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2017 AL Central Preview - Detroit Tigers

Where do the Detroit Tigers stand in 2017? Are they rebuilding or trying to contend one more time? Does the passing of owner Mike Illitch change the direction of the organization? The IBI's Jake Dungan tries to answer some of these questions in his season preview of the Motor City Kitties.

The annual AL Central Previews are back for 2017 at IBI as Jake Dungan goes team by team and examines the strengths and weaknesses of each club heading into the new season as well as how competitive they will be in the divisional race. Be sure to check out our other team previews of the Chicago White Sox and Cleveland Indians.

Detroit Tigers

2016 Statistical Rankings
  Statistic Division Rank MLB Rank
Batting Average .267 1st 3rd
Runs Scored 750 2nd 11th
OPS .769 1st 4th
BABIP .312 1st 5th
wRC+ 105 1st 4th
WAR 20.2 2nd 12th
ERA 4.24 4th 20th
Runs Against 721 4th 18th
Strikeouts 1232 4th 22nd
FIP 4.16 2nd 12th
DRS -56 5th 29th
UZR -20.8 4th 22nd

Key Offseason Additions

  • Alex Avila
  • Mikie Mahtook
  • Edward Mujica
  • David Lough
  • Alex Presley

Key Offseason Subtractions

  • Cameron Maybin
  • Jarrod Saltalamacchia
  • Erick Aybar
  • Casey McGehee

From 2006 to 2014, the AL Central belonged to the Detroit Tigers more than anyone else in the division. The Motor City saw two pennants, four division titles, three MVP recipients, two Cy Young winners, a triple crown, and 39 collective All-Stars over that nine-year span. Impressive accolades to be sure, but all still falling short of that ultimate goal: a World Series title, the lifelong dream of the now late team owner Mike Ilitch, who passed away during the offseason.

Aside from the loss of their beloved owner, a lot has changed about the Tigers since it began its reign of sovereignty in the Central over 10 years ago. The engineer behind the roster is now overseeing things in Boston in Dave Dombrowski, their long-time skipper has now taken a step back further behind the scenes in Jim Leyland and players and personnel have come and gone in various forms while the stars who have remained are now in a battle with Father Time. That's not to say new general manager Al Avila doesn't want to win, nor has the organizational yearning for a championship perished along with Mr. Ilitch, but the question still must be posed: Has the window closed for this current ballclub?

Strengths

Many may look at the Tigers and say as long as they have Justin Verlander leading that rotation and Miguel Cabrera in the middle of that lineup, anything can happen. In many respects that is true given that the two-time MVP Cabrera even at nearly 34 years old is still one of the most feared and respected hitters in the game. And after belting 38 homers and 108 RBI's last season, he's showing no signs of slowing down soon.

Verlander, on the other hand, had to go through a brief period of rediscovering himself heading into 2016. Between 2014 and 2015, the former Cy Young and MVP winner had to work his way through some health issues and performances below his career standards. However, his 16-9 record and 3.04 ERA in 34 starts put him back in the Cy Young conversation putting him second only to former teammate Rick Porcello who took home the honor for the Red Sox.

If Verlander continues to be Detroit's ace again, he and last year's Rookie of the Year winner Michael Fulmer are going to make up a dynamic duo at the top of that rotation. Throw, potentially, a healthy Daniel Norris and a solid closer in Francisco Rodriguez into the mix and that pitching staff can still be a formidable one.

Offensively, Detroit still has a strong supporting cast around Miguel Cabrera as they ranked in the top three in baseball in team batting average, team OPS, team BABIP and team wRC+. Beyond their superstar slugger, the Kitties have DH Victor Martinez, second baseman Ian Kinsler, right fielder J.D. Martinez and left fielder Justin Upton, all of whom logged over 20 homers last year and at least 68 RBI's. Now all those guys are either close to or north of 30 in the age department, but together, if healthy, still make up a dangerous batting order.

Weaknesses

Aside from the obvious concerns about an aging roster, the primary concern for the Tigers has to be with their pitching. While the aforementioned Justin Verlander, Michael Fulmer and Francisco Rodriguez are all strong, cornerstone pitchers on that staff, a quick glance at the rest of their hurlers reveals names such as Anibal Sanchez, Jordan Zimmermann, Mike Pelfrey, Shane Greene and Mark Lowe, all pitchers who have enjoyed success in the past, but turned in shoddy performances in 2016. Is it possible some of these guys can rebound and chalk last season up to an off year? Sure, but with most of them being veterans, a return to their former glory is not always something you bank on. Also, a pitching staff that used to be one of the most effective strikeout units in the game has suddenly taken a sharp turn in the opposite direction finishing 22nd in the majors last year with 1,232 as a team.

Another harsh reality is that Detroit has a major fielding problem. With most teams trending more towards the sleek and more athletic type of players to patrol the diamond, the Tigers seem to be stuck in neutral, if not going in reverse. As a club, the Tigers had the second lowest defensive-runs-saved mark in 2016 at -56 and an ultimate zone rating not much better of -20.8. Behind the plate and up the middle, things are in pretty good shape with James McCann, Ian Kinsler and Jose Iglesias holding down the fort, but everywhere else, fielding metrics register as average at best.

Wild Cards

Two factors are likely going to come into play as far as whether the 2017Tigers are contenders or not and the first is the rookies and young players. Can Michael Fulmer build off his impressive performance last season? Has Bruce Rondon finally figured things out on the mound? Can Nick Castellanos pick up where he left off before his injury last year? Where do guys like Tyler Collins, Steven Moya, JaCoby Jones and Dixon Machado fit in the organization's future? All of these questions could have answers by the end of the season.

The second factor is what Al Avila has in mind for the roster. At the start of the offseason, it appeared he was declaring a fire sale. Now well into spring training, only center fielder Cameron Maybin was dealt. The intentions of the front office and the management of the payroll in the post-Mike Ilitch era will dictate which direction the Tigers are truly heading over the course of the 2017 season.

Conclusion

There's still enough talent on this Detroit Tigers team to win. However, the peripheral factors that they've been able to overcome in the past will continue to catch up with them. Miguel Cabrera and the rest of their lineup are going to continue to intimidate and give opposing pitchers fits while Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer dazzle on the mound, but age, defense, and limited depth are going to play their part as well and more than likely hold this ballclub back from reaching the heights they once could.

Also, I think the Al Avila has an eye towards the future and would like to continue building even if it means parting with a few of their mainstays and shedding some payroll. If in tact and healthy all season, Detroit still remains a playoff-caliber team, but that may be a lot to ask for this year.

2016 Final Record:     86-75, 2nd in AL Central

PECOTA Projection:  79-83, 3rd in AL Central

My Projection:            83-79, 2nd in AL Central

Jake Dungan is the Managing Editor for IBI and a podcast host on the Smoke Signals Network. Email him at jdungan@indiansbaseballinsider.com or follow him on Twitter @JakeDBaseball.


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