Detroit has a dangerous lineup and made some smart off-season additions in Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmermann, but will the Tigers' age and fragility catch up to them?
This week, SI.com is previewing all 30 MLB teams for the 2016 season, counting down to the No. 1 team in the league. At No. 18: the Detroit Tigers.
2015 Record and Finish:
74–87 (.460), fifth place in American League Central (22nd overall)
2016 Projected Record and Finish:
80–82 (.494), third place in AL Central
The Case For
The Tigers won the AL Central every year from 2011 to '14, and it’s not difficult to see how they could return to the playoffs this year after an off-season in which they filled the three biggest holes on their roster with star-quality players in ace Jordan Zimmermann, slugger Justin Upton and closer Francisco Rodriguez, all without sacrificing a player from their 40-man roster. If Justin Verlander can build off his strong finish to 2015 (2.27 ERA over his final 14 starts), he, Zimmermann and a healthy Anibal Sanchez could be a formidable trio backed up by the league-average ground-balling of winter addition Mike Pelfrey and the high ceiling of 23-year-old lefty Daniel Norris. Rodriguez and fellow new arrivals Mark Lowe and lefty Justin Wilson give the Tigers a quality top three in the bullpen, as well, with a slimmed-down and rededicated Bruce Rondon as another potentially dominant short reliever.
On the other side of the ball, healthy seasons from Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez along with prime-age seasons from Upton and J.D. Martinez, continued growth and maturity from third baseman Nick Castellanos, catcher James McCann, centerfielder Anthony Gose and shortstop Jose Iglesias, and continued good work from Ian Kinsler make for a promising attack. Opposing pitchers should have their work cut out for them facing a top five of Kinsler, Upton, Cabrera and the Martinezes.
The Case Against
The yawning gap between the quality of the name on the jersey and the performance of the player within swallows this team whole. Victor Martinez is a 37-year-old with bad knees who posted an 85 OPS+ last year. Kinsler turns 34 in June. Cabrera will be 33 in April and has proven increasingly fragile in recent seasons. Upton’s contact and strikeout rates have been trending in the wrong direction in recent seasons, and he represents a significant defensive downgrade from Yoenis Cespedes, who won a Gold Glove for four moths of work in Detroit last year. Worse, the young players in the lineup (Castellanos, et al.) all appear to have limited ceilings.
Pitching-wise, things are equally iffy. Sanchez hasn’t made 30 starts since 2012 and has never thrown 200 innings in a season. Verlander is 33, has lost at least two miles per hour off his peak fastball and can no longer dominate with his stuff the way he did in his late-twenties peak. Norris has great stuff and a bright future, but has yet to show he can translate either to a major league mound with consistency. Lowe threw all of 18 2/3 major league innings in the two seasons before 2015 and will turn 33 in June, and Rondon is completely unproven.
Not just advanced age—though that’s certainly a concern with the team’s biggest stars—but also excessive youth. The Tigers have very few players in their natural peak seasons. A third of the lineup is 33 or older, and another third of their lineup is still adjusting to the majors, with McCann and Gose in just their second full major league seasons and Castellanos a mere 24 years old. Of the top three men in the rotation and bullpen, Verlander, Sanchez, Rodriguez and Lowe are 32 or older, and the two starters appear even older due to injury and decline. Rounding out the rotation, Pelfrey is also 32; Norris is the youngest player on the team at 23.
Zimmermann, J.D. Martinez, Upton, Iglesias and Wilson are in their respective primes, but the rest of the team is outside of that sweet spot. Correspondingly, they're less likely to deliver peak-quality performance in 2016.
Number To Know: 19
That’s how many blown quality starts—a start in which a pitcher finishes the sixth inning or beyond with a quality start but remains in the game to give up a fourth run—the Tigers have had in Brad Ausmus’s two seasons as manager, according to Baseball Prospectus, and they led the league both years, with nine in 2014 and ten last season. A blown quality start is a measure of a manager’s failure to capitalize on a winning situation—either his failing to (or perhaps in Ausmus’s case, reluctance to) call in fresh arms out of the bullpen when his pitcher is tiring, or his inability to detect a decline in his starter’s performance.
Ausmus’s slow hook has resulted in another dubious distinction. In his first two years with Detroit, he has allowed one of his pitchers to throw 50 or more pitches in an inning on four occasions, including letting the 22-year-old Norris throw 54 in the first inning of a game against the Rangers on Sept. 30 last year. The rest of the league has combined for just one 50-pitch inning in those two seasons (by the Royals’ James Shields in 2014); Ausmus has overseen 22% of the 50-pitch innings in the last seven years despite managing in only two of those seasons. Given the fragility of the arms in his charge, including the overworked Verlander, the fragile Sanchez, the surgically repaired Zimmermann and the still-developing Norris, the hope is that Ausmus will have increased confidence in his relief corps this year.
Most Overrated: Justin Upton, LF
“I think this guy is in a slight decline right now. The body’s getting big. He’s just slowing down a little bit. He’s been terrible in spring training. He’s been chasing high fastballs. He’s been chasing sliders out of the strikezone. I know it’s spring training and it’s early, but you get frustrated because the guy is unbelievably talented.”
Most Underrated: James McCann, C
“This guy is a good player. He can hit. He can catch. For me, he’s going to be one of the better catchers in the American League. I’m excited about this one. I expect big things from this guy.... In the minor leagues, they weren’t sure about his defense, but he has gradually gotten better with his receiving, his throwing and everything. His bat is surprising. You stick him down in the bottom of this lineup, and he’s going to do some damage. You can’t forget about this guy.”