The Detroit Tigers are good enough to win the World Series in 2016. We outlined a best-case scenario for the club, and it wouldn't even take that to get back into the postseason. This club has a chance to be a very good baseball team.
But an otherwise productive spring training has already been marred by injuries, the likes of which has the chance to cripple the team's season before it even starts. Daniel Norris will start the season on the disabled list, forcing the Tigers to already dip into their well of reserve starting pitching. Victor Martinez may not be ready for Opening Day. Anibal Sanchez has already experienced some arm soreness. And the bullpen depth, lauded by many in February, is already a big concern.
Injuries weren't the entire reason the Tigers' four-year reign atop the AL Central ended in 2015, though. Some players struggled, while others were unable to step up into the void. The bullpen was, once again, an abject disaster. General manager Al Avila did his best to fill those holes this offseason, but there are still a few things that could ultimately lead to the Tigers' demise again in 2016.
Victor Martinez is all washed up
It's a refrain we've heard for most of the offseason, but have largely brushed off. Martinez spent most of the 2015 season on one knee, hobbled by the early February injury that never quite went away. He reinforced the belief that this was a one-year blip when he told media "I can swing now," a four-word proclamation that spoke volumes. A handful of extra base hits in game action further cemented that he would bounce back in 2016.
Then the thinkable happen. Martinez suffered a hamstring injury on March 14 and has yet to appear in a game since. His status for Opening Day is still in doubt, though manager Brad Ausmus believes he will be ready. Either way, it's an ominous sign. Martinez is 37 and his utility in the field is limited. If he can't return to form, the Tigers don't have many options behind him to anchor the middle of their lineup.
Justin Upton's rough spring training isn't a mirage
Okay, so my timing isn't great here -- Upton went 4-for-4 with two home runs on Saturday -- but the Tigers' $132 million man was batting under .200 with a strikeout rate above 30 percent. This comes on the heels of a 2015 season in which Upton hit .251, his lowest batting average since 2008. His .336 on-base percentage was a career-low, and he struck out at a 25.6 percent rate, his third straight year above 25 percent.
It's also important to note that 2016 will be Upton's first season in the American League. While many believe the transition is rougher for pitchers than hitters, better players have shown a bit of a hiccup early on. Many were somewhat disappointed with Prince Fielder's .885 OPS in the first half of his debut season in Detroit, and fans were also up in arms after Miguel Cabrera hit .284/.349/.489 in the first half of 2008.
The back of the rotation struggles again
The hallmark of the Tigers' success for most of their four-year run as division champions was their starting rotation. Aces Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer helped anchor the unit, but stellar production from "back-end" starters like Rick Porcello, Doug Fister, and Drew Smyly was also crucial.
The 2016 team won't be able to rely on its rotation in the same way, but they still need some production from their fourth and fifth starters. Unfortunately, both of those slots offer a fair amount of uncertainty. Some of us are excited about Mike Pelfrey, but he is coming off a rather nondescript 2015 season with a strikeout rate of just 12 percent. If his ground ball or home run rates regress, the Tigers could be in trouble.
Also in flux is the fifth starter spot. Daniel Norris will begin the season on the disabled list, and is still only 22 years old. Shane Greene is the apparent leader for the job over Matt Boyd, but both posted ERAs just under 7.00 last year. Many are hopeful that Greene will regain the form that made him a hot commodity in 2014, but that's not guaranteed.
The bullpen doesn't get better
The Tigers' bullpen hasn't finished in the top half of the American League in terms of ERA since 2006, a full decade of futility. Last season, they posed the second-highest ERA in the league, topped only by the Oakland Athletics. The Tigers did their best to remedy this over the offseason, acquiring Francsico Rodriguez, Mark Lowe, and Justin Wilson to anchor the late innings.
Is that enough, though? Wilson has struggled so far this spring, allowing a 9.00 ERA and 2.00 WHIP in seven innings. While his strikeout-to-walk ratio is respectable, he hasn't shown the dominance that led to a 1.5 WAR season with the Yankees in 2015. Lowe has been even worse, allowing a 9.82 ERA and .306 batting average in 7 1/3 innings.
There are also depth concerns already. Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy will both likely begin the season on the disabled list, leaving an unproven Drew VerHagen as the team's de facto "sixth inning guy." Other contenders for those innings -- Bruce Rondon, Bobby Parnell, and others -- have not impressed either. If Wilson and/or Hardy cannot regain their form, the Tigers will need someone to take a big step forward to fill the void.
Player development continues to stagnate
Last season, the Tigers received a combined 2.9 WAR from four young players: Nick Castellanos, Anthony Gose, James McCann, and Jose Iglesias. While these four shouldn't be expected to shoulder the load in 2016, the Tigers need more out of their 20-somethings if they are going to return to the postseason. Castellanos, in particular, could play a key role in the sixth spot of the lineup. Everyone expected big things out of the 24-year-old from day one, but the overall results have remained rather mediocre.
For the others, there may even be some regression in the order. McCann struggled mightily against right-handed pitching last season, but will still get the majority of starts behind the plate in 2016. Gose rode a month-long hot streak in April to a respectable 90 wRC+, but still struck out over 27 percent of the time. Iglesias probably won't hit .300 again, and his numbers tailed off quite a bit in the second half of 2015.