The Detroit Tigers had been one of the most consistent teams in the American League over the past ten seasons prior to 2015. Under future Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland, the Tigers had winning seasons in eight of nine seasons. During that time, the Tigers won the American League Central division three times, made it to the American League Championship Series four times and appeared in two World Series (2006 and 2011). After Leyland retired, the Tigers tabbed Brad Ausmus as manager and won 90 games and with it, another AL Central division title in 2014. Things did not work out as well this past season for the Tigers. In spite of all the talent, led by star first baseman and two time American League Most Valuable Player Miguel Cabrera, designated hitter Victor Martinez (who should have been the AL MVP in 2014) and Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander, the Tigers battled some injuries, bad starting pitching and a questionable clubhouse to a last place finish. This prompted general manager Dave Dombrowski to make a couple of deadline deals, trading top starting pitcher David Price to the Toronto Blue Jays, left fielder Yoenis Cespedes to the New York Mets and relief pitcher Joakim Soria to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Owner Mike Ilitch was not happy with the digression of the franchise and the decision to get younger and made the decision to let Dombrowski go. This was unexpected and led to the longtime well respected executive to join the Boston Red Sox.
Assistant general manager Al Avila was named GM with the goal of restoring the Tigers as an elite team. Though 2015 was a huge step back (74-87), intention was for Avila to be very aggressive in getting the Tigers back to being a favorite to win the AL Central. Avila started out by signing free agent right hand pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (13 wins, 10 losses, 3.66 earned run average, 164 strikeouts, just less than 202 innings pitched) to a five year contract worth $110 million. They also signed free agent outfielder Justin Upton (.251 batting average, 26 home runs, 81 runs batted in, .790 on base plus slugging) to a six year, $132 million contract. The Tigers acquired closer Francisco Rodriguez (1-3, 2.21, 38 saves, 62 Ks, 57 IP) from the Milwaukee Brewers and left hand pitcher Justin Wilson (5-0, 3.10, 66 Ks, 61 IP) from the New York Yankees. The Tigers surrendered two minor leaguers in each deal. To complete the overhaul in the bullpen, Detroit signed free agent right hand pitcher Mark Lowe (1-3, 1.96, 61 Ks, 55 IP) to a two year contract. The Tigers acquired center fielder Cameron Maybin (.267, 10, 59, .697, 23 stolen bases) from the Atlanta Braves for left hand pitcher Ian Krol (2-3, 5.79, 33 games, 28 innings pitched) and a minor leaguer and signed free agent right hander Mike Pelfrey (6-11, 4.26, 30 starts, just less than 165 IP) to a two year, $16 million contract.
In spite of the big off season, the key for the Tigers will be the performance of their star players, mainly Cabrera (.338, 18, 76, .974, just 119 games) and Verlander (5-8, 3.38, just 20 starts). Both seem to be in top health and Verlander seems to have the confidence he can revert to being a top overall pitcher in the American League once again. Martinez (.245, 11, 64, .667) will start the season on the disabled list and is no longer the best player on the Tigers with his last name. Former Houston Astros top prospect JD Martinez (.282, 38, 102, 879) became a star last season, a step above his breakout 2014. Remaining positive, catcher James McCann (.264, 7, 41, .683) took hold of the team's everyday catcher job both at the plate as well as gaining respect from the pitching staff for his game calling.
The Tigers offense is much improved, which should be a concern for fellow American League pitchers. Second baseman Ian Kinsler (.296, 11, 73, 770) still remains a very consistent two way player. It is difficult to predict what the Tigers will get from shortstop Jose Iglesias (.300, 2, 23, 717) and third baseman Nick Castellanos (.255,15, 73, 721). Castellanos is a matter of being able to hit major league pitching at a consistent enough basis. For Iglesias, it is a little more complicated. As great of a defensive shortstop and solid batting average hitter he is, he seems to have some issues between the ears. His effort was rightly questioned last season and there is an overall wonder over how good a teammate he is. These are serious issues that are seldom spoken about, but things that determine the intangible of clubhouse chemistry. If Iglesias does not improve in these areas, the Tigers may look to trade him as the former Red Sox prospect may himself benefit from a change in scenery. Center fielder Anthony Gose (.254, 5, 26, 23 stolen bases) will man the position until Maybin returns. And lets be honest, the chance of Maybin returning and playing a full season is not that likely, which makes it more important to have a starting caliber player like Gose.
The Tigers lineup I would run out there is Gose, CF, Kinsler 2B, Cabrera 1B, J Martinez RF, Upton LF, McCann C, Castellanos 3B, Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.225, 9, 24, .745 in 79 games for Miami and Arizona) DH, Iglesias SS. Of course, Iglesias and Gose can be flipped if it seems like a more efficient solution. Eventually, Maybin and Victor Martinez should be back, making the lineup a little more potent. The Tigers bench will be led by infielder Andrew Romine and backup catcher Bryan Holaday. As of this date, Holaday has been the talk of the spring with his 13-30 and 4 home runs during the 2016 spring training. Holaday's performance has made it likely the Tigers will carry three catchers with them to start the season with a trade as a possibility when Martinez and Maybin return from injury. Super sub Mike Aviles is in as a free agent from the Cleveland Indians, with outfielder Tyler Collins also likely to make the squad as a forth outfielder. Non roster invitees include outfielders John Mayberry, Jr and Nate Schierholtz and infielder Casey McGehee.
Though the signing of Zimmermann certainly strengthens the top of the rotation, the direction of the Tigers will be determined by the success of Verlander. Verlander has looked great in the spring, not just by the overrated spring training numbers. The command of his pitches is in top form and it seems as if he is in complete health. Over Verlander's last 11 2015 starts, he gave up just 19 earned runs in just over 75 innings pitched, which came out to a less than 2.28 earned run average. Right hander Anibal Sanchez (10-10, 4.99, 157 IP, 25 starts) is coming off a terrible season which the Tigers hope can be attributed to injury. Left hander Daniel Norris (3-2, 3.75, 13 starts) came over in the Price trade and will likely serve as the number four starter when he is healthy. Pelfrey takes over that spot now, with right hander Shane Greene (4-8, 6.88, 16 starts, just less than 84 IP) earning the chance to start the season in the rotation with a solid spring. Look at Buck Farmer to be in the mix if there is an injury.
The biggest improvement for the Tigers, at least it is on paper, is the quality of the team's bullpen. K-Rod will serve as the closer with Lowe and Wilson as the seventh and eighth inning pitchers. On the underrated side, left hand pitcher Blaine Hardy (5-3, 3.08, 70 games) and right hander Alex Wilson (3-3, 2.19, 59 games) were great for what was otherwise a underwhelming bullpen. Fireballer Bruce Rondon, who was sent home for questions about "effort," seems to be on track and has has been good more than he has been bad this spring. With the Tigers depth, it seems as if Rondon can improve at his own pace. However, if his effort has been in question in the past, the time may be now for Rondon to show if he can hack it at this level. Former Mets right hander Bobby Parnell is in his second season removed from Tommy John surgery and may be in a position to help.
Two of the Tigers now top prospects were acquired in deadline deals last July. Right hander Michael Fulmer (10-3, 2.24, 125 Ks, just under 125 IP) was brought over in the Cespedes deal and infielder JaCoby Jones (.257, 16, 80, .737) was acquired in the deal that sent Soria to the Pirates. An interesting player to look at is 2014 15th round draft pick Michael Gerber. In his first full season, he proved to be a quality hitter and is expected to make a quicker jump through the minor league system as long as he keeps it up. Last season in the Midwest League, Gerber hit .292 with 31 doubles, 10 triples, 13 home runs and 76 runs batted in.
The Tigers came off a very disappointing season, but the question is going to be whether last season was the beginning of the end for this current group. A solid off season or not, it will be on the incumbent Tigers to perform close to the back of their baseball card. Las Vegas has the Tigers at 85 for their over/ under, which is pretty on point for where the Tigers have been over the course of the past five seasons. It may be a little under due to the team's poor 2015 showing. I think the Tigers are a playoff team, not because of the addition of Zimmermann and Upton, but because I think Verlander has another big season in him and Cabrera being in the lineup for 150 plus games is worth more wins than we saw from last season. Add Zimm, Up and the improved bullpen and I think the Tigers can compete for the American League Central title, even though the division is the strongest in all of baseball. I have the Tigers at 87-75, second place in the AL Central. They take on the defending World Series Champion Kansas City Royals in Kaufman Stadium for the right to play in the American League division round of the 2016 postseason.