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Mailbag: Are the 2015 Tigers a more balanced team than last season?

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Are the Tigers better than they were last year? What's wrong with Justin Verlander? Should we bring back Joba Chamberlain? These questions and more in this week's mailbag.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Spring training is inching closer everyday, and the anticipation is building for many Tigers fans. The 2015 season looks to be much different than the past few years due to the improved competition in the AL Central. The change seems to have revitalized some people, while others have already written the team off as a has-been. Do the Tigers have what it takes to win it all? We're still a ways away from knowing that. All we know is that they should be competitive, which makes for a much more fun summer than the abysmal Tigers teams that populated my childhood.

This week's mailbag looks forward more than before, as the offseason is almost over. Spring doesn't feel anywhere close if you step outside, but baseball season is almost here. Remember, you can reach us on Facebook, on Twitter, or via email at bybtigers@gmail.com!

I don't think there is any question that the 2015 Tigers are more balanced than their 2014 counterparts. The offense still projects to be quite good, the bullpen should be better, and the starting pitching still has the potential to be a strength. They add speed with Anthony Gose, Jose Iglesias, and Yoenis Cespedes, and could potentially steal even more bases depending on how the lineup is constructed.

Most importantly, the defense is going to be miles better. Fangraphs projects a 39 run improvement (approximately four wins), while I did some rough calculations and estimated a 55 run improvement over 2014. Neither of these projections moves the Tigers into the "good" category, but even being league average is a monumental increase in last season's production. Gose, Iglesias, and Cespedes add a lot in this regard, and a decent improvement from Nick Castellanos could push the needle forward even more.

I don't know if being more balanced means that they are better, though. Losing Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello is a tough pill for the rotation to swallow, and I'm still not ready to say that the bullpen is anything more than a league average unit at best. It has the potential to be good if they can MacGuyver together the right combination of spare parts, but I'm still wary of Joe Nathan and Bruce Rondon playing significant roles. There will be frustrating nights from the offense too. That said, I'm very excited to see how this team performs in 2015.

The easy answer here is Joel Hanrahan, but I feel like that's cheating. Hanrahan was re-signed with the expectation that he will return to the majors at some point this season. Thanks to a relatively expensive, incentive-laden contract (compared to other NRIs), Hanrahan was able to go unprotected through the Rule 5 draft. The Tigers won't hesitate to pull someone else off the 40-man roster if and when Hanrahan is ready to go. We haven't heard much about his status, but the first few days of workouts should give us a very clear picture of how soon to expect him to get the call.

As for an "actual" NRI who could have an impact, I have to stick with the bullpen arms. The catchers are only there because of all the pitchers in camp, and the only way Jordan Lennerton or Aaron Westlake see substantial time at the MLB level is if something very bad happens. Xavier Avery could be this season's Ezequiel Carrera -- I swear, I wrote that part before yesterday's article -- but there are a few more options ahead of him than Carrera had in 2014.

This brings us back to the pen, and I like both of the lefties that the Tigers are bringing along. Joe Mantiply had a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio at West Michigan last year and was decent in a small sample of innings at Double-A Erie. He also struck out 15 batters while walking two in 14 innings at the Arizona Fall League. Omar Duran doesn't have the command that Mantiply does, but his stuff is absolutely electric. This has reminded us of another reliever who can strike out and walk everyone, and that kind of talent doesn't grow on trees. With a fairly thin left-handed relief corps on the 40-man roster, don't be surprised to see Mantiply and/or Duran in Detroit this season.

I'm not necessarily that high on Simon, but the organization seems to be. The Tigers gave up a pair of interesting trade chips for him in a deal that many fans are still questioning, especially with Simon heading towards free agency next offseason. If I had to pick a number, I'd set the over/under at 22.5. The Tigers have a stable of arms waiting in the minors, but no thoroughbreds are in sight. Simon will get every chance to keep the job, especially if he starts off hot like he did in 2014.

While getting solid production from all four would be nice, Justin Verlander is the most important player to the Tigers of these four. I briefly mentioned Verlander's importance to the starting rotation in last week's mailbag, but I want to expand on this topic this week. Verlander's struggles in 2014 centered largely around his fastball, which has been the topic of conversation among national analysts for the past couple years. They say that Verlander's velocity has been declining since 2011 and 2012, when in fact it has been declining since 2009.

Justin Verlander fastball velocity

This isn't all due to age, of course. Verlander was 26 years old in 2009 and still largely just a "thrower." As he progressed as a pitcher, he started changing speeds more often and scaling his fastball back in the earlier innings to conserve energy. He also added a two-seam fastball in the past few years that Brooks Baseball has not distinguished from his four-seamer, resulting in the steeply declining graph above. There is a slightly larger dip from 2013 to 2014 where the offseason surgery occurred, but it seems fairly clear that Verlander doesn't need to average 95 miles per hour on his fastball to be effective.

I will be writing much more about Verlander's fastball and what exactly went wrong in 2014 next week, but each of the three big baseball projection systems -- Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA -- all expect various amounts of improvement from Verlander in 2015. PECOTA is the most bullish on him, while ZiPS also projects a sub-4.00 ERA. If he can regain his fastball command, not the velocity, he should be back to normal in 2015.

I'm all for signing another reliever or two on the cheap, and Joba Chamberlain once again looks to fit that bill. He was the team's best reliever for four months last year, but a late season collapse and playoff meltdown have scared off many of his suitors. I think that fatigue was a factor for Joba down the stretch -- his 63 regular season innings were his most since 2010 -- and 2015 could be another solid season for him.

The change in Chamberlain's repertoire from his pre-surgery days is a bit of a concern, but not one that should stop the Tigers from taking a flyer on him in 2015. He threw nearly 50 percent breaking balls -- a mix of slider and curveballs, per Brooks Baseball -- but was still able to strike out 3.33 batters for every walk in the first half last season. The Al Alburquerque comparisons become inevitable when one throws that many sliders, but Chamberlain's fastball is a bit more effective. I would expect Joba to be the guy we saw in the first half of last season for a larger portion of 2015.

★★★

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