The Detroit Tigers have assembled a roster of big-name players who are making big-time money. But there are three specific players — each of their first names starting with the letter “J” — who I feel are the most important to the Tigers’ success in 2016.
I call them “The Killer J’s.” I’m speaking of Opening Day starting pitcher Justin Verlander, prized offseason acquisition Justin Upton and Julio Daniel Martinez, who Tigers fans and all of Major League Baseball simply know as “J.D.”
For starters, the 33-year-old Verlander has to replicate close to what he did from 2009-2013 when he racked up more than 215 innings and struck out more than 215 batters per season. He did all of that while compiling a 3.05 ERA over that stretch and appropriately, he was named an All-Star in each of those years.
That is exactly the kind of Verlander the Tigers must have at the top of their rotation this season, an All-Star. Without JV getting it done at a high level, the club’s rotation is in danger of being worse than last year.
David Price was dealt at the trade deadline last summer, and Max Scherzer left before the season via free agency. Thus, it’s back to being JV’s rotation, and he must prove that he’s deserving of the honor in order for the Tigers to be legitimate contenders for the American League Central division crown this season, something they had in their possession for four years from 2010-14.
However, he’s not the only “Killer J” crucial to the club’s success in ’16.
The club’s level of success also hinges upon the productivity of two highly capable offensive performers in Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez. Both are corner outfielders (Upton plays left and Martinez plays right) and are capable of producing a high amount of offense when they get going, most notably due to their ability to get on base.
For his career, Upton has gotten on base at a .352 clip while Martinez, since becoming a Tiger, has an on base percentage of .344, with his best OBP as a Tiger coming when he amassed a .358 mark in 2014.
With Upton likely being slotted into the two hole in the Tigers’ lineup to start the season, his ability to get on base is of prime importance. It’s why he must strive to return to his ways of 2013 when he was a member of the Atlanta Braves and recorded an OBP of .354. That was his sixth straight season with an OBP higher than .350. It also marks the last time that he was able to amass an OBP above .350.
It is highly crucial that the Tigers get something which closely resembles Upton’s ’13 campaign in his first season in Motown.
Then, there’s the club’s likely fifth hitter, J.D. Martinez. At this juncture in his career, Martinez is better than the club’s other Martinez, Victor Martinez. V-Mart, Detroit skipper Brad Ausmus’ likely Opening Day cleanup hitter, played in only 120 games in ’15 due to issues with his left knee. On Monday he tweaked something in his leg while running down the base line during a game in Lakeland. If that turns out to be something more than a tweak, that’s bad news for the Bengals.
At 37 years old, VMart is no longer a spring chicken, which is why it’s more paramount than ever that J.D. drives in runs at a premium rate. He did so last year with 38 big flies and 102 runs driven in.
If he improves upon those numbers, he will easily eclipse the 40-home run mark for the first time in his big league career. And if he does, Ausmus will be forced to strongly consider batting him in the cleanup spot on an everyday basis.
If VMart proves that last year — when he hit .219 and had a .616 on-base plus slugging percentage against righties — was more of what is to be expected of him going forward than an aberration, Ausmus and Tigers fans will soon realize that he has become a one-trick pony who can hit lefties but no longer can do so efficiently against righties.
It would effectively remove the luxury the club once possessed via his switch-hitting ability. This is all the more important because the Tigers are woefully lacking in left-handed bats in their lineup. Among the players most likely to start on a regular basis when the season begins, only VMart and Anthony Gose bat from the left side.
As for J.D., he had an OPS of .870 against RHP last season.
All the more reason why J.D. Martinez should be the club’s No. 4 hitter and will be by the end of the ’16 season.
It’s also all the more reason why his production along with Upton’s will be so crucial to the club’s success this season.
The two outfielders along with Verlander comprise the organization’s “Killer J’s” and as a collective unit, should be a force to be reckoned with in ’16. And remember, the club’s chances of competing for a division title are dependent upon it.