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2016 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 2016 season. Next up: The Detroit Tigers.

The Miguel CabreraJustin 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.

MLB to move the draft to Omaha on the eve of the College World Series

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SAN DIEGO — We spend a lot of time on these pages criticizing Major League Baseball’s decisions. And yeah, they make a lot of questionable decisions (or logical decisions which serve questionable motives). But in the past day or so they’ve certainly gotten a couple of things right.

First was what we posted about last night: MLB moving to take marijuana off the banned substance list for minor leaguers. This, combined with the recent report that MLB/MLBPA are moving to a treatment, as opposed to a punishment-based regimen for opioids, shows that sense, as opposed to hysteria and optics, is beginning to move to the fore when it comes to baseball’s drug policies. It’s certainly welcome.

Also reported last night — by Kendall Rogers of the website d1baseball.com — Major League Baseball plans to move the amateur draft from the MLB Network studios in New Jersey to Omaha, Nebraska, and schedule it at just at the start of the College World Series. The move has not been officially announced yet, but I’d expect an MLB press release on it before we all get on our planes on Thursday morning.

It would be nicely coordinated too, Rogers says, coming just after the super regionals but before the actual CWS. This would allow the top players expected to go to all be on hand, either as players in the CWS or because, hey, they just got done and would probably be there anyway. It’s way better than putting a six guys in a green room in Secaucus. That’s always so awkward. You can tell they don’t really want to be there and don’t know what to do with themselves. In Omaha they’ll be among their friends, teammates, family, and counterparts. The atmosphere will almost certainly radically change for the better.

It’s still a very, very tall order to ever create the same level of interest in the MLB draft that exists for the NFL or NBA drafts, as the structure of college football and basketball and the fame of its stars is a totally different deal coming in. But this is a positive move forward for the baseball draft. Good job to whoever’s idea it was.