Playing Pepper 2016: Detroit Tigers

It’s one of those rites of spring, one of those signs that baseball is returning.  For the eighth straight year, we’re Playing Pepper!  We’ll ask six questions of bloggers for each major league team as a way of getting familiar with those teams that don’t wear the birds on the bat.  This year, this series will be “sponsored” by The Cardinals Way, the new book from Howard Megdal.  It’s an outstanding look at the Cardinal organization and I can’t recommend you getting a copy highly enough.

Detroit Tigers
74-87, fifth in the AL Central
Last year’s Pepper

Fifth?  Did I read that right?  While fans of a longer memory can still recall when the Tigers were the laughingstock of the league, that’s not been the case in recent years.  Yet just one year after a divisional crown and with a World Series appearance still in recent memory, Detroit wound up cratering last year, never having a winning month after a 15-8 April.

Was this just a blip on the radar or a sign of troubling times to come?  Four Detroit bloggers tackle the 2016 squad for us today.  First up we have Kristen Bentley, who is the co-editor of Motor City Bengals and is making her Pepper debut.  You’ll find her on Twitter @kris10bentley.  Following Kristen is Lee Panas, another Pepper rookie who writes at Tiger Tales.  His Twitter handle is @tiger337.  Batting third is our friend Shane Kay from Sons of ’84.  Shane’s making his fourth straight appearance in the series and can be found on Twitter @Sonsof84Tigers.  Cleaning it all up is Jennifer Cosey of Old English D, though mainly you’ll see her on Twitter @VivaTigres. This marks Jennifer’s sixth straight year with us, so she’s an old hand at all this.

C70: What are your thoughts on the team’s offseason? Did they do what they needed to do?

MCB: The Tigers needed to bulk up their bullpen and their starting rotation. They did just that by signing Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey, Francisco Rodriguez, and Justin Wilson. They also needed a full-time left fielder who can hit – Justin Upton filled that role.

TT: After finishing in last place with a 74-87 record in 2015, the Tigers had a lot of work to do in the hot stove league. New General Manager Alex Avila stated back in October that the Tigers would pursue a top of the rotation workhorse, a fifth starter, a closer, one or two other relievers and a right-handed hitting center fielder. He also mentioned the need for a left fielder, but wanted to see how the market played out before committing to anything. Fulfilling all those needs was a tall order, but Avila engineered a near perfect off-season with the help of owner Mike Ilitch.

Avila moved quickly first adding closer Francisco Rodriguez from the Milwaukee Brewers for marginal prospects. He further strengthened the bullpen which has long been the Tigers Achilles heel by signing free agent righty Mark Lowe and grabbing southpaw Justin Wilson in a deal with the Yankees. As promised, the Tigers affable GM then signed a #2 starter – Jordan Zimmerman to a huge five-year deal – and a #5 starter – Mike Pelfrey.

Avila added positional depth by trading for center fielder Cameron Maybin and signing free agent catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia. Finally, Ilitch put the team way over the luxury tax threshold by signing slugging left fielder Upton to a six-year deal (with a two year opt out). It would be really difficult for any reasonable fan to expect a better off season.

S84: Yes and no. Half way through the off-season, it sure looked like they were staying away from that impact bat, in denying any interest in Yoenis Cespedes. The communication was that they were completely happy with the trade for former Tiger prospect Cameron Maybin and platooning him with Anthony Gose and Tyler Collins between the Center Field and Left Field spots. Then boom, one of the best owners in sports (Mike Illitch) steps in, mentions he’s concerned about the offense and the next we know, Justin Upton is a Tiger. His bat will sit nicely in the 2nd or 6th spots in the order and won’t have to worry about the guy who has to carry the team. The reason I say no, is that it would have been great to have a left handed bat (in Chris Davis), however I’m not going to dwell on that.

OED: Rookie GM Al Avila had a productive first off-season. The outfield was bolstered with additions of Cameron Maybin and Justin Upton. Right-hander Jordan Zimmerman improves the rotation. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was a solid signing at backup catcher. The Tigers didn’t end up being in the running for the likes of David Price or Yoenis Cespedes, and that ended up being ok, even though I confess it hurt a little to see them sign elsewhere.

C70: It seems like Miguel Cabrera has been around forever, but he’s only 32. Is there any reason to think he won’t again be a top-tier offensive force?

MCB: There are two reasons that Miguel Cabrera would not be a force. Getting injured and being out of shape. He was injured last season and still managed to have the best batting average in the AL. I just saw him at Comerica Park last weekend and he did not look like he was out of shape. He has commented on how this is the best off-season he has had in years because he was not recovering from surgery or injuries. I would expect him to be a force at the plate and a leader in the dugout.

TT: While his very best days may be behind him, there is no reason to think Miguel Cabrera won’t continue to be a top-tier hitter for the next few years. He has suffered various injuries the last three years including a strained calf which put him on the disabled list for the first time last year. Despite the injury, he still led the American League in Batting Average and On-Base Percentage and finished second in OPS in 2015. As he ages, it will likely be more difficult to stay on the field for a full season but when healthy the two-time MVP is still among the best if not the best hitters in the game. The good news is that he is apparently completely healthy going into spring training.

S84: As long as he’s healthy, he will be one of the top hitters in the game. He won’t out homer Chris Davis again, but he will contend for batting titles year in and year out.

OED: As long as he can stay healthy, he should be counted on to dominate for some time. He has played through some injuries, and maintained a surprising level of value, despite not being at full strength at times. He wants to be on the field every day, and consistently displays a focus and intensity on the game. Miguel Cabrera could end up being one of the greatest right-handed hitters ever to play the game, and I am so thankful I’ve had a front row seat to his career.

C70: If you have a concern about this team, what is it?

MCB: The biggest concern about the team is the middle and back end of the rotation. Justin Verlander was pitching in top form at the end of 2015 and Jordan Zimmermann knows what he is doing. Anibal Sanchez is the #3 guy right now and he was injured in almost all of 2015 – the word is that he has recovered and is back at full strength, but it all remains to be seen. Mike Pelfrey was a decent starter for the Twins and the Mets, but his 4.52 lifetime ERA is not exactly what everyone wants to see in Detroit – especially after the dumpster fire that we saw from the Tigers in 2015. The 5th spot is up for grabs, even though most people believing that Daniel Norris will fill it. He’s only 23 and coming off of thyroid surgery to remove cancer.

The other concern is Victor Martinez. He is getting older and he struggled last year with his knees. There hasn’t been much information released about his health and the condition of his knees. We are all hearing that he is back at full strength (like Sanchez). A healthy V-Mart can change the game by adding even more power in the middle of the lineup. Without him, the Tigers have plenty of hitters who can DH, but he is a veteran leader that has a big contract to fill.

TT: The biggest concern for the Tigers is still pitching depth. While they added five solid pitchers since the end of last year, they had the worst ERA in the league in 2015 and still look somewhat vulnerable. Zimmerman and a rejuvenated Justin Verlander make a good one two punch at the top of the rotation, but question marks remain elsewhere. Fragile right hander Anibal Sanchez needs to regain some of the form of 2013-2014 when he was one of the top pitchers in the AL when healthy. They will also need contributions from promising youngsters such as Daniel Norris, Michael Fulmer and Matt Boyd.

The Tigers bullpen is deeper now, but it contains no elite talent at a time when relief staffs are becoming increasingly important in the game. If the Tigers make any in season moves to improve their post-season chances, right now I would bet on the bullpen being involved.

S84: The biggest concern for this team is health. If they were healthy last year, they were a playoff team (even with that bullpen), but when losing Miggy, Anibal Sanchez, Victor Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Jose Iglesias for spans of time, they’re a last place team.

OED: Health. Anibal Sanchez already suffered a minor setback this spring. Justin Verlander has battled injuries the past several seasons, as has Miguel Cabrera. Victor Martinez’ knee is as strong as paper maché. A run at post-season glory depends on these guys steering clear of major injuries.

C70: What player do you expect to make the greatest strides this year?

MCB: Nick Castellanos. The third baseman is a young player who has had difficulty playing his position making mistakes on basic plays. He finished the 2015 season strong and will hopefully come out proving that he is here to play. It would also be nice to see J.D. Martinez come out strong and perform even better than he did in 2014 and 2015.

TT: The biggest prize of the deadline deal of ace starter David Price to the Blue Jays last July was starter Daniel Norris. Norris looked impressive in eight starts for the Tigers displaying the arsenal of a future top starter. At the end of the season, we received the unfortunate news that the popular lefty would undergo surgery for Thyroid cancer. He is now reportedly cancer free and ready for spring training. Assuming there are no setbacks, he would be my first choice for a break out year. Another possibility is third baseman Nick Castellanos who had a strong second half last season showing plus power for the first time.

S84: I think the easy answer is Nick Castellanos given his age, experience, and performance for the 2nd half of last season, however I’ll say Daniel Norris. With 14 starts under his belt and a respectable ERA for a 22-year old who changed teams last season, I expect him to improve in to a very solid middle of the rotation started in 2016.

OED: James McCann should continue to develop as a young catcher. He played so well last season that he knocked Alex Avila out of the starting job. Sure, he could endure a sophomore slump, but I think he will grow as a player both behind the plate and as a hitter.

C70: What’s your projection of the team’s record and where will they finish in the division?

MCB: Last year the Tigers finished below .500 and in last place. I’m going to go out on a limb and put them at 88-74. I’m hoping they dominate the AL Central and finish in first.

TT: With so many new players and a good number of holdovers recovering from injuries, the Tigers are hard to project. However, I have them pegged for 90 wins if they stay reasonably healthy. That would be good enough for first place just barely ahead of the Cleveland Indians.

S84: This division is so tough to predict right now. Tough to go against the reigning World Series Champs as well as up-and-comers like Cleveland and Minnesota. That said, I think Detroit, if they stay healthy will finish 88-74 and in 2nd place, getting a wild card spot.

OED: As always, I must lament predictions. Last season, the Tigers were among the favorites, and ended up in the cellar. Baseball is a cruel game, and many writers look back on pre-season predictions with mortification.

C70: Which team in the division do you most enjoy beating and how do you think you’ll fare against them in 2016?

MCB: All of them, but right now, the Kansas City Royals. There will be some fun had beating the White Sox simply because they picked up Alex Avila and his dad (Al Avila) is the GM of the Tigers. The family feud will be alive and well. I don’t think the White Sox will give the Tigers too much trouble, but the Royals are still the team to beat in the AL Central.

TT: Most Tigers fans from Detroit seem to dislike the White Sox more than any team in the division. The Twins have also been a hated opponent, but not so much since they left the Metrodome. Personally, it varies for me from season to season. This year, I think I would get the most pleasure out of seeing them beat the World Champion Royals. It’s a bit annoying that so much of the Royals’ success come from their bullpen, the one component that has been killing the Tigers for years.

S84: Currently it is the Kansas City Royals. I just can’t stand a few of the guys on that team, as is the case with any team that contends against Detroit for the division. I think Detroit plays around .500 ball against them this season.

OED: Because the Tigers spent so many years in the AL East, rivalries have been a little slow developing. I always enjoy a good shellacking of the White Sox, and the Royals spent several seasons as spoilers before emerging as a power in their own right. Bring on the season, we’ve been waiting all winter to sit in the sun, see the manicured grass and smell the peanuts roasting.

My thanks to all of the above for their time and thoughts.  We’ve seen plenty of last-to-firsts over the past few years and there’s no reason to think Detroit can’t add to the list!

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