While it may not be the warmest month of the calendar year, March is certainly one filled to the brim with optimism. Spring is in the air, and fanbases across Major League Baseball have visions of October glory dancing in their heads. With spring training coming to a close, fans are more than willing to let their minds wander towards the best case scenario for their preferred club.
For the Detroit Tigers, that scenario is more reasonable than most. Sure, any team could see their lineup go bananas and win 110 games if everything went right, but that's a once-in-a-generation type dream season. No, a "best case scenario" is something closer to 100 wins and an easy walk to a division championship.
Could the Tigers do that? Sure, if things go right. Let's break down how exactly that could happen.
Luckily, we don't need to rely purely on feelingsball to get to 100 wins. The 2013 Tigers "only" won 93 games, but had a pythagorean expected record of 99-63. They led the major leagues with 53.6 fWAR that season, just ahead of the eventual world champion (ugh) Boston Red Sox. Based on the assumption that a replacement level team would win 47.7 games, the 2013 Tigers were essentially a 101-win juggernaut.
So, roughly speaking, the best case scenario for the 2016 Tigers -- besides a World Series trophy, duh -- is getting to that 53-ish WAR mark.
How far away are they?
Across the board, projection systems are not a fan of this roster. FanGraphs has them pegged for 81 wins, and PECOTA is even more pessimistic at just 79 wins. That's roughly 31-33 WAR for the entire team, over 20 wins shy of our lofty Best. Season. Ever. goals. Getting to that mark doesn't require a 1-for-1 match with the 2013 club, but comparing position groups is a decent starting point, especially given that there are a few holdovers still in the organization.
Be warned: crude maths ahead (All projected WAR totals are from Steamer).
2013 rotation: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Anibal Sanchez, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello
2016 projected rotation: Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, Anibal Sanchez, Mike Pelfrey, Shane Greene/Daniel Norris
2013 WAR: 23.6
2016 projected WAR: 9.2
Oof. The Tigers' 2013 rotation was historically great, but a 14-win drop-off is hard to stomach. Verlander seems like a safe bet to outperform his projected 2.4 WAR, and Zimmermann (projected at 2.4 WAR) has been a three-win pitcher in each of the past five seasons. There are some question marks after that, though. Anibal Sanchez could easily beat out his projected 2.5 wins, but will have a hard time matching the 6.0 WAR he posted in 2013. There's also Doug Fister's 4.2 WAR campaign to replicate, and Porcello's modest 2.9 win season.
If the 2016 Tigers are going to make up ground, they need big seasons out of their top arms. Verlander was on a five-win pace last season, and that includes his sluggish start to the year. Sanchez is a year removed from a three-win season, and Zimmermann posted 5.3 WAR in 2014 before a drop-off last year. Getting a breakout year from Shane Greene or Daniel Norris would also be a must.
2013 bullpen: Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Al Alburquerque, Phil Coke, Darin Downs, Luke Putkonen, Bruce Rondon
2016 projected bullpen: Francisco Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, Justin Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Bruce Rondon, Drew VerHagen, Alex Wilson
2013 WAR: 3.2
2016 projected WAR: 1.7
Here's where the 2016 Tigers could make up some ground on their 2013 counterparts. The 2013 bullpen was buoyed heavily by Benoit and Smyly, who combined for 3.2 WAR on their own. The rest of the pen was entirely replacement level, a big reason why they finished with the fourth-highest ERA in the American League. Anchors included Jose Valverde (-0.6 WAR), Bryan Villarreal (-0.3 WAR), and Jeremy Bonderman (-0.2 WAR), but only one player (Bruce Rondon, surprisingly) was worth more than 0.2 WAR.
The 2016 'pen has a chance to blow past that. Top-flight closers regularly top the two-win mark on their own, though Rodriguez hasn't reached that level since 2006. Mark Lowe and Justin Wilson combined for 2.7 WAR on their own last season, while Blaine Hardy and Alex Wilson provided 1.7 wins for the Tigers. If those five replicate their 2015 production, that's already 5.5 wins on the ledger, with potential for more if Rondon or VerHagen post breakout seasons.
*Top seven pitchers listed by innings pitched, WAR totals reflect entire bullpen performance.
2013 infield: Alex Avila, Prince Fielder, Omar Infante, Jhonny Peralta/Jose Iglesias, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez
2016 projected infield: James McCann/Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Jose Iglesias, Nick Castellanos, Victor Martinez
2013 WAR: 18.1
2016 projected WAR: 12.7
First, let's marvel at Omar Infante's 2013 season. A career .272/.309/.389 hitter, Infante hit .318/.345/.450 for the Tigers in 2013, posting a career-best 3.1 WAR. This came on top of a 7.5-win season from Miguel Cabrera, 3.8 WAR from Jhonny Peralta, and a modest 0.8 WAR from Jose Iglesias in 46 games. Prince Fielder also posted a 126 wRC+, but his poor baserunning and defense knocked him down to a pedestrian 2.3 WAR.
This 2016 team could be better if they catch a few breaks. Cabrera might not reach the seven-win level again, but he was still a four-win player in just 119 games last season. With a slight uptick in power over a full season, a six-win year isn't out of the question. Kinsler is projected for just 2.9 wins by Steamer, but has posted three consecutive five-win seasons according to Baseball Reference. Iglesias could improve on last season's 1.6 WAR performance if defensive metrics finally see what we do, and Castellanos is a popular breakout candidate. Victor Martinez could also out-shine his projected 0.8 WAR if he stays healthy.
2013 outfield: Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter, Andy Dirks, Matt Tuiasosopo
2016 projected outfield: Anthony Gose, J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, Cameron Maybin
2013 WAR: 7.9
2016 projected WAR: 7.4
Anthony Gose may not match Austin Jackson's 3.0 WAR on his own, but the Tigers' 2016 outfield should blow away the 2013 version. Upton should easily beat out his 3.3 WAR projection, and computers still haven't caught up to J.D. Martinez's two-year, nine-win breakout. A monster season from one of them could push this unit above the 10-win mark.
Also of note is Cameron Maybin, who had an excellent first half in 2015 before fading after the All-Star break. If that uptick in offensive production was for real, the Tigers could get much more than his projected 1.0 WAR. Gose is also a potential breakout candidate if his defensive numbers improve.
There are a number of ways for the Tigers to win the World Series -- that's the ultimate best case scenario, after all -- but winning as many games as possible in the regular season is the easiest way to ensure a ticket to the playoffs. The 2016 Tigers don't need to win 100 games (and probably won't) in order to get there, but this exercise shows that getting to that level isn't entirely unreasonable if everything goes right. The pitching staff will have to outperform expectations, but this year's lineup is perhaps even deeper than that of the 2013 team that should have won the club's fifth World Series title.