The next AL Central team in our monthlong series previewing all 30 MLB teams leading up to the start of the 2017 season is the Detroit Tigers, who finished in second place in the division last season.
The Tigers are coming off an 86-win season in which they failed to make the playoffs, but they have most of their stars returning so they should again be in the discussion for a postseason run. They traded for OF Mikie Mahtook, who joins Justin Upton and J.D. Martinez in the outfield. In the infield, you have 1B Miguel Cabrera and 2B Ian Kinsler, along with DH Victor Martinez. SP Justin Verlander leads the pitching staff, with RP Francisco Rodriguez ready to close out games in the ninth.
The Tigers’ .267 average was the third-highest in Major League Baseball and the team’s 211 home runs ranked eighth in the league and its .769 OPS was fourth. Unsurprisingly, Cabrera had the best offensive stats, hitting .316 with 38 home runs and a .956 OPS — he ranked ninth in the majors in average and sixth in OPS and had a 4.9 WAR. Upton tied his career high with 31 home runs, but his .246 batting average was more than 20 points below his career average. Three other players on the team also surpassed 20 home runs last season: Kinsler with 28, V. Martinez 27 and J.D. Martinez 22, who hit those in just 120 games while hitting .307.
The pitching staff finished in the bottom half of the majors with a 4.24 ERA and 1,232 strikeouts, but the bullpen’s 47 saves ranked ninth in the league. Verlander posted a 3.04 ERA in 227.2 innings — his most since 2012 — in 34 starts. He struck out an American League-best 254 betters — behind only Max Scherzer in the majors — and also led the AL with a 1.001 WHIP. He had a 6.6 WAR, which was ninth in the majors but the highest among pitchers, edging out Corey Kluber, who had a 6.5. SP Michael Fulmer had a strong rookie season, putting up a 3.06 ERA with 132 strikeouts in 159 innings over 26 starts. Rodriguez recorded 44 saves — more than 18 teams — with a 3.24 ERA and 52 strikeouts in 58.1 innings.
If guys like Cabrera, Verlander, Upton, Rodriguez and both Victor and J.D. Martinez can repeat their performances from last year, the Tigers would have another good season. A foot injury J.D. suffered recently could prevent him from being ready for the start of the season. Another problem is that a lot of the team’s best players are getting up there in age. So you would expect a natural regression for someone like Verlander or Rodriguez, who are 34 and 35, respectively. So it’ll be up to younger players like Fulmer, C James McCann and SS Jose Iglesias to get ready to take over as the stars when the older guys’ performances start to suffer. Another question with age is players tend to become more susceptible to injuries as they get older, so that could play a factor as the season progresses. But given how well the older players performed last season, any drop-off shouldn’t be too steep and they should be able to keep the team competitive throughout the season.
The Indians still appear to be the best team in the division, but the Tigers are right up there, as are the Royals. It should be a battle between those three teams for the AL Central title, but I think they’ll finish in the same order as last season with the Tigers in second place. That, then, opens up the question about whether they can compete with other teams to earn one of the AL’s two wild cards.