Since the final game of last season, many Detroit Tigers fans have been worrying about the offseason and this upcoming season. Questions loomed, such as what would general Al Avila do? Would he really trade someone like Miguel Cabrera? If the Tigers decide to rebuild, how long will that take? What could we expect from the Tigers until they are competitive again?
Lucky for us, we get to push all those questions back, as the Tigers head into 2017 poised to make a statement in a do-or-die type situation. With the start of the season right around the corner, I thought it would be good to touch on some reasons why the Tigers can be successful this season, and what they need to differently from last year. This was, after all, a team that finished just outside the American League playoff picture in 2016.
1. Nick Castellanos will have a career year at the plate
A lot of Tigers fans have been waiting for Nick Castellanos to have a breakout season. Well, 2017 seems like his year. Castellanos finished 2016 with 18 home runs and 58 RBI even after missing almost 50 games due to a broken hand. He was also tied for 24th in OPS+ and 25th in batting average among 91 American League batters who had at least 440 plate appearances.
Castellanos’ only real concern is on the defensive end of the ball, though he still has time to work on those skills. He has developed immensely at the plate over the last two seasons, and it really showed in 2016. He has demonstrated an ability to adapt to each pitcher and how they attack him, especially late in pitch counts. If he can pick up where he left off before his injury — he posted an .875 OPS in the first half of last season — he could end up being one of the Tigers’ best hitters by season’s end.
2. Daniel Norris returning for a refined campaign after mid-season tweaks
Daniel Norris has shown he was worth the price we paid for him a couple seasons ago (no pun intended). He has been a joy both on and off the field. Besides being a fan-friendly guy, Norris has shown a work ethic that is second to none. An injury during spring training all but ruined his chances of earning a spot in the rotation to start the 2016 season.
That didn’t keep him down, though. After getting called up a couple of times during the first half of the season, he was able to adjust his delivery under the guidance of Rich Dubee, and translated those tweaks into success. In five of his final eight outings of the season, his average four-seam fastball velocity was above 94 miles per hour (according to Brooks Baseball). The Tigers shared in Norris’ success, winning six of those eight starts. However, he was only able to pitch into the seventh inning in three of those eight starts.
This season, look for Norris to focus on keeping his pitch count down, allowing him to pitch deeper into games. If he is able to do that, he could find himself slotted right behind Justin Verlander and Michael Fulmer in the rotation, giving the Tigers a 1-2-3 that rivals that of any major league team.
3. The dark horse bullpen of the AL
After featuring a hit-or-miss bullpen in 2016, the Tigers come in with an almost identical ‘pen this season. The main struggle was, of course, Mark Lowe, but also slightly overshadowed in their late-season struggles were Shane Greene and Justin Wilson. It seemed both Greene and Justin Wilson lacked consistency, especially as their innings piled up later in the year. Mark Lowe just needs a fresh start this season.
The Tigers did have several solid and consistent performers last year, including Alex Wilson, Bruce Rondon, Francisco Rodriguez, and Kyle Ryan. Blaine Hardy was also quite serviceable when he had a chance. Rodriguez was a bit of a concern at times closing games, so we could potentially see Bruce Rondon or even Joe Jimenez in the ninth inning by season’s end. Jimenez will likely start in Triple-A, but we should see him with the Tigers at some point during the season. If Greene, Lowe, and Justin Wilson can combine for two serviceable seasons, and they get repeat performances from either Hardy or Ryan, as well Alex Wilson, Bruce Rondon, and Rodriguez, the Tigers could finally have a bullpen worth bragging about.
4. Justin Upton will pick up right where he left off
When you look at how Justin Upton finished the 2016 season, it should give you hope heading into 2017. He had five home runs in each of the final four months of the season, but broke out with 13 home runs in September and October. Justin also had 28 RBI and 13 walks in the final month of the year, both season highs. He finished the season with 31 home runs which tied a career high. Upton also struck out a career-high 179 times, so he will need to bring that down in order for more runs to score when his spot comes up. Toward the end of the season, it looked like Upton has figured out his role in the Tigers lineup. Upton also has a chance to opt out of his contract after this season, so 2017 is his last chance to potentially earn another huge payday.
5. The “core” of the lineup and rotation is still here
With all the talks of selling the past offseason,. the Tigers head into spring training with almost the exact same lineup as they had in 2016. This lineup includes Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and J.D. Martinez, and they could all end up in their same respective spots in the lineup. This Tigers offense had the third-best batting average and were second in OPS+ among all MLB teams in 2016. It’s definitely a potent and capable lineup.
Some injuries affected them as well last year, with J.D. Martinez and Nick Castellanos missing extended stretches. Health is really their main key to success, as it always has been. When you add the potent lineup with an ace like Justin Verlander on the mound, you get the foundation of a team that is built to win. Verlander proved last year once again why he’s worth every penny, every award (cough he was robbed cough), and every acclaim. With another season to build off what this core was able to do last season, this could give the Tigers a real chance at being a competitive team.
6. Extended sophomore push for Fulmer
Coming of an excellent season which landed him the Rookie of the Year award, Michael Fulmer will look to prove to any remaining doubters that he belongs at the top of the rotation. The good news is Fulmer’s inning count should be pushed a little higher this season, as he finished with 159 innings last year, just one inning shy of the Tigers proposed limit of 160. However, he was over the limit if you include the 15 1/3 innings he threw at Triple- Toledo before being called up. This season Fulmer could see somewhere between 180-190 innings if everything goes smoothly. He was a major key to the limited success the Tigers had in 2016. If the Tigers are able to get the same Fulmer that showed up last year, they should be right in the thick of the postseason chase.