Because They Aren’t Making Any Moves, Let’s Preview the Tigers

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(Credit: Aaron Doster / USA TODAY Sports)

The closest team to the University of Michigan geographically and the organization with more fans than any other in M-SABR—it’s time to discuss the Detroit Tigers.

Update, 2/22/17: So much for the previous update on Justin Upton. Per Anthony Fenech, Justin Upton will not bat 2nd to start the season. Furthermore, Brad Ausmus said he may consider J.D. Martinez (who struggled in the two-hole) and Nick Castellanos for the 2nd slot in the lineup. Jose Iglesias or the undetermined starter in CF (Mahtook/Collins/Gose/Jones) may also earn the spot.

Update, 2/15/17Per the Detroit Free Press, Matt Boyd is the favorite to win the final rotation spot. Boyd struggled over 18.2 IP in September with a 6.75 ERA last season, but this reflected his very up-and-down season, in which he posted an 8.24 ERA in June, but a 2.21 ERA in July and a 2.79 ERA in July. Nevertheless, the Tigers want to get younger, and 26-year-old Boyd is seven years younger than both Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. Meanwhile, per the Detroit Free Press, Mikie Mahtook or Tyler Collins is expected to play in CF, as Brad Ausmus would like JaCoby Jones to stay in AAA for one more year. Additionally, Justin Upton is expected to start the season batting 2nd (where he batted to start the 2016 season) following his strong finish to 2016.

Introduction

The closest team to the University of Michigan geographically and the organization with more fans than any other in M-SABR—it’s time to discuss the Detroit Tigers. Let me be the first to say that the Tigers are an interesting topic of discussion at club meetings. Some believe that the team should have sold its veteran assets and rebuilt this offseason. Others believe that they should make cheap upgrades at barren positions. Al Avila, however, believes that standing pat is the best move—yes, even with Tyler Collins (and perhaps Mikie Mahtook) in centerfielder at this moment. Therefore, to inspire Avila, I present to you a full preview of the 2017 Detroit Tigers, complete with a 2016 recap, an offseason recap (if you can even call it that), and a look at the team moving forward.

2016 – Surprises, Injuries… and No Playoffs

While nothing ever goes quite as expected, the 2016 season was an absolute rollercoaster for the Tigers. No one expected Michael Fulmer to win the AL Rookie of the Year award, just as no one expected Jordan Zimmermann to completely fall apart after winning the April Cy Young award. Seeing that the team missed the playoffs by a game, what brought the Tigers down in 2016?

Divisional Struggles: You may have heard about the Tigers’ difficulties with the eventual American League champion Cleveland Indians this past season. The Tigers went 4-14 against their strongest divisional rival on their way to losing the AL Central by eight games. In general, it was a down year for the Tigers versus divisional rivals.

tigers-preview-graph

While Detroit trended up, in comparison to 2015, against weak divisional rivals like the Twins and White Sox, they struggled mightily against the Royals and Indians. This could be an interesting trend to watch going in 2017: Will the Tigers turn it around against their powerhouse rival, while also continuing to beat up on the division’s lower tier? The playoff Detroit teams of 2012, 2013, and 2014 compiled 43-29, 47-29, and 43-33 records versus the AL Central, respectively, before watching October baseball from home with 41-34 and 38-37 records the past two years. It looks as if 43 wins is the magic number!

Jordan Zimmermann: The eight-year veteran had only two wins less than Michael Fulmer in 2016—which is just another reason to discount the “Win” statistic. Fulmer’s season, however, gave Tigers fans hope; Zimmerman’s made the fan base panic. Yes, Jordan Zimmermann is only 30 years old, but 2016 was essentially worst-case scenario for the former Nationals star. After a flat-out dominant April, in which he allowed 2 ER in 33 IP, the righty proceeded to post a 6.72 ERA the rest of the season. That is not a number you want to see from your number two starter. The Tigers will need a strong 2017 campaign from Zimmermann if they want to be a World Series contender.

Injuries, Injuries, Injuries… Injuries: The Tigers were plagued by injuries in 2016, with the full lineup playing a dozen games together. Starting catcher James McCann took too long to get into the swing of things after an early season injury. Jose Iglesias missed over two weeks in August—though no rational Tigers fan would have ever expected 150 games from Iglesias. Breakout star Nick Castellanos (.285/.331/.496 in 2016) missed the final two months of the season after a scorching hot first half, and the Tigers missed another bat in the heart of their line-up – J.D. Martinez (142 wRC+) – for two months, as well. And starting centerfielder Cameron Maybin appeared in less than 100 games.

So, it’s clear that plenty went wrong for the Tigers in 2016. The team wasn’t eliminated from playoff contention until the final day of the season, though. Why?

Because not all is lost in Detroit.

Justin Verlander, Elite Starting Pitcher: Following an electric second half in 2015, “Must-See JV” returned after a shaky April to dominate the American League. Verlander led all MLB starting pitchers with a 6.6 rWAR and finished 4th in the AL with a 3.48 FIP in 227.2 IP. All doubts are gone—the ace is back.

Michael Fulmer, Rookie of the Year: Yoenis Cespedes who? In 2016, Michael Fulmer broke onto the scene, winning the 2016 AL Rookie of the Year award and posting 24.2 consecutive scoreless IP along the way. The interesting thing to watch coming into 2017, however, is how Fulmer responds to a tumultuous second half. He posted a 3.94 ERA following the All-Star Break, nearly two runs higher than his 2.11 ERA prior to the All-Star Break (he had 13 starts prior and following). Still, there are no complaints about 4.9 rWAR from a rookie. Here’s to a long, healthy, and successful career.

Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd: The David Price Trade Bears Fruit: For the second consecutive year, young pitchers Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd improved, posting 1.5 rWAR and 1.0 rWAR in 2016, respectively. (Norris amassed his rWAR in 28 fewer IP). It wouldn’t be surprising to see Norris perform at least at the level of a fourth starter in 2017. Likewise, Matt Boyd is a very solid back-of-the-rotation pitcher. If only they knew what to do with Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey…

There were other bright sides to the 2016 season. For example, 6.1 rWAR from Ian Kinsler and another amazing season from Miguel Cabrera would pay dividends. But the Tigers’ superstar ace and young rookie starting pitcher trio were the bright spots of 2016. Now, let’s look at what Al Avila is up to this offseason…

Offseason Recap

The Tigers agreed to terms with C Alex Avila on a one-year contract.

The Tigers acquire OF Mikie Mahtook from the Rays.

The Tigers select RP Daniel Stumpf in the Rule 5 Draft.

That’s it.

Now, is that going to work? That’s a great question! Let’s look at the 2017 squad and see.

2017 – A Look Ahead (Note: Rotation, Lineup, Bench, and Bullpen are based on ’16 performance.)

Starting Rotation:
1. Justin Verlander
2. Michael Fulmer
3. Jordan Zimmermann
4. Daniel Norris
5. Matt Boyd

(Other options: Mike Pelfrey, Anibal Sanchez, Shane Greene)

Let’s start with the good news: the rotation is looking good, assuming Jordan Zimmermann stays healthy and delivers any portion of the rWAR he contributed to the Nationals from 2011 to 2015 (2.8, 4.7, 3.7, 4.9, 3.5, I don’t care, pick one). Justin Verlander has reestablished his status as one of baseball’s top starting pitchers. Michael Fulmer made a name for himself by winning the Rookie of the Year award and being a legitimate Cy Young candidate until after the All-Star Break. Daniel Norris has shown promise time and time again despite injury issues in his first two seasons and amassed 1.5 rWAR in just 69.1 IP last year. Can Matt Boyd pitch consistently enough to hold down the number five spot throughout 2017? I hope so, as Mike Pelfrey and Anibal Sanchez have been consistently awful for two years. For now, I’ll avoid projections. Just know that Daniel Norris is going to have a 5+ rWAR season.

Starting Line-Up:
1. Ian Kinsler (2B)
2. Nick Castellanos (3B)
3. Miguel Cabrera (1B)
4. J.D. Martinez (DH)
5. Victor Martinez (RF)
6. Justin Upton (LF)
7. James McCann (C)
8. Mikie Mahtook (CF)
9. Jose Iglesias (SS)

Bench:
Alex Avila (C)
Andrew Romine (UTIL)
Tyler Collins (OF), Anthony Gose (OF) OR JaCoby Jones (OF)
Dixon Machado (SS/3B) OR Steven Moya (OF)

Wow! Everything looks good… except for, you know, Brad Ausmus will continue to put three of the worst baserunners in baseball 3-4-5 in the lineup… and Jose Iglesias, who struggled at the plate in 2016, will likely bat second… and Tyler Collins is the current favorite to start in CF. Look, Collins earned some love in 2016 with his late-season heroics, but he’s a bench player and everyone knows it. The bench is not too pretty, either, though Dixon Machado needs to be on it if the Tigers want to keep him and his gold-glove caliber glove around. The Tigers still have plenty of offensive firepower, despite depth questions. 2016 proved that an excessive amount of injuries will doom the team no matter what, so it is what it is. Look for Nick Castellanos to continue his breakout, watch Justin Upton after a scorching hot finish to 2016, and keep an eye on James McCann. If the “McCannon” can start hitting to match his elite fielding skills, he may finally make a name for himself around the league.

Bullpen:

CP – Francisco Rodriguez
SU – Justin Wilson
SU – Alex Wilson
MRP – Bruce Rondon
MRP – Mark Lowe
MRP – Kyle Ryan
LRP – Shane Greene

(Other Options: Blaine Hardy, Drew VerHagen, Angel Nesbitt, Joe Jimenez, Daniel Stumpf, Mike Pelfrey, Anibal Sanchez)

That’s right—the Tigers have a bullpen’s worth of other options. The bad news is that K-Rod and Alex Wilson are the only reliable options out of the bullpen currently. The Tigers initially chose Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson to be their set-up men in 2016, though Shane Greene ultimately took Mark Lowe’s role after falling out of the starting rotation. Greene’s 5.82 ERA suggests great struggles, though his 3.13 FIP is encouraging and makes the ERA look extremely inflated. Likewise, Justin Wilson finished with a 3.18 FIP compared to his 4.14 ERA. If Mark Lowe has a bounce-back season, Justin Wilson and Shane Greene see their ERAs deflate, K-Rod continues to perform, and other arms step up (Rondon and Ryan impressed at times in 2016), the Tigers bullpen could be decent. If all those things happen and Joe Jimenez breaks onto the scene, the bullpen could be scary. Anyways, don’t hold your breath.

Conclusion

The Tigers were close to making the playoffs in 2016, and we should be able to make the assumption that half the team will not get injured again in 2017. There are star players in Detroit, and multiple young studs are trending positively. That said, to Al Avila: Please go and get a centerfielder. Let this be the article that makes you finally cave and sign a Ben Revere-type guy. Thanks, Al, the Tigers fans at the Michigan Baseball and Sabermetrics Club appreciate it.

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