From last place to first place. Can the Detroit Tigers make the jump and finish off the season with a World Series title, just as the 2013 Boston Red Sox did?
For that to come even close to happening, the Tigers need to have five things on their side in 2016:
1) a healthy ballclub
2) a good pitching staff (rotation and bullpen)
3) a strong lineup from top to bottom
4) good defense up the middle (at catcher, second base and shortstop plus in centerfield)
5) and a manager who avoids making in-game mistakes on a consistent basis
And in the spirit of America’s pastime, I’m going to use a three-strike system for determining whether or not the Tigers have a legitimate shot at dethroning the Kansas City Royals as both the American League Central and AL champs.
If the Tigers stay under three strikes, they have at least a fighter’s chance at reaching the Fall Classic, and anything under two strikes means that the Ausmus-led club has as good of a chance as almost any of Major League Baseball’s 30 clubs at becoming world champs.
Let’s start off by looking at the health of the club’s 2016 roster. With middle reliever Alex Wilson, lefty relief arm Blaine Hardy and the ultra-talented, fifth starter favorite entering spring training Daniel Norris being on the shelf to start the season, the team’s health is an obvious first strike for executive vice president of club operations Al Avila and Co.
There are also medical red flags with the lineup entering the season. Offseason acquisition Cameron Maybin has been placed on the disabled list with a broken left wrist while designated hitter Victor Martinez’s left hamstring will likely be a lingering concern for the 37-year-old switch hitter throughout the entirety of the season.
The Tigers need to get all of these guys back healthy and sooner than later in order to make any significant noise atop the AL Central in ‘16.
From one likely downfall to another likely one in the Tigers’ pitching staff. With the rotation spearheaded by right-handers Justin Verlander and Jordan Zimmermann, the top of the rotation should be in good hands. As for the rest of the rotation, not nearly as much.
If you’re trying to figure out my reasoning, simply look at last year’s stats for the pitchers who Ausmus and Avila have penciled in for the third through fifth spots.
Veteran right-hander and 2013 AL earned run average leader Anibal Sanchez will be back in his role as the club’s third starter while former Minnesota Twin Mike Pelfrey and last year’s fifth starter Shane Greene will round out the rotation.
The problem with these starting arms making up three-fifths of the club’s Opening Day rotation is that they all were more unproductive than productive in their respective 2015 campaigns.
For starters, Sanchez had an ERA north of 4.50 (4.99), allowed an AL-leading 29 home runs and barely put up a positive WAR (0.1), according to Baseball Reference.
Following him in the rotation is the veteran right-hander Pelfrey, who allowed more hits than innings pitched last year with 198 hits in 164 2/3 innings, recorded an ERA of 4.26 and a fielding independent pitching mark of four plus a walks and hits per innings pitched mark of nearly one and a half (1.48).
And then, there’s Greene, who beat out the injured Norris and left-hander Matt Boyd for the last spot in Detroit’s roto.
Greene struggled last year to the tune of a 6.88 ERA and 5.14 FIP in 83 2/3 innings, which amounted to a negative WAR (-1.8).
Primarily due to Greene’s big-time struggles in his first year donning the “Old English D,” the Tigers’ three through five starters going into Opening Day amounted to a negative WAR in 2015 (-0.3).
But the pitching staff can’t be said to be a strike against the club before first looking at the bullpen as well.
Improving the bullpen
Avila and Detroit’s front office brass made it a huge point of emphasis to upgrade the club’s bullpen this past offseason after Avila’s predecessor Dave Dombrowski neglected it year after year.
Subsequently, they went out and added the active saves leader in baseball to be the club’s closer in 16, Francisco Rodriguez. Rodriguez closed out 38 and 44 games in the past two seasons, respectively.
That was a giant step forward for the pen. And Avila wasn’t done wheeling and dealing, either. He also added veteran right-hander Mark Lowe to the mix at the back end of the pen and acquired hard-throwing southpaw Justin Wilson via a trade with the Bronx Bombers.
With K-Rod as the closer and Lowe and Wilson as Detroit’s primary set-up men (Lowe vs. right-handed batters and Wilson vs. left-handed batters) headed into the new campaign, this pen will undoubtedly be an improvement upon the one that the organization went into the regular season with last year.
However, with the injuries to Hardy and Alex Wilson to kick off the campaign, the club will likely experience a void in middle relief, which could arise as a problem with a collection of starting arms (Sanchez, Pelfrey and Greene) who aren’t known for going deep into games.
As much as it pains me to type it, the lack of depth for the pen and rotation is the reason why I’m giving the Tigers their second strike.
Let’s move on to the strength of the club now, which is the lineup. After producing the most hits and the best batting average in the AL last year, the offense should pick up right where it left off, especially with the addition of Justin Upton and his career .352 on-base percentage for the two hole.
And if the Tigers get more than the 119 games played by their first baseman and two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera during the ’15 campaign, they are bound to score more than the 689 runs they scored last year, which was good for 10th best in the AL.
The club also possesses a relatively deep lineup with Ian Kinsler and Upton as the table-setters at the top of the lineup, Cabrera, V-Mart and J.D. Martinez anchoring the middle of it, two guys in the six and seven spots (Nick Castellanos and James McCann) who could be on the verge of breakout campaigns plus Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose rounding out the bottom of the order.
Gose, a left-handed bat, will platoon with the right-handed Maybin in center field once he gets off the disabled list. He stands to be the only glaring hole in the Tigers’ lineup on Opening Day.
It’s why the lineup will be far from a strike against the ballclub in ‘16.
Defense up the middle
How about Detroit’s defense in the middle of the diamond? This is where it becomes a bit tricky for me, as I like McCann behind the plate (he threw out 41 percent of attempted base stealers in ’15, which was better than the league average of 32 percent). McCann was also 11 total fielding runs above average in his rookie campaign, which was good for the most in the AL.
When you move from behind the plate to the middle of the infield, you’ll find that the Tigers have the luxury of possessing two superb fielders in Ian Kinsler, who should’ve won the ’15 Gold Glove for AL second basemen, and the highlight reel-making Jose Iglesias, who should win a Gold Glove at shortstop before his playing career is over.
After you move past Kinsler and Iglesias and move into the outfield, this is where it becomes tricky for projecting how well the Tigers will fare defensively up the middle.
It’s because you have two guys in center in Gose and Maybin, who do not grade out well as defenders when it comes to sabermetrics.
While both are fleet of foot, neither recorded a positive total fielding runs above average or defensive runs saved above average amount last year (Gose: -15 total runs above average and -12 defensive runs saved above average; Maybin: -17 total fielding runs and -16 defensive runs saved). That’s a huge problem for the Tigs, who play in a spacious ballpark (Comerica Park) for half of the 162-game regular season.
Yet, three-fourths of the club’s middle of the diamond defense is more than adequate. Thus, I can’t give the ’16 version of the club a strike for its defense.
Last but not least, I have to take into account the quality of the Tigers’ skipper, which is third-year big league manager Brad Ausmus.
He made his fair share of in-game mistakes as a rookie skipper in 2014, relying on pen arms such as Joba Chamberlain instead of the more reliable Joakim Soria down the stretch in crucial, late-inning situations.
His misusage of Soria and others in the Tigers’ pen in the ’14 AL Division Series against the Baltimore Orioles, such as Sanchez who was being used exclusively out of the pen due to missing most of August and September with a pectoral muscle injury, may have cost the club the chance of advancing deeper in the postseason.
But you had to give him the benefit of the doubt at least slightly because it was his first year on the job. However, with an injury-ridden and less talented roster in ’15, he failed to show major signs of improvement as an in-game strategist.
He inserted V-Mart into the lineup far too often in the beginning of the season when he was hampered by a left knee injury and struggling to get into any kind of a groove, especially from the left side of the plate. To make matters worse, Ausmus continuously placed him in the cleanup spot in the Tigers’ order, even when he knew the consummate pro was unable to generate any power as a left-handed hitter because of his knee.
Then, there was the Norris start against the Texas Rangers in late September, in which Ausmus allowed the 22-year-old “Van Man” to throw 54 pitches in the first inning despite the fact that the Rangers scored five runs in the frame and Norris had come off the DL just 13 days earlier.
It was beyond fathomable, and yet Ausmus did it.
He had to have a great explanation for the decision then, right? Not quite. Ausmus told reporters after the game that he wanted to “get his (Norris’) pitch count up.”
Make sense to you? Well, it doesn’t to me, either.
It was a glaring transgression from the club’s manager, and one that can’t happen again in ’16 if he plans on managing the Tigs past this season.
Yet, at this point, all Tigers fans can bank on regarding Ausmus is that he will make more boneheaded decisions this season, costing the Tigers potential playoff positioning in what should be a highly contested AL Central all season long.
It’s why I have to give the Tigers their third strike on behalf of Ausmus.
With the three strikes taken into account, the Tigers will fall short of capturing the division crown, and they lack a legitimate shot at bringing Motown its first World Series championship since 1984.
And at this present juncture, the best-case scenario for the Tigers is a third-place finish and a playoff appearance via the second of two AL wild card spots.