What did over $170 million in payroll buy the Detroit Tigers last season? Last place. What will almost $200 million buy the Detroit Tigers this season? That remains to be seen, but it’s clear that Mike Ilitch will spend whatever he needs to in order to win a World Series before he dies. The 86-year-old owner gave the green light to new General Manager Al Avila to hand out quite a bit of free agent money this offseason in order to improve upon last season’s 74-87 record.
It wasn’t pretty in Motown last season and some of the advanced numbers painted an even uglier picture. The Tigers were 74-87, five wins better than their Pythagorean win-loss at 69-92. BaseRuns supported the 74-87 finish, but the Tigers gave up almost five runs per game. The Tigers won 11 of their first 13 games and entered May with a 15-8 record, but it was all downhill from there. All of it culminated in the firing of Dave Dombrowski, who drew the ire of Ilitch by trading David Price and Yoenis Cespedes to try to build upon a weak farm system at the Trade Deadline.
An aging roster is nearing the end of its competitive window. Miguel Cabrera has battled injuries each of the last two seasons and turns 33 on April 18. Victor Martinez is 37 and has battled some severe knee problems. This is Ian Kinsler’s age-34 season. Justin Verlander is an old 33 with a loss of velocity and some recent injuries. Anibal Sanchez hasn’t made 30 starts in a season since 2012 and he’ll turn 32 before the first Spring Training game. There’s a lot of money owed to this collection of players over the next few seasons. But, with Ilitch calling the shots, rebuilding was not an option. The only option was to continue spending.
The Tigers were 53-70 against right-handed starting pitchers last season and signed zero left-handed bats of consequence. They did, however, bolster the starting rotation with the signing of Jordan Zimmermann and also added some right-handed thump in Justin Upton. The bullpen, which was among the worst in the league last season, got a facelift with the additions of Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson.
Just how far away is Detroit from improving? They lost 31 games by five or more runs last season. The bullpen was awful, yet the Tigers were 26-22 in one-run games. Are the free agent and trade acquisitions enough to get this team back into the driver’s seat in the AL Central? Did they simply quit last season to go 30-43 in the second half? All in all, the Tigers are one of the most perplexing teams in the AL this season and they may have the widest range of possible outcomes.
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 81 (-130/100)
5Dimes: 81.5 (-105/-125)
Bovada: 81.5 (-130/100)
Key additions: Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, Francisco Rodriguez, Justin Wilson, Cameron Maybin, Mark Lowe, Mike Pelfrey, Jarrod Saltalamacchia
Key losses: Ian Krol, Alex Avila, Rajai Davis, Alfredo Simon, Joe Nathan, Al Alburquerque
In terms of updating the roster, it was a good offseason for the Tigers. Mike Pelfrey isn’t great, but he should be an upgrade to the other depth options in the rotation. Jordan Zimmermann was a must, as a guy with 200-inning upside to slot into the upper part of the rotation. The Tigers may have overpaid for him given how the rest of the free agency season played out, but they don’t care about things like that.
Justin Upton got a lot of money to replace Yoenis Cespedes and Cameron Maybin can be an interesting platoon partner in center field with Anthony Gose. Gose can’t hit lefties and Maybin can, so it’s a match made in Heaven.
The bullpen, which resembled a nuclear fallout last season, has been completely torn down and rebuilt. K-Rod will close with Lowe and Wilson in primary setup roles. That will take pressure off of guys like Bruce Rondon and Alex Wilson. It’s still not a great bullpen by any means, but it should be improved from last season.
Why bet the over?
Well, this team will hit. The Tigers ranked third in wOBA last season at .324. They owned left-handed pitching and finished around league average against right-handed pitching. Just about everybody of consequence from last season is back, with Justin Upton playing the role of Yoenis Cespedes.
Injuries or not, Miguel Cabrera remains an elite hitter, a Hall of Famer, and, quite possibly, the best right-handed hitter in all of baseball. Miggy was limited to 511 plate appearances last season, but he owned a .413 wOBA and a 165 wRC+, so he was 65 percent above league average with the bat last season. After playing through an injury during the 2014 season, Cabrera’s numbers climbed across the board and he cut down on bad swings. By PITCHf/x data, he actually posted the best chase rate of his career, which explains the career-best walk rate. As long as he’s out there, he’ll produce at an elite level.
Justin Upton is a professional hitter. He works counts well and has hit at least 26 home runs in five of the last seven seasons. His strikeout rate is higher than people would like, but when you work counts, you strike out. He also flirted with 20 stolen bases last season and the Tigers have been a lot more aggressive on the basepaths under Brad Ausmus than they were under Jim Leyland. Upton should be good for another three-win season with upside for more, especially with a lot of opportunities to drive in runs in the middle of this offense. He could also hit higher up the order to maximize that walk rate, which would set the table for Cabrera and JD Martinez.
Speaking of JD Martinez, one of the rare misses for the Houston Astros has been Detroit’s gain. Martinez proved that 2014 was no fluke with a .282/.344/.535 slash and 38 home runs. His BABIP dropped, which we expected, but his walk rate increase was a pleasant surprise. A five-win season would be a bit of a surprise, given that he played a much better right field than people expected and the walk rate spike may not be all that sustainable. But, he has a very high floor because of his power and contact quality, so four wins is a reasonable projection.
Victor Martinez was among the worst players in baseball last season, accumulating -2 fWAR. He’ll never be healthy and he’ll never be an asset in the field, but even a league average offensive campaign can net some reasonable value for the Tigers. With some better position player depth, they may be able to limit Martinez’s playing time to maximize certain matchups, especially against left-handed pitching, where he posted a small sample size slash of .348/.398/.472.
Second basemen age worse than any other position, but Ian Kinsler showed no signs of aging last season. Kinsler had a .296/.342/.428 campaign with yet another 10/10 or better season. Kinsler actually got better in the second half as well, posting a .325/.347/.495 slash. He was also worth 19 defensive runs saved at second base and has been worth almost four wins defensively for the Tigers over the last two seasons. It’s hard to find a better player at second base than Kinsler.
This offense is going to be really strong, especially if Jose Iglesias can stay healthy enough to turn the lineup over. Iglesias is a very good bat-to-ball contact hitter that doesn’t have a lot of power, but finds holes and barrels up pitches. Nick Castellanos found his power stroke and hit 15 dongs and can swing it very well against lefties. Anthony Gose can be close to league average against righties and Cameron Maybin was brought in on a buy-low trade to do some platooning.
The rotation looks a lot better with Jordan Zimmermann in the mix. He immediately vaults to the top of the projected fWAR depth chart for the Tigers with his ability to work about 200 innings. He doesn’t issue many free passes and last season’s home run numbers were an anomaly based on his career averages. Zimmermann’s not a big strikeout guy, but he mixes his pitches extremely well to induce a lot of weak contact.
Justin Verlander is the wild card in all of this. Verlander re-invented himself as a pitcher last season in light of his velocity loss and it paid dividends in the second half. Over 103 innings, Verlander owned a 2.81 FIP with a 4.5/1 K/BB ratio and really good command. After giving up six home runs in his first 30.1 innings, Verlander allowed just seven home runs after the All-Star Break, which led to a .216/.259/.327 slash and he fell just a bit short of a strikeout per inning. Mr. Kate Upton could be the key to this team’s success.
Anibal Sanchez is another guy. When he can go every fifth day, he’s a three-win pitcher. Last season, his command was buried somewhere near Jimmy Hoffa and his walk rate took a tumble. Sanchez had platelet-rich plasma therapy last September and was shut down for the season. Many pitchers, including Dylan Bundy and Zack Greinke, have tried to go this route. Sanchez’s xFIP of 4.03 was a lot lower than his 4.99 ERA, so there’s hope.
The rotation depth isn’t spectacular, but it’s far better than last season. Daniel Norris missed time with injury and treatment for thyroid cancer, but he should slot into the rotation and has some upside based on his minor league numbers. Mike Pelfrey is more reliable than Alfredo Simon, so that could be a gain. Matt Boyd, also picked up in the David Price deal, is a warm body capable of stepping in. Shane Greene was terrific at the outset for the Tigers and then regression hit him like a ton of bricks.
The bullpen has improved with all of the offseason dealings. Only Boston and Atlanta had a worse bullpen FIP than the Tigers and nobody had a higher xFIP. The Tigers didn’t miss enough bats, walked too many hitters, and gave up too many home runs. Joakim Soria led the way with 23 saves and then moved on to Kansas City. Four other guys picked up saves, including Alex Wilson, who had one of the worst K rates among relievers last season.
Justin Wilson was a terrific reliever for the Yankees last season, so he will slot nicely into a setup role in front of Francisco Rodriguez, who still has some mileage left in his tank. Mark Lowe was dominant for Seattle and showed a strong BB rate for Toronto. He’ll be a welcomed addition to a group that was in dire need of somebody that could get outs without walking a tightrope first.
Why bet the under?
There are a lot of compelling reasons to bet the under. For one thing, are the offseason acquisitions enough to erase the memory of how bad last season’s team actually was? Justin Upton, Jordan Zimmermann, and the bullpen additions are probably worth about seven or eight wins. That doesn’t account for the aging curve of the lineup and the performances of guys like Justin Verlander.
Miguel Cabrera worries are small in nature because only an injury can derail him from another five-win season. But, he has spent significant time in the trainer’s room over the last two seasons, with a hernia and also with a bad foot. Cabrera has played a lot more games than your typical 33-year-old and he’s always been a stocky guy. It has no bearing on this season’s win total, but Miggy’s extension kicks in this season and he is now paid between $28-32 million from now through 2023 with some vesting team options in 2024 and 2025.
The great Eno Sarris wrote about the chances of a Victor Martinez bounce back season back in September. There isn’t a lot of historical support for a bounce back from a guy like Martinez, both with age and the nature of his injuries, so it’s really hard to pencil him in for a strong season. As I mentioned, he was among the worst players in all of baseball last season. A season that bad seems unlikely, but he’s not the middle of the order bat he was in 2014 and should not be counted on as such.
The Anthony Gose/Cameron Maybin platoon seems like a great idea, right? Guess again. Maybin’s splits against lefties are nowhere near league average. Maybin has an 80 wRC+ against southpaws in his career. These two combined for -28 defensive runs saved in center field last season. If you’ve ever seen Comerica Park, you know that it has one of the biggest outfields in all of baseball. Even with decent defense in the corners, center field could be a big black hole for the Tigers again this season. That’s worrisome with a rotation like this. Jordan Zimmermann pitches to contact. Justin Verlander isn’t the dominant power pitcher he once was. Mike Pelfrey allows a lot of balls in play. It’s not a great combination.
Justin Upton moves to a tougher league, a tough park for offense, and a division that boasts a lot of quality right-handed arms. Defensive metrics don’t love Upton either, though he is league average or thereabouts. As mentioned, though, Comerica requires more range than other parks. He’s an upgrade and a good player, but don’t assume he’s more than what he is.
Age concerns exist for this group because most of the productive hitters are well into their 30s. It’s not an exact science and some guys are just good enough to offset the regression brought about by getting older. Still, the Tigers are very thin in a lot of facets. An injury to Ian Kinsler or Jose Iglesias, who missed an entire season with shin problems in 2014, would mean significant playing time for well below average player Mike Aviles or Andrew Romine.
That’s why the starting rotation is such a worry. This group is paper thin. Zimmermann’s been healthy, but Verlander and Sanchez have not. Facing an extra hitter every time through the lineup, Zimmermann’s numbers will drop off and his walk rate will increase as well. As a guy projected to miss a below average number of bats, that’s a problem. Zimmermann may struggle to post a FIP below 4.00 in a tougher league. Verlander, like the Tigers, has a lot of range in his potential outcomes. He’s become an extreme fly ball guy on a team with a lot of deficiencies in the field. Credit to Mr. Kate Upton for making the adjustments that he needed to make in the second half. Are they sustainable? We’ll find out.
I wouldn’t bank on anything from Anibal Sanchez. Even if he’s “healthy”, that shoulder has gone through a meat grinder throughout his career and his command was non-existent last season. There’s no reason to expect anything different heading into this season and he was already dealing with triceps soreness in Spring Training. That makes the Tigers rotation below average because Daniel Norris’s control problems are going to take some time to solve and Mike Pelfrey is not a good Major League starter. There’s no actual depth here. Just a bunch of warm bodies capable of reaching the 90s with regularity. The Tigers better win every game 7-4 or 8-5.
The bullpen isn’t great. It’s better than last season in the sense that hot White Castle is better than lukewarm White Castle. The relievers still project to walk too many guys, nobody has elite command, and 35-year-old Francisco Rodriguez and his steadily declining velocity is supposed to be the anchor of the bullpen. K-Rod’s average fastball velo dropped a full mile per hour last season to 89.7.
Over parts of nine seasons in the big leagues, Mark Lowe was worth 0.8 fWAR before his breakout season last year at age 32. I’m very skeptical of the sustainability of last season’s performance. Perhaps he simply found it after being paired with the right pitching coach of something, but an 82.4 percent strand rate won’t happen again and he owns a career 4.13 xFIP. Justin Wilson came out of nowhere to post a really outstanding season for the Yankees, but he flashed some really bad control in the minor leagues before the Pirates converted him to a reliever. He’s another guy coming off of a career year with nowhere to go but down.
One thing that oddsmakers don’t accurately account for is defense. Detroit’s could be very bad. Outside of Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias, the rest of this team is below average. Factor that in with a pitch-to-contact rotation and the Tigers are going to continue giving up runs in bunches. This team is great offensively and people love power and chicks dig the long ball and whatever else, but they are deficient in a lot of facets of the game.
Pick: Detroit Tigers Under 81.5 (Even – Bovada)
This is stronger on the spectrum than most of my picks thus far. Don’t worry, stronger opinions are coming, particularly with another team in the AL Central and a couple in the AL West. The Tigers will have an elite lineup and Justin Upton is a really good piece for an aging middle of the order. However, I have a hard time getting excited about Opening Day starter Justin Verlander, #2 Jordan Zimmermann, and then whatever comes next.
The best comparison I can give you is this: Detroit is Toronto without the defense. I’m rather bullish on Toronto this season, but that’s because I really value defense. I also prefer John Gibbons to Brad Ausmus. I think Ausmus is a terrible manager. As the core of this roster gets a year older, I don’t see where an eight-win improvement comes in.
For me, there are five parts of the game: offense, defense, starting pitching, relief pitching, and “other”, like the manager, a home field advantage, the schedule, etc. The only thing I like about Detroit is the offense. The Tigers will hit. They always do. Ultimately, it’s everything else that they won’t do well and that’s why they will fail to be above .500 this season.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW-
The Detroit Tigers can tie the Cleveland Indians’ record of five straight Central Division titles if they win another this season. The Indians were victorious from 1995-1999 and hold the record in the division’s short history. Major League Baseball moved to the three-division format in 1994 and the Detroit Tigers took the place of the Milwaukee Brewers in 1998. The Tigers are looking for their fifth consecutive winning season, which would be the most since they had 11 straight seasons above the break even mark from 1978-88.
First-year manager Brad Ausmus navigated the Tigers to a 90-72 season and they won the division by one game for the second straight season. They were promptly bounced out of the playoffs by the Baltimore Orioles in a three-game sweep. After staying remarkably healthy in 2013, the Tigers went from using 20 different pitchers to 30 different pitchers and 81 more runs.
Detroit went 43-33 against Central Division competition and that was the deciding factor. Only the Baltimore Orioles had a better record against .500 or better teams than Detroit’s 49-39 mark. The Tigers scored the most runs per game of any AL Central team by a wide margin, but they fell to third in runs allowed per game. They led the division for 162 days and never fell below .500. All in all, the Tigers were the best team in the Central Division and deserved to come away with the win.
However, some major injury concerns have popped up and the Tigers have to replace 425 innings from Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello. Detroit will still be the favorite to win the AL Central with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, David Price, and Anibal Sanchez, but this division is significantly more wide open than it has been over the last few seasons.
Oddsmakers progressively changed their opinions on the Tigers over the course of three days. Atlantis Sportsbook set the bar too high at 86. Westgate Sportsbook lowered it to 84.5 and that’s where BetOnline opened.
Key additions: Yoenis Cespedes, Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene, Anthony Gose, Tom Gorzelanny
Key losses: Max Scherzer, Rick Porcello, Joba Chamberlain, Torii Hunter, Jim Johnson, Andy Dirks, Robbie Ray, Eugenio Suarez
There’s not a whole lot to like about Detroit’s offseason. Max Scherzer signed a lucrative, albeit questionable, free agent contract with the Washington Nationals in which a significant amount of money is deferred. The Tigers solved their revolving door of awful in left field with Yoenis Cespedes, but it came at the price of Rick Porcello.
A terrible bullpen lost its most consistent reliever with Joba Chamberlain out of the picture. Bruce Rondon should return from Tommy John surgery at some point, which can fit under the “Key additions” section, but the Tigers bullpen is not in very good shape and Dave Dombrowski did nothing to address that. Tom Gorzelanny is a decent LOOGY and probably a better option than Phil Coke, but it was surprising to see how little the Tigers spent on bullpen assistance.
If Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene are the replacements to Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello, color me unimpressed. There will be a lot more on this later, but the Tigers certainly look a lot weaker on paper entering this season than they did last season when I picked them to go over their 89.5 win total, which they barely did.
Why bet the over?
The Detroit Tigers are still going to score runs in bunches. Miguel Cabrera might miss Opening Day, but he raked to the tune of a .379/.409/.709/1.118 slash line in the month of September last season while dealing with an injury that was far worse than initially thought. It’s interesting to see the big decline in Cabrera’s walk rate from August to September as the injury worsened. Cabrera walked 13.4 percent of the time in August and just 4.5 percent of the time in September. His unwillingness to get on base without doing damage because of how painful it was to run actually led to his second-most productive month. It was aided by an unsustainably .425 BABIP, but the guy is and will remain an elite hitter on pace for the Hall of Fame.
Speaking of elite, Victor Martinez is just a special hitter. How special? He struck out 42 times in 641 plate appearances. Only five pitchers recorded multiple strikeouts of Martinez, led by Trevor Bauer with three. Bauer also faced Martinez the most, with 15 plate appearances. (Side note: Martinez hit three of the 14 homers that Corey Kluber allowed last season.) Martinez finished second in AL MVP voting, though I believe he should have won. Even as somebody who adores sabermetrics and understands the value of a player that can play great defense and steal bases, Martinez’s value was entirely out of his bat. Given that he was even in the discussion with Trout as a one-dimensional player was remarkable.
Martinez’s .316 BABIP was right in line with his career average and he is one of a few guys with no speed that can sustain that because he puts so many balls in play. The power numbers are going to drop. Martinez posted a 16 percent HR/FB%, which was over five percent higher than his career average, but he’s still going to be a very productive hitter from both sides of the plate and a key cog in this offensive machine.
The Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder deal was an enormous win last season for Dave Dombrowski. While Fielder spent the entire year on the disabled list, Kinsler was busy leading the Tigers in fWAR. Kinsler was a couple ticks above average offensively, but he saved 20 runs defensively, which is equal to about two wins. Considering the Tigers are an awful defensive team, Kinsler’s performance certainly shined as a diamond in a pile of coal.
As a team, the Tigers were -10 defensive runs saved at shortstop. A big reason why is because they failed to have an adequate contingency plan behind Jose Iglesias. Iglesias suffered a very strange injury before the start of the season that required treatment for stress fractures in his shins. He is a plus defender that can impact games with his defense and that could be good for a two-win improvement defensively, since he would only need to save around 10 runs for that to happen. If he can find some holes with the balls in play, an elevated BABIP could turn him into a .285 hitter. He posted a .303/.349/.386 slash in 2013 thanks to a .356 BABIP. It’s not sexy from a sabermetric standpoint, but a .300 hitter around or behind the big bats is valuable on this team.
Yoenis Cespedes was an above average hitter for the third time in three Major League seasons last year and he was the crown jewel of Detroit’s offseason. Cespedes’s range is average, but his arm plays up in a big way in left field, so the Tigers are hoping to get a little bit of defensive value to go along with his 25+ HR potential. Cespedes has averaged 2.8 fWAR per season since defecting from Cuba. The Tigers may opt to use Cespedes in right field, where his arm is a tad closer to average, though still a weapon, because of JD Martinez in left. In any event, Cespedes is a slugger that will get plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
The Houston Astros gave up JD Martinez and went on to regret it as he put up a .315/.358/.553 slash line with a wRC+ of 153. Among left fielders with 400 or more plate appearances, that ranked second to Michael Brantley in all of baseball. He was an adequate left fielder, so his tremendous offensive value was worth nearly four wins. The Tigers are hoping for a repeat performance in 2015 and that would certainly enhance the power potential of this lineup.
Anthony Gose won’t impress anybody offensively, but he has a good defensive skill set in center field. Nick Castellanos went through some growing pains in his first season, but there’s untapped offensive upside in that bat.
David Price anchors a starting rotation that could be better than people think. The Tigers have lost Doug Fister, Max Scherzer, and Rick Porcello over the last 15 months, but they still have Price, Justin Verlander, and Anibal Sanchez as the top three. Price was terrific in the 11 starts he made for the Tigers, posting a 3.59 ERA, but a 2.44 FIP, and a 2.89 xFIP. He managed to be worth 2.4 fWAR in just 11 starts, which would be a seven WAR season extrapolated over a full year.
Price enters this season in a contract year, so he’ll be more focused than ever. That should work to Detroit’s advantage and maximize their investment in him. The door is always open for the Tigers to work out an extension with Price. Assuming Iglesias comes back healthy, the defense will be better and that should lower Price’s ERA. He has elite control and command and is a great fit for this (or any) pitching staff.
Anibal Sanchez was limited to 21 starts, but he was plenty productive in those outings. Once again, Sanchez was another Tigers starter whose fielder-independent stats didn’t reflect his run prevention abilities. Sanchez had a 2.71 FIP, but a 3.43 ERA, which is still well above league average.
Justin Verlander is still a durable, dependable starter for over 200 innings. While they are no longer dominant, 200 innings at league average or better is highly valuable and too many people will discredit Verlander because of his reputation. He’s not a 200 strikeout guy anymore with a sub-3.00 ERA, but he’ll give you 200 innings of good work and that’s something very special to have in the middle of the rotation.
The Tigers bullpen is full of buy low candidates. Joe Nathan still produced a solid strikeout rate as the Tigers closer and picked up 36 saves. Joakim Soria returned and made 13 appearances to get over some of the mental hurdles that come along with rehabbing a major injury. With Ian Krol and Tom Gorzelanny, along with Phil Coke, the Tigers have no shortage of matchup lefties. Bruce Rondon will return and could wind up closing games by the end of the season. Al Alburquerque is a quality reliever with a good slider that will be a good middle relief/setup option.
Why bet the under?
There are a ton of health concerns with this team. Miguel Cabrera will be back in April, but that was a major procedure and it’s the second straight season that he dealt with injuries. His 2013 ended in ugly fashion due to injury and he’ll turn 32 in April. He has made at least 648 plate appearances in each of the last 11 seasons, so durability has not been a big issue. However, he plays through injuries and injuries affect production.
Victor Martinez is a 36-year-old former catcher with a torn ACL and a torn meniscus over the last four years. The home run increase that he saw last season does not appear to be sustainable, especially at his age. He’s still going to slash for high averages in all major categories, but anybody expecting 32 bombs again is going to be really disappointed. He may not even hit 20 this season. If the strikeout totals inch up again, it’ll knock 10-15 points off of his batting average. He’s a great player and will continue to be, but the numbers are going to regress and that’s a problem because he’s not the only one.
The other Martinez, JD, is going to get hit by a tidal wave of regression. Martinez postetd a .389 BABIP last season and that’s just not sustainable for a guy with no speed that strikes out over 25 percent of the time AND hit 23 home runs. He hit well in the minors and some of last season’s developments may be sustainable, but I wouldn’t plan on it. Martinez slashed .346/.380/.654 with a .397 BABIP in the first half. He came down to .292/.342/.478 with a .383 BABIP in the second half. Expect that regression trend to continue and look for something more like .275-20-90 area. That’s still good, but it’s not 53 percent above league average good. As pitchers adjust, Martinez will have to adjust. Whether he does or not will dictate his performance.
Max Scherzer. Rick Porcello. Drew Smyly. 39-27, 3.41 ERA, 470 K, 135 BB, 530.1 innings pitched. That’s what the Tigers need to replace, just from last season. That doesn’t even include the 200 innings that they lost from Doug Fister from that ill-rated trade before the 2014 season. That’s a lot of excellent work to replace and Porcello had really developed into a reliable starter with an improving K rate that never got the respect he deserved because he was a ground ball guy pitching with a bunch of butchers behind him.
Alfredo Simon’s prospects for the 2015 season are really shaky. Simon is the new resident ground ball guy for the Tigers, which is already a problem, and he benefitted in a big way from batted ball luck in Cincinnati to inflate his value. Simon posted a 2.70 ERA in 116.2 first half innings last season. His FIP of 4.33 sounded warning bells that could be heard all around the world. In the second half, Simon’s ERA ballooned to 4.52 with a similar 4.34 FIP. What we have here is a guy that is going to be a major risk in this rotation. He’s changing leagues from the National League to the American League, which is a problem in and of itself because he faces an extra hitter every time through the lineup with the DH, and he has spotty control in a league that walks more than the Senior Circuit. This acquisition has enormous bust potential.
Anibal Sanchez was limited to 21 starts last season after making 29 the season before. Various injuries have kept him out of the rotation and he’s on the wrong side of 30 without a 200-inning season to his name. Buyer beware with Sanchez, whose velocity dropped last season for the first time in six years. Speaking of velocity drops, Justin Verlander is not the same guy. Not only is his fastball slower, but his command of the pitch has gone downhill. Maybe he’s spending too much time with his well-endowed girlfriend, but Mr. Kate Upton had a below average fastball for the first time in his career last season. As a result, he threw more offspeed and breaking stuff than ever before. The curve ball, once his secret weapon, was one of the least effective pitches in baseball. Verlander pitched to contact more than ever before and that’s not a sound strategy with this defense.
The bullpen is laughably bad. Joe Nathan is a shell of his former shelf and the Tigers are stuck with him for another year. Betting on Joakim Soria is foolish. Al Alburquerque is good, but his average leverage index was exactly 1.00, which is exactly average. Joba Chamberlain, who is still a free agent, averaged 1.56, which is in the medium-to-high range. Somebody has to get the high-stress outs to turn the game over to one of the league’s weakest closers. This with a rotation that grades as possibly average and a defense that is not good. This is a really bad situation and it’s shocking that the Tigers have not properly addressed it given their unlimited resources.
Pick: Under 84.5
This is not the Detroit Tigers that you are used to. The lineup will produce, but continuous production is a worry with the injury concerns. The pitching staff has to find a way to replace over 530 high quality innings from Scherzer, Porcello, and Smyly. High quality innings don’t grow on trees and they don’t grow on trees planted by Alfredo Simon, Shane Greene, and Kyle Lobstein. If any of the Tigers top three starters go down for a significant length of time, they’re in big trouble. Price had triceps soreness last season, Sanchez missed 10 or 11 starts, and Verlander’s velocity is dropping fast.
The bullpen is among the worst in baseball once again and the defense is contingent on a shortstop with bad shins returning to form. There are so many concerns and questions for this Tigers team that asking them to sustain good play over 162 games is too much. This is an inflated number based on perception and reputation and there are other teams in the AL Central that are equipped to improve and they will do so at the expense of the Tigers.
It’s really tough to go against a lineup anchored by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, but the Tigers have some serious starting rotation concerns and a bullpen that is going to have a hard time protecting leads. The Tigers could be the biggest disappointment in baseball this season.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
The Detroit Tigers enter the 2014 season looking for their fourth consecutive American League Central Division title, but the focus in the clubhouse is on something more. In the three subsequent playoff appearances, the Tigers have fallen twice in the American League Championship Series and were swept in the World Series in 2012. A division title won’t be good enough in 2014.
Based on the numbers from the oddsmakers, a division title seems elementary at this point. The Tigers were 47-29 within the division last season, especially impressive when you consider that they went 15-4 against their biggest competition, the Cleveland Indians. The standings look closer than they actually were, as the Tigers won the division by just one game over the Indians, but they had clinched on September 25 and lost their final three games to narrow the gap. The Tigers began September with a 7.5-game lead in the division, but an injury that Miguel Cabrera powerless took its toll as the Tigers had their worst scoring month of the season by far.
The list of accomplishments from last season’s Tigers is impressive. They won 33 games by five or more runs. They had the second-best run differential in the league, trailing only the Boston Red Sox, the eventual World Series Champions. The Tigers pitching staff allowed the second-fewest runs in the American League, had 49 more strikeouts than any other AL team, and did not have a single losing month.
For the first time since 2005, the Tigers will not have Jim Leyland in the dugout. Former Major League catcher Brad Ausmus takes over for Leyland and inherits a pretty nice collection of talent. Ausmus is a rookie manager, having served in the San Diego Padres front office since his retirement. As a player, he was lauded as one of the smartest players in the game.
Expectations remain high for the Tigers. BetOnline opened the Tigers win total at 89.5, the highest in the American League. LVH Superbook opened at 89.5, while William Hill and Atlantis Sportsbook in Reno, NV both opened at 91.5. There has been some turnover from last season’s team, but will it cause the Tigers to stumble?
Key additions: Ian Kinsler, Joe Nathan, Rajai Davis, Joba Chamberlain, Steve Lombardozzi
Key losses: Prince Fielder, Doug Fister, Jhonny Peralta, Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Ramon Santiago, Jose Veras
A revolving door of talent both entered and exited the building for the Tigers this offseason. The team freed up future finances likely to be used on Max Scherzer’s contract extension in the Prince Fielder trade with the Texas Rangers that returned Ian Kinsler. Kinsler will fill the second base hole left by Omar Infante’s departure. The more questionable trade of Doug Fister to Washington for infielder Steve Lombardozzi, bullpen left Ian Krol, and prospect Robbie Ray was a definite head scratcher and was recently listed by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs as the worst transaction to date this offseason.
Big payroll teams have the luxury to fill holes when they pop up and that’s what the Tigers did by signing Joe Nathan when Joaquin Benoit hit free agency. The Tigers also took a chance on Joba Chamberlain in hopes that he can assist in filling the holes left by Octavio Dotel and Jose Veras.
The aforementioned Lomardozzi will be used in the utility role vacated by Ramon Santiago. Rajai Davis fills a big need for the Tigers, who could use his element of speed and a platoon partner for Andy Dirks in left field.
Jhonny Peralta signed a free agent deal with the Cardinals after he lost his shortstop position to Jose Iglesias, who was acquired in a three-team trade deadline deal with the Red Sox and White Sox. Peralta had been used in the outfield after returning from his performance-enhancing drug suspension.
Why bet the over?
Oddsmakers seem to be overestimating the impact that the Tigers’ offseason will have. Starting with the everyday lineup, the loss of Prince Fielder may have an impact on Miguel Cabrera’s overall performance, but Cabrera remains an elite hitter and there is plenty of talent still surrounding him in the lineup. Furthermore, sabermetricians have found no evidence that lineup protection has any effect on a hitter, leading some to even dismiss the notion as being a myth.
What the Tigers lose in Fielder, they make up for in defensive prowess. Even with one of the game’s worst infield defenses behind them, the Tigers pitching staff was ninth in ERA, despite the fourth-highest batting average allowed on balls in play. Nick Castellanos, one of the team’s best prospects, is a question mark at third base, but Jose Iglesias is an outstanding fielder, Ian Kinsler has been very above average on the difficult, sun-baked infield in Arlington, and Cabrera is a much better first baseman than he is at third. The shift back to first base will also improve Cabrera’s health, as the wear and tear of playing third base clearly affected him.
Cabrera was seemingly injured the entire second half of the season. His first half was ludicrous. His .365/.458/.674/1.132 slash line was far and away the best overall offensive performance in baseball. In spite of the injury, he continued to rake until September when he finally succumbed to various leg and abdomen ailments. He batted just .278/.395/.333/.729 in 21 games. His .262/.311/.405/.716 pedestrian postseason performance definitely hurt the Tigers. A move back to first base is going to make Cabrera the same deadly hitter he has always been, but for the duration of the season.
About the only true weakness in the Tigers lineup was in left field and that’s where Rajai Davis comes in. Davis has stolen 216 bases over the last five seasons and the Tigers have the type of offense that can overcome any caught stealings they encounter. The risk-reward is much higher on stolen bases for a team like the Tigers, so Davis will have the ability to run. He’ll also be a tremendously valuable pinch runner late in games.
Why Davis holds so much value is because he is the ideal platoon partner for Andy Dirks. Dirks, a lefty with terrible splits against lefties, can platoon with Davis, a righty with far more success against lefties, will create an above average player in left field for the Tigers. It deepens the lineup even more and is one of the undervalued moves that the Tigers made this offseason. Dirks was worth 1.7 fWAR and a platoon situation could create a three-win player for the Tigers, which already adds another win to their team that the oddsmakers have not accounted for.
By percentage, Victor Martinez had the third-fewest swings and misses in baseball last season, even after missing the entire 2012 campaign. He’ll be in his age 35 season this year, so a drop in production does seem possible, but he’ll mostly serve as the designated hitter, which should keep him fresher throughout the season.
Kinsler’s acquisition also adds more speed to the lineup. Offensive expectations for second basemen are very low, so even in his 30s, with a change in park, Kinsler will still produce at a high level for his position. He puts the ball in play and works counts, which is going to be a benefit to a lineup like this. As mentioned above, Kinsler is part of a vastly-improved defensive infield to bolster the strength of the Tigers.
This rotation, even without Doug Fister, is one of the best in baseball. Sliding into Fister’s spot in the rotation is likely to be Drew Smyly, who was very effective as a short-inning reliever, but his value was certainly limited. The top of the rotation boasts workhorses Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, and Anibal Sanchez.
Verlander seemed to pace himself at times last season and didn’t have the type of year that people have come to expect from the Old Dominion alum. He had the lowest average fastball velocity of his career and saw the highest walk rate of the last five seasons. Much of this seems coincidental. Even though the Indians won 92 games and were far better than anybody anticipated, the Tigers were pretty much penciled in for the postseason. In 2011, Verlander struggled in the playoffs with a 5.31 ERA in four starts and shaky (for him) control. He seemed to start this trend of pacing himself in 2012, when his fastball velocity also dropped, but it paid off as he was great in the playoffs. In 2013, Verlander was absolutely dominant in September and October, allowing people to forget about the previous five months.
Don’t let the down year fool you. Verlander is a strikeout pitcher, but he does still allow a fair share of balls in play and the Tigers defense will be much improved. That will definitely help Verlander and give him the opportunity to return to form.
Max Scherzer was outstanding in 2012 with a 2.74 FIP and a Cy Young Award to add to his growing resume. He improved his home run and walk rates and threw more first-pitch strikes than ever before. Scherzer will turn 30 this season, but he didn’t make it to the Majors until he was 26, so there’s plenty of mileage left on that arm.
Overshadowed by Verlander and Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez quietly contributed 6.2 fWAR to the Tigers in 2013. Health was a minor factor, as Sanchez made just 29 starts, but a spike in strikeouts and velocity made his transition to a full-time AL starter much smoother than anyone expected. His 2.39 FIP tied with Clayton Kershaw for the second-best FIP in baseball. He forms the last piece of the Tigers triumvirate that has the potential to dominate hitters.
Behind the big three are Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly. Porcello has been expected to have a breakout season for some time now and the improved infield defense may allow that to happen. For the first time in his career, Porcello boasted a strikeout rate above league average last season. Couple that with a ground ball rate above 55 percent and you have the makings of a starter ready to take the next step. Porcello’s HR/FB rate and bad luck from a subpar defense led to a 4.32 ERA, but his FIP was 3.53 and his xFIP was even better at 3.19. If Porcello can keep the ball in the park and let his defense work behind him, as he has in the past, this could be his year to shine. As for Smyly, he’ll be an above average fifth starter that gives teams a different look as a left-handed pitcher.
Depth is the only question for this rotation, as Jose Alvarez projects to be the sixth starter and there’s not a whole lot available after him.
The bullpen will be better this season with established, veteran closer Joe Nathan. Not only will Nathan’s performance be an asset, but he can help with the mentoring of fireballer Bruce Rondon. Nathan lost a couple ticks off his fastball last season, but it didn’t hurt his swinging strike numbers and his experience is more than enough to get him by. With Rondon, another year of pro ball experience and success at the Major League level give him the tools to be one of the game’s best setup men.
Behind Nathan and Rondon are a collection of guys with questionable control that miss bats. Guys like Al Alburquerque, Joba Chamberlain, and Jose Ortega will pitch in big spots with help from lefties Phil Coke and Ian Krol. It’s a boom or bust group that can look dominant or struggle on any given night. The luxury for the Tigers is that their starting pitching gives them tremendous length to help cover up one of the team’s only weaknesses.
Why bet the under?
Ryan Braun and Miguel Cabrera both won league Most Valuable Player awards while protected by Prince Fielder. Whether you subscribe to the theory of lineup protection or not, pitchers may choose to not face Cabrera and take their chances with somebody like Victor Martinez. That puts a lot of pressure on an aging player like Martinez and the Tigers offense could see a drop-off in that regard.
Speaking of aging players, Torii Hunter seems very unlikely to replicate his last two seasons. Hunter has been the benefactor of BABIPs of .389 and .344 over that span, outliers to his career .310 mark. Hunter doesn’t walk and he will turn 39 in July. Study of aging in baseball players would indicate that Hunter is about to hit a time where players really start to show their age. Hunter was a negative defensive player last season for the fifth time in six years. His value could drop precipitously.
The Tigers will rely on Nick Castellanos and his 18 Major League plate appearances at third base. Though drafted as a third baseman, the Tigers opted to move Castellanos away from that position and put him in the outfield, which is not a ringing endorsement of his prowess at third. The experiment may end quickly if Castellanos struggles. In a perfect world, he takes to the position and his offensive talents also shine. In the real world, Castellanos probably struggles and the Tigers are forced to switch gears.
As great as the Tigers rotation was in 2013, both Scherzer and Sanchez could be in line for a little bit of regression. Scherzer dramatically improved his splits against lefties in 2013 and benefited from a .259 BABIP, over 40 points above his career average, despite similar batted ball results. Both Scherzer and Sanchez saw low, possibly unsustainable home run per fly ball rates last season, with Sanchez’s below six percent. League average for pitchers is around 9.5 percent, so expect both guys to give up more long balls this season.
The Tigers were remarkably lucky on the injury front last season. The team only needed to use six starting pitchers, as three of their five starters made over 30 starts and Sanchez and Porcello made 29 each. Tigers starters threw 1,023 innings in the regular season and then added more in the playoffs. That’s a very heavy workload, especially when you consider that the four main guys in the Tigers rotation have combined for 504 starts over the last four seasons. Starting pitching depth is a concern and the Tigers will need those guys to stay healthy again.
Pick: Over 89.5 (BetOnline)
Because of the overreaction to the Fielder and Fister deals, this number looks a little light. The division will be better overall with the Indians and Royals likely taking another step forward and possibly contending for the division title, but this is the best rotation in the American League and possibly the best in all of baseball. While there are workload concerns, these guys have a track record of staying healthy. Consider how good the Tigers were last season. Their starting rotation amassed 9.3 more fWAR than any other. They led the league in K/9, FIP by 0.27, innings pitched by 19.1, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and SIERA by 0.26. Most of those are pitching-exclusive categories. An improved defense plus a pitching staff already that spectacular will mean even better results.
It will be a different Tigers team that maybe doesn’t win by bashing the ball around the yard and scoring five runs per game. The overall team is stronger with the defensive improvements and the bullpen stability of Nathan. There is more speed to add to the power. The Tigers are a legitimate World Series contender this season.