By Hunter Nelson |
For the four seasons prior to the disaster that ensued over the course of 2015, Detroit diehards would sit in the cold autumn weather and repetitively fail to witness their talented hometown Tigers achieve the ultimate hierarchy of sports… winning the last game of the season. Quite ironically, that task was accomplished to conclude the disappointing 2015 campaign, albeit the Tigers only playing in 161 regular season games, one below the standard for even the worst teams in baseball. After racing out to a hot 15-8 April which included a scorching 9-1 start, the Tigers saw their run of four straight American League Central crowns come to an abrupt end, as they failed to record a winning month the rest of the season, leading to the cellar of the division by October. Stars were traded. Executives were fired. Mike Ilitch, the title-hungry yet decrepit owner of the club had added another year of dust to his 85 year old birth certificate and ultimately, the media didn’t know how to evaluate the future of the once dominant franchise. Would they head to Lakeland in early “Spring” as hopefuls, or rather as reigning holders of a last place record in the Central?
Fortunately for Tigers faithfuls, it seems the former is more realistic.
Throughout the prized years of the Tigers franchise during that marvelous era of postseason regularity, the team’s success primarily derived from the stalwart starting pitching rotation. Although the bullpen would struggle as the weather would chill, having a starting rotation of three Cy Young winners and a former ERA champion should (and indeed did) strike fear throughout the rest of the league. While injuries and departures derailed that supremacy just a season ago, the addition of 29 year old All-Star Jordan Zimmermann (5 YR/$110M) should bolster the middle of the improved staff. Include a healthy campaign from former ERA champion Anibal Sanchez and a continuation of Justin Verlander’s late season return to form and you’re left with a top-3 that has the potential to rank among the league’s best. As previously mentioned, the bullpen has been the Achilles Heel of the franchise since the glory days of Todd Jones and Joel Zumaya in the surprising 2006 World Series season. However, these issues have been rapidly addressed by new General Manager Al Avila, as new additions Justin Wilson, Mark Lowe, and single-season saves record holder Francisco Rodriguez should lock down the 7th-9th innings, respectively.
Another alarming issue for the so-called “team” placed on the field a season ago was the overall lack of depth coming from the outfield position. The season began with All-Stars Yoenis Cespedes and J.D. Martinez playing the corner positions along with speedy Rajai Davis roaming the Comerica greens. However, the fire sale of the slugger Cespedes and the inconsistency of Davis left Martinez as the only constant come season’s end, with a combination of Tyler Collins, Steven Moya, and Anthony Gose filling in left and center of the outfield. Avila began the season placing a small band-aid on the issue, trading for Atlanta’s Cameron Maybin, a player coming off his best season with a .267/10/59 line with 23 steals thrown in. Maybin, drafted in 2005 by Detroit and traded two seasons later to acquire some decent player named Miguel Cabrera, was believed to be the front-runner to land the starting leftfield position entering Spring Training until Ilitch and Avila had other plans. Just a few weeks before the beginning of Spring Training, the team reached a six-year, $133M agreement with Silver-Slugger Justin Upton, a three-time All-Star with still plenty of upside. As the starting left-fielder, he’ll seek to provide a five-tool presence in the middle of the order.
The final concern that will look to disappear in 2016 is simply poor health. With two MVP candidates, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, missing a combined 83 games due to injury, it’s pretty difficult to
contend with eventual World Series champions like the Kansas City Royals on a nightly basis. Although Cabrera played well in his return from a July calf strain and won his fourth batting title, V-Mart struggled with his swing in his return, as the career .300 hitter hit only .245. Widely renown as the best 3-4 hitting combo in the game, two healthy seasons would go a long way in Motown. The same can be stated for former MVP (notice the trend) Justin Verlander, who missed almost all of the first half due to a tricep strain. Verlander actually fared well in his return from injury, regaining his once deadly fastball velocity and effectiveness he had lost the two seasons prior. If he can continue that rediscovered success, as mentioned earlier, the dominance of the starting pitching rotation can rise again.
With all of that specified, there are a lot of “ifs”. If all of it can come together, the disappointing 2015 campaign will act as only a blip on the radar for the Tigers season to come.
Projected Finish: 92-70, second place in AL Central, clinch Wild-Card berth
Projected OD Lineup Projected Rotation
Kinsler (R) 2B Verlander (R)
Upton (R) LF Zimmermann (R)
Cabrera (R) 1B Sanchez (R)
V. Martinez (S) DH Pelfrey (R)
J.D. Martinez (R) RF Norris (L)
Castellanos (R) 3B
Maybin (R) CF
McCann (R) C
Iglesias (R) SS