2017 MLB Preview: AL Central- Detroit Tigers

2016 Record: 86-75 (2nd Place)

Manager: Brad AusmusScreen Shot 2017-03-21 at 4.12.37 PM

The Tigers entered the 2016 season as contenders, but a slow start to the season would ultimately leave them 2.5 games short of the final wild card spot. Their newly signed left fielder Justin Upton’s slow start to the season was a big factor in their early struggles, who entered June with just 3 HR and a sub-.220 batting average. He still went on to finish the season with 31 HR and 87 RBI’s, yet his .246 average was a career-worst excluding his 2007 rookie year. Most of his offensive production came in his red-hot month of September, as he will look to build on his strong end to the season to become a consistent force in their lineup.

There’s no reason to believe that 38-year-old Victor Martinez won’t continue to be a force in the lineup, coming off a DL-free season where he hit .289 with 27 HR and 86 RBI’s. Age doesn’t seem to be a concern for Martinez, who is now the team’s full-time designated hitter. Two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera would also benefit from a healthy 2016 season, leading the team in just about every major offensive category. If Cabrera could perform slightly better against left-handed pitching, there’s no reason to leave the soon-to-be 34-year-old out of the MVP conversation.

Ian Kinsler should continue to be one of the top offensive second baseman in the game, coming off a .288 season where he hit 28 home runs, his highest HR total since 2011. Kinsler could find himself involved in trade discussions if the team decides to head in the rebuilding direction come July. J.D. Martinez is another star who could find himself involved in trade discussions, who still managed to hit .307 with 22 home last season runs while missing a good chunk of the year with a fractured elbow.

Jose Iglesias’ .255 average last season was very uncharacteristic for the young shortstop, and could feel pressure from 25-year-old Dixon Machado if he doesn’t return to his high-average-self. After trading Cameron Maybin to the Angels, newly acquired Mikie Mathook looks to be the favorite to get the center field gig over Anthony Gose. A former first round pick by the Rays, Mathook’s 2016 season was a huge step back from his promising rookie season, finishing with a .195 average with 3 HR and 68 strikeouts in just 185 at bats. Mathook appears to be the short-term option in center, as the club views prospect JaCoby Jones as their center fielder of the future as he continues to develop in Triple-A.

Third baseman Nick Castellanos continued to make strides in his third MLB season last year, setting career highs in average (.285) and home runs (18). He also showed a tremendous amount of improvement defensively. The Tigers hope that their young catcher James McCann will make similar offensive improvements in his third season in the majors, coming off a disappointing season where he hit just .221 with 109 strikeouts in just 334 at bats. As an excellent defender behind the plate, the Tigers still view McCann as their catcher of the future. He will have to show significant progress with his bat to keep maintain this status, and could lose at bats to veteran catcher Alex Avila if his struggles continue.

The top of the Tigers rotation is as strong as any in baseball, lead off by their 34-year-old ace Justin Verlander. After a rocky two previous seasons Verlander returned to form in 2016, finishing with a 16-9 record with a 3.04 ERA and 254 strikeouts and placing second in the AL Cy Young award voting. Verlander is another player where age doesn’t seem to be a factor quite yet, with his 227 innings pitched last season ranking second in the American League. Verlander is joined by the 2016 Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer, who after a late-April call-up finished last season with a 11-7 record and a 3.07 ERA in 26 starts. Having just turned 24, the Tigers hope that Fulmer will establish himself as their ace of the future and maintain this sort of success over the course of a full season.

Jordan Zimmerman’s first year of the enormous five-year deal he signed in the 2016 offseason proved to be a disaster, starting just 18 games for the team and posting a 4.87 ERA over 105 innings. He struggled with a number of injuries as the season went on, making just four major league appearances after the All-Star break. It would be unfair to say that the two-time All Star is washed up, as the 30-year-old should still possess 200 inning potential if he can manage to stay healthy.

23-year-old Daniel Norris enters the season with a hold on the fourth spot in the rotation, going 4-2 with a 3.38 ERA in 13 starts last season. Acquired as the centerpiece of the David Price trade in 2015, Norris will finally get the opportunity to show what he can do over the course of a full season after years of being regarded a top prospect. Matt Boyd, who was also acquired in the Price deal, looks to be the favorite to beat out the highly paid veterans Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey for the last rotation spot. Boyd wasn’t anything special in the 18 starts he made last season going 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA, but the Tigers see more upside in the 26-year-old than they do Sanchez or Pelfrey, who will compete for bullpen spots.

The Tigers bullpen has been sub-par over the past two seasons, yet they can still count on their closer Francsico Rodriguez even at the age of 35. Rodrgiuez may have not been as dominant as in years past last season, but he still managed to go 44/49 in save opportunities. The Tigers have promising young arms in their bullpen such as Bruce Rondon and Kyle Ryan, but also need veterans like Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson to perform better if they want to get their bullpen back on track.*

Bottom Line: On paper, the Tigers have all of the pieces to be a contending team in the American League. Yet if they get off to a slow start like they did last season, they will likely become sellers and the trade deadline and transition into full-blown rebuilding mode.

*Stats and Info from Baseball Reference

-Featured Image from themajors.net