AD and Mark Sands collaborated on this preview.

 

Despite extended absences from the team’s two young sluggers, J.D. Martinez and Nick Nicholas Castellanos, deciding to allow Mike Pelfrey to pitch 119 innings, using Mike Aviles in sixty-eight games, and sharing a division with the eventual American League champions, the Detroit Tigers found themselves, on September 30, 2016, in the playoff hunt. Sure, their postseason odds weren’t great, and rainouts earlier in the season presented the possibility for some fairly zany tie-breaking scenarios, but they had a chance. All they needed to do was finish the regular season strong in a series against the basement-dwelling Braves. A 6-2 win in the first game, driven by home runs from Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera, and Justin Upton, felt just right, but things fizzled immediately thereafter. Atlanta, quietly one of the hottest teams of the second half of 2016, beat up the Detroit bullpen in the second game, and the Tigers couldn’t muster any offense in a Justin Verlander-Julio Teheran duel in the season finale, falling 1-0 in the last game at Turner Field.

Disappointing final scene aside, what seems most surprising now is that that 2016 Tigers team won 86 games. Surprising for the present writer, anyway. My coauthor, Mark Sands, with whom I’ve previewed the past two Detroit seasons, hit the win total right on the nose. (Neither of us counted on Cleveland running away with the division, though.)

If we were lazy enough, we could just link to last year’s preview and say “same.” Even if it’s true, you deserve more than that, though, so in a break from our usual format, we have decided to prepare to launch this Tigers season with a countdown of the numbers we believe are likely to be most significant to the story of the 2017 Detroit Tigers.

212,000,000

Dollars, at minimum, owed by Detroit to Miguel Cabrera over the remaining life of his contract. Of course, no discussion of the Tigers is complete without mention of the money they have tied up in a few aging stars (and former would-be stars). Teams generally prefer payroll flexibility over the alternative, but teams also need to spend money to win, and, right now, there’s a reasonably positive spin we can put on almost all of these contracts. Cabrera’s still performing at near-MVP levels (ninth in voting last year), and, more or less, is as durable as he’s ever been. Ryan Howard territory still looks to be a ways off (and, as Dave Cameron reminds, high-value, long-term contracts usually are better values than they appear when one focuses solely on the final years). Justin Verlander’s story is a similar one: he’s due at least $84 million, but he’s also exhibited a return to near-peak form over the last year and a half and was robbed of the Cy Young award last year thanks to a couple of Tampa knuckleheads. Would it be nice if General Manager Al Avila had more money to spend on a supporting cast for these stars? Of course, but you don’t have them on your team in the first place without agreeing to deals like this. These contracts have plenty of time to turn into pumpkins, but they aren’t there yet.

Closer to pumpkin territory is Victor Martinez, sure, but he has just two years and $36 million left on his contract, before he takes himself out to pasture, and, like Cabrera and Verlander, continues to be a serious contributor. Health is a real concern for Martinez, but when he has two decent legs (or a reasonable approximation thereof), he’s shown he can still hit enough to be a top-tier designated hitter.

It’s 2018 that really is the magic year for the Tigers in the burdensome contract department, because that’s the year the contracts of Martinez, Ian Kinsler (whom the team owes a shockingly low $16 million this year and next), and Anibal Sanchez, the only real albatross here, come off the books. So too does their ten-year deal, signed in 2008, with Fox Sports Detroit, meaning a new media-rights payday could add to potential budget surpluses at that key juncture.

Many writers probably will continue to liken the Tigers to the Phillies of a few years ago, but the comparison remains inapt, both because the “big contract” narrative is a bit of a red herring for the reasons mentioned here (and because Detroit is better equipped to retool on the fly), and because Philadelphia won the World Series in 2008. Call us overly optimistic, but the veteran Red Sox teams of recent vintage seem like a better comp.

430

Saves by Francisco Rodriguez, who is the MLB active leader by a fair margin. Dave Dombrowski has and is continuing to build a long and successful baseball legacy, but one of the knocks on him always will be his inability to assemble a functional bullpen during his Detroit days. Much like a cheek full of chaw, K-Rod provided a calming influence on the Tigers relief corps last year in the way that his recent predecessors– like Joe Nathan, second on the active saves leaderboard, and Jose Valverde– never could. Still, it’s tough to hope for consistency from any closer, and, no matter his record of success, that’s especially true when he’s thirty-five years old.

As usual, though, the ready headline serves as a distraction from the real issue, which, here, is a lack of bullpen depth. Shane Greene seems to have found a home in the ‘pen, and Sanchez probably should join him there (if not Toledo), if for no other reason than to keep him far away from the starting rotation. Mark Lowe improbably remains employed; the Wilsons had disappointingly inconsistent-leaning-bad seasons; and a cynic might reasonably surmise that Blaine Hardy, Bruce Rondon, Kyle Ryan, Buck Farmer, and Drew VerHagen all have reached their decidedly modest peaks.

182

Difference, in 20-game rolling wRC+, between Justin Upton’s highest (212 wRC+) and lowest (20 wRC+) offensive points in 2016. We expected Upton to continue to be a streaky player who tallies a full portion of strikeouts (his 28.6% K-rate last year was oh-so-close to a career high, and good enough for seventh-highest among qualified hitters in 2016, just below his brother), but few probably anticipated this degree of volatility. Still, the end result fit reasonably well within his career numbers– especially the thirty-one homers part. When he’s on a hot streak, there are few players more fun to watch than the younger Upton. Here’s hoping things smooth out a little bit for him in his second season in the AL.

136

ERA+ posted by Justin Verlander in 2016, making last season the third-best of his career, and best since 2012 by that measure. We’ve mentioned Verlander throughout this preview, but his return to excellence last year entitles him to his own entry in this countdown.

87

Years lived by former Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away on February 10, 2017. Ilitch, who also owned the NHL’s Red Wings, had a history of spending aggressively in pursuit of championships for his teams. Not that he didn’t know his spending, at times, bordered on recklessness– for example, when he “signed star Brett Hull [to the Wings] when payroll was already too high[, he] knew his wife, Marian, would call it fiscally imprudent, and he knew she was right. So he didn’t tell her about the deal until it was done.” He wanted to win, though, and it worked very well for the Red Wings. The Tigers came close on a few occasions, but they were not able to get over the championship hump during Ilitch’s ownership tenure. He may prove to be the last of his kind– a free-spending, reasonably non-meddling owner hell-bent on winning– and, at least as far as Detroit fans are concerned, he was the best of his kind.

Ilitch’s son Chris now takes over full control of the team. Even if Chris shares his parents’ winning drive, a navigation of some type of rebuild in the next five years seems unavoidable.

86

The number of wins Mark thinks the Tigers will have this year.  A rotation featuring Verlander, AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris, and some combination of Jordan Zimmermann, Matt Boyd, and Anibal Sanchez is as good as any other of the non-Red Sox/Astros/Indians teams in the American League.  And any offense featuring Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, and Nick Castellanos is going to score runs.  While the bullpen might be questionable for approximately the 7,000th season in a row, there are enough good arms available there that it shouldn’t hinder the Tigers (if healthy) from being in the thick of the hunt for the wild card again, especially given the middling nature of the rest of the AL outside of the clearly top 3 teams.

82

The number of wins AD thinks the Tigers will have this year. Far be it from me to question Mark again this year after he nailed the win total last year. Pythagorean principles suggest that Detroit was a bit lucky to hit eighty-six wins in 2016, though, and, there are more questions in this season’s (nearly identical) lineup than last season’s. Mark’s “if healthy” caveat is a significant one for a team with so much of its expected production tied up in its older players. Cabrera already is working on a back injury suffered during the WBC, and Victor Martinez has been battling through numerous maladies for years. It also may not be reasonable to expect players like Francisco Rodriguez (based on typical reliever inconsistencies) and Michael Fulmer (based on a significant ERA-FIP gap) to repeat their good 2016 performances in 2017. There’s also that gaping hole in center field. PECOTA sees Detroit as a seventy-nine-win team. A favorable schedule should help, though, which is why I’m in for an upward departure on the win total. I also agree with Mark that the Tigers again should contend for a wild card spot.

44.2

Innings pitched by Jordan Zimmermann after May 22nd.  The Tigers gave Zimmermann a 5 year/$110 million contract in the early stages of free agency last year (ah, the days of actually signing MLB-caliber players!) with visions of a 200+ IP workhorse to pair with Verlander and the team’s stable of good young starters.  Instead, Zimmermann got off to a BABIP-fueled lucky start (.260 over his first 7 starts) that masked a career-worst 5.64 K/9 and 1.20 HR/9 and a uncomfortably high BB/9 of 2.22.  The Tigers need the Zimmermann they expected–with a K/9 rate in the low 7s, a BB/9 rate under 2, and a generally low HR/9 rate–or they will have to hope that Anibal Sanchez has magically discovered how to pitch again.

26

Bones in the human foot and ankle, including those belonging to J.D. Martinez, who injured his in a spring training game last weekend. Initial tests revealed no broken bones, but it appears that there may be ligament damage that could cause Martinez to start the season on the disabled list. If so, Martinez will have as many injury-tainted seasons (two) as healthy post-swing-adjustment ones. While the Tigers obviously need Martinez to bounce back to 2014-15 levels at the plate and in right field in order to have a chance at contention this year, they also need him to have a clean bill of health for possible midsummer trade purposes. He’s a free agent after this season, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine Detroit signing him to an open-market contract this winter.

9.7%

Jose Iglesias‘s K% in 2016.  Nobody is going to mistake Iglesias for Manny Machado, but he has at least one elite hitting skill: not striking out.  Iglesias had the second-lowest K% among qualifiers for the batting title in 2016 and also had a top-ten contact rate in 2015.  Additionally, he was among the league-leaders in infield hits in 2016, with 24 (5th in MLB).

Iglesias snatched this K% crown from Victor Martinez, who more than doubled his 2014 rate (6.6%) in 2016 (14.8%). A reported return to full health, we hope, will allow Victor to once again challenge his younger teammate in this department.

6.42

DRA of Mike Pelfrey in 2016, fourth-worst among pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season. The decision to sign him to a two-year contract (at any price) felt wrong at the time, and it feels worse now. His top fastball velocity’s been sinking for some time, and the team likely would be best served to treat the $8 million they owe him this year as a sunk cost and cast about elsewhere for pitching arms.

6

Rank, since 1947, of Miguel Cabrera’s .321 career batting average.  I know, I know, batting average, but that made me say “Wow.”  Also “wow” is Cabrera’s .961 career OPS, which ranks 12th overall since 1947.  He is .002 behind a little-known centerfielder and MVP runner up in 2012 and 2013.  A final “wow,” his 153 wRC+ is tied for 11th best since 1947, with Frank Robinson, Albert Pujols, Hank Aaron(!), and Manny Ramirez.  He is just behind Frank Thomas, Stan Musial, and Willie Mays, who sit at a career 154 wRC+.

(OK, one last Cabrera fun fact. As highlighted on a recent episode of Effectively Wild, Cabrera has received an MVP vote every single year of his career. While other greats– Ted Williams, for example– have come close, none (minimum three career MLB seasons; sorry, Kris Bryant) have matched Cabrera’s 100% consistency.)

2

Players the team signed this offseason who are likely to see significant major-league action in 2017. The Tigers essentially stood pat, declining a team option to retain Cameron Maybin (by trading him to Anaheim for a pitching prospect who registered an 8.49 DRA in Double A last year); exercising a team option to retain Rodriguez (thereby avoiding a $2 million buyout); signing, again, Alex Avila, to back up James McCann; and trading for Mikie Mahtook, who is bad but nevertheless should see action filling in in center field. Without getting too far into the transactional weeds (and there really aren’t many), in terms of on-field talent, the Tigers essentially traded Maybin for Avila and Mahtook. It’s hard to see that as a step forward.

0.000

Called strikes above average for James McCann last year, meaning he was just exactly average in the pitch-framing department. That’s an improvement over his prior seasons, and 2016 was the first year his framing didn’t cost the major-league team. His arm earned him the “McCannon” nickname and remains his defensive calling card. Expect opposing teams to continue to try to run on him anyway, though, likely because they perceive some of his batterymates (Anibal Sanchez leaps to mind) as being slow to the plate.

Heading into last season, catcher was a prime position due for upgrade. (McCann doesn’t exactly hit the leather off the ball with his career .221 TAv.) The Tigers addressed the situation by doing nothing during the season; letting Jarrod Saltalamacchia walk in November; and bringing back Alex Avila in December. Avila has a bit more in his bat than McCann, but he isn’t really allowed to hit against lefties anymore, and his defense is measurably worse than McCann’s. He has a reputation as a good game caller, and he will find plenty of familiar, friendly faces in the clubhouse (and the front office, where his father is in charge). A suitable backup for a guy who probably ought to be a backup.

-0.7

Combined 2016 fWAR of the four candidates to start in center field for a team with a $194 million payroll and a quickly closing competitive window.  Anthony Gose entered the 2016 season hoping to build off a 2015 campaign that saw him hit pretty close to league-average against RHP and with numbers from Statcast suggesting he had room to improve defensively.  The defense did improve–but he managed to hit his way right out of the major league roster with a woeful .209/.287/.341 split with a 69 wRC+ in 30 games.  Things got worse when Gose was demoted to AAA Toledo, where he didn’t bother to hit (.185/.255/.266 in 50 games) and then didn’t bother to show up to a game in July after a heated argument with Mudhens manager Lloyd McClendon.  As a consequence, he was banished to AA Erie for the remainder of 2016, where he hit a paltry .224/.301/.365.

Gose was removed from the 40-man roster for a guy the team acquired for free from the Tampa Bay Rays, 27-year-old Mikie Mahtook.  Mahtook is coming off a year to forget, hitting just .195/.231/.292 with a 39 wRC+ in an injury-plagued 2016.  He was particularly inept against RHP, turning in a microscopic .438 OPS in 129 PA (which corresponds to a pitcher-like wRC+ of 18).  Mahtook could be a useful platoon partner with a left-handed hitter, as he is pretty effective against LHP.  In 144 career PA, he has turned in a solid .276/.322/.537 with a 136 wRC+.  So a useful player, as long as somebody else starts against righties.

That person appears to be Tyler Collins, who, entering his age-27 season, has started 41 games in his professional career in center field–22 of which came just last year.   While defensive metrics are, of course, spotty over a mere 207 innings, they do tell the story of a corner outfielder shuffled to center out of desperation.  Collins managed -4 DRS and a UZR/150 of -11.4 over those innings, and he’ll be required to play half his innings in games in spacious Comerica Park.  Offensively, Collins was OK, hitting .235/.305/.382 overall and was a decent .266/.331/.450 with a 108 wRC+ against RHP.

The Tigers would prefer to keep prospect Jacoby Jones in AAA, where he would benefit from some more seasoning.  Jones had a cup of coffee with the Tigers in 2016, which included an eye-popping 12 Ks in 28 PAs.  Jones showed significant power in AA to start the season (4 HR, .286 ISO in 89 PA), but that evaporated against better pitching in AAA (3 HR, .113 ISO in 324 PA in Toledo).

***

As recent global conversations about the game have made apparent, baseball is slow. If you’re like MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, this is a problem; if you’re like Patrick Dubuque or Russell Carleton, it’s essential to the nature of the game. Regardless of your stance on pace-of-play reforms, there’s no denying that things rarely happen quickly in this sport. Like the Federal Reserve flagging a period of economic recession, we usually require some temporal distance from a moment in time before we can mark a point of significant change in baseball. Counterexamples exist, of course, those easily identified events like the retirement of a franchise player like Ryan Howard or David Ortiz.

The 2017 Detroit Tigers lie somewhere in between. There’s no doubt that this is a transition year for this team. The passing of Mr. I may serve as the identifiable focusing event, but there are other elements that have been developing for years. The seasons from 2006 to 2016 stand as a very neat capsule of a period of star-studded competitive excitement in this club’s history. This year, there are aging stars and expiring (maybe not quite quickly enough, in some cases) contracts, yes, but also maybe some inklings of a youth movement, which is a bit of a foreign concept in this era of Motor City baseball. Justin Verlander isn’t passing a torch to Michael Fulmer, but he’s showing the Oklahoma kid how to get a good grip on it.

At this moment, this may be the most exciting Tigers season of the past two or three because of its wide-open potential. The real and obvious strengths and weaknesses of this roster, many of which we’ve highlighted above, aren’t really new. What is new, though, is a freedom from preseason expectations. Their run of four consecutive division titles no longer is larger than it appears in the rearview mirror. It felt pretty lucky (and it was) that the team had a chance at the postseason entering that final regular-season series in Atlanta last year. There should be no extrinsic disappointments this season. With plenty of reasons to play for the present and look to the future, we ought to know much more about this team and its direction at the end of the season than we do now, and we likely will learn more in that regard this year than we have in quite a few years. It’s time for Tiger baseball!

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