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Detroit Tigers Mailbag: Looking ahead to the 2017 season

The Tigers are far from done in 2016, but next season could be a fun one in Detroit as well.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Major League Baseball released the schedule for the 2017 season on Wednesday, which afforded fans of all 30 clubs — yes, even those embedded in tight playoff races — a chance to look forward to next year. The Detroit Tigers probably can’t be too happy with theirs, as it features a May slate designed by Hades himself. Nineteen of their 29 games that month are on the road, and the home series are against current playoff contenders (the Indians, Orioles, and Rangers). Oh, and 29 games that month means they only have two off days.

Luckily, it’s not so bad elsewhere. The Tigers face their toughest NL West competition (the Dodgers and Giants) at Comerica Park, and they only have two west coast trips to worry about. And hey, the Twins are still on the schedule!

This doesn’t mean we’re shutting the door on 2016. Miguel Cabrera wants us to be positive, and despite all our recent bellyaching, the Tigers are once again just a game back in the AL Wild Card race. With the AL East continuing to devour itself, the Tigers still have a great shot of pushing ahead of someone and into the Wild Card game.

I don’t think Zimmermann is done for the year, but I think the Tigers need to be a lot more cautious about getting him back into game action. Zimmermann was awful for the Tigers on Saturday, and we saw it coming from a mile away. His velocity has been down lately and his breaking pitches have not been sharp, and his results Saturday reflect that. Zimmermann’s simulated game on Wednesday reportedly went well, but the Tigers are still hesitant to immediately stick him back into the rotation.

Fortunately, the Tigers have a rotation capable of withstanding Zimmermann’s absence for another week or two. As a team, their starters have a 3.89 ERA since the All-Star break, the third-best mark in the AL. Anibal Sanchez has struggled recently after an August resurgence, with a 5.74 ERA and 4.53 FIP in his last five starts. Mike Pelfrey is now healthy enough to step in and make a start or two down the stretch as the Tigers continue to give Michael Fulmer more rest. The Tigers are also getting capable performance out of Daniel Norris and Matt Boyd, with the former posting a 3.46 ERA in seven starts since August 1. Boyd has been Norris’ equal since the All-Star break, posting a 3.60 ERA in 11 appearances (10 starts).

If Zimmermann does progress, the Tigers could potentially aim for a return during the final week of the season. This would give him a pair of starts to tune up for a potential postseason run, including one against the Indians. If Zimmermann passes all of these tests, he could be a major asset in the postseason.

There is a lot of offseason to cover before we start talking about our chances of competing in 2017, but the current roster absolutely has the talent to compete next season. Jarrod Saltalamacchia is the only pending free agent of note, and the Tigers should be able to replace his 0.4 fWAR fairly easily. Yes, he has had his share of clutch hits — his 0.78 WPA ranks seventh on the team — but it’s a much smaller hole to fill than, say, the Twins’ entire pitching staff.

Other than that, this team could return as is. The Tigers probably won’t get a .383 on-base percentage out of Cameron Maybin next year, but Justin Upton will probably improve on his 89 wRC+. Also, no Mike Aviles. Offensively, the only real concern (besides health, obviously) is whether a 38-year-old Victor Martinez can continue to provide above-average production in the middle of the lineup.

Then there’s the pitching staff, which might actually be better. Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer will probably regress a bit, but Fulmer won’t be on an innings limit, and the Tigers will probably be quicker to turn to Norris and Boyd over Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey. Jordan Zimmermann should also be back from whatever is ailing him this season. The bullpen should be capable as well, especially if Bruce Rondon keeps mowing people down.

This is obviously a very rosy outlook. Things will go wrong. They do so for nearly every team over the course of a 162-game schedule. But provided the Tigers can skate around any major injuries to their top players — something they have been relatively successful at over the course of the last five or six years — then they should be in the playoff hunt again.

Brian Dozier was on my list of most hated second basemen even prior to his dinger fest this season. I still believe his walk-off home run against Detroit in July 2015 was the “backbreaker” for that Tigers team, and he has only continued to torture Tigers pitching since then.

There are a few easy picks elsewhere around the diamond. Nelson Cruz is a necessary addition, so we’ll put him in right field. Former White Sox third baseman Joe Crede gets an honorary lineup spot as well. Current White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton can take his no-neck batting stance out to center field, with Michael Brantley in left.

Then you have the rest of the infield. Shortstop is a hard one to peg, but Alexei Ramirez or current White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson seem like good candidates. Francisco Lindor will also be a pest for years to come. Twitter was surprisingly salty towards new Yankees signee Billy Butler as a designated hitter, but David Ortiz seems like the easy choice for that spot. One of them could play first base, but you also have long-time Tigers killers like Justin Morneau in the mix.

So, in summary:

C: Salvador Perez
1B: Justin Morneau
2B: Brian Dozier
SS: Tim Anderson
3B: Joe Crede
OF: Michael Brantley
OF: Adam Eaton
OF: Nelson Cruz
DH: David Ortiz