DETROIT -- Change has arrived at Comerica Park, and 2018 is going to be a season of transition unlike any most Tigers fans have seen in years. That doesn't mean it's a lost season in the Motor City.
After years of chasing a World Series title, the transition is underway, and the star-studded Tigers rosters of the past several seasons are gone. Though some veteran stars remain such as Jose Cabrera, the next few years in Detroit are about the youth, both prospects who have arrived and those on the way up the system. The Tigers are being up front about it, though new manager Ron Gardenhire cautions not to accept losing as a natural result.
This coming season is going to be one of learning new faces, appreciating the familiar ones, watching young talent begin to grow and watching others begin to plant roots at Comerica Park. Here are a handful of questions that will determine how the season goes, and what role it plays in the Tigers' long-term future:
1. Can Cabrera and Jordan Zimmermann stay healthy?
After all the trades, the Tigers still have a future Hall of Famer, a Triple Crown winner, a four-time batting champion and one of the great right-handed hitters of modern history. Cabrera fills all the categories, and the 34-year-old sits just 364 hits shy of 3,000. He can still be a very good hitter, but he has to be healthy to do it. Lingering back issues left him struggling with his swing for most of the season, leading him to change his workout routine to focus on core strength. If he can get back close to his 2016 form, the Tigers offense looks much better.
Likewise, Detroit needs more effective innings from Zimmermann to help temper the workload on a young rotation after the departures of Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez. Zimmermann has three more seasons on the five-year contract he signed as a free agent in November 2015, but recurring neck issues have hindered him for parts of his first two seasons in Detroit. He made 29 starts in 2017 but averaged just over five innings per start, and posted a 6.08 ERA and 5.18 FIP while yielding an MLB-high 108 earned runs.
2. If Michael Fulmer is healthy, are his days in Detroit numbered?
Both the track record of ulnar transposition surgery and the status of Fulmer's throwing program strongly suggest the former AL Rookie of the Year should be healthy for Spring Training and at full strength for Opening Day. Assuming he backs that up with his pitching -- and considering he had a better FIP in 2017 than in '16, he should -- the next question will be how much longer he'll remain a Tiger. He turns 25 in March and has five seasons to go before free agency, but the challenge of Detroit's rebuilding project and Fulmer's potential value to other teams make him general manager Al Avila's best remaining chance to garner a prospect bonanza and jump-start the Tigers' farm system. The fact that so many teams were already interested in him this offseason foretells a potentially huge market at the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline or next offseason. But if Avila doesn't get an offer he likes, he has the luxury to wait some more.
3. What does the future hold for Victor Martinez?
Martinez has one season left on the four-year deal he signed to remain a Tiger after his AL MVP runner-up campaign in 2014. Whether he plays that out is anyone's guess at this point. He played just 47 games after mid-June thanks to a rapid heartrate that forced him to be hospitalized and monitored twice, putting priorities in perspective for somebody who lost his father to heart problems when he was young. Avila expects him in camp and healthy for Spring Training, but the 39-year-old will surely have a lot more on his mind than career legacy. The Tigers could use his bat if he could get back to his 2016 form.
4. Is Nicholas Castellanos the next big Tigers bat (and if so, for how long)?
Lost amidst all the trades and injuries was a breakout season for Castellanos at age 25, especially once trades moved him into the middle of the order in September. No Tiger since Curtis Granderson a decade ago had put up this kind of overall production -- 26 homers, 36 doubles, 10 triples and 101 RBIs. Yet the metrics of Castellanos' line-drive and hard-hit rates suggest he could've had even more production had a few more hits fallen. The production led the Tigers to try to pursue a contract extension to no avail at season's end, but with two years left before he hits free agency, a big 2018 campaign will likely catch other teams' attention.
5. When does the next batch of prospects arrive?
Tigers fans caught a glimpse of the future down the stretch with Jeimer Candelario at third base, JaCoby Jones in center field and Joe Jimenez and Zac Reininger in the bullpen. But the vast majority of prospects who are expected to spearhead the rebuild still have some development ahead of them, some more than others. While top starting prospects Franklin Perez and Beau Burrows are likely to open the season at Double-A Erie, maybe getting a September callup, the Tigers could get relief help in-season from former University of Miami closer Bryan Garcia, who traversed four levels from Class A West Michigan to Triple-A Toledo last summer. Paul Voelker, whose midseason absence overshadowed a very good season of relief in Erie, could join Garcia on the way up.