2016 Preview: Detroit Tigers

Associated Press
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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.

Manoah, Merrifield lead Blue Jays to 3-1 win over Rays

Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
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ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Alek Manoah pitched seven shutout innings, Whit Merrifield hit a three-run homer and the Toronto Blue Jays regained the top AL wild-card spot with a 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday night.

The Blue Jays lead Tampa Bay by one game. The top wild card finisher will host all games in their best-of-three opening-round series, while the other two wild cards play strictly on the road.

Manoah (15-7) scattered four hits, walked two and struck out eight while throwing a season-high 113 pitches. The righty worked out of a two-on, one-out jam in the sixth by striking out Randy Arozarena and getting a flyout from David Peralta.

Jordan Romano replaced Tim Mayza with two on and two outs in the eighth and allowed pinch-hitter Harold Ramirez‘s RBI infield single but avoided further damage by striking out Manuel Margot. Romano finished the game to get his 35th save in 41 chances.

Tampa Bay starter Drew Rasmussen (10-7) gave up one run, three hits and two walks in 6 1/3 innings. He struck out five.

The teams combined for 31 runs, with the Rays accounting for 20, in the first two games of the series that were both won by Tampa Bay.

Arozarena got the Rays’ first hit off Manoah with a two-out double in the fourth. He became the first Tampa Bay player and 20th big leaguer to have 40 doubles, 20 homers and 30 stolen bases in a season.

Teoscar Hernandez ended Rasmussen’s night with a double in the seventh. Brooks Raley entered and, after a walk to pinch-hitter Danny Jansen, Merrifield made it 3-0 on his 10th homer of the season.

Merrifield homered twice in Thursday night’s 10-5 loss to the Rays.

Alejandro Kirk opened the second with a single before Rasmussen retired 12 in a row until Merrifield’s leadoff double in the sixth.

Plate umpire Corey Blaser took a hard foul ball by Margot on the mask in the eighth but remained in the game.

HONORING KK

The Rays posted a thank you on the message board for CF Kevin Kiermaier, who is out for the season following left hip surgery. Kiermaier is in the final season of a $53.5 million, six-year contract that includes a club option for 2023 that is expected to be declined.

TEAM AWARDS

Rays ace Shane McClanahan was voted the Don Zimmer MVP award winner by members of the Tampa Bay chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. CF Jose Siri was selected as the outstanding rookie. 3B Yandy Diaz received the Paul C. Smith Champions award as the player who best exemplifies the spirit of true professionalism on and off the field.

TRAINER’S ROOM

Blue Jays: RHP Nate Pearson (lat strain) allowed three runs and three hits over two-thirds of an inning for Triple-A Buffalo.

Rays: 2B Brandon Lowe (lower back) is done for the season.

UP NEXT

McClanahan (12-6), pulled from his start Tuesday in the fifth inning due to neck tightness, will face Blue Jays RHP Ross Stripling (8-4) on Sunday.