Tigers will have to overcome challenges to win fifth straight division crown

If I had told you 10 years ago that the 2015 baseball season would open with the Detroit Tigers having won the last four division titles, you would have probably hauled me off to the looney bin.

With good reason. The ’05 Tigers looked like a conglomeration of an unpromising youngsters with no future and veterans playing out the final stages of their careers. The team would play their way to mediocrity, which would cost the job of manager Alan Trammell. But a year later in 2006 with crusty old Jim Leyland at the wheel, the franchise would right itself dramatically and win the pennant.

The nine years that have passed since the unlikely ’06 pennant have seen many great moments: a batting title and monster year at the plate for Magglio Ordonez; an MVP season for the ages by Justin Verlander; batting titles, home run titles, a triple crown and two MVPs for Miguel Cabrera; another Cy Young for Max Scherzer; a few no-hitters and near no-hitters; the steady excellence of Victor Martinez; and even a brief dalliance with Cecil Fielder’s kid. The Tigers have won those four division titles, beat the Yankees two more times in the playoffs, squished the feisty A’s in two exciting playoff series, and won another pennant.

But their fans, while living through a golden age of Tigers’ baseball, still thirst for a World Series title. It’s been 31 years now since the Detroiters have won a Fall Classic, a longer stretch than either of the gaps between their last three titles, in ’45, ’68, and ’84. The stars of the ’68 team are slowly leaving us and the heroes of ’84 are sadly growing old and passing on too. A generation has grown up without having seen a championship team.

Trammell is back now as a special assistant to the front office. So is Kirk Gibson as a TV analyst, and even Leyland is still lurking about, a sort of Yoda-like figure evaluating young talent and preaching the good qualities of The Force.

But they all know what every fan knows — time is running out on this group of Tigers, the core group that has lifted the team to four straight division crowns. 2015 may be the last chance to win that ring.

Will the Tigers win it all this year? We all wish for that to happen, but we also have to stare reality in the face. This is not a young team and it’s not a team in their prime. The core may have big salaries, but in many ways they’re living off past glory.

What can we expect this year from our Tigers? I’ll look at each of the players on the 25-man Opening Day roster and try to tell you the hard, honest truth. But if you don’t like the message, please don’t kill the messenger.


Alex Avila, C
Since his All-Star season in 2011, Avila’s slugging percentage has fallen every year, to the point where he’s now an all-glove, no-hit receiver. He was never as good a catcher as his reputation but Avila has worked hard at keeping down stolen bases and that’s enough to keep him in a platoon with young McCann. But Avila is now 28 years old and catchers are old by the time they’re 30. Every year he misses a week or two due to concussions or other combat-like injuries, and I don’t expect anything different this season. Avila is a steady enough catcher and he’ll send 8-12 balls into the seats every year. With this strong offensive team he isn’t required to do much with the stick, and at this point in his declining career, he won’t.

James McCann, C
The rookie doesn’t project as a good hitter at the big league level, but he is an above average defender behind the plate. He’s steadily improved his plate discipline as he’s advanced through the farm system, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually hit .265 with 15 homer power on the majors. But right now he’s a good platoon partner for Avila and insurance in case (when) Avila gets his bell rung.

Miguel Cabrera, 1B
His off-season surgery has him fully healthy for the first time in about three years. Pitchers should expect Miggy’s bat to be as quick as ever and it’s pretty much guaranteed that he’ll hit more than the 25 homers he put up in 2014. Cabrera isn’t a very good first baseman (his range is terrible) but he makes all of the routine plays. It’ll be another All-Star season for Cabrera, but at this point in his career as he turns 32 this season, don’t expect MVP numbers.

Ian Kinsler, 2B
This guy’s the best athlete on the Tigers and he has a baseball engine that’s always revving. He’s the player the team can least afford to lose, and as long as he’s near the top of the lineup, the big boys will have lots of RBI opportunities. I expect Kinsler to have a great season, both with the bat and in the field.

Jose Iglesias, SS
So the Tigers get a young, dynamic, talented shortstop who looks like he can man the position for 15 years or so and he ends up being as fragile as a crystal tea cup. Iglesias makes plays at shortstop that I’ve never seen before, and that includes Ozzie Smith and the best at that position in the last 40 years. But the young Cuban is an accident waiting to happen and it doesn’t help that his body seems to be made of glass. Don’t be surprised if Iglesias lands on the DL again in what should be his first full season in a Detroit uniform. But if he does stay healthy, watch as many games as you can because this kid can pick it like no one else in the game. Anything he does with the bat is a plus.

Nick Castellanos, 3B
He’s still only 23 years old and will only get stronger and better at this game. But that may take a few years yet, so be patient. If he can match last seasons total of 11 homers and improve his ghastly defense at third base, that’ll be fine for now. But expect long stretches where he looks terrible at the plate and like a blind man in the field.


Yoenis Cespedes, LF
I have a sinking suspicion that Tiger fans will have a love/hate relationship with Yoenis the Menace. He’s so damned talented (he can hit the ball as far as Miggy and throw it as hard as Verlander from the outfield), but he can also be a bonehead and he has a penchant for disappearing for spells. Will fans tolerate his swings-and-misses because of his occasional towering home runs? Will he improve his pitch recognition enough to get his on-base percentage near league average? We don’t know yet, but if the All-Star outfielder settles in to his new surroundings and puts up some big numbers this offense will be scary good.

Rajai Davis, CF
Last season after Austin Jackson was traded, Davis took over in center field. It’s not really his best position and he’s only average out there, which should be of concern. This season he’ll platoon with Gose, a player who has basically the same offensive skills. Davis does some things that get some fans excited – he steals bases and goes from first to third. But at his best he’s only an average major league ballplayer. If Ausmus bats him near the top of the order very much, I’ll support any grassroots efforts to fire the second-year manager.

Anthony Gose, CF
I’m not sure why, but general manager Dave Dombrowski has fallen in love with speedy outfielders the last two offseasons. This year’s Rajai Davis is Anthony Gose, a gangly speedster who is essentially just like Davis only a decade younger. Remember Quinten Berry and how excited you were when he got a bunch of at-bats a few years ago? Gose will make you yearn for Berry. Apparently a Davis/Gose platoon will handle center field. The younger Gose is a much better defensive flychaser, but his non-existent power and inability to get on base will negate any defensive impact he has in spacious Comerica Park. I’m not buying that Gose is a leadoff hitter and I hope Ausmus realizes that too. Unfortunately, there are every few other options right now for center field so we’re going to see the speedsters out there this year.

J.D. Martinez, RF
The big surprise of 2014, J.D. will move to right field this season. I suspect he’ll hit between VMart and Cespedes, which will help him see good pitches. I don’t think J.D. will fall off as much as some people think and I wouldn’t be shocked if he put up even better power numbers in 2015.


Victor Martinez, DH
Now that he knows where he’ll play for the remainder of his career, Victor can settle in and do what he does best – swat the baseball. The best player on the team last year, VMart should have another great season. If he and Cabrera and either Cespedes or J.D. put up the numbers they’re capable of, the offense can survive zero-type contributions from center field, shortstop, and catcher.

Andrew Romine, IF
The Tigers will start the season with a pair of shortstops as their utility players. Romine has been seen using a first baseman’s glove and he can of course fill in at short, third, and second too. He’s a quality major league backup who shouldn’t get any crucial at-bats, but with a short four-man bench he’ll probably have to be used more than you’d like to.

Hernan Perez, IF
The young shortstop is very good with the glove and better than Romine with the bat. Ausmus has had Perez chasing flies in the outfield, so Perez will be an emergency backup there too.


David Price, SP
He’s in his walk year and both he and his agent have indicated that the former Cy Young winner would like to sign with the Tigers. But that story aside, Price is one of the 4-5 best lefties in baseball and he should be on his game this season. As he showed in Game #162 last October, Price is a horse who can go deep into games and come up big. Given the uncertainty with the other four in the rotation, Price will be a welcome sight as the ace of the staff.

Justin Verlander, SP
Well, he reported to camp with an additional 20 pounds of muscle, but then late in the spring he got hurt. So much for more muscle. JV is in a crucial stretch in his career – will he redefine himself and become more of a pure pitcher, or will he sputter and fade away as a used-to-be power arm? My guess is that Verlander is tough enough and smart enough to reshape himself and get back on track after two subpar seasons. His days of no-hit stuff are gone, but if he stays healthy, Verlander can battle his way into the 7th inning and give you a chance to win some games. If he stays on the DL for an extended period of time it’ll be a blow to this team.

Anibal Sanchez, SP
The right-hander has phenomenal stuff, but like Iglesias, he’s marked “FRAGILE.” Just two years removed from an ERA title, Anibal can be really, really good when he’s on. The question is: can he keep himself healthy and make the 31-32 starts this team needs? Look for him to stay healthy and put up some good numbers, which will help the bullpen.

Shane Greene, SP
I’m saying right here that Greene will be a nice addition to this team. He’s a tall, lean right-hander who throws the ball hard and keeps it down. Like Porcello before him, Greene will need good defense to take care of the many groundballs he gives up, but he actually may have better upside than Slick Rick. Given a new slot in a rotation with some seasoned pitchers, I think Greene will learn a lot this year and push himself to be a solid pitcher who takes home 13-17 wins.

Alfredo Simon, SP
We’re already dreaming up nicknames for the potbellied Simon (who’s built way too much like Jose Valverde). Should it be Big Pasta, or how about Big Belly or Fettucine Alfredo? Tigers fans will live with any name if Simon can just give this team 5-6 innings consistently. He slowed in the second half last year when he threw more innings by far than he ever had at any pro level. But he’s a crafty pitcher and I think he’ll do alright for what he is – a fifth starter who just needs to chew up some innings.


Joe Nathan, Closer
Why did the front office ever think this guy was a good idea? When Mike Ilitch opened up his vault and threw a big wad of his pizza money at him last year, Nathan was 39 years old. His first season was a disaster – he blew seven saves, saw his velocity and movement lessen, and he got into a war of words with the media and the fans. He’s a villain now and that will probably never change for fans, so every time he walks a batter, surrenders a hit, or blows a game, he’ll get venom from Tiger Nation. I don’t think Nathan will fare any better in ’15, it looks to me like he’s a guy who knows he’s lost his good stuff and he’s just trying to hang on. That’s not good when you’re being asked to close out games. By May he’ll have lost his job.

Al Alburquerque, RP
Entering his fifth season with the Tigers (seems like longer, doesn’t it?). AlAl had his best year last season and he showed that he has a strong bounce-back arm, appearing in 72 games for Ausmus. While he won’t start the season as a setup man, Alburquerque could assume that role if and when Nathan stumbles and someone else is elevated to closer.

Joakim Soria, RP
May be the most pivotal pitcher in the bullpen. Soria is only a year removed from being a lights-out gut in the pen for the Rangers. But that was before he was traded to the Tigers mid-season and proceeded to struggle. Detroit fans never saw how good Soria can be – he has a devastating repertoire of pitches and when he has them going, he can carry a bullpen. If Nathan loses his closer job, it’s probably Soria who will step in. If Soria struggles again, it could be a very, very long season for this maligned bullpen.

Ian Krol, RP
He’s a serviceable lefty who can come in and face a left-handed batter when needed. I don’t have much else to say about him. I guess his beard looks well-grooomed.

Joba Chamberlain, RP
Back again after failing to sign elsewhere as a free agent, Joba will get a chance to pitch a lot in this hodgepodge of a relief corps. Last year through July, Joba was the MVP of the bullpen. But he tired as the summer wore on, mostly because he doesn’t keep himself in very good shape. The best thing that can happen for the Tigers is that another right-hander steps up early in the year (AlAl, Soria?) so Joba can be well-rested for the full campaign. If so, the bearded one can be effective as a setup man.

Tom Gorzellany, RP
Gorzellany is a veteran LOOGY (lefty who faces only one guy) who joins his fifth team in 10 seasons. these type of guys are usually forgettable but necessary. He has exactly two saves in his entire career but he used to be a starter, so he could be an insurance policy in case a member of the rotation goes down.

Angel Nesbitt, RP
He made the team based on a solid performance in spring training where he impressed Ausmus and pitching coach Jeff Jones. But realistically the seventh spot in the bullpen will be a revolving door in which Dombrowski will shuttle in fresh arms as needed from Toledo and other regions of the Detroit farm system.

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Injuries have always been a part of the game, but it seems like they crop up more frequently nowadays in baseball. Maybe players are pampered more, maybe they have too many muscles to pull, or maybe it’s something else. But anyway, Cabrera, Verlander, Iglesias, and Sanchez are all coming off injuries and in some cases they’ve had surgeries in the last year or less. Add Bruce Rondon to the mix (Tommy John surgery a year ago and currently on the DL), and you have several key pieces on this team who have health concerns. Add in the natural decline that comes with age, and the Tigers seems to be headed for a rocky season.

But there’s also a lot to like about this team:

  • Kinsler is one of the game’s best second basemen.
  • Price is a bonafide ace.
  • The Martinez Boys can both rake.
  • Cespedes is one of the most exciting players in the game and if he really puts it all together he could be in the MVP discussion.
  • Greene is a nice young starting pitcher with some real upside.
  • Miggy is as healthy as he’s been in two years.
  • The core of this team knows what it takes to win in the regular season and they don’t get rattled.
  • Ausmus is a smart, capable young manager.

For all those reasons, and if even 85% of the “what-could-go-right” things all come true, this team could win 95 games and walk away with a fifth straight division title. They have one of the greatest hitters to ever twirl a bat, afterall. And they have two former Cy Young award winners and the best switch-hitter the game has seen in a long time. They could lap the rest of the AL Central if things fall into place.

But things don’t usually fall into place that well for an aging team that’s been a target for so many years. Eventually the little things start to go against you, and before you realize the championship window has been nailed closed, you’ve been rendered irrelevant.

I don’t think the Tigers will dominate and I don’t think they’ll be irrelevant. I think they’ll be right in the mix in their division, with a good chance to make it five in a row. If they make the right decisions (reduce Nathan’s role, bolster the bullpen through a trade, promote Stephen Moya at some point) they can win the 88-92 game sit will take to reach another postseason. Once you get there, as recent history has shown, anything can happen.