It’s shaping up to be a do-or-die season in Detroit, where the Tigers’ window of opportunity is currently being propped open by a Little Caesars’ Deep!Deep! Dish Pizza and the mantra might as well be “Let’s win one for the old man.”
But more on Joe Nathan in a moment.
Tigers owner Mike Ilitch turns 86 right around the All-Star Break, and if you think he’d appreciate anything more than a commanding American League Central lead as a birthday gift, think again. He’d gladly take even a one-game advantage over the Indians, Royals or White Sox, because it’s likely his squad – a very Tigers-like Tigers team – will be involved in a close race with one or more of those clubs. Detroit will score their typical 750 runs, benefit from some fine (and occasionally spectacular) starting pitching, but frustrate more than their fair share of followers with the relief work.
If two years can be considered a trend, GM Dave Dombrowski has parted with underappreciated starters, dealing Doug Fister and Rick Porcello in back-to-back Decembers. At least in the more recent Porcello-to-Boston trade, he came away with Yoenis Cespedes.
Missing, of course, is former Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer, who signed a big money deal with Washington and looks to lead the Nationals to a runaway National League East title. Everyone involved – Dombrowski, Tigers skipper Brad Ausmus, agent Scott Boras – knows he’ll be tough to replace. David Price knows it too, and he’ll look to step into Scherzer’s cleats like the ace he’s always been. There’s nothing like a long shadow, a walk year and a shot at a ring for motivation, especially when simultaneously presented.
Looking to alleviate some of the burden is Justin Verlander, who should be fine in 2015. Not in-his-prime fine, but Comeback-Player-of-the-Year fine. That January 2014 core surgery was no small matter for the power pitcher, nor should it have been considered as such. I remember seeing this comment at the time – “If there is a silver lining, it is the timing of the operation. Verlander is still on pace to be ready for Opening Day” – and thinking, “Oh ye of too much faith.” There is no good time for a pitcher to succumb to abdominal surgery, but given a choice, November 9 is a hell of a lot better than January 9.
Anibal Sanchez pitched all of an inning after an August 8 pectoral injury interrupted his solid 2014 season, and a return to form in 2015 would greatly help the Tigers’ rotation. The other two starters, Shane Greene and Alfredo Simon, compare to the likes of Jason Grimsley and Aaron Sele according to ZiPS, if you believe in such things. Of course, their comp for Scherzer is Kevin Appier, so buyer beware.
“Buyer beware” doesn’t begin to cut it for poor Joe Nathan. Once a solid regular season closer with a less-than-solid postseason resume, the embattled, embittered 40-year-old now appears a few bad outings (or inappropriate gestures) away from losing his lock-down duties altogether. I don’t know if Angel Nesbitt can live up to his spring billing or not, but even as a middle man pitching like the rookie that he’ll be, I can see him recording more saves than Nathan in 2015.
The Detroit bullpen will be the Detroit bullpen, and as usual a work in progress. Maybe a little better than that. But come-from-behind victories are fun, right? The Tigers recorded 41 comeback wins in 2014, good for a second-place tie with the Orioles, Pirates and Yankees, and behind only the Angels’ 45. They won by five or more runs 27 times, scored 10 or more runs 14 times (the Padres did it five times) and totaled 757 runs on the season, second to the Halos’ 773.
And the offense should approach that pace once again. Ausmus will look to get more out of the shortstop position this year, with Jose Iglesias returning after missing the 2014 season, expects added oomph via new left fielder Cespedes, and with the platoon of Alex Avila and James McCann, might squeeze a little more out of the catcher spot. And he has to feel at least somewhat confident in a breakout season from Nick Castellanos at third base.
The offensive core returns designated hitter Victor Martinez, right fielder J.D. Martinez, Ian Kinsler at second and Miguel Cabrera at first. These guys will all hit. Plenty.
But look, it’s great that Miggy DHed 25 times last year, more than in his last five seasons combined, but playing in an average of 157.5 games over 11 full seasons may have begun to take a toll on the (soon to be) 32-year-old star. The business of trotting him out there when the best he can do is trot out there has got to stop. Nine innings at first base does not constitute rest. DHing 40 or 50 doesn’t either, but it’s better. DHing 50 games while manning first 90 is better still.
With apologies to Greg Monroe, Matthew Stafford and Pavel Datsyuk, Cabrera is Detroit’s most precious resource. By a lot. And if it’s not obvious, the thing to do with a precious resource is preserve it. At least if you want to be the last team standing in October, anyway. Pace Mr. Cabrera – that’s his name, by the way, Mr. Cabrera – and who knows how far the Tigers can ride him this season? Given the concerns with the staff and the bullpen, they’re going to need his bat more than ever.
Predicted Record: 89-73