WezBlog: Five Fearless Predictions for 2015

Everyone has them; the sorts of thoughts that cross your mind that you rarely decide to say out loud – confident thoughts about how things will play out in the future. And since I’ve never had a problem with being called names, I’m going out on that limb and giving you all my five fearless predictions, or five opportunities for me to end up looking ridiculous.

1. Justin Verlander Will Return to All-Star Form

Many are concerned about what exactly the Tigers are going to get out of Verlander this year after his lackluster 2014 season. It was his worst season ERA-wise since 2008, and it was his lowest WAR total since 2006, his first year as a starter in the big leagues. His curveball lost its effectiveness, his fastball velocity was down again, and he all too often looked extremely hittable. It has led many to reach the conclusion that Verlander’s heavy workload in the first decade of his career has taken its toll, and that the Tigers are going to be saddled with a fading starter with huge dollars committed to him.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of Verlander just yet. This isn’t to say I think we’re going to get vintage 2011 #MustSeeJV, but I do think we’re going to see a return to him delivering well over 200 innings with an ERA in the mid-3’s. Whether or not he’s actually named an All-Star isn’t so much the point here, the point is that he’s going to pitch like one.

The off-season surgery that Verlander underwent after the 2013 season cost Verlander most of his recovery and training time. Instead of working out and building up strength for the season, he was spending his time rehabbing. That meant he came into camp not in the shape he wants to be in to handle the workload that he’s traditionally taken on. It also meant re-acclimating his body and mechanics after the surgery. It wasn’t an excuse given frequently, but for someone that has an obsession on his process, from rituals to pre-game meals, it’s easy to see how that could have sidetracked the entire year.

2. J.D. Martinez Will Come Back to Earth

Martinez was the find of 2014, coming out of relative obscurity after the Astros released him unconditionally in the spring to force his way onto the big league roster after a brief stint in Toledo, and never stopped hitting, with a .391 wOBA posted, which would have been good for 8th in MLB if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.

I thought it was a mirage at the time, and predicted he’d slow down, which never really happened, but I still think it will. That doesn’t mean he won’t be a productive player at the plate, or that he’s going to be relegated to a bench bat role or something like that, but it does mean that he’s not going to come close to repeating his 2014 success.

There are some numbers he posted that everyone agrees will result in him seeing a drop off in performance – for instance, his .315 average was heavily tied to an unsustainable .389 BAbip, which with a 40 point drop, will likely bring his average down to the .270 range. But his slugging numbers were off the charts, too with an ISO of 0.24, hitting an extra-base hit in 12% of his at-bats. Rebuilt swings can provide different results, but we’re talking about nearly doubling his isolated slugging output. Splitting the difference seems more likely, still leaving him with above average offensive productivity, but nothing near what the Tigers got in his breakout season.

3. The Tigers Won’t Have Both V-Mart and Cabrera on Opening Day

To be clear, there is optimism on the progress being made by both Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera. Martinez’s surgery was successful and he should be back in action by mid-March, if the timetable holds. Cabrera was cleared for baseball activity and reported no pain after taking his first set of swings since his surgery. That’s good, but it’s probably not good enough.

Opening Day is only six weeks away, that doesn’t leave much margin for error. If the typical meniscus tear takes six weeks to recover from, and due to his age and prior knee injuries, it ends up taking him an extra week, that means he might not take a live at-bat until April 1st. Would he feel comfortable facing big league pitching with only a few days’ worth of at-bats? It’s unlikely.

Similarly, while Cabrera has more time, he also has more work to do. He’s been mostly idle this off-season due to the surgery, and there’s going to be a big element not just of hitting and timing, but physical preparation for the upcoming year that Cabrera needs to do. Maybe he’s able to do it all in the next month, but there’s a chance he won’t. And the Tigers won’t push it just to have him in the lineup on Opening Day if they don’t need to.

Add those odds together, and the chances that at least one of them isn’t ready to go on April 6 are pretty high.

4. Bruce Rondon Will Close Games for the Tigers This Year

The Tigers’ bullpen was a disaster in 2014, with a number of guys struggling to get outs in the late innings in close games. It unfortunately became quickly overlooked that a lot of that started when the Tigers lost Rondon to Tommy John surgery in March, before the season even started.

Coming into 2013, Rondon was a borderline Top 100 prospect, a rarity for a reliever, with a triple digits fastball and the sort of stuff that seemed destined for a closer’s role. After some bumps in the road earlier in the year (necessary growing pains, we’d call them), Rondon was stepping up big for the Tigers down the stretch, until elbow discomfort sidelined him. That same discomfort popped back up in spring, and so he went the surgery route.

That being said, Rondon still has that stuff, and it’s not just a big power fastball. His slider got a whiff more than 25% of the time in 2013, and his changeup induced a swing and miss almost 30% of the time. Rondon can miss bats, and that’s exactly what you want in the late innings when you’re trying to lock down games, and that’s why I see Rondon getting the opportunity to close games this season.

This prediction doesn’t necessarily mean that Joe Nathan is losing his closer’s role, though I wouldn’t rule it out. It simply means that Rondon’s talent is going to become too obvious to not use in key situations, and sometimes that’s going to happen in the ninth inning, instead of Nathan.

5. Brad Ausmus Will Still Frustrate Tigers Fans

Maybe this one isn’t so fearless, as a manager in baseball inevitably will drive fans up the proverbial wall with the occasional lineup decision or pitching substitution. But fans that were hoping that Ausmus was a new-age manager that would implement a new way of thinking to a traditionally-run club were sorely let down last season, as he frequently resorted to the same platitudes of his predecessor, Jim Leyland.

Ausmus will likely be more comfortable and confident in year two of managing, after getting acclimated to a veteran clubhouse in his first season at the helm. That could mean a little more decisiveness and a little less deference, but it’s not going to dramatically change the way he does things. He will probably pinch hit with a guy like Andrew Romine. He will stubbornly use a reliever in a role, even if the evidence says someone else would be far better in that situation. He will call for bunts. It’s all going to happen.

Of course, much of what a manager does the fans don’t see – it happens in the clubhouse or in the training room or in his office with a player. By all accounts, he’s done that well. And so long as the clubhouse is strong and the players are working hard for him and being put in position to succeed, the Tigers will be in good shape, even if he pinch runs Anthony Gose on first base, and then bunts him over to second, rather than trying to let him steal.

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