DETROIT -- Change is coming to the Tigers, as general manager Al Avila warned in September.
But change isn't here yet.
:: 2015 Year in Review | 2016 Outlook ::
At some point, 2017 will be the year of change for the Tigers. It could come early, if the club finds some late-offseason trades that it likes. It could come in July if Detroit falls out of contention, setting up some big names to be dealt at the Trade Deadline. At the latest, it will come next offseason, when J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler, Justin Upton, Aníbal Sánchez, Mike Pelfrey and Mark Lowe all could become free agents, reducing the team's payroll through attrition.
Until change arrives, the Tigers remain a win-now team. So in all likelihood, this will be the last go-round for the team as it's constructed. Here are a handful of question that could determine the team's fate:
1. What can Michael Fulmer do for an encore?
Fulmer won the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2016 on the strength of a dominant early-summer roll, but he also posted a 3.94 ERA after the All-Star break. A lot of the damage came from three particularly tough starts out of 13 appearances, but more than fatigue, Fulmer saw opponents adjust to his game and force him to lean on his secondary pitches. Expect that challenge to be heightened now that teams have an abundance of both scouting reports and video on him. It'll be up to Fulmer to make the adjustments in response, arguably a bigger challenge than the innings workload he faced in his first season.
2. Can Jordan Zimmermann stay healthy?
Part of the reason the Tigers leaned on Fulmer so heavily at times last year was the absence of Zimmermann, who pitched just 9 2/3 innings over the final three months due to neck and back issues. With four more years left on the free-agent contract he signed last fall, Zimmermann isn't going anywhere. With Sanchez and Pelfrey both struggling, the Tigers need a return on their investment in Zimmermann, whose resurgence would allow Fulmer, Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd to mature under a little less pressure.
3. What impact will Lloyd McClendon have as hitting coach?
The Tigers and manager Brad Ausmus went back to McClendon, Detroit's hitting coach under former manager Jim Leyland from 2007-14, to replace Wally Joyner, who stepped down in October. McClendon's familiarity with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez from his previous tenure is a huge factor, but he'll also be tasked with seeking more consistency from Upton and Nick Castellanos, more confidence from James McCann and more plate discipline up and down the lineup. The Tigers had a feast-or-famine offense for much of last season, and not just against front-line pitchers, which arguably cost them a playoff spot.
4. When does the next batch of prospects arrive?
While Avila looks to ward off the aging process on the roster, he'll have a chance to infuse some youth in stages in 2017. Slugging outfielder Steven Moya and infielder Dixon Machado are out of Minor League options. JaCoby Jones could further the transition if he can win the center-field job, either out of Spring Training or early in the season. Top outfield prospect Christin Stewart, one of the best power hitters in any farm system, could knock on the door by year's end if he has a strong season at Double-A Erie. Then there's closer of the future in Joe Jimenez, who some thought could've helped the Tigers last September but who will get the chance to hone his slider to complement his power fastball at Triple-A Toledo.
5. Who, if anyone, gets traded?
The Tigers improved their chances to contend without doing a thing at the Winter Meetings, watching the White Sox rebuild and the Royals trade Wade Davis. If nothing changes, Detroit has the best chance of challenging Cleveland if the Indians suffer a World Series hangover. But how much patience will management exercise if the Tigers get off to another slow start, especially with Martinez and Kinsler among those nearing free agency?