Justin Verlander finished among the top 15 pitchers in the American league in WAR, 12th in innings pitched, and 18th in strikeouts in 2014. But for a pitcher who has annually been in the Cy Young conversation, winning the award along with the league’s MVP in 2011, last season was an off year.
After having core muscle repair surgery in mid-January of 2014, Verlander’s offseason preparation was rudely interrupted, and he never got back on track. The velocity on his fastball was down, strikeouts were down over two per nine innings, his ERA was up over a full run. His FIP, WHIP, and batting average allowed all went up. He would be a prime candidate for comeback Tiger of the year if he could just regain his old form.
Alex Avila has struggled at the plate each season since his career year in 2011, when he hit .285 with a .389 on-base percentage, and slugged .509 with 19 home runs. Unfortunately, that season is the outlier on his résumé, as his numbers have declined steadily each season, hitting just .218 in 2014 with eleven home runs in each of the past two seasons.
While Avila gets accolades for his work behind the plate, he has taken a beating, resulting in declining playing time. That figures to be a continuing trend with rookie catcher James McCann coming up this season to share the workload. Avila will be expected to tutor his understudy, perhaps preparing him to take over after this year, when Avila will be eligible for free agency. Avila then has about 100 games or so to earn his stripes for future seasons, which is possible if he can demonstrate the form that he showed four seasons ago.
Miguel Cabrera was second in the American league in RBI, knocking in over 100 runs for the 12th consecutive season. He was also third in the league in runs scored, and batted .313 with an on-base percentage of .371, slugging .424. He ranked seventh in the league in wOBA. Those numbers would represent a fantastic season for anyone. Except for Miguel Cabrera.
Cabrera underwent right foot and ankle surgery after the 2014 season, after he had core muscle repair surgery the previous offseason. The two seasons previous to that (2012 and 2013) he won the AL Most Valuable Player Award. Still, the drop off in Cabrera’s numbers has been significant. From 2013 to 2014, he dropped 35 points in batting average, 51 points in on-base percentage, and 112 points slugging. He had 19 fewer home runs and 28 fewer RBI than he had in 2013.
It’s difficult to imagine a player that has performed as well as Miggy being a "comeback" player, but if he would remain healthy, he just might show the largest increase -- or recovery -- in production in the Tigers’ lineup.
Joel Hanrahan was an All-Star closer with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2011 and 2012, racking up 76 saves, and posting ERAs of 1.83 and 2.72, respectively. In 2010, he had 100 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings, working his way from being a setup man into the closer’s role. He was traded to the Boston Red Sox after the 2012 season, but went on the disabled list in May and had Tommy John surgery, ending his season.
The Tigers signed Hanrahan to a one year major league contract for $1 million, with up to $2 million in additional bonuses for the 2014 season, but he never made it off the disabled list. He re-signed with Detroit after the season, this time on a minor league contract which will pay $1 million for his time in the major leagues, plus up to $2.5 million in incentives, which are likely tied to game appearances and games finished.
The vibe coming from Dave Dombrowski is not a very positive one that Hanrahan will make it back. He is 33 years old with seven years under his belt in the major leagues. If he is able to earn those contract bonuses, he’ll be right in the discussion for comeback player of the year.
Joe Nathan knows what it’s like to make a comeback. The 40-year-old closer has 14 years experience in the major leagues, is a six-time All-Star, and the active major league leader in saves with 376. He carries a career 2.81 ERA with a WHIP of 1.11. Nathan missed the 2010 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery, and had to work to regain the role of closer with the Twins. He signed with the Texas Rangers and was back in the All-Star game in 2012 and 2013.
The Tigers signed Nathan to a two year, $20 million contract with a team option for a third season in 2016. In his first season with the Tigers, he managed 35 saves in 58 innings, but had seven blown saves, four of those resulting in Detroit losses. He struggled with a 4.81 ERA and a WHIP of 1.53. His strikeouts were down by almost two per nine innings, he gave up 4.5 walks per nine, and more than one hit per inning.
Despite his struggles, Nathan took only four losses, allowed just five home runs, and his FIP of 3.74 suggests that defense wasn’t his best friend in 2014. He was particularly ineffective when pitching on consecutive days, and with runners on base. He allowed a batting line of .400/.448/.500 with zero days rest, but held opponents to a .217 average with at least one day of rest. This is something his manager never copped onto.
The way to engineer a comeback for Nathan might be to use him sparingly and let Joakim Soria work the ninth inning more often. But then, Nathan has come back before, and I wouldn’t bet against him coming back strong again.
Who is your pick for Tigers comeback player in 2015?