This is part of an occasional series comprising MLB season previews.
You’re going to hear a lot about windows during Tigers broadcasts this year. Is theirs still open? Is it closed? Perhaps they can make one last run before Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander fall off a cliff and the franchise is hamstrung by their contracts. Oh, and Mike Ilitch, the team’s benevolent owner who died in February. Tigers fans are going to hear a lot about Mr. I this year. Meet the 2017 Detroit Tigers: A team associated with a dead owner and dying stars.
The bullpen, as always, stinks. The Tigers, despite their string of four consecutive AL Central titles from 2011-14, have never been able to build a competent bullpen. Detroit is where relief pitchers go to die. Former general manager Dave Dombrowski put together some fantastic teams with stars on the field and a pitching staff to match, but the man could not build a bullpen. Let’s remember some guys Dave Dombrowski trusted late in games: Phil Coke, Octavio Dotel, Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Jim Johnson, Jose Valverde.
This year is no different. K-Rod is back. And while he was perfectly serviceable last year in the closer role (44 saves!) getting the ball to him, when your starter doesn’t go eight innings, is as futile as hand-to-hand combat with a yeti. There is the mercurial Bruce Rondon, who throws gas and shows occasional flashes of brilliance but has never quite sorted it out. Alex Wilson, who looks exactly like Chris Pratt and pitches either lights out or like I imagine Chris Pratt might. Shane Greene, a converted starter. And a bunch of guys manager Brad Ausmus seems to just pick out of a hat after the 6th inning. The Tigers’ bullpen has been a leading cause of high blood pressure in Metro Detroit for years, behind only obesity, deindustrialization, and the slow and methodical disappearance of auto jobs since their last World Series title in 1984.
That offense, though! Those boys can rake. Miguel Cabrera is still the best right-handed hitter in baseball. J.D. Martinez hit 22 dingers in an injury-shortened season last year. Justin Upton tore the cover off the ball the second half of the season, socking 13 taters in September alone. And resident Facebook Uncle Ian Kinsler has quietly been one of the better players in baseball since the Rangers shipped him to Detroit in the Prince Fielder trade. Third baseman Nick Castellanos hit a career-high 18 dingers, despite fracturing a bone in his hand in August and only playing 110 games in 2016—he just turned 25 and could have a big year.
Somehow Victor Martinez, despite looking seemingly hopeless at the plate for most of 2016, is still out here. The Tigers’ designated hitter is essentially a baseball uniform filled with surgically repaired limbs and tendons from various cadavers at this point. Yet he socked 27 dingers last year and, at 38, an aging Victor Martinez is still Victor Martinez. As FanGraphs put it:
V-Mart only walked as often as, and only whiffed 35% less often than, the major league average. That’s about the only criticism you can levy against his 2016 season. Yet it may be a legitimate concern: one of modern baseball’s best pure hitters may finally be deteriorating. Of course, Martinez’s strikeout ‘problem’ is relative; his 2016 plate discipline, arguably the worst of his career, still ranks in the league’s upper 10%. In other words, he has a long way to fall.
The rotation will be led by Justin Verlander, who returned to vintage form last year with a Cy Young-worthy campaign after injury plagued 2014 and 2015, and 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer. Everything past that is a question mark. Anibal Sanchez, who is starting the year in the bullpen, and Jordan Zimmermann are two guys on the wrong side of 30. Daniel Norris, who came over in the David Price trade, is a wild card at only 23. Lefty Matt Boyd, the other piece in that Price trade, is 26 with only 154 innings at the major league level. If the Tigers can get even competent pitching out of one of them (or all four!) they could be in a position to win some ballgames.
We interrupt your regularly scheduled programming with a GIF of Tigers outfielder Tyler Collins giving fans the middle finger. We are all Tyler Collins.
If the Tigers play the Cardinals this year that will mean it was a Very Good Year and they made it to the World Series. In which case I say: Yes, in six games.
[extreme Harold Reynolds voice] This guy Justin Wilson? He’s just a real baseball player.
Maybe! Cleveland is the team to beat in the Central, so Detroit will have their work cut out for them. The Tigers will hit a lot of dingers. Verlander will fool a lot of hitters. The bullpen will cause a lot of heartburn. But the 2017 Tigers are the prototypical They Could Win 90 (But Could Also Easily Lose 85) team. That, as they say folks, is why they play the games.
Miguel Cabrera typically bats four times a game.