With the exception of the rotation, the Detroit Tigers improved in almost every way during the offseason. The team was also hoping for the best-case scenario regarding Victor Martinez's surgery, and for once the outlook was not bleak. Even Miguel Cabrera has been cleared for some baseball activities as of Wednesday, and players who sat out for the 2014 season have been given a clean bill of health for 2015.
For anyone who hasn't followed all of the moves made leading up to spring training, which (thankfully) opens when pitchers and catchers report on Thursday, the questions that existed when the season ended in early October may still exist. After the season, Cabrera had right ankle surgery and the team was hit with a nasty surprise that brought the start of his 2015 season into question.
The Tigers signed Martinez to a four-year contract extension soon after the season ended, but recently the designated hitter injured his left knee while working out. Prior to his surgery there was concern that Martinez could be lost to the team for a significant period of time. With spring training starting tomorrow most of these, and other questions, have been answered.
How do the injuries by Martinez and Cabrera affect the Tigers going into spring training?
For once, both injuries had a minimal effect on the team, even though the injuries happened to the team's two best hitters. Martinez had nearly the entire offseason to prepare for 2015 before his knee injury. Even with that setback, a short timetable of just 4–6 weeks for Martinez's recovery puts him back in action two weeks before Opening Day on April 6, which was the best outcome the team could have hoped for. Martinez will work out on his own at the start of spring training before joining the Tigers' camp in Lakeland, MLB.com's Jason Beck reports.
Despite the unexpected fracture in Cabrera's foot, his recovery remained on-track throughout the offseason. Cabrera was cleared for baseball activities Wednesday, and the team reports he should be ready to play near Opening Day, so the Tigers don't have to play Russian roulette with the designated hitter position. Cabrera can hit and throw now, and will begin running on an anti-gravity treadmill until he can bear the full weight on his leg, Beck writes. Until Martinez returns to full health, Cabrera will likely DH with few exceptions. Meanwhile, Aaron Westlake and Jordan Lennerton are expected to get the reps at first base, Beck says.
How did the Tigers' infield improve for 2015, and can Alex Avila make it through another season?
The Tigers' infield improvements are simply the result of the return of shortstop Jose Iglesias. Although Nick Castellanos spent the offseason improving defensively — which included quickness drills — Detroit's third baseman will still have limited range for the immediate future. Iglesias' range at shortstop will greatly help cover the limited ability of Castellanos, much as he did with Cabrera at third in 2013. But the success of the left side of the infield will hinge on Iglesias' ability to return to his pre-injury form and stay that way.
Offensively, the Tigers do have a question mark with Iglesias. His gaudy numbers with the Red Sox were short-lived, and anything north of his performance at the plate with the Tigers in 2013 is wishful thinking. If Iglesias can give the Tigers a modest .250 batting average and a robust on-base percentage this year, they should count it a success.
As for Avila, after he suffered three concussions in 2014 the team is going to platoon him more, and it looks like rookie James McCann will get first crack at being the Tigers' backup catcher. Avila is going to use a hockey mask rather than the traditional one he's worn in the past, but even with that change his long-term health needs to be protected, and some kind of platoon situation is the best option at this point.
Did the Tigers solve the gaping holes in the outfield?
When Torii Hunter left for Minnesota, Tigers manager Brad Ausmus was worried. While Hunter's defenses were all but shot, replacing his bat was going to be difficult to replace. They found it in outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who, with his cannon for an arm, was also a significant defensive upgrade over Hunter.
When Anthony Gose came to the Tigers via trade with the Blue Jays, it initially appeared that Gose would handle center field by himself, which was a problem in itself as offensively, Gose's numbers don't support him playing full-time. The Cespedes acquisition not only solved a corner position problem, but it allowed Ausmus to platoon Gose with Rajai Davis and utilize their batting splits properly. Bringing Cespedes on-board shored up more than one area of weakness and gave the Tigers some flexibility for the season.
Will the Tigers' rotation be dominant once again?
The success of the rotation may very well ride on Justin Verlander's ability to return to his former dominant self. Much of the lack of Verlander's success was attributed to health issues that preceded and followed his core muscle surgery. With a normal offseason, which allowed Verlander to return to his rigorous workout regime in the offseason, the Tigers expect him to be a commanding presence on the mound once again.
With that in mind, Anibal Sanchez also needs to remain healthy this season. With Max Scherzer gone to the Nationals in free agency, and the loss of Rick Porcello to the Red Sox in a trade for Cespedes (among other players), only David Price is a shoo-in for reliability. Shane Greene — whom the Tigers acquired in a three-team trade with the Yankees and Diamondbacks — needs to continue his 2014 track record, and Alfredo Simon must return to his pre-All-Star form in 2014 for the Tigers to have a solid rotation.
Are the near-nightly bullpen implosions finally a thing of the past?
Bullpens are never predictable, even when teams expect them to be. Rather than maintain their status quo, however, the Tigers went the opposite route with the bullpen in the offseason. They steered clear of the flashier contracts and stacked their bullpen to the rafters with arms. Josh Zeid, Alex Wilson, Tom Gorzelanny, and Alberto Cabrera (minor league contract) were all acquired in the offseason for low-cost stop-gaps.
Joel Hanrahan remained with the Tigers (though he's still in the recovery process), the Tigers moved Kyle Lobstein to the bullpen for depth, and there are more arms to choose from if the need arises, including Al Alburquerque and Blaine Hardy. Joe Nathan will remain the Tigers closer for now, Joakim Soria was named the eighth inning set-up man, and Bruce Rondon will handle the seventh inning (although the Tigers are being cautious with his work load right now.)
The Tigers' 2015 bullpen is more realistic, rather than a gaudy one that looks good on paper but can't perform under pressure. The Tigers went a long way in solving what was very much an unprotected bullpen from last year, and they essentially erased the questions regarding the infield and outfield. Even after what appeared to be crippling setbacks from injuries to Martinez and Cabrera at first glance, Detroit enters spring training with less questions than when the offseason began.