As has been the case the last few years, the Detroit Tigers are in an “all-in” mode – forsaking their future for the possibility of a run at a World Series title. But one could make the argument that they are stuck in this mode rather than being here by choice. They have the fifth-highest payroll in baseball which includes some of the heftiest individual contracts in the league. However, just like that lease for a sports car, the payments are still the same after the engine starts breaking down and your ex-girlfriend key-jobbed the paint. With an ever-improving AL Central, this is a Tigers team teetering on the brink of the endangered list.
The huge news for the Tigers this off-season was the loss of Max Scherzer to free agency. Scherzer has been one of the league’s best pitchers the last few years, and he’s just the sort of pitcher that a win-now team like Detroit should have. Maybe they were waiting for his price to come down before the Washington Nationals surprised everyone by unnecessarily signing him.
The Tigers also replaced the replacement-level Torii Hunter by trading away pitcher Rick Porcello for Yoenis Cespedes. They also traded for pitchers Alfredo Simon and Shane Greene to fill out their rotation. These are all classic Dave Dombrowski sneaky good moves and might even start to make up for the craziness of last offseason’s Doug Fister trade that no one yet has been able to figure out.
The Tigers should once again have one of the best offenses in the league this season. And they should once again have one of the worst defenses in the league – though probably not as bad as before with the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias and the addition of Cespedes in the outfield. Ian Kinsler, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez should put up about the same level of production this year and the center field platoon of Rajai Davis and Anthony Gose should produce as well. J.D. Martinez will probably regress a little, but third basemen Nick Castellanos is still very young with lots of room for growth.
Last year’s midseason trade acquisition, David Price, will be the opening day starter over former ace Justin Verlander, who was not very good at all last year. Anibal Sanchez, Simon and Greene fill out the rest of the staff and should all be above-average. Last year, the starting rotation was the best in baseball, and they should be very good again this year, especially if Verlander can recover some of the form he had before he started dating (and taking nude pictures with) Kate Upton.
Offense? Check. Starting pitching? Check. Relief pitching? Yikes. This was the team’s biggest problem last year, and it’s the team’s biggest problem this year. Who will relieve the relievers? There is probably no aspect of baseball performance that is more volatile than bullpen performance and, after last year’s Joe Nathan experience, it’s understandable if Dombrowski is reluctant to dump another pile of money on a relief pitcher. Nathan will start as the team’s closer, but if he doesn’t get things going right away, look for Joakim Soria to step in or even future closer Bruce Rondon.
Opening day lineup
Ian Kinsler 2B
Rajai Davis/Anthony Gose CF
Miguel Cabrera 1B
Victor Martinez DH
Yoenis Cespedes LF
J.D. Martinez RF
Alex Avila C
Nick Castellanos 3B
Jose Iglesias SS
David Price SP
If you are a fan of minor league prospects, then you are probably not a fan of the Detroit Tigers farm system. It is currently the worst in baseball. This is the sort of thing that happens when a team is “all-in” year after year. Or they make trades like that Doug Fister one. Outfielder Derek Hill and pitcher Kevin Ziomek are above-average prospects, but Tigers fans should know better than to get too attached to them since they will likely get traded away midseason. Other than those two, there are just a bunch of warm bodies at this point in the minor leagues. Dombrowski is one of the league’s best GMs, but going forward, they’re going to have to do better in the draft and possibly mix in a few international signings to resuscitate this system.
Last season, the Tigers won their division with 90 wins. This season, most projections have them winning in the mid-80s. To get up to 90 wins and a division title, they would need a lot of things to go their way, and with an aging squad with no minor league help available, they’re going to need help from the rest of the teams in the division. But that will be tough with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago White Sox getting stronger – despite the Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals taking a step back. So, let’s go along with the projections: a wild card spot with 85 wins and one more run at a title before the sports car falls apart for good.