The Detroit Tigers have been hanging on to the last vestiges of their run of AL Central dominance for the last few years. Every season looks to be the one where everything falls apart and, for the most part, their rickety machine has held together quite nicely. They managed to come a few games away from a Wild Card spot last year by making good use of the pieces obtained from the mini-rebuild at the 2015 trade deadline. Their hopes for 2017 rest on those players, as well as the same names Brad Ausmus has penciled into the lineup since he arrived in 2014.
Detroit Tigers 2017 Season Preview
The winter began with General Manager Al Avila talking about selling off all the pieces that made the Tigers great over the past decade. Nobody was safe from this impending firesale. Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander, J.D. Martinez, and everybody with fully functioning bodies were targets for trade discussion. All that talk led exactly nowhere. Spring has come along and Verlander, Cabrera, and everybody not named Cameron Maybin is still kicking around in the Tigers clubhouse.
Maybin is the only significant piece from last year to leave the team. He was sent off to the Los Angeles Angels for Double-A pitching prospect Victor Alcantara and not replaced with anything worthwhile. Coming on in his stead is the only notable signing of the winter, as 26-year-old center fielder Mikie Mahtook joins the team from Tampa Bay. He had a woeful .231 on base percentage in 196 plate appearances with the Rays last season.
That’s quite a sad outcome for an offseason that started with dreams (or nightmares) of a rebuild. It’s unclear exactly why there was such a dramatic turnaround in their plans, but one fantastic theory says Avila was looking to bait Dave Dombrowski into sending the prospects he lost in the Chris Sale trade to the Tigers for Cabrera or Verlander, or both. Whether this is true or not will never be known, but it’s a fun way to think about the ultimately boring Tigers offseason.
Many Pitching Questions
Verlander has been the horse leading the Tigers rotation for around ten years. He experienced a dip in form over the last couple seasons, but he is still the ace the team needs. His inability to stay healthy has really hurt him and it seems every winter delivers stories of more core muscle issues. These injuries have led to slow starts that often even out by the end of June and there is no reason to think this year will be any different for the main man on the pitching staff.
The rotation is very young, outside of Verlander. Last year’s American League Rookie of the Year, Michael Fulmer, will be trusted to hold down the number two spot and avoid a sophomore slump. Jordan Zimmerman is out to prove he is worth the contract he signed last year and that he can overcome the injuries that derailed his 2016. Finally, some combination of Derek Norris, Matt Boyd, Mike Pelfrey, and the sharply-declining Anibal Sanchez will have to make up the bottom of the rotation. Norris and Boyd will probably get the bulk of the starts, but all four will show up at some point.
Their bullpen, as has been the case for the last several seasons, is a mess. Francisco Rodriguez stabilized the closer spot last year, but he has already had one injury scare with Venezuela in the World Baseball Classic. The middle relievers trusted to get the ball to him with a lead will have Tigers fans popping antacids all summer long. Bruce Rondon has never lived up to the lofty expectations placed on him from the beginning. He and the inconsistent Justin Wilson will be in charge of the seventh and eighth innings all year long.
The bullpen improved last year, but a lot of that improvement came form having a quality closer for the first time since Jose Valverde‘s perfect 2011. Wilson and Rondon will handle the set up duties. They are high strikeout pitchers who have their struggles. Rondon led the team in WHIP last year, but only pitched 36 innings, thanks to a continued inability to stay healthy. Wilson fans a lot of hitters, but struggles to get outs through contact. His ten strikeouts per nine innings sort of make up for this, but he needs to get better at forcing weaker contact.
Old Bats, Old Stories
The Tigers lineup looks awfully similar to last year. They still have Cabrera, who may not be the best hitter in the game anymore, but can still hit the cover off the ball. Victor Martinez is still the DH, despite having a pair of bad knees. He’s a shadow of his former self and not living up to his contract, but he’s still productive. J.D. Martinez, Jose Iglesias, James McCann, and every other starter (save Maybin) from 2016 is back for another go.
The lineup has a couple players leading the way. Cabrera is the obvious one, but Ian Kinsler‘s contributions tend to go unnoticed. Kinsler actually led the Tigers hitters with 6.9 wins above replacement last season, thanks to consistent offense and playing top defense at second base. There’s a sharp decline in production beyond these two.
The Tigers will need several players to step up in order to make the dreams of on last run at the playoffs come true. Nick Castellanos comes to mind right away. Last season was his best yet, with a .285/.331/.496 batting line. He has improved in each of his full seasons and, fresh off his 25th birthday, needs to take the next step into stardom into 2017.
Justin Upton will also need to avoid the slow start that made Tigers fans wish there was a 30-day money-back guarantee on free agent signings. He recovered to hit 31 homers last year, but 22 came in the second half. His batting line read .235/.289/.381 for the first half and jumped to .260/.337/.579 in the second. This still isn’t great, but at least the power numbers were there. His 2017 will have to look a lot more like his second half for the Tigers to be happy with their outfield.
Overall, the Tigers have the potential to compete for one of the wild card spots on the American League. They are not going to surpass the Cleveland Indians for division supremacy, but a run at the playoffs isn’t out of the question. The team could also drop below .500 and force the front office to finally execute a much needed rebuild. This will be the case if the young starting pitching can’t find its grove and the offense behind Cabrera and Kinsler never gets going.
The Tigers run of competitiveness can’t have much life left in it. Next winter will probably be the time to tear everything down and start anew, regardless of how this season shapes up. As for this year, they might as well go for the gusto while they still have the pieces left over from their recent glory days.