Were it not for the Toronto Blue Jays faceplanting out of the gate, one might argue that the Detroit Tigers are the biggest surprise of the 2017 season thus far. Their flop of a series in Tampa aside, the Tigers have jumped out to a slim early lead in the AL Central.
Unlike other surprise stories like the Cincinnati Reds or Minnesota Twins, however, this one might be sustainable. The Tigers have a young, talented starting rotation that is starting to scratch the surface of their potential. Center field might not be the dumpster fire fans imagined it would be when the team was still scrambling for another outfielder in February. The offense still has yet to start clicking on all cylinders, and J.D. Martinez hasn’t had a single at-bat.
The bullpen... well, let’s not go there.
Late inning shenanigans aside, the Tigers have looked the part of contenders so far in 2017. Will they keep it up all season long? That remains to be seen.
This week’s question: What is your biggest takeaway from the first couple weeks of the Tigers season?
Brandon: I think the biggest takeaway for me, is that a platoon of JaCoby Jones and Andrew Romine looks to be a very solid defensive unit in CF. Jones has looked excellent out there, and Romine appears able to hold his own. Considering that CF looked like a real liability, and we spent the entire offseason worrying over it, the early returns have been really encouraging. Babe Romine will come down to earth, and Jones is likely to struggle offensively, but getting quality defense out there does a lot to help this pitching staff. We won't be good out there in terms of offensive production, but it feels like the position isn't going to be a problem, and that's all I needed to know.
Kyle: The Tigers are showing that once again they will try to use offense to overcome all of their weaknesses. The bullpen has been its usual self so far in 2017, and while the defense looks like it might be better, base running is still a problem. However, almost everyone in the lineup has started off strong with the exception of Victor Martinez. If he were to warm up, and when Miguel Cabrera gets into full swing, this lineup is more than dangerous. Even though the bottom of the order will struggle at times, the offense will be enough to keep the Tigers in most of their games this season. Starting pitching will be important, but the bats are how the Tigers will win games in 2017.
Nolan: The biggest takeaway for me is that we need to worry about Jordan Zimmermann again. Zimmermann has never been a guy to strike out tons of batters, but he has carved out a good career by limiting walks and inducing ground balls. So far this year, he has not shown any command of his pitches. I don't know if it's a problem getting mechanics locked in or if he's dealing with an injury, but it appears that it will take a while to get him going.
Peter: The biggest takeaway for me is how this team fights back after getting behind, at least on the offensive side. Guys at the bottom of the lineup are getting key hits in key situations to overcome deficits, sometimes self inflicted by the bullpen. I don't know how sustainable this will be but it's nice to see out of the gate.
Brandon: Seems like they did that a lot last year too, Peter. At least I remember it that way.
Peter: I remember the opposite, especially at the end of the year.
Patrick OKennedy: Center field will not be the Tigers' biggest problem in 2017. The Tigers won't get the kind of offense that they have gotten from Andrew Romine and Jacoby Jones in the early going, but both are solid defensively, and they can get on base often enough and run well enough to contribute. The biggest issue once again will be the bullpen. The club again relied on Bruce Rondon to fill an important late inning role, and he showed up unprepared. Again. Now, finding his replacement is a huge key to their success. K Rod will again be fine, while providing several heart stopping moments during the season. Justin Wilson is off to another fine start, but he did that last year also. Between Alex Wilson, Kyle Ryan, Blaine Hardy, Joe Jimenez, and the reincarnated Rondon, the Tigers will have to patch together a bullpen. (No, I didn't forget Shane Greene).
Jeff: My biggest takeaway is the bullpen. Yes, it’s terrible (6.64 ERA) and we knew it was going to be terrible. The takeaway is how Al Avila and Brad Ausmus has been handling it, starting with the demotion of Bruce Rondon. On the third day of the season, Ausmus went with Francisco Rodriguez for a four-out save. Even though he blew the save, it was encouraging to see the manager go with the closer before the ninth inning when the set-up men clearly were not getting the job done. Then the very next day, Ausmus went with Justin Wilson to get the save since Rodriguez was not reliable the previous day. I think past Ausmus would have went with Rodriguez again. And on April 12, you have Alex Wilson getting a save by pitching two innings. Again, I don’t see past Ausmus doing that.
Of course the bullpen management has not been flawless. The Joe Jimenez situation was a headscratcher. But I do believe that a big reason the Tigers are in first place is Ausmus’ usage of the bullpen and his improvement from previous years.
Ashley: I'd say my two biggest takeaways are that we aren't as screwed in centerfield as everyone dreaded, with Jones and Romine doing very serviceable work there, and that the bullpen is once again going to be a thorn in the Tigers' paw (oof, I'm sorry). I think there was a lot of buzz about this team not being great this season, but they've honestly gotten off to a great start. The starting pitching rotation is doing well, though Fulmer and Norris might want to calm down a bit, they've been all fire and might want to try some restraint. When J.D. Martinez returns, and when the Tigers finally realize that the Anibal Sanchez experiment has to end, I'll feel a lot better about the future of the season. I'm honestly impressed that the management seems to have a much shorter leash for poor performance this year. Dropping Rondon back to the minors, sending Sanchez to the bullpen right from the start. I don't think it'll be long before Sanchez is cut. If the team can put together a non-implosive pen (I'm thinking Alex Wilson, Blaine Hardy, Joe Jimenez, and a pitching machine) they might honestly have a shot at a winning season.
Cameron: The thing that has been most apparent to me to start the season is that Victor Martinez might be toast. He's always had a great eye at the plate and the bat speed to make adjustments mid-swing. Of course it's early, but he's striking out at a 21% clip, which would be the highest mark of his career. While his keen eye at the plate most likely still remains, he no longer has the bat speed to make adjustments when he is fooled. Additionally, Martinez also has an ISO of .000, which is sort of amazing. For a guy dubbed "Designated Hitter," he has performed as one of the worst hitters in baseball to start the year. Also, he's still serving as the clean up hitter in the lineup. Victor showed signs of slowing last year, and his start this year is confirming what many of us dreaded when he signed his massive four year contract. At 38 years old, Father Time is finally taking its toll on Victor Martinez, and the Tigers would be wise to, at the very least, drop him to a less critical spot in the lineup, and possibly even give him some time off altogether.
Kurt: My big takeaway is that I feel a lot more comfortable with this team. Yes, it still has a few of the issues that we knew about coming in. Depth still threatens to be the deciding factor, and the Tigers can't allow a couple of failing veterans too much rope. But other than that, I'm happy with what I see so far. I like JaCoby Jones in center field. I feel like the defense looks a lot more solid to the eye everywhere, and the defensive stats bear that out. Starting pitching looks good. Lineup looks good, even with the middle of the order struggling for a while. This is a team that I think has the potential to win fans back and excite throughout the year. No, I can't believe I'm this optimistic either, but it's great, right?
Grace: It's far too early to tell anything yet but the Tigers are doing way, way better than I expected. The bottom of the lineup is producing. The starting rotation is pitching well. The hitters are scoring runs even _without_ J.D. Martinez, who won't be back for a few more weeks. I think this team will go farther than I imagined they would.