When the Tigers entered 2015, the prevailing theme was that the club’s window hadn’t passed, but that they needed a lot of things to break right for them, especially in the health department.
Instead, virtually every key player experienced an injury of some sort. Victor Martinez tore his meniscus in February and was clearly hobbled by it to start the year, until he eventually went on the DL to rest it. Justin Verlander suffered a triceps injury in the last week of spring training that sidelined him for two months. Closer Joe Nathan pitched in just one game before he blew out his elbow and was facing Tommy John surgery. Miguel Cabrera hit the DL in July with a strained calf muscle, in addition to battling a bum ankle much of the year. And Anibal Sanchez again experienced issues with his shoulder and found himself on the DL late in the year.
That could be looked at as a string of bad luck. But the reality is that the Tigers core group of players is aging, and much of the aforementioned group (minus Nathan) is going to again factor prominently into the Tigers 2016 plans. Only this time, the Tigers simply can’t plan for having all of them available for the full season. They’re all well over 30 now, and experiencing the sort of decline that most players typically do at their age. Bodies start breaking down with time and use, limiting games that they can play in, and their effectiveness in the games they appear in.
Cabrera will claim the batting title this season, a testament to his incredible natural hitting ability. But he’ll be worth just 4.3 fWAR while playing only 119 games. That’s his lowest WAR value since 2008, and the fewest games played since he became a full-time big league starter in 2003. And unfortunately, the injury issues for Cabrera aren’t new. This year, it was a calf and a lingering ankle injury. In 2014, his injured ankle required offseason surgery. In 2013, he was reduced to a shell of himself while he battled a groin injury that also required surgery. And he’ll be 33 next April.
A similar tale can be told about Martinez, who the Tigers handed a massive extension after a career year in 2014. Martinez was clearly a shell of himself when the season started, and spent a month on the DL trying to recover. He came back strong, but quickly regressed, and will finish 2015 being worth -2 wins, by far the worst among the position players on the team. A winter to recover and build strength, plus a spring training spent sharpening his eye rather than trying to get healthy should help, but this was the second time in four years Martinez suffered a serious offseason injury.
Combined, it means the Tigers will pencil in two guys as their everyday first baseman and designated hitter, as they should. The two combined will make nearly $50 million, primarily for their offensive performance, and will need to be in the lineup every day possible. But the odds are high that at some point next year, the Tigers are going to lose one or the other (if not both), and the Tigers plan B can’t involve someone like Marc Krauss or Jefry Marte. A reliable bench bat with power has been an oft-mentioned need that the Tigers have overlooked in prior years, and that simply can’t be the case again this year.
Likewise, Sanchez and Verlander will be expected to sit atop the Tigers rotation, along with (hopefully) another topline starting pitcher acquired in free agency. But the club can’t again be caught in a position of hoping to squeeze quality starts out of guys that have proven that’s asking too much of them, like Buck Farmer and Kyle Ryan, because it’s going to happen.
You’d expect each starting pitcher to accumulate roughly 32 starts in a season. Verlander, with his missed time in the spring, only started 20. Sanchez, with shoulder soreness and fatigue (in addition to patches of ineffectiveness), started only 45. That’s a gap of virtually a half season worth of starts, outside of your starting five.
Verlander turns 33 in the offseason. He has already logged more 2,100 innings of big league baseball on his arm. Sanchez is a year younger, but only has about 1,300 innings logged, in part because he’s rarely been able to stay healthy throughout a full season, never once reaching 200 innings, and only three times making it to 30 starts.
Much like the Tigers position with V-Mart and Cabrera, the Tigers need to plan to be without Verlander and Sanchez for a part of 2016. That means a guy like Matt Boyd or Michael Fulmer, who the Tigers might want to count on as a starter, needs to be planned on to be in Toledo, ready to be promoted, but still refining his craft in Triple-A.
It’s been said ad nauseum that this will be a critical offseason for the Tigers. And with a quartet of their key players all well over 30 and experiencing injuries yet again this year, it’s time the Tigers start planning for it. Al Avila needs to build the club for what is likely inevitable, rather than being caught off-guard by something that can be easily predicted. The Tigers will likely be without most of their core group again in 2016… the key to their success will be their ability to adequately replace each of them when it happens.