The unofficial national holiday of the spring, Opening Day, is nearly upon us. The Detroit Tigers are coming off a season in which they missed the playoffs by 2.5 games and had a chance to get in on the last day. An abysmal performance against the lowly Atlanta Braves crushed those hopes.
The offseason was not one that Tigers fans or general manager Al Avila might have envisioned. Center fielder Cameron Maybin, coming off his best season in his career, was traded away for a minor league pitcher, and that was it. No additions to the ailing bullpen, no slashing of payroll, no hoarding of prospects. The market forced the Tigers to stay in win-now mode with an aging roster that might not have another run in it. Or does it? It’s time to look in my crystal ball and make some predictions for the upcoming Tigers season, starting with the pitching.
I have a complete lack of faith in Jordan Zimmermann. He is supposed to be the new ace of the staff, he says he’s feeling better after a neck injury derailed his 2016 season, but I’m still not sold. If he can be at least decent (mid-3 ERA, 150-plus innings), it would go a long way towards helping the Tigers’ playoff chances. But until I actually see it, I won’t believe it will happen.
Justin Verlander had a bounce back season last year, maybe good enough to win the Cy Young, but he’s 34 years old with a ton of mileage on his arm. 16-9, 3.04 ERA, 254 strikeouts, vintage Verlander. But are those numbers sustainable? He has adapted his pitching style in his later years, no longer able to simply blow hitters away with a high-90’s fastball. He’s not to the point of “crafty veteran” yet, but he’s on his way. He’ll be good, but there will be some regression.
The back end of the rotation features three players all age 26 or younger in Michael Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd. Fulmer is the gem of the group, winning AL Rookie of the Year last season with a 3.06 ERA. Is he due for a sophomore slump? Yes and no. I don’t see him sustaining those numbers this season, mainly because there is a year’s worth of film on him for other teams to study. He won’t be taking anyone by surprise. But he’ll still be Detroit’s second-best pitcher behind Verlander.
Boyd and Norris should both make nice jumps from last season. Norris made 14 appearances last year without giving up more than three earned runs in any of them, which is remarkable. But he only made one start from April until the middle of June and missed most of July with injuries. With the shaky and expensive Anibal Sanchez as your sixth starter and long reliever, the Tigers need more innings out of Norris.
Boyd earned the fifth spot in the rotation over Sanchez with a solid spring. But if the young lefty falters, manager Brad Ausmus might be forced to give Anibal another shot. That’s something that Tigers fans fear. I have confidence in Boyd to improve on his ERA of 4.53 from last season. He could be an x-factor in this rotation.
Detroit parted ways with mediocre-at-best Mike Pelfrey late in the spring, but will still be on the hook for his $8 million salary, along with Mark Lowe’s $5 million. Money well spent, huh?
For whatever reason, the Tigers did not make any upgrades to their bullpen this offseason, although you could say releasing the awful Lowe is a plus.
The bullpen’s ERA was 24th in the MLB at 4.22. Most would say that means you need to make some upgrades. Al Avila apparently is not one of those people. K-Rod is getting old and can be a roller coaster every time he steps on the mound. Look for Bruce Rondon to possibly usurp Rodriguez as the closer by August at the latest. He had the best season of his young career last season with a sub-3 ERA and a strikeout rate of 11.15 per nine innings.
The Wilsons will be a key component of the Tigers’ bullpen.
Justin Wilson had a shaky second half last season while Alex Wilson was probably the best arm in the ‘pen all year, with a 2.96 ERA in 73 innings of work. If the rotation falters and the bullpen is called on more and more, those two will be called on to hold the Tigers together in the middle to late innings.
Prospect Joe Jiminez could be called up to the majors at some point this season if one of the relievers gets hurt, or if his play warrants it. Jiminez rose quickly through the Tigers’ minor league system last season, going from class-A Lakeland all the way to triple-A Toledo, all while owning a 1.51 ERA. I can’t wait for this guy to get to the Show.
As for the rest, just close your eyes and cross your fingers.