As pitchers and catchers report this week in Florida and Arizona, Athlon Sports will preview every team in Major League Baseball. Outlooks for every team and so much more information, including rosters, advanced stats and anonymous scouting reports, are featured in the Athlon Sports 2016 MLB Preview, available on newsstands everywhere and in our online store.
After four straight AL Central titles — which, alas, resulted in just one World Series appearance — the Tigers’ championship window slammed shut in 2015, a horrid first-to-worst season that saw core veterans Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander all miss significant time due to injuries, and that also saw the departure of GM Dave Dombrowski to Boston at midseason. But the Tigers were intent on prying that window back open in time for 2016, with owner Mike Ilitch vowing to tell his brain trust, “Go out and get me the best players. I don’t care about the money.”
New GM Al Avila moved swiftly, signing righthander Jordan Zimmermann early in the free agent period, and stayed busy adding veteran pieces to his roster. Meantime, the trades of David Price and Yoenis Cespedes last July netted the Tigers a handful of talented young players ready to help immediately. Nonetheless, the Tigers’ fortunes for 2016 will rest, as they did during the sustained run of division titles, largely with the health and performance of their highly talented, highly compensated veteran core.
The signing of Zimmermann to a five-year $110 million deal — one that looked increasingly club-friendly as the winter progressed — essentially slots the former Washington Nationals stalwart into the spot vacated by Price. Zimmermann has been one of the most dependable arms in the game the last half-dozen years, but a dropoff in 2015 is at least a little concerning. Barring anything unforeseen, veteran ace Verlander appears set to make his eighth Opening Day start in nine years on April 5, following a second-half resurgence in 2015 that had onlookers recalling vintage Verlander. In the middle of the rotation are veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey, the latter a December free agent signee. If both can give the Tigers 175 innings, it will go a long way toward stopping the revolving door that saw them use a whopping 12 starters in 2015. Youngster Daniel Norris, the cornerstone of the Price trade, is the frontrunner for the fifth starter’s job after a solid audition last summer.
After years of fruitless tinkering and updating, the Tigers’ 2016 bullpen is a full-blown gut-and-rehab job, and with good reason: The 2015 version ranked 27th in MLB in ERA. Francisco “K-Rod” Rodriguez, acquired in a November trade, becomes the team’s seventh closer since the start of 2013, following Jose Valverde, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Bruce Rondon and Neftali Feliz. But that was hardly the only upgrade. The eighth inning also got an overhaul, with Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson imported to handle right-handed and lefty set-up duties, respectively. Suddenly, there is some depth to this pen, with Alex Wilson — the Tigers’ lone bullpen bright spot in 2015 — slotted into the primary middle relief role, and a cast of characters including Drew VerHagen, Blaine Hardy, Kyle Ryan and Buck Farmer on hand to round it out.
Ian Kinsler remains perhaps the least worrisome player on the Tigers — good for 150-plus games, a .750-plus OPS, a dozen stolen bases and sterling glove work at second base, year after year. And all of it at a club-friendly price: $14 million in 2016, $11 million in 2017 and $10 million in 2018. No reason to expect anything but the same from Kinsler this season, despite the fact that he will turn 34 in June. Shortstop Jose Iglesias would be in the same category — if the Tigers could keep him on the field. After missing all of 2014 with shin injuries, he was an All-Star in 2015 — only to miss the final month of the season with a hand injury. At 26, this would be an opportune time for Iglesias to take another step toward stardom.
Cabrera’s 2015 season can be viewed one of two ways: It was either a resurgence, with a nearly 80-point jump in OPS from the year before plus his fourth batting title in five years. Or, it was the beginning of the downhill portion of his career. The evidence for the latter is that he missed a career-high 43 games with a variety of ailments and produced his fewest home runs (18) since his rookie season. Obviously, 2016 will go a long way toward determining which interpretation prevails. Third baseman Nick Castellanos likewise faces a critical season at age 24. His up-and-down 2015 season seemed to pivot on a three-day benching in June, after which a revived Castellanos went, and pretty much stayed, on a tear, hitting 11 of his 15 homers after his return to the lineup. The Tigers would very much like to see another leap, into the 20-homer, 80-RBI range, in 2016.
The Tigers turned a potential problem area into a position of strength with the signing of Justin Upton in January to play left field. Upton has averaged 27.3 home runs over the last three years and also adds another basestealer to the lineup. Right fielder J.D. Martinez built on his breakthrough 2014 season with a 38-homer, 102-RBI campaign that also saw him earn his first All-Star berth and win a Silver Slugger Award. Cameron Maybin, a top Tigers prospect a decade ago, has come full circle, returning to the organization following a November trade. He will battle Anthony Gose, the rare light-hitting outfielder who also strikes out a ton, for at bats in center.
James McCann was a revelation in 2015, getting thrust into starting duty a month into his rookie season when Alex Avila was hurt, and almost immediately proving himself a capable starting catcher. Though his offense was only average, defensively he managed to go the entire season without an error — just the sixth such season (min. 100 games) in MLB history. Now, with Avila gone, McCann is the unquestioned starter, although the Tigers signed veteran Jarrod Saltalamacchia to compete with Bryan Holaday for the backup job.
Age, injuries and the grind of so many years behind the plate finally appeared to catch up to Martinez in 2015. He was hurt much of the year, and he was a shell of himself when he was in the lineup. His OPS of .667 was the worst of his career and a drop of more than 300 points from 2014. It is difficult to overstate how important he is to the Tigers, but he will need to prove he can produce like the V-Mart of old in order to return to his days of 600 plate appearances. Meantime, the Tigers’ bench was looking perilously thin before the December signing of veteran Mike Aviles, who won’t smash many pinch-hit homers but whose versatility (he played everywhere but first base, pitcher and catcher for Cleveland last year) makes him a perfect fit here. Otherwise, Gose and/or Maybin will serve as the fourth outfielder, with veteran Andrew Romine as the top utility infielder, and a slew of others certain to cycle through.
The transition from Dombrowski to Al Avila felt mostly seamless, owing largely to the latter’s role as a Dombrowski lieutenant for so many years. And in Avila’s first offseason, the moves came fast. Meantime, Brad Ausmus nearly lost his job as manager at the end of last season, but he was given a reprieve for 2016 — though with the mandate that there must be immediate improvement in the final year of his contract. A new pitching coach, veteran Rich Dubee, joins Ausmus for 2016.
The AL Central has grown up around the Tigers in the last few years, with the Kansas City Royals, in particular, surging past them. (By the end of 2015, the Twins, Indians and White Sox had surged past them — at least in the standings — as well.) The core of veteran talent, combined with Ilitch’s willingness to spend, means the Tigers will always have a shot at contention. But as that Cabrera-Verlander-Martinez core ages — and sucks up resources — contention is no longer a given. The Tigers need a lot to break right to return to the playoffs in 2016, and it’s probably asking too much for all of it to happen.
Prediction: 2nd AL Central
2B Ian Kinsler (R)
LF Justin Upton (R)
1B Miguel Cabrera (R)
DH Victor Martinez (S)
RF J.D. Martinez (R)
3B Nick Castellanos (R)
C James McCann (R)
SS Jose Iglesias (R)
CF Cameron Maybin (R)
OF Anthony Gose (L)
UTL Mike Aviles (R)
C Bryan Holaday (R)
INF Andrew Romine (S)
RHP Justin Verlander
RHP Jordan Zimmermann
RHP Anibel Sanchez
RHP Mike Pelfrey
LHP Daniel Norris
RHP Francisco Rodriguez (Closer)
RHP Mark Lowe
LHP Justin Wilson
RHP Alex Wilson
LHP Blaine Hardy
RHP Drew VerHagen
RHP Shane Greene