In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, this year New English D will be running a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We’ll be calling the series “2016 Bellwethers,” and will break down the players currently on the roster whose 2016 direction will indicate where the Tigers are heading this year. Keep in mind this is not a series about the most important Tigers, but rather the Tigers with the widest range of possible outcomes. You won’t see Miguel Cabrera featured, for example, because of his steady dominance of the league. Enjoy. #9: Daniel Norris | #8: Justin Wilson | #7: Mark Lowe |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5: Francisco Rodriguez | #4: James McCann |#3: Nick Castellanos |#2: Anibal Sanchez
To the surprise of no one, Justin Verlander is the bellwether of the Tigers 2016 season. I never really intended for there to be suspense relating to the ordering of this list, but there was never any question about who belongs at the top. Four years ago, Justin Verlander was the best pitcher in the league. His 2013 season was pretty solid overall, but a number of bad starts that summer displayed cracks in the foundation and softened his numbers. The 2014 campaign was better than the ERA made it look, but it was a far cry from the Verlander of old. He started 2015 on the DL and his first few starts brought us into conflict with our respective deities.
And then he came back. In his final 99.1 innings, he posted a 56 ERA- and 64 FIP-. The strikeouts were back, the velocity was good, and he was finally putting in the work to study the opposing batters. It was either one of the most welcoming signs we’ve seen in some time or it will prove to be the biggest tease of the era. That’s the question we have entering 2016.
In the second half of 2015, only two pitchers posed a higher fWAR than Verlander: Clayton Kershaw and Jake Arrieta. Using RA9 as a base instead of FIP dropped him all the way to 9th. And that’s with a pretty Verlander-normal .270 BABIP. His second half line from 2015 was something you wouldn’t have doubted for a second if it had come at the end of 2012 or beginning of 2013. It’s reflective of exactly who he once was.
But he also had strong runs to close 2013 and 2014. Was the end of 2015 just another one of those runs before he loses it again? Or was he finally healthy? Or did his efforts to actually prepare for his opponents pay off?
I think it’s safe to say he still possesses the potential for greatness. His physical skills haven’t diminished to the point at which that is excluded, but even if his 2013 and 2014 struggles were about his health, it’s not like injuries are the chicken pox and you only get them once. Father time will come calling for us all, and it’s not that common for a pitcher to have a great year at 33+.
As recently as the second half of last year, Verlander looked like the kind of guy who go spin off a 6-7 WAR season, but prior to that he was looking like someone who might never crack 3 WAR again. We’re walking a tightrope here when trying to predict what comes next. At 33, you’d expect decline. At 33, you’d expect more injuries. After a few bumpy years and injures, you’d expect more.
But there was a time when Verlander was invincible and he looked like that guy the last time we saw him. I think my position is unchanged from what I said last year, and for much of the two years prior. Verlander is still going to have a lot of great nights, there are just going to be more and more rough ones as time goes on.
Yet if he’s healthy and stays that way, and if his health was what killed him during the dark years, maybe he has another year left in the College of Aces. If Verlander is Verlander and finds something close to the form he found in late 2015, the Tigers can win the AL Central. If Verlander is a 5, 6, or 7 win pitcher in 2016, the Tigers will almost certainly make the playoffs.
Imagine for a moment that every other player performs exactly as expected by the major forecasting systems, but Verlander has a great season. If that happens, the Tigers would get their win total revised upward and they’d be pegged as a likely wild card favorite with a clear shot at taking the division. The difference between mediocre Verlander and great Verlander is almost enough to mitigate the concerns we have about every other player on the roster. If they get good Verlander, the club needs just small gains from guys like Sanchez, Castellanos, and McCann to make them real contenders.
The Tigers built themselves a competitive club this winter, but the most decisive piece of the entire puzzle is the one they’ve had the longest. As goes Verlander, so goes the 2016 Tigers.