Tigers to rely on mix of fresh, familiar faces
Vintage form from V-Mart, Verlander will be key in 2016
DETROIT -- For the Tigers, 2015 was a season of change, from the pitching staff to the front office. For 2016, the goal is the same: Owner Mike Ilitch still wants to win, and he's still spending like it.
"That's all I think about," Ilitch said at the Jordan Zimmermann news conference in November. "It's something that I really want. I want it bad."
The Tigers are going at it in a different manner, not only holding onto their prospects but counting on them for contributions. First-year general manager Al Avila also built an analytics department, expanded his scouting staff and built a bullpen with the goal of returning to contention. But now, with a World Series champion in Kansas City and a resurgence in the works in Minnesota, the American League Central is no longer a division Detroit can be expected to dominate.
There's a path for the Tigers to get back to the top, but it hinges on things that went wrong last season turning in their favor. The injury bug has to let up, allowing some much-needed veterans to get back to norm. The reconstructed bullpen has to not only hold late-inning leads, but take pressure off of key arms. And some of the young talent that got a chance down the stretch this past season with the Tigers out of it now will need to step up with expectations raised.
Here's a more specific sampling of the questions ahead:
1. Can Victor Martinez return to form?
However the outfield mix shakes out, Tigers officials believe the key to regaining their offensive advantage -- and maybe their entire season -- lies in Martinez and Miguel Cabrera getting back to past production. Cabrera's resurgence seems like a safer assumption, given the batting title he won in 2015 and his first healthy offseason in years. Martinez is the bigger question because of the nature of his woes. He never looked right after undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus last February and, at age 37, there's no guarantee he'll get that form back even if his knee is good. The Tigers don't need a return of 2014 (32 homers, 103 RBIs), but a reprise of his '11 or '13 numbers -- a .300-plus average, 12-15 home runs, 35-plus doubles -- would do wonders in the cleanup spot.
2. Is Justin Verlander truly back?
The Tigers restocked their pitching staff with the idea that Verlander is again their ace, based off his second-half resurgence (2.27 ERA, .548 OPS allowed, seven innings per start over his final 14 outings). If he can do that over a full season, coupled with a healthy Anibal Sanchez, a workhorse in Zimmermann and a developing Daniel Norris, Detroit's rotation would look formidable once again. But Verlander has to do it for a full season at age 33.
3. How many youngsters can contribute now?
Avila said all offseason he wanted to hold onto as many pitching prospects as possible -- not just for future years, but for now. While Norris seemingly has the best chance to win the fifth spot in the rotation, Avila and manager Brad Ausmus are open to letting top prospect Michael Fulmer compete for a bullpen spot, the way Joel Zumaya did a decade ago. Fulmer, Matt Boyd, Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan comprise a stockpile of young arms expected to protect the Tigers in case of injuries or inconsistencies from veterans.
"One of the priorities that we had coming into this winter was to keep those guys and not trade them away," Avila said. "It was very tempting ... but we resisted it."
4. What production can the Tigers get out of left field?
Despite speculation of a reunion with free agent Yoenis Cespedes, Avila suggested going into the holidays that the Tigers' big offseason signings are done, primarily for payroll reasons. Unless Ilitch or the outfield market move toward a deal, Detroit will open the season with a mix of Cameron Maybin, Anthony Gose and Tyler Collins as possibilities in left field. All of them have the potential of holding down the job, but at a corner-outfield position, the Tigers need some offense out of the spot to stretch out of the productive part of their batting order.
5. What happens with Brad Ausmus?
Avila went against speculation in September when he announced that Ausmus would return for 2016, giving the former Tigers catcher a fair chance to manage a healthy, restocked roster and a viable bullpen. It'll be Ausmus' third season at the helm, but also the final guaranteed season on his contract, with the Tigers holding an option for 2017. It doesn't put Ausmus back in the same spot of managing for his job, but the expectation to win is on his shoulders. If key players are healthy and the bullpen is effective, he should have a team capable of winning.