Few could have predicted the great season that J.D. Martinez had for the Tigers in 2014. After being released by the Houston Astros in March and claimed off waivers by Detroit, Martinez hit .315 with an on base percentage of .358. He slugged 23 home runs, ranking fourth in the American league among all outfielders with a .391 weighted on-base average (wOBA).
Martinez finished second on the Tigers in batting average, third in on-base percentage, second in slugging and wOBA, and third in home runs. On this team, that is very impressive for a player who began the season in Triple-A Toledo.
As we look at the Tigers’ 2015 roster, it is difficult to predict which player will have a breakout season. Here are five candidates who could be primed for improvement.
Nick Castellanos will be entering his second full season in the major leagues after being voted the Tigers’ rookie of the year in 2014. He had a respectable rookie season, batting .259 with 11 home runs and 66 RBI, but he left plenty of room for improvement. Scouts have always believed that Castellanos will hit in the major leagues -- he showed flashes of brilliance in 2014 -- but the biggest room for improvement is in the field.
Castellanos ranked as the worst-fielding third baseman in the major leagues in 2014, even well behind Miguel Cabrera’s defense a year earlier when he hobbled his way to the end of the season. Nick’s .589 revised zone rating (RZR) -- which measures the percentage of balls hit into the third base zone that are turned into outs -- is the lowest recorded by a third baseman in the past ten years. His 15 errors were not terrible for a rookie, but his ability to handle the pace of the action at the hot corner in the major leagues has been called into question.
The room for improvement on both offense and defense and the fact that there is no alternative anywhere in the Tigers organization will give him the perfect opportunity for a breakout season.
Al Alburquerque took a big step forward in 2014, cutting his league-leading walk ratio from 6.24 to 3.30 per nine innings, while maintaining a strikeout rate of almost 10 batters per nine innings. "Al Al" posted an ERA of 2.51, but he continued to allow home runs often enough to make him a risky play for late inning duty with a narrow lead. His seven home runs allowed were all solo shots, but the potential for much more damage is present if he were to try that trick again.
A strong performance in the Detroit bullpen could land a pitcher in a prime spot, and Alburquerque is likely the next in line should Joe Nathan or Bruce Rondon not live up to management’s expectations.
Bruce Rondon was mentioned by Tigers’ assistant general manager, Al Avila, as one who "we’re going to be counting on...We’ve been waiting to count on in a spot at the back end of the bullpen." Said to be 100 percent healthy after missing the entire 2014 season due to Tommy John surgery, Rondon will be given every opportunity to grab a primary role in the Detroit bullpen in 2015.
Rondon’s performance at the end of the 2013 season left the club salivating at the possibility that they might have a rare homegrown talent working at discount rates. It would seem that, if Rondon lives up to Dave Dombrowski’s expectations for the first time in three tries, he will have an excellent shot to be the breakout player.
Jose Iglesias missed the 2014 season with stress fractures in both of his legs, but will return in 2015 with the same expectations of spectacular defense awaiting his return. There is no question that Iglesias will provide that; the question is whether he can stay on the field. He will have the opportunity to start as many games as he can play, with all due caution. If he is able to shoulder 140+ starts over the course of the season, the Tigers are in business.
What could really put Iglesias on his way would be a full season like he had with Boston before he was traded to Detroit in 2013, when he hit .330/.376/.409 in 234 plate appearances. He finished second in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. Even his combined line of .303/.349/.386, which survived a drop-off after the trade, would make him a valuable asset, maybe ready to slot into the lead off or the second slot in the lineup. If he hits, he’ll be a huge impact for Detroit.
Anthony Gose was acquired by the Tigers because of his speed and his tremedous defense in center field. His major league minimum salary doesn't hurt either. Like Iglesias, Gose has shown an ability to wow fans with his glove work.
Gose has a career line of .234/.301/.332 in 616 major league plate appearances. He figures to get the lion’s share of time in center field in a platoon with Rajai Davis, who has absolutely killed left handed pitchers last season. Fortunately, Gose has hit a respectable .241/.316/.350 in 481 appearances against right-handed pitching.
The Tigers do not have an obvious choice for a number one or two hitter against right-handed pitching with their current roster. Ian Kinsler will fill one of those spots in the lineup, and Davis figures to fill the other against left-handers. Yoenis Cespedes will likely be slotted sixth behind the Martinez duo. Gose and Iglesias are the most likely candidates to hit first or second against right-handers. Although Iglesias shows fairly even platoon splits, he bats right, as do Kinsler and Miguel Cabrera, so it would appear that the job is there for Gose if he can handle it.
Who is your pick to be the breakout player of the 2015 season?