A proven closer in Francisco Rodriguez, some help for the outfield in Cameron Maybin, and most recently, an upper-tier starting pitcher for the rotation in Jordan Zimmerman -- all acquired before you had time to finish off the Thanksgiving leftovers. Clearly, Detroit Tigers general manager Al Avila prefers, like me, to get his winter shopping done before December even arrives.
The signing of free agent starting pitcher Jordan Zimmerman over the Thanksgiving weekend certainly makes a statement and tells us a few things. It tells us that the Tigers are indeed serious about putting the "foot on the pedal" for 2016. It tells us that they see more value in spending a larger percentage of the budget on a higher-quality pitcher than in splitting the budget evenly on two lesser-quality starters. Probably it tells us that Al Avila more-or-less sees the outfield situation as settled, but feel free to disagree on that point.
The big question, however, measured in units of "times I was asked this by friends and family over the holiday weekend," is right to the point: can the Tigers contend in 2016? Have they done enough to get themselves back to competing for another division title? Can the Kansas City Royals be stopped? And what do I do with all this leftover cranberry sauce now that the turkey and stuffing is gone?
The cranberry sauce issue is easily solved: use it in a crockpot broth and enjoy some crazy-good stew as a result.
As for whether or not the Tigers are back in the conversation for 2016, there are a few ways to answer that.
Answer #1: Wait and see
This is the non-committal answer, but it's probably the safe one. The offseason hasn't ended yet -- for that matter, it's hardly even begun, and the Winter Meetings are still a week or so away. It's awfully hard to make pronouncements about the Tigers and 2016 when the other teams in the AL Central haven't even scratched the surface of potential trades and signings.
The Royals lost a closer, a left fielder, and a starting pitcher. The Twins are quietly building a potentially dangerous offensive lineup. The Indians still have a fairly threatening starting rotation. The White Sox are ... snicker ... the White Sox are ... snort ... well, anyway, the White Sox are still a team in the division.
The point is, maybe we should wait until January or February before we start forming any opinions. There's still plenty of time for trades, signings, and star players to fall off treadmills and cancel their team's offseason momentum.
Answer #2: Health is everything
The Tigers were never fully healthy in 2015. Justin Verlander missed a major chunk of the season, Anibal Sanchez was pitching without a functional shoulder, Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez were essentially upper torsos playing without the benefit of legs. That's your "star core" right there, where most of the payroll is tied up, and getting that group of players back and contributing in 2016 is the equivalent of executing four of the most bad-ass offseason moves imaginable.
One writer recently opined, "Don't get me wrong, Cabrera and Verlander ... are fantastic players. There simply isn't enough room for them to improve enough to catapult the Tigers back into the playoff hunt." That's certainly one way to be wrong.* Verlander logged roughly 40 percent of his usual innings, and going by the Runs Created stat, Cabrera was playing at 75 percent power while Victor Martinez was playing at 45 percent power. Adding nearly another 100 runs to the season total, plus having a Justin Verlander who will routinely hold opponents to an average of three runs per outing? That is the very definition of catapulting back into the playoff hunt.
The Texas Rangers got most of their limbs torn off and eaten by injury monsters in 2014 and finished dead last in their division. They continued to struggle with injuries in the first half of 2015, but with less than 20 games left in the season they shoved their way back into first place and clinched the AL West. And some people were surprised! How did they go worst-to-first? Answer: health is everything.
*The same writer also said before the 2015 trade deadline that "David Price and Alfredo Simon still give the Tigers a strong pairing to lead with in any [postseason] series," so add entire bags of salt as necessary.
Answer #3: Check out that rotation and bullpen!
The addition of Zimmermann is nothing to sneeze at. There's a reason he was ranked as one of the top five available free agent starting pitchers. I know some people will never be happy until the Tigers re-sign David Price and Yoenis Cespedes (and even then, "should of kept Scherzer!"), but we're talking about a guy who is going to challenge Anibal Sanchez as a No. 2 starter, and who could easily be a No. 1 starter on several other pitching staffs. And it's not a contract that ties the team up until 2057!
The first three starters out of the gate have career ERA+ numbers of 121, 118, and 111, with a bullpen that now features Blaine Hardy, Alex Wilson, and K-Rod. Not excited enough? Ok, then consider that the 2016 bullpen no longer features Ian Krol, Tom Gorzelanny, and Neftali Feliz. (At least, I assume Feliz is out. They wouldn't bring him back, right? Why would they do that to us?)
It's a pretty strong starting rotation already at this point, and the final roster still isn't settled. Don't be surprised if Al Avila manages to find a second starter to fill the back end of the rotation sometime between now and the start of spring training.
So can the Tigers contend in 2016? There's no reason to think otherwise.