Detroit Tigers Season Preview: Is The Window Still Open?

As the Major League Baseball season begins the boys in the old English D will look to make the playoffs after missing out the past two seasons. Expectations and hype are down in the Motor City for the Tigers, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to be hopeful for the 2017 season.

In his first off-season as general manager, Al Avila shook up the roster a bit, but many argue not for the better. Avila let starting centerfielder Cameron Maybin walk after a productive-injury plagued season. But unlike years past, the Tigers didn’t bring in a marquee name to replace him. Instead, Avila brought in former Tampa Bay Ray outfielder Mikie Mahtook who has a .231 batting average in 290 career at-bats.

The only other major league free agent signing was one Tigers fan could see coming from a mile away with Alex Avila coming back to Detroit in a backup catcher role behind James McCann. Avila spent last season as a backup with the White Sox.

Before I go into prediction mode let’s breakdown the Tigers roster as we head into the new season.

Bullpen: 

If you thought the bullpen wasn’t good last year, well, you shouldn’t raise your expectations much, if at all, this season. The bullpen is essentially the same with mostly the same faces returning for another season. Francisco Rodriguez will handle the closing duties after coming off a solid season. The 35-year-old was 44-for-49 in save opportunities last season and ended the season with a 3.24 ERA.

Justin Wilson will likely get eight inning duties after starting to show consistency last season, but he will have to fight off a guy who has been up-and-coming for a few years now in Bruce Rondon. The weight issues still linger for Rondon, but he continues to show flashes of great potential that are hard to go unnoticed as his hard throwing style is something the Tigers continue to covet.

The Tigers have another left-handed pitcher in Kyle Ryan who will continue to serve as middle relief. Ryan beat out Blaine Hardy and rule five draft pick-up Daniel Stumpf, and will hopefully be able to hang on to it for the season. The Tigers need Ryan to bring consistency this season as Justin Wilson can’t get every lefty out himself. The newest addition to the pen is $16 million man Anibal Sanchez, who lost is spot in the rotation to Matt Boyd after a solid spring. While Mike Pelfrey was so bad the Tigers decided to pay him to not play for Detroit this year, Sanchez found a way to not pitch himself out of the organization but to the bullpen as he continues to tinker with his delivery. He’ll be the Tigers long relief pitcher. So anytime a starter goes out and gets bombed in the early innings expect Sanchez to be the first guy out of the bullpen.

 

Rotation: 

Justin Verlander returns after finishing as the runner up in the Cy Young race to Boston Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello in 2016 and will without question anchor the staff. Michael Fulmer will look to avoid that infamous sophomore slump after winning the American League Rookie of the Year. Having another season with a 3.06 ERA and 1.12 walks hits per innings pitched seems unlikely. But even if Fulmer can keep it close to those numbers, Tigers fans and the organization will be plenty happy.

Jordan Zimmerman, along with the entire Tigers fan base, looks to stay healthy this season and live up to his 5-year $110 million contract. Zimmerman might have the most pressure on him of any Tigers pitcher as he was the first big free agent Avila went after. The three youngsters in the rotation can use their inexperience as an excuse for dips in performance from last season season. But Zimmerman makes too much money, even if that isn’t entirely his fault, to look like Jeremy Bonderman.

Speaking of the youth the back end of the staff will be two young lefties in Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. Norris has had health issues the past couple season but has shown he can handle major league hitters. Norris could be the real X-factor this season if he can stay healthy and produce at the level we all hope he can reach. Boyd will be the fifth starter for the Tigers in his first full season. Boyd’s numbers don’t look pretty in his young two-year career but he’s fully capable of being a solid fifth starter.

Catcher:

McCann will look to breakout this season at the plate after showing the past two seasons he is a force defensively. McCann threw out nearly 45-percent of runners who attempted to steal against him last season and has rightfully so earned the Detroit-made nickname McCannon. Could he produce more with the bat? Absolutely. His .221 average last season doesn’t sit well with Tigers fans. But he doesn’t need to hit .270 to have a good season.

If McCann can hit .240 with 15 home runs and 55 runs batted in I’ll take that with his great defensive skills. Avila will certainly get his share of games behind the plate. To be honest as long as Avila doesn’t hit below .200 I’ll take it, he still brings value defensively.

 

Infield: 

For the most part the starting four is set for the season. After hitting .285 with 18 homers in just 110 games, Nick Castellanos proved he’s a legit big leaguer. His defensive ability still needs a little work but even that was improved last season. He’ll never be a gold glove third baseman but as long as he continues to get better at it and can hit like he did last year (and in spring training) he’ll be just fine. Ian Kinsler will bat leadoff again this season and continues to be great with the glove. I have my doubts Kinsler will hit 28 home runs again, but he doesn’t need to.

Miguel Cabrera, enough said. The leader of the Tigers lineup doesn’t need a paragraph to explain expectations. We all know what is expected of Miggy. As long as he can avoid the nagging foot injuries he’s had in recent years he’ll have another monster season.

Jose Iglesias might be in for an interesting season. If the Tigers season turns sour, Iglesias would be a likely trade target at the deadline. He’s been more productive at the plate than expected since he’s come to Detroit and is a wizard defensively. But Dixon Machado inched his way closer to a starting role this season by being placed on the Tigers bench. Machado is a good defensive player himself. My biggest fear with Iglesias is his boastful Javier Baez-like attitude towards the game. Iglesias can be a ‘hot dog’ as the old-timers would say and I always fear that will cost the Tigers at some point during the season.

 

Outfield:

J.D. Martinez is turning into a true stud. If he can improve even more this season he might hit his way into the most valuable player discussion, though he is no Mike Trout. Martinez earned himself a Tigers life-time achievement award for his pinch-hit home run off Chris Sale last season in his first game back from injury. And yes we all know you along with every other Tigers fan called it. I like J.D. though and would hate to see him go if the Tigers do go into a fire-sale mode next season.

For the love of Ernie Harwell, Justin Upton can not get out to the start he got out to last season. Upton was absolutely, un-godly awful for the first four months of the season in 2016. But then somehow he completely turned it around and hit 22 home runs after the All-Star break. If Upton can be more consistent this season, that would be huge for the Tigers offense. I expect Upton to remain comfortable at the plate on his way to finish with a .258 average with 29 home runs and 88 RBIs.

Centerfield will be entertaining to say the least for the Tigers this season. When J.D. Martinez returns from the disabled list it’ll be likely be platooned between Mahtook and rookie JaCoby Jones. While Mahtook brings experience and… that’s about it, Jones brings energy and speed. If Jones can hit above .240, I think he’ll become the everyday starter. Even though.240 doesn’t sound like a good average, it could be a tall task for a guy who doesn’t have great plate discipline (though he shows flashes this spring) and only 28 career at bats. But I’d love to see the kid get a crack at it cause the potential is definitely there. He just needs time.

Designated Hitter:

Rapidly becoming my least favorite Tiger, Victor Martinez will be the DH because he’s still good enough at the plate to overcome his lack of speed. And by lack of I mean none at all. He’s getting older and with bad knees it’ll be interesting to see how many times gets pinch run for in late inning close game situations (we’ll put the over/under at 35 ½). Last seasons, 55-percent of Victor’s extra base hits were home runs and I expect that number to increase as second base has only gotten farther away from the plate for him.

Prediction:

This Tigers team has the talent to win 90 games, but they also have the capability of winning less than 80. Cleveland is the only real threat in the A.L. Central and the Tigers can’t go 4-14 against the Tribe like they did last year including an 0-11 start against their division rival. If they can at least go .500 against Cleveland they have a good shot at winning the division.

The lineup will do their part as it mostly did last season. There is too much firepower on the offense for it to be the reason this team fails. Last year the Tigers dealt with some major injuries with Castellanos, J.D. Martinez, and Maybin all missing significant time. If Detroit can avoid the injury bug they’ll make a good run at it.

The bullpen has to step up, I know that’s becoming an old bit in this city but for another year in a row it’s the truth. I think Rodriguez will hold his own as the closer but they’ll need more consistency out of guys like Rondon, Justin Wilson and Ryan. If Sanchez can continue his progression he showed in late spring he could be a valuable asset to the pen.

The rotation is going to make or break this team. We all know what Verlander will do, but that isn’t enough. To make the playoffs and win a division you need at least three or four starters to have good seasons. And with the back end of the rotation full of youth that’s a lot to ask for from the Tigers young starters. Not only can Fulmer not have a major set-back season but out of Zimmerman, Norris, and Boyd at least two of them have to step up and I’m not so sure that they’ll be able to.

I don’t see a divison crown in sight for the Tigers this year. They’ll make the playoffs as the last wild-card team and win the play-in game. The season won’t last much longer as they’ll get ousted in the American League Divisonal Series.

 

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