Every year, I write two posts during the final week of the season. The first is my Thoughts on The Winter in Detroit article in which I give my thoughts on the offseason and assessment of how well the Tigers will do in the upcoming campaign. Think of that post as the realist’s version of the state of the team.
The other post is this one, what I call the Screw It article. This is where we put on our unbridled optimism hat and imagine a world in which everything goes right. In other words, if the Tigers win the World Series, it will look like this.
Let’s consider the evidence. There is no powerhouse in the American League Central. All of the league’s truly great teams play in the Senior Circuit. The Cubs, Dodgers, Pirates, and Giants (and also the Mets, Nationals, and Cardinals) will have to battle to represent the National League, but I’m not sure there is a single American League team that I’d feel comfortable forecasting for 90 wins. Of course, a couple will win 90 games, but I have no idea who they will be.
The Twins have the potential to score runs, but a lot of that is riding on young players who haven’t fully established themselves. And even if they score runs, their starting rotation and bullpen are unimpressive and will surely give many of the runs back. The Twins aren’t going to go down easily, but on paper they are clearly worse than the Tigers.
The White Sox did a nice job making themselves not terrible this winter, adding guys like Avila, Lawrie, Frazier, Jackson, and Rollins, but there isn’t much ceiling or depth on this team. They won’t have -1 to 0 WAR guys at several spots this year, but there are only a couple players on the roster capable of producing solidly above average numbers. It’s not that the Sox aren’t a threat or are incapable of winning the division, it’s just that they have little room for error. I’d say they’re heading for 82-84 wins, but they would need a lot of guys to have career years to take the crown.
Cleveland has the division’s best rotation and some good players (Lindor, Brantley, Gomes, Santana, Kipnis) but their bullpen is shallow behind Cody Allen and they have at least two vacant spots in the lineup at CF and RF. I would wager they are the best team in the division, but it would be hard to survive an injury to one of their top three starters or their terrific shorstop. Cleveland is a very real contender, but the Cubs they are not.
The Royals are the defending division and World Series champs, but their starting pitching is weak. Maybe Kennedy and Volquez have good seasons and the Royals win the division, but it’s hard to see them pitching well enough to be a great team. Again, their position players and bullpen could easily carry them to a division title, but I don’t think they’re in a position to run away and hide.
Which brings us to the Tigers. The division is winnable because while the Tigers are not a perfect team, they aren’t chasing any perfect teams in the Central and they have plenty going for them. They have the best lineup core in the division with Upton-Cabrera-Martinez #1-Martinez #2, and that doesn’t include Kinsler or any gravy they can get from Castellanos, Iglesias, McCann, or Gose/Maybin, all of whom have some decent claim on potential for 2016. There are no guarantees in baseball, but the Tigers look like they should have the best offense in the division.
If you believe the projection systems, the Tigers problem is their pitching. In particular, the rough stretches from Verlander and Sanchez seem to suggest the Tigers won’t have any top level starters in 2016, nor enough depth to negate that disadvantage. But as we’ve discussed a few times, there are totally plausible scenarios in which the Tigers pitching comes together, and this post is designed to explore exactly that.
Verlander was great down the stretch last year and if you are someone who believes he’s finally healthy and has cured what ailed him, a 5-win season from Verlander is absolutely a reasonable prediction. The same is true for Sanchez, who has dealt with injuries off and on for many years, but he showed plenty of good stuff in 2015 and if he’s healthy and refreshed, there’s no reason he can’t have a quality, above average season. The numbers say Zimmermann is going to wind up giving up more homers than you’d like this year after moving to the AL and Comerica Park, but he had an ace level season just two years ago in 2014. A few more strikeouts and a couple fewer dingers than expected and Zimmermann could be a solid #2.
Mike Pelfrey isn’t exciting, but his upside is a 2 WAR pitcher and he’s done that a few times. He could easily find his way there again. Shane Greene showed lots of promise in 2014 and in early 2015, but an injury turned him into a zero for most of the year. For a guy with so little MLB time, the horrible starts last year drag down the expectations, but if his nerve issues have resolved themselves and he can feel his fingers, he could definitely give the Tigers a boost. And that’s before you factor in any love for Norris, Boyd, or Fulmer, all of whom have breakout potential.
The rotation, if you’re a betting person, might not look like an upper echelon group, but you don’t have to squint that hard to see a scenario in which they are.
The bullpen, the classic Tigers weakness, looks better for 2016. Losing Hardy and Alex Wilson for the start of the year isn’t ideal, but they have K-Rod, Lowe, and Justin Wilson to anchor the back end, along with Farmer, VerHagen, Ryan, Kensing, and some other interesting pieces to handle middle relief. This won’t be a dominant pen, but if Rodriguez, Lower, and Wilson all perform reasonably close to how they pitched last year, the number of bullpen meltdowns will be a lot easier to swallow than last year.
Imagine this team: Top tier offense, solid rotation, average bullpen. It’s enough to put the team right near the top of the AL Central, and if they get the kinds of performances I described from those key players, they will likely win the division. And nothing I said here is a stretch. I don’t like to do pie in the sky “hey what if Castellanos had a 7 WAR season” stuff. If they get solid contributions from the bottom of the lineup and the pitchers land a little on the positive side of their projections, this will be the best team in the Central.
And once they win the division, all bets are off. With the lineup they have, they could easily roll over any team in the AL in a short series, deploying their back end starters in middle relief to stabilize any issues that crop up. Beating the Cubs, Dodgers, etc in the World Series would be tough, but all it takes is one or two great starts – something the Tigers pitchers have shown an ability to do – to finally win the last game of the season.
As I noted earlier in the week, this isn’t necessarily the way I expect the season to play out, but you don’t have to dial up the good fortune too much to wind up here. If the bats do what they should do, and the pitching does a little more than they should do, they’re the best team in the division. And in the AL playoffs, it’s anyone’s guess, so the last step will be toppling the NL champ, a thing any team can do over a few games.
The Tigers aren’t the favorites by any means to win the World Series, and you can write this story for almost any team in some fashion, but this is an 86-88 win team that has room to grow into a 92-94 win team that could win it all.
And baseball is chaos, so screw it; the Tigers are going to win the 2016 World Series.