DETROIT — Most anyone on the Tigers will tell you that they’re glad Detroit didn’t sell. From returning catcher Alex Avila to manager Brad Ausmus. The biggest relief on the team heading into 2017, apart from health, is that the team from last year remains largely intact.
Daniel Norris, who finished strong in 2016 after a setup adjustment, didn’t see a positive in selling, even in part. He’s beyond relieved that the organization didn’t follow through with what appeared to be a rebuild in the works. Justin Upton is thrilled.
At the end of the 2016 season, general manager Al Avila statement that the Tigers would “get younger, leaner,” sparked a lot of tension. It gave the impression that the team was going to dump payroll and possibly big-name players like Miguel Cabrera and even Justin Verlander. Ian Kinsler was being shopped by teams for trade, and the team that missed the playoffs by a couple of games was teetering on a supposed full-scale breakdown.
“It was incredible,” Norris said. “When that stuff started coming out, it was really stressful. Just because we were so close, and I think there’s something to say about us being the last man standing with all the injuries that we had. Then there was the rumor that they were gonna ship everybody out it was — why, what’s the point? We’re so close. I think they’re doing the right thing. I hated to see Cam (Maybin) go but I’m just glad that that didn’t foreshadow what was going to happen.”
What followed instead was a near-silent offseason. The biggest acquisition to bear fruit was the return of Alex Avila. Even outfielder Mikie Mahtook was just a minor addition in center field, which, as it stands, will be a platoon effort. The players, though, are happy with that.
The goal, as GM Avila clarified this week, was always to make a trade if it fit, but the team was never going to dump payroll on a bad deal for the sake of dumping payroll. As it turned out, the opportunity just never presented itself, and the offseason market being as it was, most teams in baseball were quiet. Only the Mariners were overtly busy. Norris found himself talking to teammates regularly, unsure as to what was on the horizon.
“Definitely, me and Kinsler are really close, so I was talking to him a lot,” Norris said, adding that he and Matthew Boyd would talk several times a week. “I was just ‘yo, keep me in the loop. I just wanna know what’s going on.’ I just really didn’t know what’s gonna happen. We’re definitely talking through it all.”
The Tigers have plenty of rotation options beyond Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, and Michael Fulmer. Apart from Norris, there’s Boyd, Anibal Sanchez, and Mike Pelfrey (the latter two of which Ausmus believes are “primed” for rebound seasons). There’s going to be competition for the final one, possibly two spots, but most of the rotation is solidified already.
The team anticipates contending not just for the American League Central Division title, but a deep run in the postseason. With the exception of center field, where the front office is placing defense rather than offense as the priority, the Tigers lineup is stacked. Nick Castellanos and J.D. Martinez are healthy, and the pairing of James McCann and Avila behind the plate are an ideal complement to each others’ strengths.
Even healthy, though, the as-is team will need to find a way to beat the Indians. Their 4-14 record against Cleveland isn’t going to cut it, especially since an even record would’ve yielded the Tigers entrance into the postseason. Provided the same healthy players can match their efforts from last year, with help from others like Zimmermann, the Tigers have a perfect opportunity to be one of the top teams to beat in 2017.