Column: Tigers poised for playoffs after 2016's disappointment
Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.
Upon hearing that one sentence written by my incredible late grandfather James Hartzell, the world knows that spring has officially arrived. Yes, it’s that time again.
The smell of freshly cut grass, the mist of the hose watering the infield dirt and the crack of a ball colliding with a round bat (which is the hardest thing to accomplish in sports, by the way) attack our senses, telling us that the greatest sport of them all is officially back.
It has been a rollercoaster decade for the Detroit Tigers. With the 2006 American League Championship officially out of the last ten-year timespan, the boys of summer have only made one World Series appearance (a 2012 sweep at the hands of San Francisco) in the last ten seasons.
Will that change this season? Probably not.
In 2007, the Tigers won 88 games—a handsome mark— but fell eight games short of the Cleveland Indians for the division title and missed out on a wild card berth. In 2008, that number fell to a putrid 74 wins and things needed to change. That’s when then-general manager Dave Dombrowski went out and made one of the most lopsided trades in Major League Baseball history to acquire the man, the myth, the legend: Miguel Cabrera.
In the ensuing eight years, the Tigers have had six winning seasons, one losing season (2015) and one 81-81 campaign. With those have come four Central Division titles, four playoff appearances, three ALCS arrivals, one first round exit and one failed World Series shot.
Additionally, Tiger players have won three MVPs (Miguel Cabrera has two and Justin Verlander has one), two Cy Youngs (Verlander), two Triple Crowns (Cabrera and Verlander) and one Rookie of the Year (Michael Fulmer) in that timespan.
Like I said, it has been a rollercoaster.
In 2017, the Tigers will add to a few of those marks: one winning record and one playoff appearance.
Last season, Detroit went 86-75 (one game was postponed and never made up), finished second in the division once again to eventual the AL Champion and Indians. They also came up a few games short of the two AL Wild Card spots and were left out of the playoff picture.
Here’s why this season will be different.
2016 saw Tiger studs J.D. Martinez, Nick Castellanos, Jose Iglesias, Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd all miss significant time with injuries. Add in the injury-riddled campaign of Jordan Zimmermann who pitched in only 19 games (including 18 starts) while compiling a putrid 4.87 ERA as well as the ultra-sluggish start of star slugger Justin Upton and it’s no surprise the Tigers missed out on October action.
Assuming things go better—it’d be hard for them to get worse than that—the Tigers could easily tack on at least four wins from time made up by their studs.
J.D. Martinez opening the season on the 10-Day Disabled List is not a great sign, but at least it’s not the 15 or 60-day DL.
I know what you’re thinking: “the core of this team is old and unreliable. There’s no way they’ll produce all year.” That’s a fair point.
With aging superstars like Cabrera, Verlander, Francisco Rodriguez, Ian Kinsler and Victor Martinez, things might get dicey at times.
That said, Cabrera, JV and Kinsler were at the top of their games for just about all of 2016 and Kinsler has already led Team USA to the World Baseball Classic title this year (which was awesome, by the way). There is nothing to worry about with them.
V-Mart and K-Rod are the real suspects here. Martinez turned 38 and Rodriguez hit 35 over the offseason. Neither of those numbers inspire hope—but these ones do.
In 2016, Martinez’s batting average elevated by .044 points from 2015 and he improved his .OBP, .SLG, .OPS and .OPS+ all while cranking nearly 150 percent more home runs and driving in 22 more runs.
Rodriguez hit a few speed bumps while readjusting to the not so pitcher-friendly American League after coming over from Milwaukee, but he saved more games while pitching only one more inning in 2016 compared to the year before. Additionally, he improved upon nearly every major statistic in his second season in Milwaukee compared to his first. There is almost no reason to believe that it won’t happen again in Detroit.
Then there is roster turnover. Players lost from 2016 include Cameron Maybin, Mike Pelfrey, Mark Lowe, Jarrod Saltalamacchia and a few other minor names. The only major additions are Mikie Mahtook and old friend Alex Avila.
I will be the first to admit that trading Maybin made zero sense. He was solid when healthy in 2016 and inexpensive, plus Detroit only got a right-handed reliever who did not even make the Opening Day roster for him. However, losing Pelfrey and Lowe is addition by subtraction, as Pelfrey appeared in 24 games with 22 starts in 2016 to the tune of a 5.07 ERA and Lowe pitched in 54 games with—wait for it—a 7.11 ERA. With those two out of the picture, the pitching staff suddenly looks a lot better. Mahtook figures to be a serviceable fourth outfielder for the Tigers and Avila is practically the same player as Salty, though the latter was a switch-hitter.
The bullpen feels stronger this year too. Given the aforementioned departures, the pen anchored by Rodriguez and complimented by Alex Wilson, Justin Wilson and the (hopefully) reinvigorated Anibal Sanchez, should have less issues closing out games than they are known for.
The Tigers will not be better than the Indians in 2017, but they will be better to fellow division foes Kansas City Royals, Minnesota Twins and Chicago White Sox. With a healthy chunk of the schedule coming against those teams, Detroit can easily win 85 games and flirt with what figures to be the magic number of 90.
Best case scenario? The old guys continue to produce, the injury bug stays out of Comerica Park and the Tigers win 95 games to snatch the top wild card spot. This probably will not happen.
Worst case? Flip everything in the best case on its head, leaving them with only 76 wins and on the brink of a massive rebuild. Again—that’s not happening.
What I do foresee happening, though, is the Tigers tuning out the naysayers and riding their star power to an 89 win season, finishing second in the wild card race and, if they can really get going, put up a fight in the playoffs.
Roar away, Tigers’ fans, and get ready for a fun 2017 season in the D.