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MLB Opening Day 2016: Tigers are contenders, not favorites in AL Central

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The offseason was a productive one in Detroit, but the Tigers need a few breaks to go worst-to-first in 2016.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, we previewed the Detroit Tigers' season with an article titled "The Tigers can still win the World Series." There was a fair amount of optimism surrounding the then-four-time AL Central champs, but like the title of that post, it was almost strained. We as fans were clinging to hope that the team had not missed their best chance of winning it all, only to fall prey to the swings of Pablo Sandoval in 2012 and David Ortiz a year later.

Those false hopes were magnified when the Tigers jumped out to a 6-0 start, and continued to roll through April. When they met the equally hot Kansas City Royals for a four-game series to open the month of May, the Tigers were 15-7.

However, problems began to mount. Victor Martinez, already hobbled by an offseason knee surgery, was placed on the disabled list in mid-May. The bullpen, already sans Joe Nathan, who suffered a UCL injury on Opening Day, was a leaky sieve outside of closer Joakim Soria. Anibal Sanchez was handing out home runs like Halloween candy. Alfredo Simon came back to earth. Even J.D. Martinez looked lost, going 0-for-25 at one point in early May. He eventually rebounded, but none of the others did.

The result was a season spent in limbo. Do the Tigers make a push at the trade deadline in hopes of squeaking into the wild card hunt? Or do they trade off their superfluous pieces in hopes of restocking a barren farm system for 2016?

As we know, the Tigers chose the latter. They fell into last place, fired Dave Dombrowski, and spent the offseason undoing some of the short-sighted moves that highlighted the end of his tenure. The bullpen is deeper, the lineup is restocked, and, most importantly, the prospects are still here.

There is a certain air of cautious optimism surrounding the 2016 Tigers, but one with an undertone of confidence. Victor Martinez is hobbled again -- though not to the same extent as last year -- but the other stars on the roster are healthy. Their pitching depth isn't exactly a strength, but it's not an obvious Achilles heel either. There are still major concerns over the team's long-term potential, but 2016 is another year of win-now focus in Detroit.

Lineup

Not many hitters can win a batting title and still leave fans wanting for more. In fact, I can only think of one: Miguel Cabrera. The 32-year-old slugger batted .338 with a .440 on-base percentage last year, both tops in the American League, but only hit 18 home runs, his lowest total since his rookie season in 2003. Now a full year removed from ankle and foot surgery, Cabrera's power should return in 2016. Designated hitter Victor Martinez may not hit for the type of power he did in 2014, but a strong early showing before a mid-March hamstring injury has fans hopeful that he has another productive season or two left in him.

Setting the table for Cabrera and Martinez will be second baseman Ian Kinsler and left fielder Justin Upton. An eleventh hour free agent signing for $132.75 million, Upton will be expected to fill the void left by Yoenis Cespedes last year. The 28-year-old has had a rough spring, but broke out with two home runs on Saturday. Kinsler posted yet another five-win season for the Tigers in 2015, but will be 34 in June. Most middle infielders don't age well, and Kinsler's declining walk rate isn't all that encouraging. He is still playing Gold Glove caliber defense, though, and is the best baserunner on the team.

Then there's J.D. Martinez, a first-time All-Star in 2015. Martinez's aforementioned 0-for-25 skid in early May had some worried, but he got back on track, hitting .306/.358/.643 with 19 home runs in June and July. Arguably more impressive still was his defensive improvement, including 15 outfield assists. Sitting behind Martinez in the lineup is Nick Castellanos, a 24-year-old third baseman who posted some of the best offensive numbers of his career over the final few months of the season. Many are pegging 2016 as Castellanos' breakout party, though defense and baserunning are still major issues.

After losing Alex Avila to free agency this offseason, the Tigers acquired veteran backstop Jarrod Saltalamacchia to pair with cannon-armed James McCann. Saltalamacchia was released by the Miami Marlins after a sluggish start to the year, but hit .251/.332/.474 in 70 games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. He will be a perfect fit with McCann, who mashed lefties to the tune of a .916 OPS in 2015. McCann is the stronger defender of the two, though his pitch framing numbers were among the worst in baseball. Third catcher Bryan Holaday has made some noise this spring, but is out of minor league options and will likely end up elsewhere soon after the start of the year.

The bottom of the Tigers' lineup has potential to give pitchers fits, though not in the same way the Tigers' sluggers will. Shortstop Jose Iglesias hit .300 last season largely thanks to a minuscule strikeout rate and excellent speed out of the batter's box. He may regress some -- he hit just .280/.318/.366 in the second half -- but we said the same thing last year. Center fielders Anthony Gose and Cameron Maybin also have speed to burn, though they form one of the odder platoons in the game. Maybin is currently sidelined by a broken wrist, but shouldn't miss too much regular season action. Gose hit a solid .265/.330/.383 against right-handed pitching last year, and is an adequate outfield defender.

Pitchers

Top-notch starting pitching has been the Tigers' biggest strength over the past several years, but fans are starting to get excited about their revamped bullpen. Gone are Joe Nathan, Joba Chamberlain, Neftali Feliz, and many of the other pitchers who struggled for so much of 2015.

In their place are Francisco Rodriguez, a 14-year-veteran who is already mentoring the team's younger players, and setup men Justin Wilson and Mark Lowe. All three posted 1.0 WAR seasons with their respective clubs last year, striking out over a batter per inning in the process. Behind them will be Alex Wilson and Blaine Hardy, arguably the only bright spots remaining from last year's bullpen. Drew VerHagen is also expected to make the team out of spring training, with Bruce Rondon's zillion-dollar arm still lurking somewhere in the system.

The bullpen will need to be at its best, because the rotation isn't as frightening as it used to be. Justin Verlander did his best to silence critics in 2015, posting a 2.27 ERA and 4.55 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his final 14 starts. There were flashes of vintage Verlander abound, including a near-no-hitter against the Los Angeles Angels in August. Free agent signee Jordan Zimmermann will also be counted on as an anchor in the rotation. There is always some concern when a pitcher changes leagues, but the 29-year-old seems well-equipped to get off to a fast start.

Things get a bit hairy from there. Anibal Sanchez is coming off the worst season of his career, one that saw him give up an MLB-worst 29 home runs in 157 innings. He finished the season on the shelf with a shoulder injury and has already experienced some arm soreness this spring, but looked sharp in his first game action. If he can bounce back to something reminiscent of his production in 2013 and 2014, the Tigers will be in good shape. Righthander Mike Pelfrey might be the most maligned pitcher in the rotation already, but has looked strong at times during the spring. The former Minnesota Twin will rely heavily on his infield defense for outs, and should provide some quality innings.

The final spot in the rotation is still not resolved, but the Tigers will need to do so quickly. Touted prospect Daniel Norris will begin the season on the disabled list after suffering a fracture in his spine during a workout, leaving Shane Greene and Matt Boyd to fight for the job. Both pitchers showed flashes of promise in 2015, but ultimately struggled in their Tigers debuts. Greene appears to have the edge this spring with 14 strikeouts to three walks in 13 1/3 innings.

Down on the farm

The 2015 draft and trade deadline saw a large and much-needed influx of talent into the Tigers' farm system at all levels. Top prospect Michael Fulmer should make his major league debut this season, while Steven Moya and Dixon Machado will spend another year at Triple-A Toledo. Beau Burrows and Derek Hill both have high ceilings, though posted polar opposite numbers in limited minor league action last season. Outfielders Christin Stewart and Michael Gerber could be fast-tracked through the system, while pitchers like Spencer Turnbull and Kevin Ziomek are also looking to prove their worth.

Outlook

On paper, the Tigers may have the most talented team in the AL Central. Computers and pundits alike have disagreed with this statement many times over throughout the past several weeks, though for different reasons. Projection systems are far from enamored with this roster, particularly given the slight downturn in production from many of their stars over the past couple years. The defending champions are still around, as are retooled rosters in Chicago and Cleveland.

If the Tigers' studs can stay healthy and productive -- easier said than done over the past few seasons -- they could ultimately come home with their fifth AL Central crown in the past six years. However, unless most everything breaks their way, they may fall a bit short.