So, after getting briskly swept out of the playoffs this year, the Tigers have been reconstructing themselves a bit. Gone are Tori Hunter, Phil Coke, Rick Porcello, Drew Smyly, Joba Chamberlain, and Max Scherzer (maybe). Newcomers are Shane Greene, Alfredo Simon to the rotation, a bunch of other "guys" in the bullpen, another "guy" from Toronto in center, and Yoenis Cespedes in left. And the returns of Jose Iglesias at shortstop and perhaps Bruce Rondon in the bullpen.
The rotation is noticeably weaker than last year at the beginning of the season, with the losses of Scherzer, Smyly, and Porcello. Still, when you have Justin Verlander, Anibal Sanchez, and David Price as your top of the rotation, you aren't exactly fielding a Triple-A staff there. The keys will be:
- Will Verlander return to some semblance of his old self? If you get 18+ wins out of him the answer is yes. If he's the .500 pitcher he was last year, you're in trouble. If you are the Tigers you are hoping that his healthy, normal offseason has him in prime condition for a bounceback year.
- Will Sanchez stay off the DL? If so he will probably win you 18 games. If not, you better hope there is someone down on the farm that is farther along than you thought he was to fill in for him.
- Simon and Green. If both of them win you 12-15 games you are probably OK with that. Your big 3 are going to get you through the playoffs, but your 4 and 5 guys are going to get you *in* the playoffs by giving you a chance to win in every one of their starts. That's what you got with Porcello, and to a lesser extent Smyly.
- Scherzer. The big offseason question is "Where will he end up?" The Tigers obviously made some of the moves they did because they didn't think he would be back in Detroit. And realistically, a 6-year contract for a 30-year-old pitcher is crazy. I finally saw one suggestion that made sense in the Detroit News today: 4 years, 112 million (28 mil/year). That is Verlander money without the long-term financial risk. Maybe throw in a 5th year mutual option at 15 or 20 just to see if he bites. But any contract beyond 4 years on a pitcher of his age is crazy for any team, not just the Tigers. If he comes back they can trade off some surplus pitching or move someone to the bullpen. But if Scherzer sticks to his guns he won't be back in Detroit. EDIT: Scherzer to Nationals for 200+ million over 7 years. Good for him, crazy for Washington. Wow.
Once again this area of the team will be the biggest source of heartburn for the fans. The bullpen was in shambles for much of last year and at the start of the year it doesn't look much different.
Joe Nathan was a disaster for much of the year, and Joakim Soria was just as bad for the short time he pitched before landing on the DL for most of the second half. These two will have to become a reliable late-inning combination for the Tigers to have any chance of defending their division title this season. That's the bottom line. The rest of the guys have to do their part too, but these guys blew a lot of games last year, and they both had their reputations as crunch-time pitchers take a big hit.
One name that is always thrown around when talking about the Tigers bullpen is Bruce Rondon. He has that 100 mph fastball that blows hitters away, but he has been hurt for most of his big-league career. He is coming back from Tommy John surgery this year, and that puts a significant question mark on his ability to pitch at all for starters, at least at the start of the year. After that the questions becomes "how effective will he be?" Anything he gives will be a bonus.
Most everyone else in the bullpen is a collection of guys you say "who?" when someone tells you their name. The team has been collecting relievers over the winter, and they'll all get a chance to sort themselves out in Florida. Don't think there's much bullpen help in the minors right now.
The first player you think of in this category for the Tigers is always Miguel Cabrera. And this year there is another major surgery in his offseason, this time for fractures in his ankle. As I write this in mid-January he is just getting out of the walking boot, and hasn't even started off-season workouts. This doesn't bode well for his return to anything like his usual form anytime soon. Still, even a hobbled Cabrera put up numbers that any other player would give his eyeteeth for, so if his ankle is strong enough to play he should put up at least those kind of numbers again. Look for him to platoon with Victor Martinez a lot early on, just to keep him from overdoing it and not being available for crunch time in August and September.
And since we just mentioned him, let's talk about the second most feared hitter on the team, Victor Martinez. If ever a guy deserved a big contract at age 35 it's VMart. The guy just flat-out produces at the plate, and is a leader in the clubhouse. If he stays healthy, there's no reason to think he won't continue to produce excellent numbers for the length of that contract. Stay healthy, Victor!
Then there's the other Martinez - J.D. All you can say is you hope he wasn't a one-year flash in the pan. He'll be playing right field this year, pretty much full-time. If he keeps hitting, he will be the biggest steal for the Tigers this side of Carlos Guillen. If not, Steven Moya is waiting in the wings at Toledo.
Center Field will probably a platoon of newcomer Anthony Gose and the surprising Rajai Davis. Davis exceeded expectations last year and was a good guy to have when the Tigers traded Austin Jackson away. He filled in decently in left and center field, and gave them a boost on the bases. Gose is a .236 hitter in 2 years of part-time duty in Toronto, about 500 at-bats. Hard to get a read on him, but he is supposedly very fast - an asset in the spacious outfield of Comerica Park.
Left field will be patrolled by one of the big acquisitions of the off-season, Yoenis Cespedes - he of the highlight reel arm and somewhat underwhelming offense (.263 career hitter). We'll see what happens with him too - hope he was worth parting with Rick Porcello to get.
Others: Ian Kinsler needs to have a better second half this year - he faded noticeably last year. Seemed to be an improvement over Omar Infante defensively. Jose Iglesias - who knows what we'll get. Supposed to be a defensive wizard, but his hitting work so far has not been respected, even though his average is respectable. Again, we'll see. Hope he stays healthy this year. Nick Castellanos, it is pretty much agreed, has to improve defensively. He has been getting a pass after transitioning back to third base after a couple of seasons working in left field to try and get him to the bigs. He was a prized prospect, and showed some promise at the plate as well. Reports are he has lost some weight and has been working on his speed and first step this offseason. If so, that is a good thing. They need him to carry his weight over there at the hot corner.
Big concern for Alex Avila at catcher. The man has taken a beating back there, and it shows in his offensive output. Defensively there aren't many better, but Alex, you have to think of your future self. You're going to be in a home drooling on yourself if you don't get out soon. If this new mask you're working with doesn't help, you need to retire. The Tigers need to use whoever their backup is more than they have in the past, just to minimize Avila's exposure to the concussions and keep his legs fresh. Perhaps that will bring his average up from the .220 or so he has hit the last three or four years.
As for the bench, who knows? Right now it looks like Don Kelly, Andrew Romine, and Hernan Perez are the potential extra infielders on the major league roster. Tyler Collins is probably the extra outfielder. There are a couple of other guys on the 40-man roster that they are probably protecting for the future, but the only one we might see this year is Steven Moya. These guys will all be fighting it out for a roster spot. Kelly can play everywhere but has a light stick and little power. Romine and Perez play both middle infield spots, and if you can play those you can probably play third as well, but neither of them have been known to take a turn in the OF. Collins is a guy that made the team out of spring training last year, but was sent down to Toledo so he could play instead of sit.
Edit: Don Kelly is apparently a free agent, although the ESPN roster site I was looking at didn't show him as one, and he has reportedly signed with the Marlins, so count Kelly out of the mix.
The Central Division has gotten a lot tougher over the offseason. Chicago and Cleveland have made marked improvements, especially in their pitching staffs. And of course, Kansas City went to the World Series in 2014, but have lost several key players to free agency and may not be at the same level this year. They still have some talent there, certainly. In the long run, having a tougher Central Division may make whoever wins it a better team for the playoffs next fall.