It didn’t take long for the Tigers to pull ahead of the White Sox for good on Opening Day thanks to JaCoby Jones’ first major league home run. With men on the corners and one out, Jones took a 2-2 pitch out to left, giving the team a 3-1 lead. Now, Jones has power and going up against a lefty in Chicago gave him an ideal shot at his first dinger, but his performance in the second inning was impressive nonetheless.
Quintana started Jones with a first-pitch curveball – that’s the orange dot right down the heart of the plate. A first pitch curveball is unusual, especially in your first at bat on Opening Day of your rookie season. So while he was now behind 0-1, that’s a smart take. The second pitch was an inside fastball which he fouled off. The third pitch is that blue dot in the upper right, a fastball that got away from Quintana.
Pitch four is the key to the plate appearance. That’s the blue dot in the lower left, it’s a curveball that starts out as a strike but falls out of the zone. Jones thinks about it but holds up. It’s just a little too far out of reach. This gets him back to 2-2 count.
Foul balls on pitch five and six, both fastballs. Quintana has clearly shown he wants to work Jones inside and he’s shown him the fastball and the curveball multiple times. He tries again, but this time goes back to the curveball that Jones almost chased back in pitch four, but this time leaves it too close to the zone. Jones jumps. He’s out in front, but he connects and lets his raw power do the work.
This is one plate appearance, but the issue for Jones is going to be his ability to control the zone. We know he can drive the ball when he connects, it’s just a matter making pitchers throw you Pitch #7 by laying off Pitch #4. If he keeps that up, he’ll do just fine in the show.
Every year, Ernie used to read this quotation from the Song of Solomon on Opening Day. Three years ago, I heard a priest recite this in Ernie’s name in reference to the rebirth of baseball, Spring, and Easter.
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
We made it.
Well, we made it. The Tigers will take the field tomorrow in Chicago and the 2017 season will get underway in earnest. The club had a relatively quiet offseason, punctuated by the passing of owner, Mike Ilitch. The baseball waters were calm this winter, but there was, um, a lot of stuff to pay attention to from early October to now and real baseball is a welcome sight.
Yesterday, I published my annual piece assessing the offseason and offering a prediction for the upcoming year. I set my expectations around 83-85 wins, figuring we’d see the team in the wild card chase, but that they would ultimately come up short. But as is tradition, this post will paint a rosier picture. This post will tell you why Yesterday Neil was wrong and why the 2017 Tigers will hoist the trophy this fall.
Winning a title starts with making the playoffs, so task one is convincing yourself that’s going to happen. It’s easy enough to assume the Tigers can stay ahead of the White Sox. Minnesota has some very compelling young position players but their pitching just can’t prevent runs at a level required to win more than 85 games. The Royals are known for beating the odds, but without Wade Davis and with a starting contingent full of mostly #3 to #5 arms, a healthy Tigers roster should survive.
In the division, the crown belongs to Cleveland. Their rotation is great and they added Edwin Encarnacion to their already troublesome lineup. They have Miller and Allen in the pen. On paper, Cleveland is the better team. We saw that last season and nothing has happened between October and now to change that impression. But what’s also true is that the difference between the clubs is not that large, particularly when you consider how poorly the Tigers played against Cleveland in 2016. If the Tigers hadn’t performed so terribly against Cleveland they would have made the wild card game and if they had played well the division could have been theirs. This isn’t to discount Cleveland’s advantage, but rather to point out the clubs were similarly successful against the rest of the league and they likely will be again.
So success looks like this. The Tigers need everyone to stay reasonably healthy. They need Fulmer to repeat and they need Norris and Boyd to hold their own. They need Upton’s valleys to be shorter and they need Iglesias and McCann to not hit quite so poorly. They need a large number of things to break right in order to pass Cleveland, or to play well enough to squeeze into the wild card, but they don’t need things to break unreasonably in their favor. It’s not like they need Castellanos to hit 40 bombs or for Shane Greene to have a 1.50 FIP.
Once they make it to the postseason, it’s anyone’s game and they are pretty well positioned for the postseason because of their rotation. A healthy Red Sox team would be a clear favorite, but if the Tigers arms have a good run you could see them making it through. The Sox and Cleveland are better teams but the Tigers have the top end talent that can win in a short series.
The Cubs, Dodgers, et al will be tough to defeat but the same principle holds. The Tigers weakness is the bottom of their roster rather than the top. If they can get themselves into a sprint, I like their odds just fine.
This definitley isn’t the scenario I’m betting on, but it’s certainly a plausible scenario. If Corey Kluber gets hurt and Francisco Lindor stumbles, the Tigers could catch Cleveland without anything really unexpected happening. When you’re a solid team, it doesn’t take that much to have a great year. And the Tigers are a solid team. So screw it, and get ready to spray champagne.
In a very basic sense, not much happened this winter for the Tigers. The club parted ways with Maybin, Saltalamacchia, Pelfrey, and Lowe, and they welcomed Avila the Younger back, but the roster they will use in 2017 looks a lot like the roster they had in 2016. There will be Mikie Mahtook and more JaCoby Jones, Daniel Norris, and Matt Boyd, but this team is going to look very familiar if you were around last year. They missed the playoffs by 2.5 games and rather than spend a bunch of money or blow it up, Avila the Elder gripped the wheel and kept driving. The 2016 Tigers are back to pursue a title in 2017.
But in another sense, things are very different. Detroit institution and Tigers owner, Mike Ilitch, died in February and while his family remains in charge of the organization, we can’t pretend that his heirs share his win-now attitude. There haven’t been any immediate signs of retreat, but as I noted in this post last year, Ilitch knew he was on the clock and his desire to win before it was too late shaped this era of Tigers baseball. That clock no longer ticks.
I would typically spend a few paragraphs summarizing the offseason moves, but the Tigers did very little of substance. There is no Justin Upton or Jordan Zimmermann contract to consider or Justin Wilson trade to ponder. The decision to stand pat made sense. The club is talented enough to contend in a league of parity, but there were also few free agent options who made much sense for the team. Trades were certainly an option, but the Tigers desired by other clubs are Tigers who are vital for 2017 and beyond. The Tigers could have decided to rebuild, but they will only have Verlander and Cabrera at their peak for a short while longer. They could have made different choices, but the path they took was a logical one. Surely, they could have signed Joe Blanton for nothing or grabbed Dexter Fowler at a reasonable price, but there was no obvious move that they failed to make. The die was cast last offseason.
Looking at this roster and at the other teams in the division and league, I see the 2017 Tigers as a wild card contender. I would set the range at 83-85 wins, likely too few to truly challenge Cleveland for the title, but more than enough to be within range of the wild card for the entire season. If the rotation is reasonably healthy, I think it will be the third best in the AL behind Cleveland and Boston. And if David Price is going to miss significant time, you could argue that the Tigers have the second best rotation in the AL.
The bullpen isn’t a strength, but there is enough talent there for you to envision a world in which the relief corps gives the team an above-average year. I’m not counting on it, but relief pitching is volatile and the Tigers are close enough to the middle to imagine luck carrying them a bit.
The Tigers may not have the league’s best offense, but Cabrera-Martinez-Martinez-Upton-Kinsler is a strong top five, a good year from Castellanos gives them a strong top six. JD is going to start the year on the DL and you can’t be sure what’s lurking for VMart’s legs, but the offense will score runs. Defense isn’t the team’s strong point, but they have won more games with a worse defense in recent seasons.
There is a path to 90 wins for this team, one that I will discuss tomorrow, but realistically the Tigers are a slightly above average team. They were a slightly above average team last season as well and finished the year right in this same window. Above .500, but just short of the wild card. That’s what I would expect again.
There is a common belief among the wider baseball world that the Tigers are buried in bad contracts waiting to detonate. While the Tigers are certainly going to have a couple underwater deals in the coming seasons, they actually aren’t locked in to that much beyond 2018. Only Verlander, Cabrera, Upton, and Zimmermann are on the books for 2019+, and Upton could opt-out after this year. Verlander is only signed through 2019, with a vesting option that requires him to be good in that year to get paid in 2020. In other words, while the Tigers will be paying Cabrera until the heat death of the universe, if they decided to pack it in after this year, they could easily manage a 2-3 year rebuild and be back in action for 2020 or 2021 without much money tied up.
We’ve been afraid of the dark for a long time in Detroit, wondering when the bill for Ilitch’s spending was going to come due. At some point, things were going to catch up with the Tigers and the music was going to stop and they would be left holding big contracts for players who were no longer contributing like stars. But that darkness hasn’t come and it might never come. Cabrera remains great. Verlander sidestepped what appeared to be early decline. Martinez hit last year. Kinsler had one of his best seasons. If they do it again in 2017 and again in 2018, they will essentially have escaped the end of days.
I don’t know what that proves, exactly. But I think it’s a good reminder that in baseball you can’t look too far down the road. We can spend lots of time talking about what is supposed to happen, but baseball is a hopelessly random game. Normally I would say that all you can count on is getting to spend the summer watching 162 games, but even that wasn’t true last year.
I’m past the point in my life where I need the Tigers to win in order to enjoy myself. I want to watch interesting baseball to relax and take my mind off things. The Tigers are certainly capable of providing us with that this year, and if we’re lucky, they will treat us to a little more. I don’t think this is the year, but I also care about sports with less urgency than I once did. The Tigers will win a championship eventually, and as long as they’re showing up between now and then, I’m content.