Health is key to success for Tigers in 2016

The health of Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander will be critical for Detroit success in 2016.

The health of Victor Martinez, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Verlander will be critical for Detroit success in 2016.

Health is the byword for the Detroit Tigers in 2016.

If everyone stays vertical, this team should contend for a division title.

But that is a big “if.”

The core of this team remains Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez. All are coming off injury-plagued seasons. They are all healthy, for now. But all three are at the point in their careers where the body simply breaks down more often. A 162-game baseball season is grueling physical marathon better suited for 25-year-olds, not grizzled veterans in their mid- to late-30’s.

These Tigers have a lot of added parts, including a rebuilt bullpen and a huge offensive upgrade in a position in which they desperately needed it. Until the season starts, however, nobody knows how these individual pieces will perform as a collective group. What looks great on paper doesn’t always look good on the playing field.

One thing we can be certain of. The 2016 Tigers will be better than the 2015 clunker. How much better depends on the health of star players. Manager Brad Ausmus has his best roster since coming to Detroit. He will be on the hot seat from opening day. This is a team built to win.

But will it?

Predicted Order of the 2016 American League Central Division Final Standings:

  1. Detroit Tigers 90-72
  2. Chicago White Sox 89-73
  3. Cleveland Indians 88-74
  4. Kansas City Royals 74-88
  5. Minnesota Twins 73-89

Obviously, I’m expecting a tight race in the AL Central. It should be a thrilling, down-to-the-wire ending.

Our Detroit club will get solid contributions from key players and stay relatively healthy. The remodeled bullpen will make Brad Ausmus look like a genius (face it, even Sparky Anderson would have looked like an idiot with those stiffs last season). The offense will score runs in bunches. The starting rotation, after Verlander and with the addition of Jordan Zimmermann, will be just good enough to win.

White Sox
Tiger fans like to point out how everything that could have gone wrong last summer did. Water will find its level in 2016, they say, so Detroit can’t help but be better. Funny thing is, White Sox fans can make the exact same argument. Chicago sputtered from the start last year, and just couldn’t find any kind of cohesive offense. They’ll hit better with the additions of Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier. With Chris Sale and a full season from Carlos Rodon, they have two aces at the top of the rotation.

Cleveland’s starting pitching will be the best in the American League. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, and Josh Tomlin can all bring the heat. No team wants to run into that buzz saw of a staff. The hitting, well, that’s another story. Outfielder Michael Brantley is coming off shoulder surgery, but when healthy he’s a dynamic force. Shortstop Francisco Lindor is a superstar in the making. Beyond that, the cupboard is bare, with all due respect to Mike Napoli and Jason Kipnis.

I believe Kansas City will suffer from the losses of Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto. Their starting pitching is one of the weakest for a defending world champion I’ve seen in years. Their vaunted bullpen will suffer from overwork.

Minnesota is a team on the rise, and Byron Buxton will be fun to watch. But they have a lot of unknowns. Will beefy Miguel Sano be able to transition to the outfield? Will Korean import Byung Ho Park be a solid major leaguer, or a big-time bust? Will Joe Mauer continue to regress? I like them, just not in 2016.

And now here’s a look at some individual Tiger predictions for 2016:

Most Valuable Player: Miguel Cabrera. He should have another monster season or two left in him. If he can stay healthy, he is still the best hitter in baseball. Cross your fingers, Tiger fans.

Most Improved Player: Nick Castellanos. He is determined. His body is sleeker and more athletic-looking. He will still be only 24 once the season starts. If he can find consistency at the plate, and avoid prolonged slumps, he should be a very, very solid force in this lineup. All indications are his fielding should get better through hard work. If he can hit .280 with 25 home runs and 85 RBIs, and become a serviceable third baseman, Tiger fans should be happy with that.

Player Most Likely to Regress: Ian Kinsler. He led the Tigers in WAR in 2015 with 6.0, and in 2014 with 5.7. Can he maintain the stellar work he’s done in Detroit? Or will age begin to creep up on him?

Biggest Comeback: Victor Martinez. The Tigers need this guy at the plate and in the clubhouse. Expect him to surprise a lot of people and stay healthy. Twenty-five home runs and 90 RBIs would not be out of the question.

Best Offseason Pickup: I’m not going to pick Justin Upton, even though I believe he’ll have a great year. But the Tigers were going to score more runs even without him (although they’ll score a whole lot more with him). Lefty setup guy Justin Wilson, however, has the potential to turn this bullpen into a real asset.

The Tigers are strong enough to win the division, if all goes as planned. If this team can get hot in the postseason, well, the old cliché goes that anything can happen once you get in. But it should be an exciting summer of baseball in The Motor City.