Thoughts On The Winter In Detroit, 2017

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.

2017 Tigers Over Unders

It’s almost Opening Day, so time to roll out the annual New English D over/unders. You all know how this works. I’ll be setting the value at what expect to be the mean value. So I’m setting the over/under at 83.5 wins, meaning I think it’s equally likely that they win more games as it is that they win fewer games. Feel free to suggest others in the comments section and weigh in on where you stand on some of the more interesting ones.

  1. Wins: 83.5
  2. Ian Kinsler home runs: 20.5
  3. James McCann framing runs (BP): -5.5
  4. Walk off wins: 8.5
  5. Nick Castellanos ISO: .200
  6. Day at which Tigers fans first panic: April 30
  7. Alex Avila walks: 40.5
  8. Miguel Cabrera wRC+: 150.5
  9. Eye-popping Jose Iglesias plays: 11.5
  10. Upton hot-to-cold streak ratio: 3 to 2
  11. JD Martinez games played: 120.5
  12. Number of players who get 1+ inning in CF: 6.5
  13. Faux pas committed by Tyler Collins: 3.5
  14. VMart strikeout rate: 12.0%
  15. Justin Verlander strikeouts: 240.5
  16. Justin Verlander hits: 0.5
  17. Combined starts by Fulmer, Norris, and Boyd: 72.5
  18. Appearances by a Wilson: 120.5
  19. Wins against Cleveland: 6.5
  20. Number of times I tweetstorm about Ausmus: 10.5
  21. Time of longest game (excluding delays): 4:45
  22. Articles I will write about Anibal Sanchez: 3.5
  23. Joe Jimenez appearances: 19.5
  24. Talk radio segments demanding a Joe Jimenez callup: 7,412.5
  25. Games that will not be fun: 6.5
  26. Number of times Mario will be blamed for jinxing a no-hitter: 3.5
  27. Positions played by Andrew Romine: 6.5
  28. Home runs to dead center at Comerica: 8.5
  29. Sacrifice bunts that will make sense (non-pitcher): 2.5
  30. Bernstein commercials on FSD: one gazillion point five

2017 Bellwethers, #1: Michael Fulmer

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris | #3: Nick Castellanos | #2: Justin Upton

There is no perfect formula for a list like this. It’s designed to attack the season preview genre from a different angle. Rather than breaking down every player or doing some sort of faux projection, I like the idea of ranking barometers. Obviously, if Miguel Cabrera breaks his leg, the team is in big trouble. Obviously, if Verlander is a terrible, the Tigers are done. But that’s not interesting. There’s no value in that kind of a post because it’s plainly obvious. If the good players aren’t good, that’s bad! And if Andrew Romine has a 175 wRC+, that’s good. I think the interesting thing to consider are the players who could go either way.

That’s why the list has focused on guys like McCann, Norris, Castellanos, and Upton. Anything can happen, but it usually doesn’t. Most of the time the best players will be good and the worst players will be bad, but it’s the guys in the middle who matter a lot. It’s the guys in the middle that make or break the team. And there is no more make or break player on the Tigers, perhaps in the entire American League Central than Michael Fulmer.

Fulmer had a terrific 2016 season. He threw 159 innings and posted an 72 ERA- and 88 FIP-. He was somewhere between very good and great. The Tigers weren’t counting on a Fulmer to be a lynchpin last year but he quickly became the team’s #2 starter. Without him, they would not have been in the race until the final weekend.

But there are questions. The obvious one is how Fulmer responds to the increase in workload and the increase in the intensity of his outings. Not only did he throw more innings than ever, he threw high stakes big league innings for the first time. How his body responds to that will be key. The less obvious question is how the league responds now that they’ve seen him 26 times. In his first 120 innings, he had a 53 ERA- and 81 FIP-. In his last 39 IP, it was 130 ERA- and 109 FIP-. I don’t want to oversell those samples, but Fulmer either got easier to figure out down the stretch or he got tired, or both.

There’s nothing wrong with that. He was 23 and ahead of schedule. Everything Fulmer gave the Tigers last year was gravy, but now they’re counting on him to do it again. If Fulmer doesn’t give the Tigers a 3+ win season, it is very hard to imagine them playing baseball past October 1.

There’s no reason to think Fulmer will struggle, per se. He’s talented and he pitched well last year. This isn’t like McCann who needs to improve at the plate or Zimmermann who may be on the decline. But the Tigers are counting on a young, inexperienced pitcher to do a lot of heavy lifting in 2017 and that’s never a good bet. Pitchers break and pitchers have growing pains. There aren’t warning signs specific to Fulmer, but betting your season on a 24-year-old flamethrower is not the highest percentage play.

Many players on his list could step up and get the Tigers over the hump and into the postseason. Fulmer is the player who was critical in 2016 who I think has the highest potential of taking a step back, for one reason or another. It is as simple as this: The Tigers need Michael Fulmer to be very good and there are lots of things that can go wrong.

2017 Bellwethers, #2: Justin Upton

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris | #3: Nick Castellanos

It might surprise you if you sort of tuned out down the stretch, but Justin Upton almost got himself back to his career norm for offensive production. He wound up with a 105 wRC+, which is only about 14 points behind his 119 career average. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not hyping a down year, but it could have been a lot worse if he hadn’t caught fire late.

Let’s go to the tape!

There were basically three Uptons. He was terrible, meh, and awesome. Through June 11th, he had a 61 wRC+ (235 PA). From June 12 to August 18, it was 82 wRC+ (235 PA). From August 19 to October 2, he had a 205 wRC+ (156 PA). Streakiness has been part of Upton’s game for a long time. It wasn’t weird that he was hot and cold, but when you’re cold right out of the gate with a new team that just gave you a lot of money, it’s easier to notice. When you suck in April, it takes the entire season to repair your stat line. If you suck in June, it’s kind of hidden.

There isn’t anything interesting to say that hasn’t been said. At the end of the day, he struckout a little too much and didn’t make up for it with any sort of power spike. That changed as the season went on, but he looked lost for the first couple months. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Upton. This is who he is. He was adjusting to a new city and new league and it took some time. That doesn’t mean he won’t have bad streaks in 2017, just that his late-2016 hot streak will probably put his mind at ease a bit.

If Upton can avoid a sustained period of trouble in 2017, he’ll give the Tigers a boost. They need him. JD Martinez is hurt, Cabrera and Victor are getting older, and Castellanos is a bit of a wild card. Upton has to be that 130 wRC+ guy in the middle of the order who you can count on every day. If Upton doesn’t have a good year, it’s hard to picture the Tigers in the playoffs, but if he has a great year, it’s difficult to imagine they’ll be out of the race at all.

2017 Bellwethers, #3: Nick Castellanos

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann | #4: Daniel Norris

Nick Castellanos has been coming together in pieces. He made his debut in 2014, improved his defense in 2015, and added power in 2016. He’s by no means a good defender and his approach is still very tenuous, but he showed last year that you can provide some value if you post a .212 ISO.

It’s not quite that simple, however. You could look at Castellanos’ 110 games and 1.9 WAR and indicate that if he hadn’t taken that pitch off the hand, we’d be talking about a 2-3 win player. But that isn’t exactly right because the best part of Castellanos’ season was the beginning. Or to put it more clearly, he was terrible in June. From 5/28 to 6/26, Castellanos had 123 PA and posted a 66 wRC+. Prior to that it was 158 (179 PA). After June 26, it was 115 (145 PA). There’s no magic to it, everyone has good stretches and bad, but if you wanted to make the case that Castellanos’ performance tapered off as the year went on, you could do it.

Castellanos is young, newly 25. People have been marveling at his hit tool for years and the power arrived last season. No one is expecting him to be Brooks Robinson, but his improvement from horrible to merely below average is legitimate. The question is if Castellanos is going to be a 110-120 wRC+ guy or something more. Don’t get me wrong, a 115 wRC+ and non-atrocious 3B defense will get you major league work, but if Castellanos is going to live up to the promise of “All-Star Third Baseman” that we heard from certain scouts, he needs to take a step forward.

The biggest room to grow is his approach. He’s been much better when he’s been able to lay off breaking balls low and away. If you come inside with fastballs he will make you pay, but he’s still too aggressive elsewhere in the zone. You can survive as a major league hitter with a 6 BB% and 25 K%, but you have to have good power or a good glove. To excel with a 6 BB% and 25 K%, you have to crush the ball. I think the easier path is become an 8 BB% and 21 K% guy, but we’ll see if that’s in the cards.

Castellanos is third on this list because he has the most two-sided range. He could easier regress to his 2015 value or take a step forward into something resembling a fringe all-star. I think both are realistic options. Was the power fluky or can he improve his approach? He’s young and a hard-worker, so the upside is definitely there.

The Tigers are going to be without JD Martinez for a spell, and there’s some uncertainly surrounding Victor and Upton at the plate. Castellanos can step up and give the Tigers a boost, or he can fall back and leave them wondering what their long term plan should be at the hot corner.

2017 Bellwethers, #4: Daniel Norris

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias | #5 Jordan Zimmermann

Up to this point, Bellwethers #9 to #5 have been players who didn’t perform as well as they could have in 2016. The question for them has been if they can fix a flaw, get healthy, or find some consistency. The question for #4 is very different. Daniel Norris is not technically a prospect anymore, but for all intents and purposes he is. He will turn 24 in April and has just 136 MLB innings to his name.

If you just look at the stat sheet, you would probably assume Norris got a late season look in 2015 and spent some time in the minors last year getting ready for his official call-up. The story is a little more complicated given his health issues and injury problems last year. If he had been healthy from the get go, he probably would have made 25 or more starts, but the same general line of reasoning will hold up. Norris is young and hasn’t been turned loose during a full season. He should get that chance in 2017.

And there’s a lot to like about Norris. While his command was iffy coming up through the minors, he’s made strides in that department and if you can strikeout 9+ batters per nine innings, a slightly elevated walk rate won’t be an issue. He’s given up a few too many dingers in his major league work, but it’s a small sample as well. He’s mostly a blank canvass. Norris is on this list because he’s one guy who I think could dramatically exceed his 2016 contributions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not betting the farm on it, but Norris gave the Tigers around a win of value last year. If things go reasonably well, he might give them three wins, and that would be a nice shot in the arm. But Norris is also the only player on the roster who might give the team four or five more wins than he did last year. He’s the high upside.

Norris has the makings of a front-line starter. He has the size and velocity from the left side and his secondary stuff flashes above average. There’s a big leap from what he actually did last year and 5+ win pitcher, but you can see the building blocks if he puts it together.

In particular, I wrote last September about Norris moving from a traditional slider toward a cutter, something Justin Verlander has done as well. There’s way too little data to know if the cutter is an improvement overall, but it’s different and different is always interesting.

Norris has the potential to change the conversation in a way that virtually no other Tiger can. I’m very high on Matt Boyd and there is presumably still an ace hidden in Anibal Sanchez, but Norris is the one who I believe could be the most decisive. If he’s healthy, he’ll still probably be on an innings limit because his high water mark is about 150. The Tigers won’t push him too far beyond 180 in 2017, but there’s a chance for a lot of value in those innings.

I’m not saying I think Norris will be a 5-6 win pitcher, just that it’s a plausible outcome. It’s more likely he’s a 2-3 win pitcher and the Tigers would be perfectly happy to get that upside. But if Norris can offer the 2016 strikeout rate with a lower home run rate, he might wind up giving them a whole lot more.

2017 Bellwethers, #5: Jordan Zimmermann

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field |#6: Jose Iglesias

The Tigers missed the playoffs by two and a half games last season, so the lesson is basically that everything mattered. When the margin is that small, you can put the blame on almost any single event. We can point to individual blown games really easily when all you have to do is find three of them. But if you had to sit down and think about what really made the difference, I believe the truest answer is Jordan Zimmermann’s health.

The reason I’ve settled on Zimmermann as the center of the web is because Zimmermann was probably the most important player on the roster who failed to live up to his 2016 expectations. If you look around the diamond, it’s Zimmermann or it’s Justin Upton. Both came into the season projected for something like 3-4 win seasons. That’s what I figured for both of them. Above-average, not quite star players. Both came up short, but Zimmermann gets the nod here because by missing 15 starts he opened the door for a cascading effect the gave us too many starts for the bad pitchers and too many innings for the relievers. It’s not a question of blame, just that if I got the chance to fix only one thing about the 2016 team, I think the highest percentage move would be a healthy Zimmermann.

That brings us to 2017. Zimmermann had shown some signs of trouble in 2015 when he allowed quite a few home runs, and that continued in 2016 in addition to more walks and fewer strikeouts. That’s obvious a bad combination, but during his first few starts the low strikeouts weren’t much of an issue. But things caught up with him as the season wore on and he missed significant time with groin, neck, and lat issues. Without being inside the training room, we can’t say for sure what impact those injuries had on his entire catalog of work, but I’m willing to bet he was working through injuries during many of his starts.

Zimmermann had been a consistent 3-4 win pitcher going into 2016 and it’s easy to forgive his lack of value, but as you look forward it’s also not easy to separate normal aging decline and one-time injuries. Was the velocity loss because he was hurt, or were the injuries and velocity loss symptoms of the same disease: decline. Either way, this doesn’t look great:

Zimmermann still knows how to pitch, and the only pitch that might have been a little less imposing last year from a movement perspective was the slider, but the question is the condition of his body more than anything else. This isn’t a question about hitters figuring him out, it’s a question about him not being the pitcher he was for the several years prior.

If Zimmermann is healthy and feels like his old self, the Tigers can likely count on an additionally 2-3 wins from him. But we don’t know if that’s going to be the case. Were the injuries he suffered last year normal injuries that could have happened to him at any time or are they suggesting a future in which this is the norm. For better or worse, the answer is coming shortly.

2017 Bellwethers, #6: Jose Iglesias

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez | #7: Whoever Plays Center Field

There’s nothing wrong with having a league average shortstop. Over the last few years, that’s essentially what Jose Iglesias has been. He’s done it in slightly different ways, but he’s been right around that magic two win mark in all three of his full MLB seasons.

But those different ways are important because they demonstrate a path to something more than just an average player. In 2013, he had a 102 wRC+ and in 2015 it was 97. Last year it was 73. Iglesias was able to make up that lost offensive value in 2016 by getting the defensive metrics to like him quite a bit more. I don’t want to litigate exactly how accurate those ratings are at the moment, but the improved defense last year was something I talked about quite a bit as it was happening. Iglesias has always been gifted in the field, but in his previous seasons he had made some mistakes that stunted his value. Last year he was better in those respects and the metrics rewarded him. How much exactly should the needle move is anyone’s guess, but generally the data tracks with the eye test.

If Iglesias had hit like he had in 2015 with 2016’s defense, you’re talking about a 3-4 win player instead of a 2 win player. That’s a big deal, especially for a team on the edge like the Tigers. Step 1 is that Iglesias needs to keep the defensive improvements going, which I suspect he will. He has the arm, hands, and quickness, he was just screwing up the footwork and occasionally losing focus.

Step 2 is getting himself back into that 95 wRC+ range. His strikeout and walk rates have been quite consistent. You can count on him for a 5-6% walk rate and a 10% strikeout rate. He’s aggressive and makes lots of contact, and there’s no reason to think either of those skills are in jeopardy. His power also wasn’t really an issues last year. Don’t get me wrong, he doesn’t have a lot of it, but his extra base hit rate was perfectly in line with what we might expect from him.

His problem, of course, was a big drop in BABIP. It was .356 in 2013, .330 in 2015, and .276 in 2016. A .330 BABIP last year adds about 23 hits. Even a .300 BABIP would have added 10. Let’s just split the difference and say 16. That would bring his wOBA up to about .310 from .283. That’s basically a win of value. In other words, if he had a .315 BABIP he would have been a much more valuable player, and .315 would have been a career worst.

I’m not explaining away the BABIP as complete luck, just pointing out that the difference between last year’s Iglesias and a much more compelling Iglesias is a dozen or so outs falling for singles. And while his contact rate was normal last year, Iglesias put the ball in the air a bit more than you’d like to see:

While fly balls are the new trend in baseball, guys who don’t hit the ball that hard like Iglesias need to avoid them as much as possible. Iglesias is going to make his money with ground balls and line drives and he needs to get back to that approach. If he’s able to do that, it seems totally plausible that he could give the Tigers a 1+ win boost at shortstop, helping them make up those few games they needed a year ago.

Certainly his health could falter or his swing could continue to produce too many balls in the air, but if Iglesias can get his bat back to 2015 with his glove staying in 2016, he’ll help the club stay relevant down the stretch.

 

2017 Bellwethers, #7: Whoever Plays Center Field

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila | #8: Victor Martinez

Presumably, when the Tigers take the field on April 3, someone will listed as the starter in center field. The White Sox will probably be throwing Jose Quintana, so it makes sense to go with a righty, although basically everything is up in the air as it relates to the position. We’ll probably see some Tyler Collins, some JaCoby Jones, and some Mikie Mahtook. Maybe some Andrew Romine? Steven Moya? The Tigers have a lot people who might play center field but no obvious plan for how those plate appearances will be allocated. It’s an open question as I write this two and a half weeks from Opening Day.

So naturally, what happens in center field will have a big impact on the Tigers season. Anywhere there is uncertainty, there is a big potential swing. If one of these players, or a combination of these players, take the reins and give the Tigers reasonable defense and a useful bat, that would go a long way toward getting them into one of the wild card slots.

You can sort of see a world in which any of the three likely options has a good year. Tyler Collins feels like Andy Dirks. He could provide a little power and hold his own in the field. You’re not expecting anything great, but it wouldn’t shock you if he put up a 100 wRC+ or so. JaCoby Jones has raw talent, and if he delivers the power he showed in Double-A and mixes in some athleticism in the outfield, he might surprise you. Mikie Mahtook had plenty of success in the minors and had a great showing in limited MLB action in 2015 before struggling quite a bit in 2016. Can he really hit MLB pitching? I don’t know, but he has the speed necessary to fake his way through hitting 9th in a good lineup if he can make some contact.

I don’t have a lot of wise thoughts to offer here. If one of these players breaks through and has even a remotely strong year – something like 2 WAR – the Tigers would be in tremendous shape. The bar is pretty low, but as I’ve been saying all along the Tigers need a lot of little things to go right in order for the one big thing to swing their way. None of these players have significant track records and all of them definitely have the potential to be a league average player. It comes down to this: I find it very hard to believe the Tigers are out of it in September if they get a good collective season from the people playing center field. It might not be enough to push them over the top, but if they get something from this potential black hole, things are going right in Motown.

2017 Bellwethers, #8: Victor Martinez

In an effort to find to bring a new angle to the routine nature of season previews, last year New English D ran a season preview series based on the team’s nine most pivotal players. We be called the series “2016 Bellwethers,” broke down the players whose 2016 direction would indicate where the Tigers were heading. Due to a solid response, the series is back for 2017. 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: James McCann and Alex Avila

I didn’t write that many words about the Tigers this offseason in part because I was often distracted by other things, but also in part because the Tigers didn’t really change very much. Most of the roster going into 2017 is the same as it was going into 2016. You don’t need offseason deep dives into players we all watched and analyzed during the season. No one needed another “something isn’t working right for Anibal Sanchez” article in November. I wrote them throughout the year and they didn’t help.

One exception to this trend was Victor Martinez, a player I explored at some length in December. In that piece I made two main points which I will reiterate here. If you want to see the graphics and such that support these points, follow the preceding link.

The first point is that your view of 2017 Victor Martinez is largely based on what you make of his 2015 season. Two years ago, he had a 78 wRC+ and was one of the least valuable players in baseball. In my piece, I argued that Martinez was probably so bad in 2015 because he had not fully healed from his knee surgery and was essentially one-legged player for most of that year. I think that point is largely defensible. If that’s the case, I wondered if it would make more sense to view Martinez as having simply missed 2015 entirely. My argument is that 2015 Martinez is not a reflection of Martinez’s abilities except for the fact that it tells you something about his injury risk. Yes, it’s quite possible Martinez has a serious leg injury. But if he doesn’t, his 2013, 2014, and 2016 numbers seem more instructive for 2017.

For that reason, I think we can be optimistic about Martinez and could count on his bat for a 120 wRC+ or so. However, I also noted in the piece that Martinez got into a bad habit in 2015 of swinging more often at pitches in the zone while also making less contact. That added to his strikeout rate and while his ability to strike the ball with authority came back in 2016, this bad habit remained, blunting some of his impact.

So going into 2017, we have to ask if Martinez will be healthy and if he will jettison his new found aggression in the zone. If he’s healthy and patient, he will hit. A productive Martinez would be a big boon for the Tigers, but without him in that capacity the club will suffer. There are plenty of good bats in the middle of the order, but the Tigers need to be better in 2017 than they were in 2016 and any steps back will cause problems.

It’s obvious that the club’s most fragile player is a bellwether, but he’s also a bellwether because his previous injury may have messed with his approach a bit and as he ages normally he will need every ounce of that patience in order to remain valuable.

I’m going to wind up saying it with every one of these posts, but the Tigers can be a relevant team if things go wrong but I don’t think they can be a real contend if anything substantial breaks in the other direction. Martinez’s knees foremost among them.

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