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5 Tigers storylines to follow in 2017

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A lot of questions will be answered in the next 365 days.

MLB: Winter Meetings Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Happy New Year! Sure, we’re already two full days into 2017, but after you spent two full days on the couch eating empty carbs and watching football, Tuesday feels like the first “real” day of the year. With that, it’s time to look forward. The Detroit Tigers were both promising and disappointing in 2016, finishing just off the Baltimore Orioles’ pace in the AL Wild Card chase.

Since bowing out of the playoff race on the final day of the regular season, the Tigers haven’t done much. They traded Cameron Maybin, signed Alex Avila, and picked up a lefty whose name we can’t spell. The inactivity suggests that the Tigers plan on making one more run at a playoff spot next season before losing a fair chunk of their roster to free agency.

There’s more to this team than that. Here are the stories we’re paying attention to this year.

How will the Tigers fill out their roster?

The Tigers have not done much this offseason, but that is largely because most of their 2016 roster is under contract for next season. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was the only major free agent on last year’s team, and he has been replaced by Avila. The entire infield returns, along with both corner outfielders, their catcher, seven starting pitchers, and the whole bullpen (for better or worse). Most Tigers fans have spent the offseason worrying about which of their favorite stars gets traded, not how they fill major holes up and down the roster.

There is one big vacancy, though. Cameron Maybin’s departure has left a large void in center field. There are a few internal options to fill that hole, but none of them inspire any real confidence. Unfortunately, there aren’t any big name free agents to wedge in there either. If the Tigers look outside the organization for help, they will either need to rely on an aging Rajai Davis or a bounce-back candidate like Austin Jackson. The Tigers could also explore the trade market, but that didn’t go well during the Winter Meetings in December.

How does the starting rotation shake out?

As noted above, the Tigers return seven players who made at least 10 starts in 2016. Many fans will clamor for the Tigers to use their five best starters right out of the gate in 2017. Health permitting, Justin Verlander, Jordan Zimmermann, and Michael Fulmer are locks for the rotation. The neck injury that sidelined Zimmermann for large chunks of 2016 is a concern, but the team sounds cautiously optimistic. One would hope that Daniel Norris has a leg up over the others after a strong finish last season. In 13 starts, he posted a 3.38 ERA, 3.92 FIP, and the second-highest strikeout rate among Tigers starters (behind Verlander).

Things get interesting after that. Matt Boyd was the Tigers’ best option as a fifth starter last season, amassing a 4.16 ERA and 4.62 FIP before his disastrous final start of the year. However, he has minor league options remaining, while the others don’t. Both Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey were a major problem in 2016, almost single-handedly costing the Tigers a playoff spot with their poor performance. However, they are a owed a combined $24.8 million in 2017, with Sanchez due another $5 million to buy out his 2018 contract option. Money talks in these situations, and the Tigers aren’t likely to dump one (or both) without some form of compensation. They could feasibly stick one in the bullpen as a long reliever, but not both.

MLB: Minnesota Twins at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Who makes the Opening Day roster?

The math here is simple. The Tigers have four position players that are fresh out of minor league options in 2017: Tyler Collins, Anthony Gose, Dixon Machado, and Steven Moya. There are, at most, three roster spots available for these four players. Collins is the best bet to land a fourth outfielder role, and might even chip in as a part-time center fielder. Machado is the most versatile defensively, and the Tigers have a history of rostering multiple utility infielders. Moya is still raw after a zillion years in the minor leagues, but doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of passing through waivers. Gose might be the best center fielder in the organization right now, but an awful 2016 performance and his apparent attitude issues are standing in his way.

If that weren’t complicated enough, JaCoby Jones could force his way onto the roster with a strong spring. Jones appears to be the heir apparent in center field, but his contact issues might hold him back in the short-term. If he makes the roster, that leaves just two spots for the four listed above. None are particularly good bets to make it through waivers, yet they don’t hold much trade value right now.

Brad Ausmus’ job security

It has felt like a never-ending saga so far, but after multiple reports that manager Brad Ausmus was on the hot seat, we will finally get an answer on his future with the club in 2017. Ausmus’ job security will largely be linked with how the team performs, and I believe that last year’s record is the tipping point. Anything closer to or below .500, and the Tigers will be searching for a new manager next November. Injuries could always play a role — the Tigers’ last place finish in 2015 wasn’t really Ausmus’ fault — but that excuse might not work a second time around.

The aftermath of 2017

General manager Al Avila spooked a lot of Tigers fans into thinking that their favorite player(s) might be traded earlier this offseason, but nothing has come of those bold words quite yet. This won’t be the case after next season. J.D. Martinez is set to hit free agency after 2017, and Justin Upton has an opt-out clause in his contract that he can exercise. If Upton bolts, the Tigers will have to replace a pair of productive corner outfielders — and still answer questions about center field, potentially.

Luckily, they should have some money to spend. Anibal Sanchez and Mike Pelfrey will also be free agents, along with Francisco Rodriguez and Mark Lowe. Add in Alex Avila’s $2 million deal and J.D. Martinez’s contract, and that’s $50 million in expiring contracts departing after the upcoming year. If triggered, Upton’s opt-out clause would lift an extra $22.1 million per season off the Tigers’ books.

Of course, money isn’t everything. The Tigers could look to fill some of these voids internally, especially if prospects like Christin Stewart, Joe Jimenez, and Michael Gerber continue performing well in the minor leagues. The Tigers have also been looking to cut back on payroll, and might trim the roster even further if they don’t feel great about their chances of contending in 2018.

No matter what happens, 2017 should be an interesting year for the Tigers.