The 2015 baseball season has been a major disappointment for the Detroit Tigers from just about every angle. The team is in last place, 19 games behind the first-place Kansas City Royals, and well out of contention for any kind of playoff spot. Their starting pitching and bullpen are both among worst in the American League in most statistical categories, and a team with one of the highest payrolls in the game has given up over 100 more runs than they have scored.
While there is plenty to be upset about this season, there are some positives that the team can point to between all the gray clouds, and you don’t really have to look very hard to find most of them. Here are five positives that the Tigers can build upon as they look to regain relevance heading into the 2016 season.
1. Justin Verlander
The Tigers’ former Cy Young winner and 2011 American League Most Valuable Player has finally recovered from his injuries and is starting to look much more like the Verlander who signed a five year, $140 million contract extension through the 2019 season.
Verlander began the season on the disabled list and didn’t make his first appearance until June 13. He struggled for the first month after his return, seemingly giving up six or seven runs in every other outing. Since July 24, he has has been dominant, making 10 starts, eight of them quality starts, with a 2.13 ERA and a 0.92 WHIP. After losing David Price, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, and Rick Porcello over the past couple of seasons, Detroit could use their former ace pitcher in a return to glory.
2. The offense
Overall, the offense has solid, although inconsistent at times during the 2015 season. The team was producing the second-highest number of runs per game in baseball when they traded Yoenis Cespedes at the end of July, and they still have the makings of a solid offensive group.
Despite the loss of Cespedes and injuries to Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Jose Iglesias, the team ranks second in the American League behind the Royals in team batting average, third in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and third in OPS and OPS+. The Tigers will have to replace the lost production of Cespedes, who replaced Torii Hunter prior to this season, but that is not an insurmountable task.
3. The infield
A unit recently in flux appears to be solidifying with Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, and Nick Castellanos entrenched as starters. Add Andrew Romine as a capable defensive replacement at any infield position, and this is the makings of a solid group. Cabrera is still the best hitter in the game, some 30 points clear of the rest of the AL on his way to his fourth batting title in five seasons. Kinsler is again among the league leaders in most categories at second base, while Iglesias made his first All-Star appearance, hitting .300 to go with his defensive wizardry in the field.
Castellanos is still a work in progress, and one may wonder if he will ever stop hacking at pitches a foot outside the plate. However, he has turned a -0.9 WAR performance in the first half into +0.5 WAR since the All-Star break. He has improved defensively but will never have the range to be a plus defender at the hot corner. He is not a big asset, but is a rare homegrown player contributing at the league’s minimum salary.
4. Team defense
Remember 2012? The defense is much improved in 2015 compared to recent years. After coughing up -65 defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2014, the Tigers come in just above league average at +2 DRS for the 2015 campaign. Iglesias and Kinsler up the middle are solid, and James McCann has been a plus behind the plate in terms of holding baserunners. Third base has not been as bad as it was, and Cespedes provided a big boost to go with J.D. Martinez in the outfield. Anthony Gose has not been the big boost that the team had hoped for, but Rajai Davis has been better than usual. Overall, the defense should be solid going forward as long as the Tigers find a capable corner outfielder.
5. The bullpen
Wait, what? The bullpen has been one of the worst in the league this season, and the team is still several pitchers away from having a pen, but there are still a couple of individual performances that the team can build upon. Specifically, Blaine Hardy, Alex Wilson, and Drew VerHagen have all been solid relief pitchers. Unfortunately, they are not the kind of pitchers that a team would build around to solidify the late innings, but could be good middle relievers.
The bullpen is an area where the team needs some outside investment, and they will have $20 million coming off the books that was spent on Joe Nathan, Joakim Soria, Joba Chamberlain, and Tom Gorzelanny this season. If the team gets any more help from within, such as from pitchers like Al Alburquerque, Bruce Rondon, or others, take that as a plus. But don’t count on it.
James McCann deserves some special mention, although we threw him in above as a key player in the team’s improved defense. He has thrown out over 39 percent of would be stealers, and has not made an error this season.
J.D. Martinez should also get individual kudos for his monster performance both offensively and defensively. Martinez leads the Tigers and is sixth in the entire league in bWAR. 36 homers and 91 RBI and counting, he looks like a middle of the order bat for the next few seasons.