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Detroit Tigers stars must align to contend in 2016

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Tigers success hinges on their star players being healthy and productive, moreso than trades or free agent signings

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Detroit Tigers' 2016 roster is almost complete. The team lost 13 players from the 2015 opening day roster, including two starting pitchers, five relief pitchers including their closer and set up man, two outfielders and a catcher. General manager Al Avila systematically replaced them after the season. But despite numerous roster moves, and the glaring gap in left field, the success of the 2016 Detroit Tigers hinges primarily on getting four returning star players into alignment with their career performance levels.

Rebounding from a season where the team posted the worst starting pitching, the worst bullpen and the tenth ranked offense in the league, and dead last in the second half of the season, is a daunting task. But despite the last place finish, the 2015 Tigers weren't the real Tigers. When your four highest paid, traditionally highest performing players are all coming off injury plagued, sub par seasons, there is great potential for a resurgence. Therein lies the key to the success of the 2016 Detroit Tigers.

The players recently acquired will help. Signing Jordan Zimmerman is a big plus, but the Tigers won't replace David Price with a free agent or a trade. The closest Detroit can get to replacing Price is to have Justin Verlander pitch closer to his career levels:

Verlander
IP ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9
K/BB
2015
133.1
3.38
3.49
1.09
7.63
2.16
3.53
Career Avg
211.1
3.52
3.43
1.20
8.28
2.74
3.03

After having surgery prior to the 2014 season, Verlander finally showed signs of regaining his old form in the second half of the 2015 season. His ERA, WHIP, and K/BB ratios were better in 2015 than his career numbers. The big factor, of course, is that he needs to stay healthy and be a workhorse again. BYB's Matt Comley broke down Verlander's 2015  two half seasons which provides reason for optimism. Verlander's career average 4.5 fWAR fell to 2.3 in 2015.

Anibal Sanchez is another pitcher whose performance plunged in 2015. He went from being the league ERA champion with a 2.57 ERA in 2013, to 3.59 in 2013, to 4.99 in 2015. His league leading home run ratio of 0.29 HR/9 in 2014 ballooned to 1.66 in 2015, among the highest ratios in the game.

Sanchez
IP ERA FIP WHIP K/9 BB/9
HR/9
2015
157.0
4.99
4.73
1.28
7.91
2.81
1.66
Career
1334.0
3.70
3.61
1.29
7.93
3.06
0.82

Sanchez  averaged 192 innings from 2009- 2013, but threw just 126 and 157 innings the past two seasons. Injuries may also have impacted his inability to keep the ball down. Sanchez' WHIP and strikeout ratios were in line, and his walk ratio was down from his career numbers, but the home runs really killed him.

Verlander and Sanchez don’t need to have career seasons, just numbers more in line with career averages. Sanchez was down from 3.5 fWAR average to 0.9. With Verlander, that's a combined drop of 4.8 wins in the starting rotation.

The Tigers also won't replace the production of Yoenis Cespedes in the outfield. They may see improvement in center field with Cameron Maybin, and may even acquire another outfielder, but nothing like the.293/ .323/ .506 line with superb defense that they got from Cespedes. The lost  production will have to be compensated for elsewhere on the team.

Victor Martinez, who received a four year, $ 68 million contract extension last year, needs to rebound if the Tigers' offense is to rebound.

V Martinez PA HR RBI AVG OBP SLG wOBA ISO fWAR
2015 485 11 64
.245 .301 .366 .286 .165 -2.0
Career Avg* 534 16.5 81
.302 .367 .467 .359 .120 +2.5

*Career average season 2004- 2015

Martinez saw the largest declines across the board in performance from year to year in 2015, falling from 4.3 wins above replacement to 2.0 wins below replacement level. He dropped 90 points in batting average, over 100 points in both on base and slugging percentages and over 200 points OPS. He dropped by 21 home runs and 38 RBI. The Tigers hope Martinez's decline was due to injuries rather than age. His resurgence is the biggest key to the Tigers' offense rebounding in 2016.

Miguel Cabrera won his fourth batting title as a Tiger in 2015, so it’s hard to complain, but his production still dropped overall, mainly in the power department. He was 174 plate appearances, seven homers and 37 RBI shy of his 2014 numbers, and those were down by career standards.

Cabrera
PA
HR
RBI
AVG
OBP
SLG
wOBA
ISO fWAR
2015
511
18
76
.338
.440
.534
.413
.196 4.3
Career Avg
665
33
115
.321
.399
.562
.405
.241 5.2

*Career average season 2004- 2015

The Tigers don’t necessarily need a triple crown season from Cabrera, but they need him to stay healthy and do what he has most of his career. Just an average Miggy like season would be fine. Cabrera and Martinez were a combined 5.4 fWAR below their career average seasons. The four players combined for 10.2 wins below career averages in 2015

Injuries undermined each of these four star players' performances last season. It seems reasonable to expect near career performance levels in each case. The Tigers have a much better bullpen starting the 2016 season than they have had in years. They have upgraded their defense and added depth, particularly in the pitching department. But the main investments on the Tigers' roster were made long before Avila took over as General manager.

The newest Tigers should do better than their former counterparts, but four star players can add far more production than the team could get through free agent signings and trades, by bringing their numbers in line with what they have done in their careers, and in line with their salaries, If the stars fall into alignment with their career numbers, Detroit can regain past glory.