Old Friends Surrounded by Question Marks

Each year that Opening Day rolls around, it signifies the rebirth of spring, and a time for renewal, like an old friend. Much like this edition of the 2015 Tigers, there are plenty of old friends coming back to us, but this time, they're surrounded by question marks.

The first vivid memories I have of Opening Day come from 1990, when two friends and I hatched a scheme to skip school and take a cab from Ypsilanti to Tiger Stadium. It was a hastily conceived plan, as we had six dollars between us, and no real idea how to get tickets when we arrived. We never even made it off school grounds, but I think it showed a lot of initiative for a trio of 4th graders.

The thing is, we weren’t even particularly huge baseball fans then, and it’s not as though the Tigers were a spectacular team. They had gone 59-103 the year before, and they didn’t make a series of noteworthy additions in the offseason that would lead anyone to believe they were pennant contenders. But still, Opening Day was all anyone was talking about, and we decided we had to see it for ourselves.

The omnipresent enthusiasm we felt in 1990 has persisted in Detroit for each of the last 25 years. The on-field product wavered from disappointing to criminally inept for a decade and a half, but that never seemed to dampen the excitement of Opening Day.

And then the magic of 2006 ushered in an era of success and extreme expectations; a nine-year span that has seen five trips to the postseason, four AL Central titles, two AL pennants, four batting titles, three MVP awards, two Cy Young Awards, and the first batting Triple Crown in 45 years. But it has been more than 30 years since the Tigers have won a World Series, and the Opening Day optimism in 2015 carries with it the nagging sensation that the championship window may be closing rapidly. The Tigers should still be good this year, but will they be good enough?

The offense looks quite promising, anchored as usual by Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, two of the best hitters in all of baseball. Surrounding them is a cadre of skilled hitters, including the underrated Ian Kinsler, the breakout slugger J.D. Martinez, Yoenis Cespedes, who has more tools than Home Depot, and the promising youngster Nick Castellanos.

The infield-hit specialist Jose Iglesias returns after a year lost to shin troubles, while the right-handed Rajai Davis and the lefty Anthony Gose combine to form a CF platoon with game-changing speed. The Tigers also figure to feature a more balanced platoon behind the plate in 2015, with veteran catcher Alex Avila providing pop and on-base skills, and rookie James McCann driving balls to Comerica Park’s ample gaps. The bench is very light, but that sort of thing can be addressed relatively easily through July trades or August waiver claims.

Run prevention is a different story entirely. While the return of Iglesias and the addition of Gose and Cespedes mean the overall team defense should be much better than in 2014, the entire pitching staff is littered with question marks. David Price is a legitimate ace, but after him the rotation is concerning. Justin Verlander is coming off a very poor year, and has a nagging triceps injury that has delayed his season debut.

Anibal Sanchez is an excellent pitcher, but he has never thrown 200 innings in a season, and his shoulder seems to act up every year. New addition Shane Green has an impressive array of pitches, but struggled with control in the minors and has fewer than 80 major-league innings to his name. And the hard-throwing Alfredo Simon may have been an All Star last year, but his six previous seasons were mostly mediocre.

The bullpen picture is even less clear. Joe Nathan is legitimately one of the finest relief pitchers in MLB history, but his 2014 season was an abject failure, he hasn’t looked any better this spring, and his career may well be finished. Joakim Soria has a terrific track record and figures to take over the closer role at some point this year, but his stint with the Tigers last year was remarkably ugly. Al Alburquerque saw notable decreases in his strikeout and walk rates last year, but he should be a fairly dependable 7th-inning reliever again.

Late-winter signee Joba Chamberlain was ineffective for most of the 2nd half of 2014, and hasn’t looked particularly promising in spring training, and while Bruce Rondon has shown flashes of late-inning value, he will begin the year on the disabled list with biceps tendinitis.

The hard-throwing Angel Nesbitt figures to take Rondon’s spot, but he has pitched all of 32 innings above A-ball, and some mixture of Ian Krol and Tom Gorzelanny will serve as lefty specialists and long relievers. Only Gorzelanny has a real track record of relief success, however, and he has thrown just 21 innings since undergoing shoulder surgery in December of 2013. The bullpen as a whole looks underwhelming, and disturbingly similar to the group of arms that many blame for the premature end of the 2014 season.

Baseball is just a game. We can argue and analyze every roster spot, rule, and statistic, but in the end it carries no more weight or meaning than we allow it to. But every year, when the ground begins to thaw and Opening Day approaches, those of us who love baseball can’t help but get a little poetic.

We speak of rebirth and renewal, and the flowers of hope that bloom each spring. We reminisce about the ballpark redolence of freshly trimmed grass, peanuts, and hot dogs on the grill. We marvel at the big-sibling bravado of a game in which the defense possesses the ball and dares the offense to do something about it.

There is an inherent meter to the season that naturally lends itself to metaphors and florid language. For me, Opening Day feels like nothing less than the return of an old friend, who each year offers something comfortable and familiar, while also promising the spectacular and unpredictable. We don’t know what 2015 will hold for this team, but whether the season brings success or failure, we know we’ll be back to share time and memories on Opening Day again the next year. Because that’s what you do with friends.

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