify the front half of the rotation alongside Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, who himself missed a lot of time and underperformed last year. Mike Pelfrey was likewise added. Both of those guys come with some serious warning signs of decline, but Zimmermann is capable of solid production and Pelfrey just has to eat some innings and keep Brad Ausmus from having to use the bullpen quite as much as he has in the past. Verlander and Sanchez are key here — if they’re not back to ace and ace-esque form this year forget it, but the rotation is not necessarily a problem.
But ah, that bullpen. Long a sore spot for the Tigers, even when they were winning divisions, it’s gonna be sore again. It’s a totally new cast of characters out there under the Comerica Park shrubbery. That beats Dave Dombrowski’s old habit of simply running the same guys out there and hoping for different results, but it’s still a pretty suspect cast. Francisco Rodriguez saved 38 games last year and looked pretty good doing it, but there are a lot of miles on that odometer. Mark Lowe will set him up. He looked amazingly good for Seattle in 2015 but that was very clearly a fluke. His meh performance after being traded to the Jays is more in keeping with expectations. Justin Wilson could be a nice pickup, but he has been uneven at times. There are a lot of other moving parts, but none of them enthralling. The less this pen is relied upon, the better things will be going for the Tigers.
The real power here is the lineup. Beyond Cabrera, the pickup of Justin Upton has to make people happy and will definitely solidify a left field situation which didn’t have any obvious answers after Yoesnis Cespedes was traded last year. In right, J.D. Martinez‘s 38-homer year showed that his 2014 was no fluke. Ian Kinsler continues to be Ian Kinsler and that’s a good thing to be. The Cameron Maybin pickup for center was promising, but he’ll start the year on the DL. Less sexy than the Cabrera-Upton-Martinez triumvirate is the hops of a bounce back from Victor Martinez and some improvement many have hoped for from Nick Castellanos. The James McCann/Jarrod Saltalamacchia combo behind the plate presents the Tigers with offensive upside they haven’t had back there for a while. This lineup could be very special.
Ultimately the Tigers’ prospects in 2016 are going to depend on some old guys showing they still have something left and showing that they can avoid the injury bug. They have lots of big names and, if things all break right, they could easily contend in the AL Central. All of those guys on the wrong side of 30 breaking right and simply not breaking is not the sort of thing I’d bet a ton on, however, so I’m going to temper my expectations and allowed myself to be pleasantly surprised should they prove to be too pessimistic.
Prediction: Fourth place, A.L. Central.